Chapter 5: Pancho Villa Show Down
Dinner at La Vida Aureo that evening was a delightful affair. Paloma Angostura had done her usual job of preparing a range of dishes to appeal to the varied tastes of the Residents. Perhaps the most outstanding aspect of the evening was that both Millicent Branch and Ynez Barela put away their on-going rivalry to be the Queen of the Evening to Baby Shackleford. There didn’t seem to be sufficient time for everyone to hold the child. Debbie was understandably hesitant at first to allow anyone to come near her daughter, but Millicent was relentless. Of course, Ynez tried to hold the child just a few moments longer than Millicent. From that beginning, many of the Residents simply had to come over and make endearing comments. Debbie finally relaxed and beamed with pride.
Dudley was reluctant to spoil the festive mood of the evening, but there was a most urgent and serious matter to address. He guided Marty Shackleford, Frank Garcia and DEA Agent Charlotte McGuire to a small meeting room near the Main Lobby. He insisted that Debbie remain in the main Dining Room and supervise the Residents who were now vying for the position of First Godmother.
Dudley opened the discussion by re-introducing everyone. “There are several pieces to this overall story,” he began. “It is important that everyone present have the benefit of all the information available. I suggest Lt. Garcia begin by reviewing their on-going investigation into drug trafficking in Albuquerque. It would also be helpful to briefly talk about the Tecolote gang and its alleged role in these events. Then, Marty can relate his discussions with Cruz Carabajal and how he provided, perhaps unknowingly, surveillance drones and how they were used to avoid the police.”
After almost an hour of discussion and questions, Agent McGuire leaned forward in her seat. “Let me see if I understand. Cruz Carabajal built several drones that his cousin, Jaime Carabado, sold to the Tecolotes. These drones were able to essentially monitor police activity throughout the City and thereby prevent the police from interfering with their drug selling business. Is that about it?”
“It isn’t clear yet whether Cruz was totally aware of what his cousin was up to,” added Marty. “Knowing Cruz, I believe he was just trying to impress his cousin.”
“But, even the initial activity of selling a drone to a lawyer to spy on cheating spouses isn’t legal and surely Cruz knew that,” said Garcia. “C’mon, Marty, Cruz isn’t that stupid. He was stealing from Comanche Aeronautics from the very beginning.”
“That is all in the past now,” interjected Dudley. “There will be plenty of time to decide whether Cruz broke any laws or was just very foolish. Right now, I believe there is a much more pressing issue concerning the Tecolotes’ plans. Marty, based on what Cruz told you, can you give us some idea of what this new drone is capable of and perhaps what they are intending to do with it?”
“I believe their intent is to use a drone to carry a relatively large shipment of drugs from somewhere in Mexico into the US. I would assume that the primary goal is to cross the border undetected. So, the source in Mexico probably is pretty close to the border and the same for the intended landing site, most likely in southern part of the State.”
“There ought to be a way to intercept the shipment and arrest the gang,” offered Dudley. “What do you think, Lieutenant? Can we accomplish all that safely?”
Garcia thought for several minutes and then said, “I believe there should be a way, but it will require some effort on Marty’s part. Marty, do you think the folks at Comanche Aeronautics would be willing to help?”
“I’m sure they are not happy about their drones being used for criminal purposes. I believe I could convince them to help.”
“That’s really not your responsibility, Marty,” said Agent McGuire. “There is a major role for you in this, but Garcia and I will talk to Comanche. This new drone that the Tecolotes want will have to come from Comanche and you will be the one to build it. But, I agree with Garcia, we can use the drone to accomplish our objectives.”
For the next hour, Lt. Garcia and Agent McGuire outlined a plan to intercept the drug shipment and arrest the Tecolote gang members. A primary concern was to insure the safety of Marty and Debbie Shackleford while everything was being put into place. Debbie and the baby would stay at Isabella Duncan’s home and Debbie would bring the baby to work each day. Given the reactions at dinner this evening, Dudley knew there would be no shortage of willing baby sitters!
Garcia and McGuire would make confidential arrangements with the management of Comanche Aeronautics to allow Marty to build the drone. Garcia would also arrange for several undercover officers to be present at all times to insure Marty’s safety.
The next morning, Marty called Cruz into his office. “OK, Cruz, I will help you build this drone, but you have to understand that I’m not happy about it at all. I just hope we both don’t get fired when Management finds out. Make sure you get correct information about the specs and plan to be here day and night until the drone is completed.”
Marty and Cruz worked non-stop for the next week building the drone. Over Cruz’s protests, Marty insisted that Cruz would pilot the drone. “I don’t want any part of what happens after this. I just hope I can keep my job here.”
Enrique Cortez provided very limited information to Cruz about the operation, only that they would operate out of Pancho Villa State Park, outside of Columbus, New Mexico and only a few miles north of the Mexican border. He told Cruz that he would fly the drone to a specific location in Mexico and then return it to the Park a short time later that same night. Cruz was to fly at a relatively low level and on an indirect course to avoid the Border Patrol surveillance balloons.
A date was set for the operation and the drone and control panel were loaded into a large cargo van for the drive south. Cortez directed several of his most trusted lieutenants to ride with the drone and insisted that Cruz ride with him in the dark SUV. Two more cars filled with Tecolote muscle completed the convoy.
They rendezvoused outside Columbus in a vacant lot late in the afternoon. Cortez sent one group into Pancho Villa State Park as advance scouts who reported back. “There are several RVs in the Park, all with out-of-state plates. There are a few old geezers snow bird types sitting around a camp fire, probably from Minnesota or someplace and trying to stay warm. It looks pretty deserted.”
Enrique Cortez decided that everything was ready. “OK, let’s go! C’mon Little Cousin, it’s time for you to do your thing.” Not one to take chances, Cortez held a gun close to Cruz’s back as they walked toward the cargo van.
Sgt. Bernadette Armijo from the Albuquerque Major Crimes Unit was sitting in the Deming offices of the U.S. Border Patrol with Agent Alonzo Rodriguez and Marty Shackleford. They were in a darkened conference room so that they could clearly watch the images on the large computer screen. Sgt. Armijo spoke up as the screen began to flicker. “The game is afoot! I always wanted to say that!”
“I just hope all of the modifications I secretly made to the drone’s control systems perform as designed,” said Marty nervously. “I should be able to take over all the flight controls from this terminal.
“I have the same concerns about my surveillance blimp,” added Agent Rodriguez. “But I’m sure everything will work out.”
Back at the Park, Cruz launched the drone and set it on a straight course into Mexico toward a remote location outside of the city of Paloma. After about twenty minutes, Cortez received a ping on his cell phone, indicating that the drone had safely arrived at its destination. “Now we wait.”
Another ping indicated that the drone was loaded and ready for its return trip to Pancho Villa State Park. “OK, Little Cousin, remember to follow the zig-zag pattern we talked about. Keep an eye out for that Border Patrol blimp and steer clear of it.”
A few minutes later, one of the Tecolotes who was watching through a set of powerful binoculars, signaled to Cortez that the drone had come into view. The Border Patrol blimp began to move on what appeared to be an intercept course with the drone. Cortez pressed his gun into Cruz’s back. “Do something!” Before Cruz could regain his composure, the blimp veered away at an increased speed.
Agent Rodriguez was smiling. “Just thought I’d mess with them a bit. OK, Marty, now it’s your turn. Bernie, is everything ready in the Park?”
“Yes, I just got the signal from Garcia that the RVs are moving into position.”
Enrique Cortez stood in an open space near the far end of the Park, his gun firmly pressed against Cruz Carabajal’s back. “OK, now bring the drone slowly down over there next to the van where my men are standing. Nice and easy now. We don’t want to damage any of the precious cargo.”
Suddenly, the drone began to gain altitude and pick up speed. Cruz frantically worked the controls, but the drone simply would not respond. He felt the gun pressing harder in his back and Cortez’s hot breath on his neck. “What’s going on,” Cortez demanded. “Get that damn drone on the ground, pronto!”
But, Cruz’s continued efforts had no effect. The drone continued to climb and speed north, away from the Park and the waiting Tecolotes. An angry Cortez shouted to his gang. “Let’s get out of here. Something’s wrong.” As he turned toward the van, he shot Cruz several times. “That will teach you not to screw with me again, you little bastard!”
The entire parking lot was suddenly flooded with light as all of the RVs were in a tight circle and blocking all exits from the Park. Garcia was standing between two of the larger RVs with a bull horn. “Police! Everyone drop your weapons! Face down on the ground! Hands out in front where I can see them! NOW!”
Several of the Tecolotes opened fire with automatic weapons and Cortez began firing toward Garcia’s location with his large hand gun. The officers returned fire from behind concrete barricades that had been placed between the RVs. A DEA sniper perched atop a large RV shot Cortez and he dropped to the ground. Two other gang members were also hit and fell. The intense fire fight was over in a matter of minutes as the remaining Tecolotes threw their weapons away and fell to the ground. The officers quickly moved in to disarm and handcuff the remaining and wounded Tecolotes. Within a few minutes, the scene was secure. Ambulances arrived to carry the wounded out and the dead were placed in other vehicles. Agent McGuire found Cruz Carabajal who was still alive, but wounded badly; he had lost a considerable amount of blood. She had him placed in a helicopter ambulance for transport to the Trauma Center in El Paso.
The drone landed safely in the Border Patrol parking in Deming much to the relief of Marty Shackleford. Lt. Garcia and Agent McGuire arrived about two hours later to find Shackleford, Sgt Armijo and Agent Rodriguez enjoying a cold beer and a pizza in the Conference Room. “I have Domino’s on stand-by,” chuckled Rodriguez. “Tell me what you want and it’ll be here pronto!”
Sgt. Armijo was desperately trying not to laugh at her Boss since he had not completely removed his geezer outfit and the white powder from his normally coal-black hair. “I assume the disguises were effective,” was all she could manage with a straight face.
“It’s been a long time since I did any undercover work,” smiled Garcia, “but posing as vacationing snow birds with our fancy RVs fooled the gang completely.”
“It helped that they were so focused on the drug shipment,” added Agent McGuire. “And, I’ll bet they were feeling pretty smug that they were using fancy technology to outwit the authorities. Hubris is a dangerous thing!”
Marty Shckleford had been sitting quietly, relieved that this nightmare was almost over. “What about Cruz? Where is he? Did you arrest him?”
Lt. Garcia moved closer. “I’m sorry, Marty, but Cortez shot Mr. Carabajal several times when the drone didn’t land. He was in pretty bad shape, but we transported him to the Trauma Center in El Paso. As soon as I receive an update on his condition, I’ll let you know. Right now, I suggest you call your wife. She’s with Doc Dudley and I’m certain she’s been worried since you left Albuquerque. It was a good idea to keep most of the details of this whole operation from her. I suspect it might have been too much to ask of her to allow you to be here tonight.”
Dudley took the call. Debbie Shackleford had fallen asleep a short while ago from exhaustion and the anxiety of the past few weeks. “Don’t worry, Marty, she is fine and the baby is in capable hands, lots of them.”
Sgt. Armijo volunteered to remain in Deming to handle any miscellaneous items that arose and insure that all of the RVs were returned in good condition to the rental agency in Las Cruces. While in Deming, she hoped there would be time for another enjoyable evening with Agent Rodriguez; she’d make sure of that!
Agent McGuire would be responsible for the captured drugs and the mountains of associated paperwork. She and Rodriguez would coordinate their efforts to learn more about the drug source. Paloma, Mexico had not been a major transit route in the past and they wanted to keep it that way.
Lt. Garcia walked over to Marty Shackleford and shook his hand. “I want to express my thanks for your courage as well as your technical skills. Without them, I don’t believe we could have accomplished all we did. Hopefully, this will also put an end to the Tecolotes’ operations in Albuquerque, at least for a while. Thanks again. Now, if you’re finished with your pizza, why don’t you ride back to town with me? If we’re lucky, we might just be in time for breakfast at La Vida Aureo. I can promise you that Señora Angostura makes the best breakfast burrito you’ve ever had!”