Deep in the Southern Arizona mountains, Border Patrol Tactical Unit (BORTAC) Canine Handler Bert Troncoso gave his 5-year-old Belgian Malinois, Rev, the command to search and detain, then released him into the darkness of the vast canyon. Hours before, his patrol unit had been given intel that a group of drug smugglers were making their way over the border through a dried up ravine. “There were six of us on the team,” said Troncoso. “A couple of our guys were on ATVs and the rest of us were on foot.” There was nothing new about the situation -- Troncoso and his team have intercepted so many pounds of drugs in the past year that he’s lost count. But every situation presents itself differently, and both the K-9 and BORTAC agents have to be ready for anything. This night would prove to be a test of both Rev’s training and instincts.
While there’s more than 1,300 narcotic detection and patrol dogs that work at U.S. border crossings, there are only 21 BORTAC dogs in the country. Not only is the school and certification process for a BORTAC K-9 and the handler so difficult, but it takes a very specific type of dog to even be selected to go into the training process. This largely stems from two specific tasks the BORTAC dog must be able to do without fail: first, they must show zero hesitancy or fear on the attack. This is tested by a trained person who runs away from the dog as it gives chase, then turns abruptly back to face the dog. “A lot of dogs will shy away, slam on the brakes -- that’s where they flunk,” Troncoso said.
In addition, the dog must be capable of detaining a suspect without biting, a skill that’s incredibly difficult for patrol dogs who are usually trained to go in for the bite. “That’s the hardest thing for a dog,” Troncoso explained. “If you don’t stay on top of it, all they want to do is bite and fight. We gotta let them know it’s when we want them to do it.”
Being a BORTAC agent is essentially the same job as being a SWAT agent, but BORTAC is the unit that deals only with the US borders. BORTAC can be called in for any relevant circumstances, not just drug smuggling. “We get detailed a lot. We go to work everywhere in the nation,” said Troncoso. They’re regularly deployed for a week or ten days anywhere in the country on operations that work with other law enforcement agencies. It was agents from Troncoso’s unit who apprehended Clinton County escapees Richard Matt and David Sweat in June of 2015 in upstate New York near the U.S. and Canada border.
But the vast majority of border work, inevitably, is drug-related. Many of the smugglers, referred to as “mules” because they’re used by drug rings to do the physical carrying of the drugs, walk for 7-9 days through the desert and get paid up to $3,000 if they successfully get the drugs over the border. One guy can carry 50-80 pounds on his back, and according to Troncoso, they leave the stash at a designated drop point. For marijuana, when it hits the streets it will sell for $800 a pound, making one smuggler’s backpack worth $64,000. Troncoso’s team tries to intercept the drop point where they can apprehend both the smugglers as well as the drug operation that will take the dope out on the streets.
As Rev tracked for the drug smugglers that night in the pitch dark canyon, Troncoso and his team spread out amid the brush and Desert Willows, moving tactically to avoid ambush and looking for any sign of activity. Rev is trained to first detain a suspect while barking until Troncoso or another team member gets to the scene. “Rev will go up to the suspect and just bark, bark, bark -- he won’t bite or engage,” Troncoso said. But if the suspect tries to run, that’s when Rev is trained to attack. He doesn’t need a command to go from detaining to attacking -- he’s trained to know that if a suspect runs after he’s detained them (called an "escape"), that’s when he attacks. He goes in, biting once and then holding on to keep the suspect from running again.
The agents on the ATVs radioed up that they had coordinates on a group of smugglers. Around the same time, Rev began barking, signaling to the team that he had someone on a detain. When Troncoso made his way to the area, the suspect was standing still, the 80-pound backpack of dope laying on the group beside him. Following protocol, Troncoso warned the suspect in both English and Spanish to stay still, and that Rev would bite him if he tried to run.
The suspect responded that he wouldn’t run and knelt on the ground while Troncoso called Rev back to him. The radio was a constant stream of activity as his team members reported their status throughout the canyon. Eight suspects had been apprehended, but the intel had been for at least 10 suspects. “Usually we collect all the bundles and set them aside to keep accountability of evidence,” said Troncoso. “Everybody’s running around -- it’s essentially controlled chaos.” With so much activity going on at once, Troncoso’s suspect saw it as his only chance for escape and leapt up from the ground to run.
Rev is Troncoso’s second dog, and their story is an unexpected pairing that began in tragedy. Tronsoco has been involved in border patrol since 2001, and in 2006 he completed the rigorous Physical Agility Test (PAT) and was one of 13 officers out of a class of 50 to graduate as a BORTAC agent. While a line agent can get a drug detection dog, you must be an agent in special operations to have a patrol dog (patrol dogs are dual-purpose, trained in protection as well as detection). After Troncoso was selected to be a K-9 handler, he was paired with a Dutch shepard named Rico-T, and together they completed the 14 weeks of schooling and three weeks of advanced training. Within two months of being paired up, Rico-T began vomiting bile, and although Troncoso worked with multiple vets to try to diagnose the problem there seemed to be no explanation other than an increased reaction to working hard where the dog's stomach can sometimes create excess bile. But something felt wrong to Troncoso, who had taken to spoon-feeding his dog to try to help him keep food down. Rico-T’s condition continued to worsen over the next four months when they finally resorted to surgery, and he was taken to a military dog hospital in San Antonio, Texas. Tronsoco, who had to leave Rico-T at the facility to return to duty, got a phone call from the hospital on December 18, 2011. Ninety percent of the dog's large intestine was gone from advanced cancer, and they had to put him down on the operating table. Troncoso never got to say goodbye. “I was heartbroken,” he said. “I’ve always been a dog guy, and when I saw what these dogs were capable of doing I found my second joy. And then that happened, and it just seemed like it all came to an end abruptly.”
Because it’s so difficult to find dogs that meet the standards needed for border patrol, BORTAC trainers earmark and test dogs months ahead of time. After Troncoso lost Rico-T, the next BORTAC K-9 training was slated for January of 2012, less than 30 days away. With such a short supply of dogs that made the cut, there wasn’t another one available, but Troncoso’s story spread quickly. An instructor reached out to Randy Parker, a Wyoming police officer who raises and trains one dog at home each year in addition to his other duties to then send to the Alaska state troopers. Rev was Parker’s dog in training at the time, and he was just about to be shipped to Alaska.
“When Randy heard the story, he drove down here,” Troncoso remembered. “That’s when I met Rev. It was love at first sight.” So instead of heading up to blustery Alaska, Parker gave Rev to Troncoso to work in the heat of the desert, and the two set off on 14 weeks of training together for more than eight hour days. Right away, Troncoso knew Rev had the drive to do the job. “He has titanium caps on his teeth from breaking them in training,” he said. “Somehow he got his canines stuck in a bite suit, and when he came off he popped the teeth. We had to drive four hours to Santa Fey to get the custom work.”
Four years later and thousands of hours working and training together, the suspect Rev had detained knelt in a canyon near the Mexico border. Knowing his only chance of escape was before he was in handcuffs, the suspect waited until Rev was called off and then jumped up and took off, hoping to be swallowed up in the darkness if he could get far enough away. Before he had taken his second step, Rev leapt into action from beside Troncoso, apprehending the suspect within seconds. “They’re trained that if you make any type of overt movement, they will engage,” said Troncoso. “I can call him off and stop him, but it happened so fast that Rev engaged right away.”
As the team radioed back and forth, it was clear they had well over 500 pounds of dope, the minimum number required for the DEA to become involved. It’s nights like these that Troncoso sees as truly defining of Rev’s abilities and the success of their training together, something that’s taken a lot of hard work and commitment to reach. “I knew it was gonna be work, but I didn’t think it was gonna be this much work," he said. "But I have this dog, and I don’t see myself doing anything else. Looking back on everything we’ve accomplished, it’s very gratifying.”