Juan Muñoz, Sheriff’s Deputy

Photograph by Erin Trieb

Muñoz is a native of El Paso who has been with the sheriff’s department for eight years.

In the sheriff’s department you start out working in the jail, and then you take a test to come out on patrol. I’ve been a patrol officer since 2004. Back in January of last year, when the drug wars started escalating in Juárez, my job got a lot more complicated. That’s when the injured cartel targets first started coming across to El Paso for treatment at Thomason Hospital. In Mexico, survivors of cartel attacks who were brought to Juárez hospitals were being hunted down and finished off. The cartels would sometimes ambush the ambulances or threaten to kill the drivers if they responded to a shooting. We’ve had instances where the targets have been chased all the way to the port of entry and shot again before they make it across.

So we started getting high-risk targets coming across the border to Thomason, and they needed deputies from the sheriff’s department to protect them. I was one of the volunteers.

The first hospital detail we got was for a police commander from Juárez who had survived an assassination attempt. The guy had been shot eight times, even though he was in a bulletproof jeep. The whole hospital went into lockdown. The entrance was restricted to one door, and we had people going through metal detectors. A few officers were up on his floor, and a few guarded the main entrance, but we’d rotate for security reasons so the cartel hit men wouldn’t know exactly how many of us were on duty. That went on for three or four weeks, 24 hours a day, until the commander recovered enough to be moved to another hospital.

I’ve guarded the hospital eight or nine times in similar circumstances since then. What happens usually is that the ambulance in Juárez will try to make it to the bridge. U.S. Customs will call for an El Paso ambulance and we’ll be notified. We’ll start running a background check on the injured party, to find out if he’s a police officer or a gang member or what, and then our supervisors will make a determination on whether the hospital needs extra security or not. If it does need extra security, we’ll escort the ambulance to the hospital with two or three marked patrol units.

On this side we haven’t received threats from the cartels, but there’s nothing that would stop them. All we have separating us from Mexico is the river.

Now, a word about the cartel hit men. These guys are trained. They show up to an assassination with gear. They have ballistic armor. The Gulf cartel’s hit men, the Zetas, were supposedly trained here by the FBI, by the Special Forces as an anti-narcotics group, but when they went back over to Mexico, the cartel offered more money than the government, so they started working for the cartel.

A lot of the hit men they recruit are ex-military, ex-police. They know SWAT tactics. They know counterintelligence. That’s the type of sophisticated hit men we’re dealing with. They’re watching the hospital so they can see what we do. They’re trying to get past us and finish the job.

We come heavily armed and stay for eight-hour shifts. Most of us will have an AR-15 assault rifle as well as our handguns. We carry extra magazines. Most of our guys that volunteer are SWAT, and they show up in full SWAT gear. I have my own tactical vest and my own AR-15 rifle. I’ll take it, and I’ll be ready. I’ll have, like, eight clips. One time some of the doctors were making the rounds when we were there, and they commented that it looked like Iraq, because we were walking around with all our rifles through the hospital halls.

All that gear gets heavy. It’s hot too. I wear my regular bulletproof vest plus my tactical vest. Most of us wear military-style boots, and if we’re outside, the pavement gets hot. One time it was, like, 110 at the main entrance, where I was standing guard, and I could feel the heat of the pavement coming up through my boots.

Standing guard may sound boring, but it isn’t. For example, if I’m standing outside the front entrance, I watch the main street across from the hospital and take mental notes: Which vehicles keep passing? Any suspicious vehicles? I’m not necessarily suspicious of everybody who passes by, but I’m cautious. Anybody could be a hit man. We know from our intel that the cartels won’t necessarily use typical hit men. They may use women, for example. Anything could pique my interest: people taking pictures, people hanging around. I’ll ask them: Are you here with somebody? Do you know a patient here?

The cartels are always doing counterintelligence to figure out when they can come in and take out their target. So when we release the patients, we don’t release them through the main entrance. And we do it at weird times.

The responses to us at the hospital are mixed. Some visitors and patients get scared; they’ll grab their children and walk in the opposite direction. It’s understandable. They’re not used to seeing that level of security in a hospital. Some people get mad and ask us why we’re there protecting drug dealers. See, there’s a lot of dirty officers in Mexico, and I can’t say on sight if an officer is good or bad, but the general public believes that they’re all drug dealers. Either way we’re not primarily protecting the high-risk patient; we’re primarily protecting the hospital. We don’t want a hit man to come in here and injure innocent people.

When I was a rookie, I wasn’t used to this kind of stress, but as time went by, I got used to it. We’re well-prepared both mentally and physically because of all the training our agency makes us go through. Still, we’ve had deputies quit after seeing their first dead body. I don’t blame them.

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