The open desert lies still under a moonless night. Surrounded by canyons, two men sneak toward the U.S.-Mexico border. Silence. The hot Arizona nocturne is heavy with anticipation.
They are on a drug bust.
Suddenly, one of the men, Terry Kirkpatrick, drops to the ground. He heard something.
When the U.S. Customs Service special agent raises his head toward the 30-foot-high border fence, shots ring out. Buried in the dirt, he fires a few blind rounds before peeking over the hill once more.
There, silhouetted by a match held up to a cigarette, stands El Quemado—“The Burned One”—a notorious drug smuggler in one of the most active routes along the border.
“Here I am,” Kirkpatrick felt him saying. “Come and get me.”
U.S. Customs Service Agent Terry Kirkpatrick A Wayward Path to the Border
Kirkpatrick recounts the story 26 years after El Quemado evaded capture.
He leans back in an office chair with a thick flathead cigar between his fingers. Here, in the second-floor office of his wife’s furniture store, Hearts & Fire (on 120th and Center streets), Kirkpatrick’s age shows in shoulder-length hair turned gray. But the 66-year-old still speaks with the same swagger characteristic of his time as an agent. He moved to Omaha last June to be closer to family.
El Quemado’s fate and other exploits fill his 2012 book, Sixty Miles of Border: An American Lawman Battles Drugs on the Mexican Border. In it, he chronicles 28 years investigating narcotics along the border, primarily between the sister cities of Nogales, Arizona (a town of 20,000), and Nogales, Sonora (a Mexican city with a population more than 10 times its U.S. counterpart).
Although the book—published by Berkley Books, an imprint of the Penguin Group—deals in topics rife for today’s political commentary, Kirkpatrick doesn’t grandstand. In the book and other stories he tells, it’s clear Kirkpatrick never saw his work as a political statement. It was a job and mode of survival.
“Early on doing deep cover work, where you’re off in Mexico and you’re there by yourself,” Kirkpatrick says, “everybody’s trying to kill you and you don’t know who to trust. There is no right or wrong.”
“It is, ‘Get the job done,’” he adds.
Kirkpatrick arrived in Nogales, Arizona, after years of shuffling around the country. He bounced between divorced parents, living in New Mexico, Texas, and California before arriving in Chicago, far from the law enforcement officer he’d one day become.
“When I grew up, I was a little street punk,” he says. “I was out in the streets of Chicago stealing hubcaps and wandering aimlessly all hours of the night. Nothing good was going to come of that situation.”
After college and a series of overseas deployments with the Navy during the Vietnam War, he ended up in Nogales, Arizona, undecided on his civilian career.
He tried teaching but hated it. Then, he got to talking with government workers in the small town. People who worked undercover and busted drug deals measured in metric tons.
That interested him.
Busting Drug Dealers
Two years later, he was a special agent in United States Customs Service, the country’s primary border control organization tasked with investigating narcotics, illegal immigration, and other border crimes. In 2003, the agency was renamed United States Customs and Border Protection and brought under the Department of Homeland Security.
For his first mission, Kirkpatrick went undercover to buy a kilo of cocaine. He discovered that he not only adapted well to the high-pressure work, he enjoyed it.
“It just fit,” he says. “It was that soft leather shoe you put on. You’re made for it.”
Over the years, he worked undercover throughout Mexico and as far as the jungles of South America and in far-flung international hubs like Moscow.
At first, the work carried purpose for Kirkpatrick. But his conviction deteriorated after seeing so many arrested criminals get off without serving time. His effort began to feel hopeless.
In 2018, Customs and Border Protection seized nearly 900,000 pounds of drugs, with marijuana being the most popular, according to the agency’s website. That’s down from previous years largely due to a reduction in marijuana smuggling. But even with these seizures, the government estimates Mexican cartels still net between $19 and $29 billion annually.
“By about 10 years in, I realized it’s not a drop in the bucket,” Kirkpatrick says of the government’s efforts to stop drug smuggling at the border.
Adventures on the Border
Solving the deficiencies of America’s war on drugs was out of reach for Kirkpatrick. But he spent decades in U.S. Customs Service for a different reason. He simply loved his job.
He loved seeing how far his wit could get him, whether he could convince powerful dealers to trust him and, if not, how he would get himself out of danger.
Kirkpatrick says once he was meeting an informant at a dive 15 minutes south of the border. The bar had a few customers besides him and his source when eight men walked in from the afternoon heat.
They were some of the region’s big dealers, and they all knew Kirkpatrick.
As the men started staring him down, the informant scurried out the bathroom window. Kirkpatrick had moments to make a decision. He rose to his feet, walked over to one of the dealers and slapped him on the shoulder.
“Hey, Chicken, thanks for the information you gave me,” he recalls saying, calling the man by his nickname. “Call me again if you get something good.”
As the men sat stunned and confused, Kirkpatrick climbed in his car and floored it home.
In his book, these are the moments Kirkpatrick likes to remember—a mix of humor and danger that encapsulates his life on the border.
What he didn’t aim to do was offer insight into the Mexican-American drug trade, a point many critics made given the pertinence of the issue today. In his own defense, Kirkpatrick says to have offered such insights in the book would have been pointless.
“There’s just no fix,” he says. “Trump’s not going to solve it. None of the presidents before him solved it, and the people after him will not solve it.”
Becoming an Author by Chance
He ended up writing a book through happenstance.
After Kirkpatrick retired in 2008, he followed another passion and opened the only cigar shop in Tubac, Arizona (roughly a half hour’s drive north of Nogales).
He named his shop Grumpy Gringo Cigars. Kirkpatrick received the Grumpy Gringo nickname from a Bolivian man, whom he worked alongside while busting a cocaine lab in the South American country.
Once, after telling stories over cigars and whiskey on the shop’s front porch, someone told Kirkpatrick he should write a book. He dismissed it, initially, but the idea nagged at him.
He had the first chapter completed by the time the same customer returned. The stranger told Kirkpatrick to make him a copy.
“What the hell do you want that for?” Kirkpatrick asked.
The man told him he was an agent for Penguin Group. He was leaving Arizona on Monday and coming back Friday with a book contract.
For Kirkpatrick, that’s a theme throughout his life and career. Happenstance, luck, and a little bit of intuition brought him to Nogales, pushed him through his career, and left him with stories not many can match. At times he has to wonder why it all worked out.
With his feet perched on the desk and a cigar between his fingers, Kirkpatrick says he doesn’t know who or what allowed him to live this long. To have a storied career, get out when he wanted, and arrive in Omaha with his wife, along with a cadre of grandkids, he suspects something has been helping him along the way.
“I’ve had a blessed angel over my shoulder,” he says. “Because, by all rights and means, I should be dead.”
For more information, read Kirkpatrick’s book, Sixty Miles of Border: An American Lawman Battles Drugs on the Mexican Border, published in 2012.
This article was printed in the May 2019 edition of Omaha Magazine. To receive the magazine, click here to subscribe.