Bridge of the Americas
The Tracking Board’s 2016 Launch Pad Manuscript Competition
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Benito added his sand-colored suede combat boots to the pile of rubber sandals, Nike Air
Jordans, and cowboy boots at the south entrance of the mosque. A woven grass mat kept the
soles from melting into the sunbaked pavement. To the north, snow remained on the brown
shoulders of the mountains across the river. The sun was setting beyond the river valley, but heat
still rippled over the pavement and gravel surrounding the mosque. It would be cool inside, and
Benito relished the anticipation of comfort. The flatbed stake truck that had brought him from
Samalayuca had no air conditioning and rattled like loose flatiron.
He beat the sand out of his prayer rug. A hot southerly picked up the coarse sand and
white alkali dust that fell from the rug and added it to a devil swirling at the end of the mosque’s
gravel apron. The man who had woven Benito’s rug was ex-mujaheddin and blind from a Soviet
white-phosphorous grenade. Each day on patrol in Kabul, Benito had passed by the blind
weaver’s shop and watched the rug grow by centimeters of red, brown, beige, gold, and green.
The weaver had said a rakat, a section of prayer, for every ten passes of the comb through the
loom. Benito had made his Salat-ul-Asr, afternoon prayer, on the side of the road from
Samalayuca, so he was eager to pray the Salat-ul-Maghrib, evening prayer, inside the mosque.
His Sufi order rejected the need for mosques and preferred solitary rituals, dhiks, in
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remembrance of Allah, but his first imam was Sunni and told him that salat was 25 times more
valuable if performed inside a mosque, especially with other Muslims close at the shoulder.
Benito did not know how the imam had come to that number, nor what unit of value one could
assign to prayer, but he accepted it on faith.
A straw cowboy hat rested on its crown next to a pair of square-toed cowboy boots.
“Khatib,” Benito said.
“Allahu Akbar. Ash-hadu Al-la Ilaha Illallah!” The muezzin atop the minaret called out
his athan in strong, accentless Arabic, summoning the faithful to evening prayer. His high tenor
soared across the city and vanquished bus horns, the staccato claps of street vendors, and the bass
beat of discothèques warming up for the weekend. It was as if the city paused to listen.
Benito answered, “Allah is the greatest. I bear witness that there is no deity but Allah.”
“Ash-hadu An-na Muhammadar Rasululah!” called the muezzin.
“I bear witness that Muhammad is the Messenger of Allah,” Benito repeated.
“Hayya Alas Salah!”
“Come to prayer.”
“Hayya Alal Falah!”
“Come to your God.”
“Allah is the greatest.”
“La Ilaha Illallah!”
“There is no deity but Allah.”
The muezzin began his athan again. Benito rolled his rug tightly and tucked it under his
arm. He put his right foot over the threshold, then hesitated. His Hechler and Koch Mk-23 .45
ACP in its formed leather holster pressed against the small of his back. He had meant to leave it
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in the truck, but habit and conditioning prevented him from separating himself from his weapon.
The imam would not approve of his setting foot in the mosque with a gun.
The imam would never know. Benito entered the mosque, right foot first. He said in
Arabic, “Bismallah. He is the Living One. There is no god but Him. Pray to Him, then, and
worship none besides Him. Praise be to Allah, Lord of the Worlds.”
For over three centuries the mosque had served a different prophet. Before it could be
converted into another discothèque, an anonymous waqf, endowment, had funded the purchase
of the mission, the adjoining cathedral, and the entire block. Until the waqf had arrived
unexpectedly, the local faithful had been saying their salats in an old warehouse, choking on
asbestos dust and wondering if Allah had a purpose for them. They razed the buildings
surrounding the church and built an eight-foot adobe-over-concrete wall topped with twin spools
of razor wire around the perimeter. Standoff distance, Benito thought. They bricked up the doors
and stained glass windows and constructed the mihrab, the niche in the east wall that marked the
direction of Mecca. They removed the pews and replaced them with carpets and widened the
doors that led to the courtyard off the west wall. The statue of the Virgin Mary was lifted
carefully from the circular sandstone fountain and donated. The flow of water and the plantings
were revived and augmented. They imported two dozen forty-foot palms and planted them
around the mosque. The open courtyard drew in desert air, cooled it over the fountain, and
delivered it to the faithful praying in front of the mihrab.
Benito passed through the rear corner of the main hall and entered the courtyard. He felt
at home here among the ferns and yucca and the sound of falling water. It flowed over the empty
pedestal where Mary used to stand in the center of the fountain and trickled from twelve notches
cut into its base onto a ring of sunken white tile. Four men had spaced themselves evenly around
the white tile ring. Their prayers of ablution combined with the patter of water onto the tile.
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Benito picked up a thin, white towel from a stack beneath the broad leaf of an elephant ear and
joined the men in wudu.
Benito knelt in front of an open arc of water. “Bismallah. The purpose of this act is for
worship and purity.”
He washed his hands up to the wrists. The water cooled the blood beneath the skin of his
wrists and, in turn, the rest of his body. Three times he rinsed his mouth but did not swallow,
even though his throat was parched. The salivary glands behind his jawbone reopened painfully.
Three times he sniffed water from his right hand into his nostrils and blew them out into his left
hand. Three times he washed his face, his right arm, and his left arm. He ran a wet hand over his
head. The water passed through his thick black hair and soothed his scalp. He wiped his ears,
inside and out. His feet were last. He had frozen the two smallest toes on both feet at Ranger
School, and the icy water put needles through them.
The man next to him had nearly completed his wudu. He recited the Kalima-Shahadah,
“Ash-hadu Alla Ilaha Illahu Wa-ash-hadu An-na Muhamman Abduhu-wa-rasuluh.”
Benito echoed the final prayer, “I declare there is no god except Allah and I declare
Muhammad is the messenger of Allah.” Then he stood and followed the others to the mihrab.
The muezzin came down from the minaret through an arched door of black walnut. He
was a small man for such a powerful tenor. He wore a caramel colored robe that looked like he
had borrowed from a taller uncle—when he lowered his arms, his hands disappeared inside the
sleeves. His chestnut hair and beard curled tightly against his head. He took a breath and
continued his call to prayer from the dakka, a low walnut platform that had once been part of the
altar. Benito found a place on the soft overlapping sections of carpet in front of the mihrab and
knelt down on his prayer rug. The empty minbar, pulpit, waited for the imam to deliver the
Friday sermon, the khutba.
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The muezzin completed his athan and looked around for someone to recite the second
call—the Iqamah—so they could begin. The man’s quick eyes found Benito’s. Benito said the
Iqamah in fast, low, Arabic syllables, “Hayya Alal Falah Qad qamatis salah.” Come to prayer.
The prayer has begun.
The sun set, and the faithful—all men—faced qibla and performed the Salat-ul-Maghrib.
The imam spoke Arabic like he had a mouth full of marbles, and Benito found himself
losing track of the khutba. The imam had a lazy eye that caused him to lean to the right and tilt
his head toward an empty corner, and he remained in this position for the duration of his sermon,
rocking steadily to the meter of his tajweed. A phrase slipped by Benito’s comprehension, then
another, like stray thoughts before waking, and Benito was hopelessly lost, unable to pick up the
The inner peace that Benito found in prayer and ritual carried him through the sermon—
peace, and thoughts of his brother. It was always after salat that Benito recalled Alejandro, and it
filled him with regret. Regret that his brother had refused the journey and did not share Benito’s
faith, regret that Alejandro still followed the path of the enemy, regret that his brother was the
enemy and considered Benito a traitor who deserved a traitor’s fate.
The imam’s voice lifted. Benito recognized the syllables and followed them to the end of
the khutba like a blind man who’s found a handrail in an unfamiliar room. The imam stopped
rocking and left the minbar, his head still cocked to the right, but the lazy eye peered out at the
faithful over the bridge of his hairy nose. Some of the younger men stayed to perform the Salat-
ul-Isha, so their prayers would be complete, and they could enjoy the evening without the
interruption of obligatory prayer. Benito too, remained, but his mind still drifted, until he noticed
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for the first time the man who had prayed next to him—an old man, thick as a teak stump with a
burn scar covering the right side of his face and no index fingers.
“Khatib,” Benito said. Khatib was not the man’s real name. It meant “leader” in Arabic.
Benito preferred to call him this, and the older man allowed it.
The man shrugged his thick shoulders beneath a white linen shirt. “I was wondering
when you’d notice me.”
They stood and embraced. The man came only to Benito’s chin, but he crushed Benito’s
“A-Salam Alakum, Khatib,” Benito said.
“Alakum A-Salam.” The man released him.
“You’ve been there the whole time.”
The older man put an index stub to his lips and guided Benito back into the courtyard. “I
was opposite you on the fountain during wudu. I saw you enter. You were very reverent. I didn’t
want to disturb you.”
“Thank you. I cherish the opportunity to make salat in the mosque.” Benito’s native
language seemed out-of-place. “Arabic?”
“Of course.” The older man switched languages easily. “We both need the practice.”
“I will do my best, Khatib.”
They walked slowly on the slate-tiled hall around the courtyard, Benito on the old man’s
left to avoid his scar tissue. The priest’s and monks’ quarters that formed the four sides of the
courtyard had become the imam’s residence and the schoolrooms for the madrassah. These
rooms had walls and doors and air conditioners mounted on frosted-glass windows. Ahead of
them, a barefoot student of the madrassah lit candles set in wrought iron fittings on the walls. He
used a long brass lighter with a wax wick at the end. A trigger near the handle withdrew the wick
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and snuffed the flame. It reminded Benito of the cathedral in Managua where he, as an altar boy,
lit the candles, and Alejandro was the crucifer.
“What did you think of the sermon?” the older man asked.
“I found it enlightening.” Benito said. “The imam is as wise as he is eloquent.”
The old man turned his ancient eyes on Benito and said, “Now, tell me what you really
“I think I understood every third word.”
The older man chuckled. Wrinkles formed in the thick, leathery-red skin around his left
“How are the new recruits?” Benito asked.
“They’re so young, Bibi,” the older man said. “Just boys.”
“The average age of a U.S. soldier is twenty. When these boys reach that age, they’ll be
veterans, and the Americans will be children to them.”
“Will they live that long?”
Benito clenched his jaws. “I will not train them to strap explosives to their waists and
blow themselves up on a bus. They’ll not be fodder for Allah.”
“Careful, my lieutenant. Your words will endanger you. Our order isn’t so liberal as to
“I don’t blaspheme, Khatib. I merely aspire to a different school of tactics than our
brothers on the West Bank.”
The older man grunted. “Will it be effective?”
“I assure you. It will be most effective.”
A file of students padded by in bare feet and white skull caps, their noses buried in little
red manuals on tajweed—the rules of recitation for the Quran.
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“Still, they’re young for soldiers,” the older man said. “Their bodies are thin from hunger
and ill health.”
Benito watched the boys move down the hall. Bony scapulas poked up from beneath thin
robes. The knobs on their shoulders were prominent. “Their youth and physical condition lessen
their resistance to our particular brand of tarbiyah. They require discipline to follow this path.”
The older man sighed through his nose. “I find myself asking, is it their path, our ours?”
“Now, who shall we say is the blasphemer?”
“You’re fortunate that I love you, Bibi, else I would break your fingers.”
The men paused at the open door of a madrassah classroom. A fat, sweating instructor in
a beige suit and black dress socks was teaching his rail-thin students tajweed in spittle-flung
bursts. The boys, barefoot and looking comfortable in loose white linen drawstring trousers and
long-sleeved shirts, sat in an arc around their rotund teacher and wiped their faces often. One boy
stared at the men standing at the door. Black-ink tattoos were stenciled on his angular
cheekbones. His eyes were vacant. Benito wondered which were more menacing, the homicidal
stares of Mara Salvatrucha or the soulless doll’s-eyes of the boy in this room. The instructor
pushed up from his three-legged stool, the effort turning his face red, and flicked his chubby
fingers at Benito and the old man. They moved away. The eight-panel black walnut door closed
“How are the gang members?” asked Benito.
The man crossed his arms over his barrel chest. “A full quarter of them are detoxifying
from heroin addiction. The glue inhalers we watch carefully. If they fall behind in their studies or
lack language skills, we know their brains have been damaged.”
“And, what happens to them?”
“We find them less challenging roles in the order.”
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“But they don’t leave.”
“No, they will never leave the compound.”
They found a place close to the fountain along the rail circling the courtyard. The
moisture suspended in the air and the acoustic interference from the falling water defied
electronic listening devices. The sun had abandoned the desert during the khutba, and the chill
air coming off the fountain penetrated Benito’s twill shirt.
“The one you took from us last month,” the older man asked. “What was his name?”
“Ernesto. I don’t know his surname.”
The older man waved his hand in front of his face. “It isn’t important. He was in
madrassah for only three months. We didn’t complete his indoctrination.”
Benito swallowed the long sigh he had inhaled. “Why must we open this wound,
“He was quite shaken,” the older man said. “He held his Christianity like a shield.”
“He lost his uncle to the train and his cousin to the madrinas in the south,” Benito said.
“He watched them both die.”
“Was he ready?”
Benito’s jaw ticked. “His training is proceeding very well, and I wouldn’t have taken him
to Samalayuca if I considered him unfit. Just as I would not have brought him here if I had
considered him unworthy.”
“Still, he seemed—”
“He killed the man who killed his cousin. Shot him between the eyes with my backup
The older man raised his eyebrows and nodded. “A boy like that, in such a situation, you
might ask yourself if he performed this act out of retribution, or something else.”
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“Entrapment. Maybe he felt that he had no other choice but to kill.”
“He did not hesitate, nor did I threaten or force him to kill.”
“But, did he have another option?”
Benito crossed his arms and looked out across the courtyard. Two men performed wudu
at the fountain in preparation for evening prayer. One wore jeans and rolled up the cuffs to wash
his feet. The other allowed the water to soak his gray dress slacks. “I’ll admit, I tested him,
manipulated the situation to my own ends. I allowed the madrinas to kill his cousin before we
“Why the cousin?”
Benito pulled one shoulder toward his ear. “He had only one arm.”
“I’m glad you have never tested me.”
Benito clasped his hands over his chest, faced his mentor, and bowed his head. “I would
never judge you, Khatib.”
The older man patted Benito on the arm. Benito detested the feel of the stub, but endured
it. “I’m joking with you, my son, but what if Ernesto had refused to kill the man who killed his
Benito lifted his gaze to the ancient eyes of the old man. “Then he would have joined his
cousin in the dirt.”
The old man nodded. “I trust your instincts, Bibi.”
“I value your trust as much as my faith.”
The older man’s wrinkled leather mask of a face revealed nothing. “He was looking for
his mother or father?”
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The older man put both hands on the white rail, his missing indexes like two black keys
removed from a piano. “A boy willing to leave his village and travel thousands of miles through
jungle and desert to find his father won’t soon lose that desire.”
“We supplant that desire with faith and discipline,” Benito said. “Muhammad will
become his new father, and Allah his mother. His commitment to Islam, his amana, will be
complete.” The old man’s silence meant disagreement. “Why have you summoned me here,
Khatib? I have much to do.”
“I felt that your soul needed some time in the mosque.”
“And I thank you for it, but I suspect you have some operational guidance for me as well
The older man laughed deep in his chest. “You anticipate my purpose. You must have
been a formidable soldier.”
“I am still a soldier.”
“Then you’ll understand what I’m about to tell you.” The older man turned his back on
the courtyard and gripped Benito’s forearm. The bony stub of the index finger pressed between
the bands of muscle. “We must advance the timetable on your operation.”
“My team—my jamaat isn’t ready.” Benito set his face against the pain.
The man shook Benito’s arm and tightened his grip. “Then ready them, Bibi.”
“It’s not as simple as taking the eight o’clock train instead of the noon one. I’ll have to
review our latest intelligence, re-analyze the situation, and determine the impact of the
advancement on every detail of the operation, from insertion to execution to extraction. I’ll have
to double our surveillance of the target, assess the new risk, and plan for more contingencies. Is
the advancement really necessary?”
The older man released him. “I would not have brought you here if it were not.”
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Now Benito gripped the rail to hide the belligerent set of his mouth. The pain in his arm
had quickened his heartbeat and stirred his anger. He wondered if the older man had desired this
reaction, or its opposite. “Our network is as difficult to change direction as steering an oil tanker
through rough seas, Khatib. It’s not as if I can hold a meeting, make a call, or send an email. Our
lines of communication are blind drops and ciphers. Our forward cells will have to get new
missions and execute them quickly. We may have to activate others, increasing our chances of
exposure and compromise.”
“I’ve been living this way long before you arrived. You think I don’t understand the
“Good. Your understanding of our network comes from me,” the older man said. “There
is an opportunity arising at the primary target, one we must seize immediately.”
“How many days?”
“You must be prepared to execute next week.”
“Ay ay ay. Seven days?” Benito twisted the wooden rail in his hands. “Tell me. I need to
know why I must risk the success of this mission and the lives of my men.”
“Your men, yes, but my children. Allah’s soldiers. ‘Regard your soldiers as your
children, and they will follow you into the deepest valleys. Look on them as your own beloved
sons, and they will stand by you even unto death.’”
The sweating tajweed instructor burst out of the classroom, dragging a brown waif
dressed in a long, white linen shirt. The fat man pushed the boy onto his back and made him
raise his feet. The boy obeyed, closing his eyes. His instructor flailed the bottom of his student’s
feet with a cane pole. Benito watched the beating. He could appreciate physical discipline.
“Muhammad?” he asked.
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“You memorized The Art of War?” Benito asked.
“I am a hafiz, Bibi. After memorizing the Quran, I found time to read other texts that
would apply to my role in the order. And my retention has never been better.”
The boy did not cry out, which seemed to make fat man whip harder, but he tired quickly,
and they returned to the classroom.
“Yes, yes, of course,” Benito said. “But I don’t throw my soldiers away as easily as my
peers. The virgins can wait, but my question cannot.”
The Khatib again patted Benito’s upper arm. “Elections are approaching, and our political
advisors seem convinced that the impact of your operation would be greater if it were timed with
one of the primaries.”
“We have political advisors?”
“All that we do is political, even your operation.”
“Still, we cannot proceed on the whim of advisors who don’t understand military affairs.
The further our decisions drift from operational criteria, the greater the chance of military failure.
Political objectives hinder military success.”
“You paraphrase Clausewitz,” the older man said. “Let me give you another: ‘War is not
a mere act of policy but a true political instrument, a continuation of political activity by other
Benito blinked at the older man and found he had no answer.
“My understanding of military science surprises you.”
The older man tapped his temple with the no-knuckle stub of his index finger. “Hafiz, I
told you.” He inclined his head toward the south door, and they went outside.
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The two men sat on the stone bench next to the straw mat where the shoes lay. Benito
found his desert combat boots. “What you describe is limited war with marginal success and
“All war today is limited, Bibi, especially our war. All success is marginal. The cowboy
boots, please.” Benito handed him the pair of square-toed boots, scuffed as a gaucho’s saddle and
soft as antelope leather. “You must strive for marginal success and rationalized objectives in
order to achieve ultimate victory.”
Benito wound the laces around his ankles, tied a square knot, and tucked the ends in the
tops of his boots. “Where I came from, we had no understanding of limited objectives. Total
victory was the only victory. Anything less was failure.”
The old man picked up the straw cowboy hat and pushed it on his head. The brim bent
the tops of his ears. “And that is why they ultimately failed in every form of limited war in the
last two centuries. The outcome of the Second World War skewed the enemy’s concept of
Behind the older man, a blue-orange glow from the city created an artificial twilight.
Benito stood. The older man continued, “Our enemy has a soft underbelly. You, Bibi, the sword
of Muhammad, will slash it open.”
Benito put his hands on his hips and watched the city crank up beyond the walls. “You
don’t need to inspire me with metaphors.”
“Come with me, then. We’ll walk the streets tonight. I tire of this purity. I need a good
dose of sewage and urine and vomit.”
To the north, a C-17 cargo plane hoisted itself into the air on four glowing jet engines
mounted under the wings. It gained altitude and joined a flight heading east. “Is it safe, Khatib?”
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“Our enemy’s satellites don’t focus on this section of the city. Their unmanned aerial
vehicles fly on the other side of the world. And the imam doesn’t let me spit my leaf in here.
Come. Leave your rug by the door.”
“No one will steal your precious Afghani prayer rug.” The older man laughed and
slapped Benito between the shoulder blades. “Come, come. Let’s go to the Kentucky. I’ll buy
each of us a twenty-ounce ribeye.” The older man walked with the stiff-legged gate of one whose
knees had been broken and healed poorly.
A pair of OH-58D Kiowa Warrior observation helicopters churned west along the border.
The sensors on their optics masts reflected the city lights.
“We need to take away their eyes,” Benito said. “I’ll stay here and call up my jamaat
“Of course.” The older man pressed the intercom button on the wall. “We’re leaving,
Muhammad. Please open the gate.” He smiled into the camera lens.
“The guard’s name is Muhammad?”
“Some choose Islamic names. It makes them feel closer to God, I think, deepens their
“I suggest we return to our native language, Khatib.”
The metal gate rolled open on greased wheels. The two men stepped onto the cracked
pavement of Avenida Juarez. Two-story buildings painted gaudy colors framed the main artery
of Ciudad Juarez—the blue Salon de Baille, orange money-changing stands, green torterillas, the
pink El Fandango. Lime green VW Beetle taxis and light blue buses emptied American bar-
hoppers and exhaust fumes into the street. Red neon buzzed in every window. A brown layer of
smog hovered over the Bridge of the Americas, where a logjam of old cars, buses, and trucks
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with bad or absent catalytic converters waited to cross the border into Ciudad Juarez’s sister
city—El Paso, Texas.
Six young Americans with short haircuts and red faces stumbled toward Benito and the
old man two abreast the sidewalk of Avenida Juarez. They passed around a nearly depleted bottle
of Cuervo. The older man grabbed Benito by the elbow and pulled him into the street.
The tallest American stepped down in front of them. “Hey, vato! You know where we
can see a donkey show?” He looked like a farm boy to Benito, fresh off the combine.
“No habla inglais, gringo,” said one from the sidewalk. The other boys sniggered.
“Reckon I’m lookin’ at one now,” Benito said in a soldier-talk drawl.
The Americans formed a tight circle around them. Benito smelled tequila on their hot
breath and in their sweat.
“You say somethin’, vato?” The farm boy clenched his fists, flexing the iron-and-creatine
induced muscles in his arms. A fresh tattoo of a winged parachute inflamed the skin on his right
The older man squeezed the nerve cluster above Benito’s right elbow. “Don’t provoke
“Yes, Khatib, I’m sorry,” Benito said. “Let’s go.”
“Not so fast, wetback.” The farm boy put a big hand on Benito’s chest. “Them are nice
boots. You steal them off an American soldier?”
In a violent flash of arms and legs, the farm boy lay on his back in the gutter. Benito
stepped on the boy’s throat and bent his hand very much the wrong way. A trickle of blood
dripped out of each nostril.
“Do not touch me, leg,” Benito said. “If you want to keep your fingers.”
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“I ain’t no leg!” His buddies leaned in, but Benito twisted the hand, and the farm boy
cried out, “Back up! He’s gonna break off my hand!”
Benito reversed his hold on the arm, flipping the farm boy onto his belly. “You know
what a ‘curbie’ is, boy?” Benito asked, still in the soldier-drawl. He pressed down on the boy’s
neck and put his cheek against the low curb.
“No!” screamed the farm boy.
“It’s when you take a nice bite of curb, then I kick the back of your head until your lips
and teeth are gone and you got nothin’ but bloody gums.”
“Please, mister, we want no trouble with you,” said the one with the bottle.
People walking by were staring. Benito released the farm boy, who hobbled onto the
sidewalk, wiping the blood from his nose and face. His friends led him away.
The older man sighed and continued toward the Kentucky. Benito followed.
“One of your boys is getting his ass kicked by a local,” Lieutenant Pollard said.
“Which one?” Sergeant Alejandro Echevarria asked, flipping through a Mexican porn
magazine. The glossy pages held the heat from sitting out in the sun all day on Avenida Juarez.
“Looks like McKinley.”
“Cornfed farm boy,” Echevarria said. “Prob’ly asked him directions to the donkey show.”
“You think maybe we should ... ”
Echevarria set the porn mag back on the wire rack and smoothed the cover. “Yeah, let’s
head over there.”
When Sergeant Echevarria saw his brother pass him on the street, he thought it was a
trick of the twilight or an illusion induced by the crowded Avenida and red neon. He stopped,
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turned, his feet rooted to the pavement. Rushing blood filled his ears, blocking the distorted
mariachi music pumped into the street by overhead speakers and the constant bleat of vehicle
horns. He reached for Benito and opened his mouth to call out to him, to say his brother’s name
and see if he would turn.
Pollard bumped into him. “What the hell, Ech?”
Echevarria’s brother disappeared into the crush of bodies.
“Sorry, Sir.” Echevarria moved on.
A two-tone horn erupted and highbeams flashed from a shiny black Cadillac Escalade,
but the glimpse of his brother remained imprinted on Echevarria’s retinas. Benito was thin,
bearded. His cheekbones made sharp ledges above the beard, but he wasn’t gaunt. The desert had
toughened him, sanding off the fat and leaving only muscle, sinew, and bone. Echevarria had not
seen his brother’s skin so dark since they were boys in Nicaragua. His eyes had sunk deep into
his head, and the skin around them had weathered, but they were unmistakable—hard and black
Echevarria’s team looked relieved to see him. McKinley hung back and hid his face
behind his comrades’ shoulders. Echevarria spread his hands, and the men split, leaving
McKinley exposed. Echevarria walked through them and stood directly in front of his broken
soldier. Echevarria had to crank his head back to eyeball the farm boy. Dried blood formed a red-
brown goatee on McKinley’s face. An angry strawberry swelled on his right cheek. Street grime
coated the front and back of his white T-shirt, and the stretched collar was red with blood.
McKinley held his right wrist to his chest like a dead rabbit.
“Who did this, Specialist McKinley?” Echevarria asked.
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“You just passed him, Sarnt.” McKinley pointed with his left, which still held the
wounded right. Pollard turned to look. Echevarria did not. “That guy, y’see that tall guy walkin’
next t’the short guy n’the white shirt?”
“I didn’t see anything, Specialist McKinley.” Echevarria put his fists on his hips. “You’re
a long range surveillance scout, and what the fuck kind of spot report is that?”
McKinley dropped his hand and put his fingers along the seam of his pants. “He was
wearing desert jungle boots, Sarnt, tan cargo pants with button pockets on the thighs and shins,
and a dark green long-sleeved shirt. He was tall as me, which means he was at least two meters
“Big for a Mexican,” Echevarria said. “Anything else?”
“Full beard and long hair past the collar. Don’t see that a lot on Hispanics, beg your
“None taken. Weapons? Looked like he handed you your ass. One of them must have had
a weapon or something.”
McKinley’s ruddy face turned bright red, and he stared at the pavement.
“He had a gun, Sarnt,” Babbich said. “Big automatic, tucked in the back of his belt.”
Echevarria nodded. “Eyes up, Specialist McKinley. We all get our asses kicked once in a
while. Did he speak?”
McKinley blinked. “Roger, Sarnt. That was something diff’rent.”
“He talked like a NCO, like my drill sergeant. Called me a ‘leg.’” McKinley frowned.
“What is it, McKinley?”
“He sounded kind of like you, Sarnt.”
Bridge of the Americas 21
Echevarria let it pass. “As you mentioned, I’m Hispanic. English isn’t my first language.
Yours either it would seem.” Babbich snorted. “Shut your ass, Babbich,” Echevarria said.
“The short one wore beat up cowboy hat. He had a big scar on the right side of his face,
like Freddy Krueger,” McKinley said. “An’ no index fingers.”
McKinley held up his hands, palms in, and bent his index fingers at the first knuckle. “No
“I’ll be damned,” Lieutenant Pollard said quietly.
“Good report, McKinley,” Echevarria said. “Now, get your red asses back to Camp
McGregor. You know most of the places you dicks want to go are off-limits, and four of you
aren’t old enough to be drinking.” He put out his hand for the bottle of tequila. Specialist
Babbich gave it to him. “None of you are old enough to be drinking this.”
“I was looking for a place to go to church tomorrow, Sarnt,” Babbich said. “I heard
Juarez has one of the oldest Catholic cathedrals in Mexico.”
“Shut your hole, Babbich.”
Echevarria’s surveillance team shuffled down the Avenida to the nearest taxi stand. An
orange minivan waited for them. They crawled through the sliding side door, and the minivan
pulled away, heading north.
Lieutenant Pollard stood on the sidewalk looked back down the Avenida. He stroked his
upper lip with his finger. People on the sidewalk flowed around him like water.
“What’s up, Sir?” Echevarria asked.
“It’s probably nothing.”
Bridge of the Americas 22
“Your ears perked right up when McKinley talked about the short guy with eight
“I’m not sure. I’d have to get back to the S2 shop and verify.”
“Can’t confirm or deny back in your office on the Internet. Have do that from the field.”
Echevarria moved down the street in the direction that he’d last seen his brother.
Pollard followed him. “Where you going, Ech?”
“Courtesy patrol, L.T. The night is young.”
Pollard walked next to him. Foot traffic moved in both directions on the sidewalk, and he
had to keep turning his broad shoulders to get through. Echevarria slalomed through the crowd.
“You’re going to follow those two men,” Pollard said.
“Just moving in their direction.”
“You’re not planning on getting back at them, are you? Teach them a lesson?”
“Of course not, Sir. I’m just a little guy. Honcho who kicked McKinley’s ass sounded
like a ninja or something.”
“Then what are you doing?”
“We’re not field operatives, Sergeant Echevarria,” Pollard said. “We’re just couple of
dumb-ass American soldiers stuck with courtesy patrol.”
Echevarria stopped and poked the tall lieutenant in the chest. “You’re an intel guy. I’m a
surveillance guy. Sounds like it’s right up our alley.”
“It’s outside our mandate.”
“I don’t know what that means.”
“It’s not our mission.”
Bridge of the Americas 23
“Our mission’s a joke, college boy. We watch the border, call in illegal activity, and the
Border Patrol ignores us. Time to do some real intel work.”
Pollard crossed his arms and looked down his nose at Echevarria.
“They walked that way.” Echevarria pointed with his fingers extended and joined. “We
can walk that way, too.”
“If I’m right, we need to walk the other way.”
“We might not make it back to Bliss.”
Echevarria grabbed Pollard’s sleeve and pulled him into the mouth of a narrow alley.
“That short guy some kind of bad ass?”
“He got a name?”
“If I’m right, and I’d like to think I am, it was Carrillo Fuentes. Runs the biggest drug
cartel in Chihuahua State. Maybe all of Northern Mexico.”
Jesus Christ, Echevarria thought. My big brother’s a goddamn drug runner. I’ll kill the
Pollard was oblivious to the ripple of anger that crossed Echevarria’s face. “On top of
that, he’s a ghost. We can never get a fix on him.”
“Looks like we have an opportunity.” Echevarria looked around the corner of the alley.
“We’re going to lose them.”
Pollard didn’t move.
“C’mon, Sir. This couldn’t be easier. You and me s’posed to be out here all night,
“You don’t know the first thing about tailing someone.”
Bridge of the Americas 24
“You’re right. I don’t. You’re right about everything. That’s why you’re the officer, and
I’m the sergeant.”
“They’re gone by now,” Pollard said. “You don’t even know what they look like.”
Yes I do, Echevarria thought. One of them.
“What’s your interest here, Sergeant Echevarria?”
Echevarria opened his mouth, closed it, thought about lying, changed his mind. “I just
have to do this, Sir. You can come with me, go back to post, or do an about-face. Frankly, I’d
blend in better without your gringo mug next to me.” Echevarria turned on his heel and entered
the flow of pedestrians.
Lieutenant Pollard caught up with him in five steps. “Somebody has to watch your six,
Ech. Might as well be me.”
Bridge of the Americas 25
“I could be watching a donkey show right now,” Divot said. “Instead, I’m here, twistin’
this frickin’ knob in this hot-ass hut in the middle of the desert.”
Private First Class Billy Divot sat at the listening console of his AN/TSQ-205 Trackwolf
Radio Intercept Station and scanned through the CB spectrum, between 26.9 and 27.4 megahertz.
Each click of the knob increased his listening frequency. He listened for thirty seconds, then
clicked and listened again. The bottom of the audio spectrum dial began with longwave at
.1MHz, to the military-reserved range at 1600Mhz. It was boring, tedious work that yielded static
of various pitches and infrequent trucker conversation in redneck English or lightning-fast
Spanish. After eighteen years of growing up in Phenix City and eighteen months of immersion
Spanish at the Department of Defense Language Institute in Big Sur, Divot understood both.
Staff Sergeant Jerrell Washington, Divot’s team leader, put down the file he was reading.
“What’s the deal with you white boys and donkey shows?”
Divot shrugged, clicked, spat into a soda can. “Never seen one. Heard they were the shit.”
“Skinny, drugged-out Mexican girl fuckin’ a donkey?”
“Roger that, Sarnt.” Divot scooped the sodden lump of Copenhagen snuff out of his
lower lip and jammed it in the Mountain Dew can, heavy with two shifts worth of spit.
“You digust me, PFC Divot.”
“I try, Sarnt, I try.”
Bridge of the Americas 26
Rather than deploying in their normal truck-mounted configuration, their Trackwolf
stations had been installed into several converted Patriot missile trailers—control huts and launch
platforms. Fort Bliss was the Army’s headquarters and training center for Air Defense Artillery,
and Patriot missile vehicles were more common around post than double-wide mobile homes.
Their listening post was one of three fielded by the communications section of the 313th Military
Intelligence Battalion, part of a joint mission with the DEA, the Border Patrol, the Department of
Homeland Security, and the 13th Air Cav Squadron—Joint Task Force North.
The Defense Department originally created Joint Task Force North, or JTF-North, in
1989 as JTF-6. Its mission was to support President George Herbert Walker Bush’s War on
Drugs. The purpose of JTF-6 was to augment local, state, and federal agencies with military
personnel and resources in order to interdict drug smuggling along the U.S-Mexico border. In
2004, JTF-6 became JTF-North, and its mission expanded to the interdiction of “transnational
threats”—human smugglers, narcotraffickers, and international terrorists. The permanent staff of
JTF-North had no assigned forces, only planners and liaison officers, and relied on active and
reserve personnel to execute its mission. Units from all five branches of service rotated through
Fort Bliss, where JTF-North was headquartered. They fell under the tactical control of the JTF-
North Commander, a U.S. Army Brigadier General, and served for four to eight weeks. The
military units spread themselves—physically, electronically, optically—over 2,000 miles of
desert and helped the stretched-thin Border Patrol pick up movement across the border. Their
mission was to observe, detect, and report, but not interdict, no direct operations against cross-
border threats. That was left to the Border Patrol agents. Officially under the command of U.S.
Northern Command, or USNORTHCOM, JTF-North had quietly become the de facto executive
branch of the Department of Homeland Security along the southern border.
Bridge of the Americas 27
Divot dropped the headset on the short counter and pulled a silver-capped can of Cope
out of the cargo pocket on his thigh. He flicked his wrist, snapping the powdered tobacco to one
side of the can. Two fingers from the same hand pulled off the cap, then two from his left
pinched a mouse-sized dip into his bottom lip. “Hot as two rats fuckin’ in a wool sock in here.”
“AC’s up all the way.” Washington turned a page in his file.
“I’m still hot. There’s a hot draft coming out from under the console.” Divot injected a
long stream of brown spittle into his Mountain Dew can.
“Freezin’ my ass off,” said Sergeant Washington. “If it weren’t for the electronics, I’d
open the door.”
“It’s even hot at night.”
“Gotta go for a walk just so I can feel my feet again.”
“Well, least it’s a dry heat,” Divot said. “Nothin’ worse than Phenix City in July when
your AC box craps out.”
“You had AC? I didn’t know what AC was until I got to the hotel where I processed.
Damn near died of frostbite.”
Divot tried to straighten out the smile forming on his distended lip. “Phenix City was hot,
Sergeant. I’d stake its heat next to any in the south.”
“Can’t be as hot as Biloxi. It so hot down there, your blood gets thick an’ stops flowin’.
Why do you think Mississippi folks sittin’ aroun’ all the time?”
“It’s so humid in Phenix City, the heat sucks up water right from the Chattahoochee.
Frogs can hop on it.”
They laughed. Divot had to spit. The Chihuahuan Desert was the hottest place they’d ever
been. Divot feared it during the day.
Bridge of the Americas 28
“What are we doin’ here, Sarnt? It’s Friday night. Drug dealers are pushin’ their product,
not movin’ it over the border. There’s prob’ly more gringos in Juarez than El Paso right now.”
Washington held up the file he was reading. Thick lines of black magic marker erased
half of the text. “NSA reported an uptick of radio chatter in the last week in Juarez. We’re here
to confirm or deny.”
“That was not included in the report.”
“Why’n hell don’t they tell us the freq, so we can just listen in?”
“I didn’t ask. They didn’t tell.” Washington pointed at the headset.
Divot picked it up and put the pads over his ears. “Let’s go to military FM.” He flicked
another knob, bringing up the138-144Mhz range on his console.
“Cause I’m bored as shit, Sergeant. Maybe we’ll pick up some National Guard traffic.
Good for laughs.”
“You can waste your time for five minutes, then I want you back on the plan,” Sergeant
Washington said. “Only way to do this job is grind through the spectrum, click by click.”
Divot froze in front of his console. His eyes closed.
“You hear me, Divot? Five minutes.”
Divot held up a finger. “I got somethin’.” He tilted his head, leaning his good ear into the
headset. “Can’t make it out.”
Washington pulled the spare headset off its hook and pushed the plug into the jack.
Divot opened his eyes. “Conversation. Short syllables. Queries and acknowledgements.”
Bridge of the Americas 29
Sergeant Washington mashed the ‘Record’ button, then worked the controls that adjusted
the external antenna. The conversation strengthened and cleared in Divot’s headset, but didn’t
help him understand the transmission any better.
“You get a fix?” Divot asked.
Washington recorded the ten-digit grid for each end of the conversation, then stuck pins
in a map on the wall. A blue-headed pin went into the deep desert west of El Paso on the
American side. A red one went on the Mexican side, into a hump of mountain south of Juarez
called Sierra Samalayuca.
Washington slid a report pad in front of him and started to transcribe. Divot leaned over
the transcription. Washington wrote from right to left. Maybe that’s because he’s left-handed,
Divot thought. “Mus’ be a Spanish dialect I ain’t familiar with.” Divot didn’t like it when his
sergeant did his job for him. “Maybe it’s Basque. I heard rumors about Basque terrorists workin’
with the cartels.”
Washington paused to listen, then started writing again, right to left.
“’Bout time you took a turn, Sarnt. You heard that kind of Spanish before?”
“It’s not Spanish,” Washington said. “It’s Arabic.”
The smooth, white fuselage of the Tower Air 767 taxied to a gentle stop in front of a line
of military hangars at Biggs Army Airfield. The commercial aircraft looked vulnerable, as if its
pilot had meant to land at El Paso International across town. Air Force soldiers in desert
camouflage pumped JP-8 into its tanks from two olive colored fuel trucks. A line of sharp-edged
Apache attack helicopters flanked the 767 on the apron, their 30mm chin-mounted chain guns
Bridge of the Americas 30
pointing obliquely toward the open desert north of the airfield. Inside an open hangar behind the
Apaches, Army aviation crews worked on a flight of Kiowa Warrior observation helicopters—
dark green Bell Jet Rangers with weapons racks under the wings and a spherical optics mast
mounted above the rotor. A pair of Royal Air Force Harriers landed vertically while Private First
Class Kelly and his squad were loading their M240 machine guns into the belly of the 767. They
marveled at the tiny jumpjets. Their massive rotating Vertical Takeoff and Landing engines
obliterated ambient noise.
“You’ll see more of them in Kabul,” Sergeant Mendoza told the squad after the VTOL
engines had quieted. “So board the aircraft.”
First Sergeant Drake stomped down the blue-carpeted aisle of the Tower Air 767. “All
right, men, sit your ass down and remove the bolts from your rifles. This fuckin’ plane won’t
move an inch before I see every one of them goddamn bolts in the air, so let’s move. C’mon,
hold ‘em up!”
A chorus of firing mechanisms rattled through the cabin. One hundred twenty soldiers
cracked open their M4’s and extracted the tube-shaped bolts from their chambers. Behind the
First Sergeant, three female flight attendants moved down the aisles. They wore matching dark
red skirts and jackets and kicky yellow silk cravats around their necks. Two hundred forty eyes
watched the attendants bend over seats, smile, and squat in red high heels.
PFC Kelly held aloft his M4 bolt, checked the location of First Sergeant Drake, then his
squad leader, Staff Sergeant Mendoza, and whispered to his buddy, PFC Chavez, sitting next to
him. “Why do we have to take out the bolts?”
Chavez whispered back, “Probably some stupid federal law about having a weapon on
board the plane. Like it has to be disabled or something.”
“But we don’t have any ammo,” Kelly said.
Bridge of the Americas 31
Chavez looked at him and shrugged.
Drake came back up the aisle. “All right, men. Put ‘em in your right breast pockets, and I
wanna see ‘em tied off with flex-cuffs to a button hole. Squad leaders make it happen.”
Kelly shoved the bolt in his left pocket.
“Your other right, Kelly,” said Mendoza from across the aisle.
Kelly jerked the bolt from his pocket. It came out of his grip and plopped into the aisle.
He leaned over and bumped heads with a platinum-haired attendant. His bolt lay between her
feet. He took a good look at her slender ankles and pretty, red-painted toenails partially hidden
by matching open-toed, red leather pumps.
“Here you go, Private Kelly,” she said, and handed him his bolt.
“Thank you Ma’am.”
She patted his chest. “ I believe this is your right... breast... pocket, Private Kelly.”
Kelly’s neck and face felt like they had caught fire. “Thank you, Ma’am.”
“You all are the first group we’ve flown with the new desert camouflage.” She leaned
over him and put her face close to the fabric. A lock of her blonde hair brushed his face. “All
those little squares. Does it really work?”
“I-I don’t know, yet,” Kelly said. The fruity-coconut smell of her shampoo overpowered
him like the Harriers. “I guess I’ll find out soon enough, Ma’am.”
The plane jerked out of position and began to taxi. The movement threw the attendant off
balance, and she put a hand on Kelly’s shoulder to steady herself. “You better not call me Ma’am
this whole flight, Private Kelly.”
“What should I call you, Ma’—”
Her hand warmed his shoulder. “Sherrie will do just fine.”
Bridge of the Americas 32
“Can I get anything for you, Private Kelly?”
“Uhh, how about a beer?”
She smiled. “I’d drink one with you, but we don’t have any alcohol on this flight. How
about a Coke instead?” She leaned over and whispered in his ear. “I’ll give you the whole can.”
“Okay,” Kelly whispered back.
The attendant turned and sashayed up the aisle to get his Coke. Kelly watched her like
there was nothing else in the world.
“You ‘bout done, Kelly?” First Sergeant Drake had come up behind his seat and scared
the bejesus out of him.
“Roger, First Sergeant.” He jammed the bolt in his pocket and zipped it to a buttonhole
with one of the two-dozen plastic strips from the right cargo pocket of his pants.
The platinum-haired flight attendant stood at her station in the midsection of the plane
and poured Kelly’s coke over ice.
“She looks like Marilyn Monroe,” Kelly said.
“Christ, Kelly, that lady’s about fifty years old. She could be yer mama,” Chavez said.
“Then I’d have to fuck her.”
Kelly felt a chuck on the back of the head. Specialist Durban hung his freckled mug over
the back of the seat and flashed his yellow teeth. “Don’t think yer gettin’ any from her, Kelly.”
“Fuck off, hillbilly. She was only being nice.”
“I could smell her from back here. She musta smelled real nice up close like that.”
“I said fuck off.”
Durban turned to Chavez. “Hey, wetback. Bet it sucked to be so close to home, but not
have a chance to go there.”
Chavez smiled. “You think I didn’t?”
Bridge of the Americas 33
Durban’s eyes widened. “No shit, you didn’t.”
“We been training here for six weeks, pendejo. You think I don’t find a way?”
“Whatever you say, pendejo.”
The Tower Air 767 rotated away from the apron, leaving behind the cluster of fixed and
rotary winged military aircraft. The pilot found the runway and threw the jet into the air. In
seconds, the 767 was climbing over El Paso. The pilot banked hard, giving Kelly a face full of
Rio Grande Valley.
“There is the river.” Chavez pointed into the circle of desert and city. “Do you see the
Bridge of the Americas?” Kelly nodded. “On the other side is Juarez.”
A seatbelt clattered behind him. Kelly turned. Sergeant Mendoza was in the aisle, coming
toward him, his M4 carbine slung under his arm.
“Please sit down, sir,” said the platinum-haired attendant from the little jumpseat next to
her station. “The aircraft is still in take-off. The captain has not turned off the fasten-seatbelt
Mendoza stopped at Kelly’s seat. “Chavez?”
Chavez stared past Kelly as if he weren’t there. “I am ready, Sergeant.”
Mendoza stared back with equal intensity. “Then, let us begin our journey together,
compadre.” He reached across Kelly and handed Chavez a small wire cutter.
Compadre? Thought Kelly. That’s pretty familiar for Mendoza.
Chavez nodded and snipped the flex-cuff from his pocket with the wire cutter. He
handed it back to Mendoza, who did the same. The two Latino soldiers re-inserted the bolts into
their M4’s and closed the breaches.
“What the hell are you guys doing?” Kelly asked. “The First Sergeant—”
Bridge of the Americas 34
Chavez took a curved 30-round magazine out of his cargo pocket. A shiny brass 5.56
round was clamped between the aluminum leaves at the top. Chavez slapped home the magazine
and pulled the bolt handle, jacking the round into the chamber. A dozen bolts ratcheted in
response. A few scattered ‘What the fuck’s?’ and ‘Who the hell’s?’ were stopped short by quick
butt-strokes from loaded M4’s.
The platinum-haired flight attendant picked up the beige phone mounted on the wall.
“Close and lock the cockpit door.”
Sergeant Mendoza turned and pointed to the front of the plane. Boots thundered up the
aisle, followed by a crash and a short bout of shouting, then silence.
“Cockpit secured,” came a tinny voice from the Motorola Talkabout clipped to
Mendoza pressed the push-to-talk button. “The pilot and copilot?”
“Fully functional,” said the tinny voice.
Mendoza walked up to the platinum-haired attendant. She sat very still, her pale knuckles
white around the handset. Mendoza peeled away her fingers.
First Sergeant Drake ran up the aisle. Chavez shouldered his M4. Drake stopped, the
flash suppressor of Chavez’s rifle inches from his reddening face. Captain Jennings, the Alpha
company commander, stood behind him. Jennings had his 9mm Berretta in his hand, held low at
his hip. The magazine well in the grip was empty.
“Stow your weapon, soldier!” Drake yelled. The red went past his ears and up into the
short hairs on his flattop.
Mendoza hung up the phone.
“Private Chavez does not want to kill you, First Sergeant,” said Mendoza. “But he will,
Bridge of the Americas 35
“Knock this shit off, right now, you goddamn spic!” Spittle flew from Drake’s lips.
Chavez blinked it away, then flicked the selector switch on his M4 from FIRE to BURST.
“Stand down, Sergeant Mendoza!” Captain Jennings added over Drake’s shoulder.
First Sergeant Drake moved his hand toward Chavez’s weapon. “Get that barrel out of
A three-round burst stuttered out of the M4. Powder flash burned off Drake’s eyebrows
and blackened the skin around the three neat holes in his forehead. The platinum-haired flight
attendant screamed. The hot brass shell casings fell into Kelly’s lap. Drake tumbled backward.
The rotten egg smell of exploding gunpowder hung in the close air.
Jennings fell to his knees. He held his head in his hands, the left one still gripped his
empty service weapon.
Mendoza set down the phone and exchanged places with Chavez. He squatted next to the
dead body of First Sergeant Drake. “Captain Jennings.” Jennings’ right ear bled from a bullet
that had passed through Drake’s skull and nicked the lobe. Another bullet had drawn a red line
on the right side of his neck. Bits of Drake’s brain and skull clung to Jennings’ face. “Captain
Jennings,” Mendoza said. “Remember your bearing. You are the ranking officer on this aircraft,
and, now that you are all prisoners of war, you have a duty to represent your men.”
Jennings’ eyes focused on Mendoza. “Prisoners of war?”
“Precisely.” Mendoza plucked the Berretta from Jennings’ hand. “You won’t need this
where we’re going.”
“Where are we going? Jennings asked.
“The men in the cockpit are handing a set of coordinates to the pilot,” Mendoza said. “He
will alter his course and land.” The aircraft banked sharply to the right. Drake’s body leaned with
the turn. Mendoza stood and held out his hand. Jennings took it.
Bridge of the Americas 36
“Where are you taking us?” Jennings asked.
“It will be a short flight.”
Chavez escorted Captain Jennings to a lavatory to clean Drake’s blood, brains, and skull
from his face. Mendoza returned to the attendants’ station and lifted the intercom handset. He
left Drake’s body in the aisle.
“Soldiers of First Battalion,” Mendoza’s voice crackled over the PA. “As you may have
heard, we have killed First Sergeant Drake. Drake is dead because he was good at giving orders,
but deficient at following them. We hope the rest of you do not share his deficiency.”
Four hijackers paced the aisles with loaded M4’s tucked into their shoulders, the stubby
barrels seeking quick movement from the hostages. Kelly turned around in his seat and counted
twelve hijackers in his section of the plane. He was unsure of the number in the forward cabin.
All were Latino.
Mendoza continued. “I know from personal experience that you are all good soldiers, so
now I ask for some obedience. This ordeal won’t last long.”
Shaved heads leaned left and right. Murmurs rumbled over the seats.
“You are all heroes, willing to make the ultimate sacrifice,” Mendoza said. “I assure you,
if you follow directions, you will have the chance to do so, just not here. There are no heroes on
this aircraft today. First Sergeant Drake was the last one.”
The murmurs stopped, and the heads locked up straight.
“We don’t have much time, so please execute my orders with alacrity. If you are sitting in
an exit row, please leave your weapons at your feet, move to the rear of the plane, and sit in the
aisle.” Every soldier looked around to check his seat. The men near the doors did as they were
told. “That’s it. You two.” Mendoza pointed at two soldiers standing at the exit door nearest to
the dead First Sergeant. “Drag First Sergeant Drake to the back of the plane with you.”
Bridge of the Americas 37
Two hijackers swiveled their rifles with the moving soldiers.
“Place your weapons in the aisle next to you. Officers—that includes you too. I want to
see your nine-mils.”
Weapons clattered into the aisles. Two Latino soldiers collected armfuls of M4’s and
M9’s and piled them in the seats and the floors next to the exits. They cleared the aisles in five
“Excellent,” Mendoza said. “Now, some of you may not like to do the next thing,
especially with all of these pretty flight attendants watching you, but we need your uniforms as
Shaved heads turned and looked at each other.
“You heard me correctly, First Battalion,” Mendoza said. The aircraft leaned forward,
beginning its descent. “As you can tell, we will land soon, so listen carefully. The sequence is
critical. First, remove one of the flex-cuffs from your cargo pocket and set it on the seat. I know
you each have a bundle of them, in accordance with the packing list. They should be in your
right cargo pocket. Then remove your uniforms, starting with your boots, then trousers, then
blouses. Socks and t-shirts, too, men. We want soft caps as well, if you have them. You may
keep your kevlars. My men are issuing laundry bags to each of you. I want you to place your
uniforms and any other sensitive items in the bags—night vision, GPS systems, weapon sights,
binoculars. You can leave the bolts attached to your uniforms. We will separate them for you.”
Kelly stripped. “Shit.”
“What?” said Durban.
“I’m goin’ commando.”
“Me too, man.”
“Something the matter, Private Kelly?” Mendoza appeared in the aisle like a shadow.
Bridge of the Americas 38
Kelly’s scrotum constricted, shoving his testicles inside his pelvis.
Mendoza looked down at him. “Ah, I see. And you as well, Specialist Durban.” Mendoza
smiled. “Well, I’m sure Miss Sherrie has seen it all before.”
Mendoza spoke into the handset. “Help your buddy if he’s falling behind. Don’t be shy,
men. You will soon be in combat together. Now bind each other’s wrists with the flex-cuffs, sit
back down, and fasten your seat belts.”
The aircraft landed five minutes later on a desert airstrip. There was no tower, no
hangars, no buildings of any kind, just a long dirt strip and taxiway. They came down hard in a
cloud of sand and dust, like a C141 doing elevator jumps at Sicily drop zone in Fort Bragg.
Kelly forgot his fear and his nakedness. “Where is this place, Sergeant Mendoza?”
Mendoza looked at him hard, then eased. “This is Mexico.”
As soon as the 767 stopped moving, the hijackers popped open the emergency doors and
deployed the escape chutes. White and yellow moving vans appeared at the bottom of each
chute, and Latino men dressed in civilian clothes got out. The hijackers tossed weapons and
laundry bags down the chutes, and the men loaded them in the vans. Four men went to the belly
of the aircraft, beyond the scope of the passenger windows, then returned a few minutes later
carrying racks of M240 machine guns between them.
“Listo!” “Listo!” “Listo!” The hijackers called out from the exit doors.
“Go!” shouted Mendoza. They turned in unison, crossed their arms and rifles over their
chests, and slid down the chutes. The hijackers patrolling the aisles followed them. Mendoza and
Chavez remained at the midsection of the plane. Chavez held his rifle at his shoulder. Mendoza
held the intercom. “This concludes our journey together, but I’m sure we will see each other
again.” He hung up the intercom handset and leapt feet-first through the exit door.
Bridge of the Americas 39
No one moved until they heard the trucks’ diesel engines rev out of idle and change
gears. They awkwardly unbuckled and put their faces to the round windows—all white boxers
and bare asses. The pilots wandered down the aisle. Their white, short-sleeved uniform shirts
were rumpled, and large sweat-rings soaked their armpits and collars. One of them had a bloody
nose and a trail of red down the front of his shirt. The convoy of moving vans bumped off the
airstrip. A long trail of dust billowed behind them.
“Hey, anybody got a Leatherman?” asked Specialist Durban. “And an extra pair of
The white-brown alkali dust cleared, revealing a rank of six men standing on the runway.
A white flatbed stake truck, a backhoe, and a bulldozer were parked behind them. The men wore
American battle dress uniforms and M4 carbines slung across their chests.
“Who the fuck are those guys?” Durban asked, still naked.
The men on the ground lifted RPG’s to their shoulders. The soldiers and attendants
lunged for the other side of the aircraft, but Private Kelly stayed to watch. He saw no point in
diving under the seats. They were fucked and just had to take it.
The men fired their rockets into the wings and the fuselage, targeting the Tower Air 767’s
fuel storage pods with precision. The aircraft was laden with 23,000 gallons of JP-8 for its trans-
Atlantic voyage. It ignited and incinerated the passengers. Three soldiers threw themselves out
the exit doors and onto the escape chute. They tumbled, naked and burning, down the melting
yellow rubber. The men on the tarmac cut down two of them with bursts from their M4’s. The
last burning soldier hit the ground and ran north on bare feet, toward the brown, snow-dusted
humps of the Franklin Mountains. His hands were still bound in front of him. The last man in the
Bridge of the Americas 40
rank took a knee and fired three bursts at the running, burning soldier. His back arched when the
bullets struck him, and he stopped, his high-and-tight burning down to blackened scalp. He
dropped to his knees, then his chest, and did not move again.
The 767’s wings fell off, the landing gear crumpled, and the smoking black bird settled
onto its belly. With the backhoe and a dozer, the men dug a long trench in the sand next to the
runway, pushed the black wreckage and corpses into it, and covered the trench with sand.
Bridge of the Americas 41
Synopsis: Bridge of the Americas
Sergeant Alejandro Echevarria wants to find his older brother. He has not seen Benito in
five years, not since Benito converted to Islam, deserted from the Army, and disappeared into the
Central American jungle to seek a Sufi Muslim mystic named Carrillo Fuentes.
While serving on a Homeland Security operation in El Paso, Texas, Echevarria passes his
brother on a crowded street in Ciudad Juarez—El Paso’s sister city on the other side of the Rio
Grande. He attempts to follow Benito into the desert, but his taxi is carjacked by MS-13 gang
members, and he wakes up beaten and without identification under the steel beams of the Bridge
of the Americas—the span that joins El Paso and Ciudad Juarez. He is glad to be alive.
Benito Echevarria has been recruiting and training followers of Carrillo Fuentes at a
camp in the Samalyuca dunes, fifty miles southwest of Ciudad Juarez. The fundamentalist sect
has been highly successful in converting immigrant children and MS-13 gang members to Islam.
Benito wants to lead his team across the border, carry out terrorist operations in the United
States, and return to their safehaven in Samalyuca. The fundamentalist sect seeks to destroy or
cripple the U.S. Strategic Oil Reserve—a 250 million-barrel stockpile of crude oil stored at five
sites in Texas and Louisiana.
Ernesto Dominguez is the newest member of Benito’s team. Ernesto is Guatemalan, but
left his home in Soledad to find his father who immigrated to Colorado. Benito saves Ernesto
from rape and murder at the hands of madrinas—men who capture illegal immigrants riding the
Chiapas-Mayab railway north to the border. Ernesto has forgotten his father. He answers only to
Allah and Benito.
Sergeant Echevarria thinks that a threat is rising on the other side of the Bridge of the
Americas, but no one is reacting to it. His observation posts detect cross-border movement.
Radio chatter spikes in his sector. The Chihuahuan Desert is wiped clean of Minutemen—
Bridge of the Americas 42
vigilantes who claim to be protecting America from illegal aliens. The local Border Patrol agents
ignore Echevarria’s reports. Then, two Army observation helicopters collide and crash near the
border. Echevarria suspects that his brother is getting ready to execute a cross-border operation.
Benito succeeds in destroying the oil reserve site at Bryan Mound, Texas, releasing 250
million barrels of crude into the Gulf of Mexico. He and his team attempt to slip through the
porous border at El Paso. His brother, however, is waiting for him. They clash at the border, and
Benito escapes, but Echevarria captures two terrorists—Ernesto is one of them.
Sergeant Echevarria uses waterboarding and electric shock against his captives to extract
the information about his brother’s terrorist camp in Samalayuca. He leaves Ernesto untouched
and sends him back to the camp to inform on Benito’s activities.
Benito’s terrorist cell kidnaps Angelina Davis, the 13-year-old daughter of Senator
Jefferson Rice Davis from the Camino Real Hotel in El Paso. Senator Davis is seeking the
Democratic presidential nomination and visits El Paso to drum up support from the Latino
community. Ernesto informs Echevarria of the operation, and he deploys his team to Samalayuca
while his brother is in El Paso.
U.S. Apache helicopters destroy the terrorist camp at Samalyuca, and Echevarria’s team
rescues Angelina. Echevarria stays to find his brother and bring him home. Echevarria, Benito,
and Carrillo Fuentes stand off while the camp explodes around them. Benito chooses suicide.
Carrillo Fuentes kills Echevarria and escapes into the dunes. Angelina and Ernesto return to El
Paso by helicopter, where she is reunited with her father. Ernesto slips away to find his father in