Author - Jeffrey Osburn


Chapter One

            The unrelenting afternoon sun bore down on the far west Texas town of Brookshire’s Crossing, some fifty miles east of El Paso, as Tomas Gutierrez, an off-duty officer with U.S. Customs and Border Protection, fueled his car up at the Circle C.  His wife was reading the El Paso Times and his twin boys were busy playing with their PSPs when three Suburbans pulled up.

            Gutierrez watched as three well dressed, Hispanic men exited the SUVs inserting credit cards into the pumps.  They wore mirrored glasses and scanned the premises as they filled their gas tanks, eyeing each vehicle in the parking lot.  Lapel mics and earpieces for radio communication piqued the agent’s curiosity.   In an awkward moment, one of them stopped to scrutinize Gutierrez .

            Years of law enforcement training sent a cold message to Officer Gutierrez: Something’s not right here—these are not amateurs.  Gutierrez walked around the car, his mind racing, and whispered for his wife to give him a pen and paper.  She saw his expression and did not ask any questions; the two youngsters were entranced in their video game and oblivious to what was happening.  Across the lot, the man pumping gas into the lead car stared at Gutierrez.

            Este hombre suspects something,” said the driver of the lead truck to the man seated in the second row.  “I think he may have written down our license numbers.”

            “Don’t change the plans,” instructed the man.  “Finish filling up and let’s get on the way.”

            Officer Gutierrez used his cell phone to call in the plates to the Customs and Border Protection dispatcher and waited for the response.  Before the gas guzzlers could be topped off, the reply came back that two of the three SUVs had been reported stolen.  “We’ll inform DPS.  Stand by, over,” confirmed the dispatcher.

            “Roger that.  Just a matter of time before the third one is reported missing.  I’m on standby.”  As he keyed off his two-way cell phone, he noticed the lead driver gesture to the others with a “cut it short” motion.

            Vamos ya!” the man said into his radio, ‘let’s go now!’ The instant he opened the door to his truck, he glanced back at the Taurus from the far side of the gas court and saw the woman gesturing impatiently to her husband.  The man yelled to his partners as he unholstered his gun. “We have a problem here—I think we’ve been made.”

            Something’s up—oh no, thought Gutierrez when he saw the gun from his periphery.  “Get down now,he shouted as he pulled his service revolver from the glove box.  Carmen, his wife, jumped into the back seat between the kids and wrestled them to the floor while Gutierrez positioned himself behind the opened driver’s door.

            The men fueling the SUVs quickly replaced the gas nozzles and jumped into their trucks. Staring at Gutierrez, they made a violent single file U turn and raced across the parking lot.  After what seemed like an eternity, Gutierrez exhaled as he watched the three vehicles speed down the access road without firing a shot.

            “I don’t like this,” said the lead driver, continuing northward on the interstate highway as previously planned.  “We should abort and return to base,” he urged the team leader in the second row.  Moments of silence passed before the team leader finally acquiesced.

            “Alright, inform the others,” he said.  Moments later, all three trucks jumped across the median and headed back south on the freeway.  No one in the convoy noticed the Department of Public Safety trooper merging northbound less than a quarter-mile from where they abruptly reversed direction.

            Having seen the three trucks make their detour south in his rear view mirror, the State Trooper called his dispatcher, notifying his intent to pursue what had to be the stolen vehicles.  He also wisely requested backup.  Without turning on his lights and siren, the trooper closed in on the trailing Suburban and attempted to read the plates.

            Without warning, the rear doors of the truck swung open and the cruiser was showered with rounds fired from an AK-47.  Before he could swerve away, the trooper was hit in the chest and the cruiser veered off the right-hand embankment, crashing hard on its side at the bottom of the drainage culvert.  Although he was disoriented and screaming in pain, the trooper managed to radio his dispatcher.  Within minutes, a second DPS cruiser was in pursuit of the three trucks that were speeding toward the border.

            “This is all we needed,” exclaimed the lead driver as he saw the crash in his rear view mirror.   A moment later he saw the second cruiser join the chase.  Pónganse listos, get ready, men.  We have less than five minutes to get out of this mess.”  It was clear he expected the complications to escalate.

            “Call el Colonel,” said the team leader to the driver.  “Let him know we’re going to be back for supper and we may be bringing company.”

            The driver glared at his superior in the rear view mirror but replied calmly, “Of course.  I’ll call immediately.”

            “Dispatch, the subjects are in sight, passing mile marker five,” said the second trooper, traveling at a safe distance.  “Notify CBP immediately, and make sure they know shots have been fired.  Looks like they’re headed for the river.”

            “Roger that,” said Officer Greeley, an agent from the El Paso - Fabens CBP station.  Greeley and his partner were on routine patrol that afternoon, making their usual rounds to the high-traffic border crossing routes.  The news that a trooper had been shot traveled quickly throughout the area, and there would be many responding to the dispatcher’s announcement.  “Okay Vega, let’s take it easy,” Greeley said to his partner who was driving the CBP white and green Explorer.  Greeley saw his young partner’s white knuckles on the steering wheel.  “And remember the rules of engagement, hot shot.”

            “Yeah, I know.  ‘Only in peril or in loss of life’ can I waste one of these jerks,” Vega said with disdain.  “But what about the trooper back there, boss?  Come on, just a couple of rounds to the head to even the score?”  Vega was an exceptional marksman with his weapon of choice, a Smith and Wesson Model 19 Combat Magnum.  He carried it with him at his own expense because the weapon was not CBP issue.

            “You know the answer.  Keep your distance,” advised Greeley, though he knew Vega spoke in jest.  They were only minutes from the border, and the suspects would have to cross into Mexico or take evasive action.  By now another three rapid-responders had joined the pursuit of the fleeing convoy.

            “Suspects have just exited on the San Bernardo cutoff,” radioed Greeley.  They were headed for the remote stretch of land adjoining the border where the river was most shallow, surrounded by farmland on the U.S. side and mountainous terrain to the south.

            “I want this shipment on the other side, no importa que pase,” commanded the team leader to his driver.  He was beginning to regret not taking his driver’s advice sooner.

            Esta bien, it will be done.”  The lead driver knew all the back roads in this area, especially those crossing into Mexico.  More importantly, he knew where his backup would be positioned to cover their retreat.

            Vega and Greeley were the first to notice four armored Humvees in formation just fifty meters across the water.  “Hold positions—disengage pursuit now,” Greeley radioed across the police frequency as Vega pulled to a stop behind a stand of mesquite trees.  One by one the troopers parked and took up position behind their cruisers. They couldn’t believe what they saw.

            Vega pulled out his binoculars. “Hey, old man, they’re pretty serious.  They have machine guns mounted on the Humvees—definitely military stuff,” he said.  “Looks like the mafiosos have more money for weapons than the Mexican army, Pops.”

            “Yeah, I see ‘em.” Greeley watched the SUVs lumber through the water.  “Looks like one of them forgot to steal a four-wheel drive model, though,” said Greeley.  The second vehicle was stuck in the water with its rear tires spinning wildly as one of the armed passengers tried standing on the rear bumper to give the truck more traction.  Soon they gave up, grabbed as many plastic-wrapped packages as they could carry, and sloshed across the river while the occupants of the other Suburbans ran to retrieve more packages from the stranded vehicle.

            Emptied of its payload, the SUV was abandoned in the shallow river and the other two Suburbans sped toward the hills to the south, escorted by three of the Humvees.  Vega watched as a man in camo fatigues stepped out of the fourth Humvee, and flipped up the gun sight on a shoulder-mounted grenade launcher.

            Take cover—incoming RPG!” Vega shouted over the radio to the others.  Suddenly he felt like he was back in the streets of Baghdad.  He saw the puff of smoke, followed by the recoil of the tube.  Acting on reflex and adrenaline, he raised his weapon and fired three body shots to the enemy, taking him down hard just as he heard the grenade launch.  The agents and troopers crouched for cover and braced for the explosion as the RPG struck the vehicle stranded in the water.  In haste, the Humvee driver bugged out, leaving behind one dead soldier.


            President-elect Adolfo Reyes Elizondo was eager about his new role, now that a long awaited and bitterly contested decision was finalized by the Tribunal of the Federal Electoral Institute.  The closest presidential election in Mexican history had polarized the nation between Reyes’ conservative National Action Party and the far left-of-center Revolutionary Democratic Party, led by Jose Maria Vasconcelos Gomez.  The relatively wealthy industrial North favored the PAN while the poor, rural South followed the new vision of the PRD.  And for the first time, the Institutional Revolutionary Party, once firmly in control of national and state governments, finished last.

            Vasconcelos, known to the public by his nickname “Chema”, had vociferously protested every part of the election process and hurled accusations of fraud, ballot box tampering and bribery, saving some of the worst yet for members of his own party.  Even now, he refused to accept the results in the most transparent and definitive election ever held in Mexico.

            Officially named the winner at last, Reyes began the nearly impossible work of building a coalition among the three parties to face the dire economic, financial, and social issues looming ominously over the nation.

            He stared out his office window, looking out over the beautifully manicured gardens outside the presidential residence.  He reflected on how deceiving a picture this was; just beyond the tranquility of this idyllic landscape lay the city that was home to over 20 million, most of them living in poverty.  Twenty million.

            “Sir, it’s time to leave for your meeting,” said Reyes’ aide, startling the new president.  Reyes wasn’t used to the 24 hour attention yet.

            “Thank you, Gabriél.”

            He lingered at the window, drawing in a deep breath before he followed the aide out of his office.  Already, he began to feel the palpable weight that crowded his shoulders.


            Cousins Elias and Luis Almanza grew up as best friends on a small ejido — a government-deeded parcel of communal land — near the town of Buenaventura, in the northwestern state of Chihuahua.  Their childhood years were like those of most rural families throughout Mexico.  No video games or skateboards, just a worn out soccer ball and plenty of friends to share it with.  No designer clothes, just hand-me-downs that they were more than happy to get.  Food was scarce; beans and tortillas, with eggs on occasion, were the staple diet, and meat was a rare treat.

            Their formal schooling brought them through the segundaria, the highest level of public education on offer free of charge.  Without prep school and, at minimum, a technical school education, the prospect of a decent job was practically nonexistent.

            The Seguro Social provided for basic primary health care — if the cost of registration could be afforded — but the archaic, bureaucratic system made treatment for serious illness a very risky business.  Unable to afford surgery, Elias’ father had passed away when he was six, leaving his widow behind with five children.  Elias’ mother had been diagnosed with ovarian cancer and was not expected to see in the New Year.

            Two weeks had passed since Elias had allowed his cousin Luis to persuade him to cross the border into the United States in order to find a decent paying job to enable him to take care of his struggling family.  He still remembered the final, fateful conversation:

            “Listen, I was introduced to a coyote yesterday, a friend of Miguel’s, who takes people across the border every four weeks.  He knows how to get people across without walking for miles in the desert.  Es mas,we cross the bridge in a car.” Luis had excitedly told Elias.

            “Okay, so how are we going to pay him?”

            “Don’t worry.  We work for a couple of months at the business where he takes us and it’s paid in full.  Simple!”

            “I’ve heard of arrangements like this before.  I don’t like the sound of it.”

            “Vamos, Elias.  You know there is no chance for us to make a living if we stay here.  What work can you find here that will be enough to take care of your mom and the kids?”

            “Sí, buey, and I also understand the vultures are very hungry and need food, too — and they prefer Mexican food!  Do you know how many mojados have their bones bleaching in the desert sun right now?  We’ve had this conversation many times before.”

            Stop being a woman, Elias.  De eso y nada . . .?”

            Elias let out a long sigh.  He knew if he were to have a chance of taking care of his family there was no other choice.

            “Bueno, primo.  When do we leave?”

            Elias was roused from his reverie as, right on time, the coyote in a ramshackle F-150 pickup truck with Texas plates pulled up at the town square.  From his seat on a weathered concrete bench, Elias felt the chill in the morning air and again looked around the familiar plaza; at the aging playground equipment he’d enjoyed many years ago. He gazed at the stores and the government buildings that lined the square, and the food vendor stalls that would reopen at nightfall.  He reminisced about the age-old courtship practice with boys walking clockwise and the girls counter-clockwise around the plaza, exchanging nervous smiles and sometimes a furtive glance from behind as they passed each other. And there was the old shopkeeper Don Julio, sweeping the sidewalk in front of his store long before the rest of the town came to life.  DonJulio’s appearance seemed to have remained unchanged for as many of Elias’ eighteen years in Buenaventura as he could remember.  It felt as though he was saying goodbye forever.

            “Get in the truck already, buey!

            The exasperated shout from Luis brought him out of his daydream.  Without a word, Elias picked up his pack and turned his back on the plaza for the last time.


            The first meeting of the morning was with Reyes’ chief of staff, Armando Fuentes Silva and the outgoing Secretary of Energy, Marcelo Torres Mendoza.  President Reyes had served as the Secretary of Energy under the previous administration until he resigned to seek the presidential nomination of his party.  He was interested to see how much had transpired in his two-year absence.

            “Please, take a seat.” Reyes motioned to Torres Mendoza. As coffee was poured for the politicos,the security staff left the room.  Fuentes stood and gave the customary abrazo to his long-time friend, Secretary Torres, and took a seat beside the president.

            “Thanks, Adofo.  Congratulations on the election. Long time to wait for the champagne, verdad?”  Torres said.

            “I’ve waited longer at restaurants, my friend,” replied Reyes. He’d grown weary of the jokes, but he reminded himself it was true: I’ve waited for months to finally be recognized the legitimate winner and leader of this country.  “So what have you done to ruin all my hard work at the Department of Energy?” Adolfo talked with a tired smile.

            He appeared nervous.  “We have problems,” said Torres.  “Remember President Orozco’s announcement about the new oil discovery last April?”

            “Of course.  Delivering the good news to the country from atop a drilling platform was a nice touch, but everyone knows it was election-time politics.”  He paused for a sip of coffee.  “So how bad is it?”  Reyes asked with trepidation.

            “Bad, Adolfo.  What your predecessor labeled a major oil discovery—more than 10 billion barrels—has now been determined to be only a moderate gas find,” replied Torres.  “But it gets worse.” He cleared his throat before continuing.  “Not only has the Cantarell Complex peaked, but it is already two years into decline.  The American petroleum journals are estimating more than a 20 percent annual depletion rate.  Some at Pemex predict higher,” said Torres.

            “We saw this coming more than four years ago, but no one wanted to deal with the reality of the world’s second largest oilfield running dry,” Reyes said.  “And this is precisely why we must convince Congress to open our oil industry to foreign investment and develop new fields.”

            Torres nodded his agreement.  “We’re getting pressure from the Americans, and lately it’s been increasing.  When their Ambassador comes calling at Los Pinos without an invitation, you know things are serious.  They understand the threat to their national security if our exports dry up.”  Torres looked worried.

            “The previous administration could not afford to try to privatize our petroleum industry and spend political capital that would ultimately result in their party getting kicked out of town,” said the Chief of Staff.  “Too much money, too many jobs at stake.”

            “But it must be done now; our future depends on it,” said Reyes as if to himself.  “Torres, get the rest of the staff working on how to proceed without looking like we’re caving in to the norteamericanos.  We can’t give any ammunition to Chema.”

            Though beyond Reyes’ control, the past year of turmoil and the tumultuous elections gave Chema and the PRD all the weapons they needed to cripple—if not topple—his presidency.  Disappearing oil reserves topped the list.

            It was ironic that the improvements in recovery and production methods achieved in years past only served to speed up the depletion rate.  Making matters worse, the previous administration had budgeted a paltry $10 billion to Pemex this year with just $1 billion target for exploration.  Worse yet, the Cantarell field comprised almost two-thirds of the nation’s total oil output, most of which was exported to the United States for hard currency.  “Tough to decide if it’s worse news for Mexico or the United States,” Reyes mused.


            The standing 5:00 o’clock Friday afternoon debriefing meeting started on time, a rarity in the lives of the directors of ParTex International.  They were a unique, sometimes eccentric group who were the absolute best in their fields despite the lack of conventional business polish.  The only thing that mattered to Dan Parsons was that the group always produced results.

            They filed into the conference room with its polished marble table and majestic, vaulted ceiling, situated in the office suites encompassing the entire 30th floor of the former Enron South tower, now known as the 1500 Louisiana Street building. The downtown Houston offices discreetly housed more computer power than most high-tech firms although the total staff of programmers and analysts numbered less than twenty.

            The group’s latest business opportunity was moving quickly, as proposals and bids for the BPInet project were being finalized.  The United States Senate’s approval of the multi-billion dollar Department of Homeland Security’s Border Protection Initiative contained several subcontracts that ParTex was uniquely suited for. The chief one was designing the so-called virtual fence.

            Parsons started around the table to his chair as the others prepared their notes and munched on an assortment of snacks. He took a sip of diet cola and said, “John, let’s review the main topics from last week.”

            John Billings, a New York native, had graduated at the top of his class at Cornell Law School’s Global Business Law program.  After graduation he was courted by international banking firms, but he preferred the manufacturing sector.  After five years at Procter and Gamble, he made a move that landed him the role of lead counsel of overseas operations with Exxon-Mobil.  He crossed paths with Dan Parsons there for the first time; as the sole employee and owner of a very young ParTex International, he was engaged in developing computer modeling of core samples gathered by their offshore exploration rigs.

            ParTex had endeared itself to the petroleum giant after many gigabytes of regression studies greatly decreased their odds of hitting a dry hole.  Billings was responsible for communicating his work’s impact back to corporate in Dallas.  Parsons was genuinely impressed by John’s ability to summarize details and extract the important stuff without burdening his audience with information overload.  After two long years of negotiations, the young lawyer had joined as director and legal counsel of the ParTex team.

            “Okay, the House Committee on Homeland Security is still taking a lot of heat from the Dems on the hill,” said Billings.  “The virtual fence is starting to meet some resistance, and there’s talk of cutting funding due to high cost projections and less-than-expected success during testing.  Lockheed-Martin and Raytheon are the last soldiers standing, and our only chance for getting sub-contracts is for us to deliver some real solutions, real quick.  Tom, do you have anything to add?”

            “Pretty much covers it.  It’s difficult to drive a hard bargain with a losing hand,” said the investment banker-turned lobbyist in his familiar Texas drawl.  Thomas McBride had joined ParTex after retiring from deal-brokering for a Houston venture capital firm specializing in funding acquisitions of oilfield exploration and service companies.

            McBride’s long list of contacts in Washington and the petroleum and aerospace industries made for a perfect fit with ParTex.  Chairman and CEO Dan Parsons had no patience for the political wrangling and wining required to curry favor with powerful people, but it was second nature for McBride.  The oldest of the group, he frequently used his elder-statesman status to prod his partners along.

            McBride leaned across the conference table and jabbed his finger in the direction of the engineers.  “You geeks need to get off your butts and bring some new toys to the table.  Time’s wasting, and people are getting antsy.”

            “We’re making good progress, Tom” replied Raymond Timmons, team leader for the BPInet subcontracts.  A veteran of satellite exploration and telemetry, Ray had been instrumental in developing NASA’s Cassini-Huygens mission to Saturn. He wore a pocket protector with the NASA logo and row of pens as if it were a badge of honor.

            “It’s not that difficult to adapt our UGF satellite-based software to the proposed VF underground monitoring system.”  Timmons referred to the project they worked on with the Underground Facilities Analysis Center, headed by the Director of Central Intelligence.  This project led to a breakthrough application in the geospatial intelligence used to identify suspected underground facilities.  Enhancements to data acquired by the twin gravity-measuring satellites, GRACE 1 and 2, led to the potential to discover voids beneath the earth’s surface. This ability to locate underground facilities—a crucial component of the virtual fence design—had proven very useful in Afghanistan and Iraq.  “Stef’s new algorithms make all the difference,” concluded Timmons.

            Stefan Wahl, the youngest of the group, sat cross-legged in his leather executive chair as usual.  A math prodigy and college dropout from UCal San Diego, Wahl was uniquely gifted in programming and data analysis.  And quality data analysis was what the GRACE project lacked prior to the ParTex team’s addition.

            “Yeah, I made a few refinements; one that uses weather data to remove the atmospheric changes from the base data.  No big deal,” he said with a shrug of his shoulders.

            “No big deal if you understand what the heck it is you’re talking about,” said Parsons.

            “It all goes back to how you filter out the data you don’t want—weather systems in terrestrial geospace, tides, eddies, water temperature and so on in deepwater.  Figure out how to compensate for this stuff, and you’ve got it made,” said Stef with his usual oversimplification.  “Also, Lockheed has a new bird with what I call ‘high-def’ radar telemetry, and we’ll have complete access to the satellite’s raw data.  Wicked cool stuff.”

            Parsons looked over with a raised eyebrow.     

            “So, you’re confident we can deliver on the underground facility detection project?”

            “We want to do our own shake and bake, but yes, we’re in agreement that we can deliver UGF detection capabilities to BPI,” answered Timmons.

            “How are you going to test efficacy?”  Billings asked.

            “First, we’ll make some calibration runs based on a couple of in-situ sites—known coordinates along the border,” explained Lawrence Newsome. He was a former BP petroleum engineer specializing in computer modeling of seismic and bathymetric telemetry for oil exploration.  “Then we’ll download the data and overlay the real-time video feed from Lockheed’s bird to sync up the systems.  After that, we make a short run to the underground facility at Fort Bliss and load Stef’s kabbalah machine with the data.”   Newsome smiled.

            Stef grinned and said, “Larry, its Baal Shem, not Kabbalah.  Far more practical, man.  And I don’t recommend taking this stuff lightly—way bad instant karma.”

            “I knew the Jews had it in for the black man,” replied Newsome with feigned disgust.  “Back in Beau Bridge we have our own mystical religion called ‘Hoodoo’.  Put some major whup on your white butt, boy,” he said. Laughter could be heard around the room.

            “Alright, let’s put this train back on the tracks,” said Parsons.  “DHS says there are some major drug shipments making it into El Paso through Juarez, and the use of tunnels is suspected.  Find a way to locate that breach in the border and you’ve hit a home run,” Parsons said.  “What’s next?”

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