True Spies Episode 125, Mexican Maneuvers Part 2: By the Dawn’s Early Light
NARRATOR: Welcome to True Spies. Week by week, mission by mission, you’ll hear the true stories behind the world’s greatest espionage operations. You’ll meet the people who navigate this secret world. What do they know? What are their skills? And what would you do in their position? I’m Vanessa Kirby, and this is True Spies Mexican Maneuvers Part 2: By the Dawn’s Early Light.
JEFF MILLER: When you're out in the world, you have no idea what's coming next. And some of the downside is really horrible. Some of the downside can include being dead, of course, or it can be serving a huge sentence in a really disgusting prison somewhere or being injured and having no way to get help. And so you live with this sense of tension.
NARRATOR: For 40 years, ex-Special Forces turned private military contractors Nick Brockhausen and Jeff Miller have offered their services to clients in need of world-class military training and tactics. They even ended up back in a few actual war zones, pulling off daring espionage and intelligence gathering.
JEFF MILLER: The tension, the paranoia, and then the relief when it finally goes right and lifts that enormous weight off of you. And it's like you literally weigh one percent of what you weighed the minute before because it finally came together. I mean, it's an exciting way to go through life. I wouldn't recommend it to most people, but it's pretty exciting.
NARRATOR: By the late 1990s, they were getting increasingly frequent and desperate calls from some of Mexico’s wealthiest families.
NICK BROKHAUSEN: Kidnapping was going on all the time. It became a corporation, a massive corporation ruled by four or five large cartels and probably another 10 smaller ones that were regional.
NARRATOR: Nick and Jeff were keen to help. They even devised the use of unique chemical tracking technology to go after the gangs responsible once a hostage had been released - sort of like an invisible paper trail that only they could see. But, in many cases, they simply couldn’t respond, no matter how desperate the phone call. The cartels had bought almost every police force and politician in Mexico. They had done so by employing a phrase first coined by Pablo Escobar himself - plata o plomo - silver or lead? You have two choices. Take the money or a bullet.
NICK BROKHAUSEN: We wouldn't do a lot of them because we couldn't find a police unit that we could work with. We probably turned down two or three others, mainly because we couldn't link up with a police unit that wasn't already infiltrated by the cartel or by the kidnapping gangs.
NARRATOR: Eventually though, a mission came through they were able to take on. The son of one of Mexico’s elite families had been snatched at an intersection in broad daylight. The ransom? $4m. Nick and Jeff hatched an ingenious plan to not only save the kid but chase down the gang responsible. All with the help of an ex-CIA scientist who let them try out some secretive chemical tracking technology to mark the cash with. Some six months after that rescue mission they’re approached again by the same contact, Carlos, the tall Mexican-Lebanese armored car tycoon we met in Part 1. Urbane. Sophisticated. Something like a languid Spanish grandee. But on this phone call, he is anything but calm. A close friend and associate in León, a city in central Mexico, is in trouble. His father has been kidnapped.
NICK BROKHAUSEN: The victim was the patriarch of a family that owned the largest dairy processing plant and operation in Mexico. They have a dairy operation that employs like 1,200 people just in that one location and the old man had started the industry. He was in the habit of going around and collecting the money from the individual dairies every week and he was at one of those creameries when they snatched - and they just walked in the front door - stopped, grabbed the driver out in the parking lot, subdued him, walked in, grabbed the old man, and they were gone.
NARRATOR: Nick says he’ll look into it but, by now, he had seen firsthand just how deep the gangs’ stronghold on the Mexican state was. On the last job in Texcoco, the deputy State Attorney General himself was the one counting the ransom money when the assault team busted through the door. If Nick and Jeff are going to get on board though, the police have to be involved. By the turn of the century, there was a burgeoning market for kidnap insurance, so wealthy families could be reimbursed after paying a ransom. But the insurance companies and the government have strict stipulations.
NICK BROKHAUSEN: If you, working for the family, deliver the ransom to the kidnappers without the police being involved in that particular operation, you can be charged as a co-conspirator with the rest of the gang so that you have to have the police on your side in the thing. The question is, how do you get police that you can trust that aren't sustained by association with the cartel? So it's kind of a balance wire in that regard.
NARRATOR: Carlos assures him that the police units involved are clean. Even the state governor was offering his cooperation. But Nick and Jeff aren’t into taking chances.
NICK BROKHAUSEN: The attorney general recommended their state police counter-kidnapping function to work with me. And then I checked back also with the Comandante of the one that I used in Texcoco. And he also gave them high marks. See all these little specialized units, they know about each other. They know which ones are trustworthy. They know who's been naughty and who's been nice, basically.
NARRATOR: After some further due diligence, Nick agrees to join the mission. The team wants to mark the dollar bills with the same tracking technology as they used in Texcoco. Colorless, odorless, chemically unique, and completely undetectable. That is, without the machine that came with it. The problem was that two unknown technical operators came too. And last time, one of them lost his cool and insulted the police unit at the height of the mission, threatening the whole operation. This time, Nick takes matters into his own hands.
NICK BROKHAUSEN: After the first time I actually went back to the inventor of the machine and took a crash course on how to operate the machine. In fact, I did that just like two weeks prior to getting a notification on this one. I'd come back from that. I spent three days with him.
NARRATOR: After getting comfortable with operating the detector himself, Nick asks Jeff to come on board. But there’s a problem. Jeff is off the grid.
JEFF MILLER: I don't remember exactly what I was doing, but based on the time it was, I might have been doing a thing down in Guatemala.
NARRATOR: With his trusted sidekick out, Nick had to improvise, and look around for other associates he could depend on. He settled on two guys from way back. One of them, Rick, served in the same elite unit as Nick in Vietnam before joining him in 1970s Berlin as part of another secretive outfit - Detachment A - a group of 90 Green Berets ready to wreak havoc on Soviet military positions and supplies if the USSR had decided to make the Cold War hot.
NICK BROKHAUSEN: The good thing about Rick is that he's Mensa, He thinks everything out. But when the chips are down, that's the guy you want with you because he becomes a one-man assault brigade.
NARRATOR: The other, Mike, is a former homicide detective Nick and Jeff had trained back in the 80s as part of their work shaping up America’s finest. Mike had since earned two valor awards for bravery during shootouts. Both were exactly who Nick needed.
NICK BROKHAUSEN: I needed people I could trust, people that if things got bad, I could count on it if things went to a shooting portion.
NARRATOR: The client has arranged a lease of the state governor’s private plane, complete with crew. Nick hops aboard and heads to Richmond, Virginia to collect Mike. Together they’ll pick up the machinery from a facility in New Jersey and rendezvous with Rick in León. As Nick lands in Richmond, he spots that Mike is accompanied on the tarmac by his wife.
NICK BROKHAUSEN: His wife never liked me. Put it that way.
JEFF MILLER: No one's wife ever like Nick.
NICK BROKHAUSEN: It's just a common feeling with the public.
NARRATOR: As the plane taxis over, Mike’s wife sees the huge red lion emblazoned across the Learjet - the symbol of the State of Guanajuato.
NICK BROKHAUSEN: His wife made the comment to him, “I bet it's a magnetic sign.” Like I put it on there just for show.
NARRATOR: A few more disapproving looks later, Mike climbs aboard. They jet off immediately to New Jersey to collect their ace in the hole - the undetectable taggant - and get Mike trained up in how to use it.
NICK BROKHAUSEN: It was not user-friendly. If you didn't know what you were doing, you would miss the nuances of what was happening. You'd think you're hot and you're right on top of it and you're not. You have to go beyond that. We did a lot of that - where you call it ‘hound sniffing’. You get a false lead, you follow it, realize it to falsely come back to the main track, and try and pick it up again.
NARRATOR: As a former homicide detective though, Mike was the man for the job.
NICK BROKHAUSEN: It needed somebody who was a hunter or someone who had hunted people before to interpret what the hell you were looking at on the graph and try to come up with a scenario that fits.
NARRATOR: With the technology in place, Nick and Mike take off for León. After arriving, all three of them head to the client’s house - or rather, estate. High walls encircle the compound’s several acres. There’s a full-sized movie theater and even a shooting range. But there’s something even more unexpected waiting for them. In one corner of the compound sits a full-grown lioness, the client’s very own pet.
NICK BROKHAUSEN: He had raised her since she was a cub and she'd been free to roam around up until he'd had her declawed because evidently she'd jumped one of the landscapers and clawed him up pretty badly before they got her off him. So they had her declawed, but she had not been defanged or anything.
NARRATOR: Next to the lioness’s area is the garage Nick and the team is given to set up. Once inside, they’re met with another surprise.
NICK BROKHAUSEN: The client was one of Mexico's top racing amateurs, racing enthusiasts. He did rally races and, in his garage, he had, like, 15 or 16 race cars in there plus an old Rolls-Royce, turn of the last century's Rolls-Royce, where the chauffeur sat in the front and they were in the back in the garage.
NARRATOR: Alongside the dairy plant, the family also owns a Ford dealership through which they secure a brand new van for the team to install the tracing technology. Nick then realizes he’s going to need another man in his crew.
NICK BROKHAUSEN: The biggest problem was, we had to mark all those bills. The material came like a stick, like Chapstick. And there was also a bottle of liquid and the bottle of liquid was extremely concentrated.
NARRATOR: The taggant needed to be individually layered onto the $4m of notes, a laborious task. But also problematic. By rubbing the Chapstick, something like a small tube, up against each bill you were likely to get some of the chemicals on you, giving a false positive on the machine.
NICK BROKHAUSEN: So we couldn't personally be in the room when they were marking the bills because we'd be hot with the material on that.
NARRATOR: Nick knows that to ensure a reliable read from the machine then, the man he drafts in will have to be the one to both mark the dollar bills and make the ransom drop himself - often the most dangerous part of the mission.
NICK BROKHAUSEN: I needed somebody that was able to stand the rigors if something went bad… That we'd be able to come in and he'd be able to hold his own until we got there.
NARRATOR: The state police unit overseeing the rescue is stalling negotiations with the gang until Nick finds the right man. Eventually, he settles on a recently discharged Special Forces veteran like himself, only younger.
NICK BROKHAUSEN: He was a jewel, a real smart, good guy, type A personality, very calm.
JEFF MILLER: And we'd worked with him before because he was one of the trainers at a huge training program that we did in Mexico and did an excellent job at that.
NARRATOR: With negotiations back live, the gang lays out its instructions. A man dressed all in white is to drive an equally white van to a specified location to pick up a burner phone. From there they will direct him to another location to make the drop.
NICK BROKHAUSEN: And they wanted the bed removed, the back of the pickup removed. So it was just a frame, so they could see if anybody was hiding underneath, etc.
NARRATOR: With all the demands agreed to, the drop is scheduled for the next day.
NICK BROKHAUSEN: I think that ransom was $3m or $4m. So that's a lot of money and it's a lot of work, just a marked thing. The guy who was going to deliver, the fourth member of the team, came down. He had to mark all those bills along with one of the police officers. And so they sat in that room from, I think from about 6 pm until about 11 pm, just marking all the bills and putting them in the bag that they wanted them delivered in.
NARRATOR: In the garage, Nick and Rick are making final adjustments to the machine. That is, until they start hearing strange noises outside.
NICK BROKHAUSEN: We hear this voice going: “Nick, Rick, Help…”
NARRATOR: As they go outside they spot Mike and the lioness.
NICK BROKHAUSEN: He's laying flat on his back. And the bars on the lion cage are actually 3x3 steel columns. And there are about six or eight inches between each bar. And he had one foot pressed, straight leg out trying to hold himself against one bar. And the other one is stretched between the bars and she had his clog and his foot in her mouth and she was just laying there. You could see she was playing with them. She'd give them a tug every once in a while. And it was taking all his strength to keep from being dragged through the bars and turned into some kind of purée.
NARRATOR: But Nick and Rick are ex-Special Forces. Sympathy is not necessarily their strong suit.
NICK BROKHAUSEN: Rick's always a good guy in a situation like this. Mike had been playing tourist, taking pictures of everything. And he had a camera in his pocket. And we walked up and Rick goes, “Where's your camera?” “It’s in my pocket.” “Help me! Help me! Get me out of here.” “Give me your camera.” “Why?” “Give me your camera.” So he gives him the camera and he's still straining and sweating and Rick takes probably four or five pictures of him.
NARRATOR: Eventually one of the estate staff slaps the lioness round the ear with a roll of lottery tickets.
NICK BROKHAUSEN: So she let go of his foot. We dragged him away from there. And then she went over and rolled over on her back and looked at us like, “Any you guys want to try for seconds?”
NARRATOR: With that rescue over, the next day the real one begins. The marked bills are loaded into the pickup. Nick hands the driver a burner phone of his own and tells him to keep the line open at all times, that way the team can hear his conversation with the gang directly. Before they go mobile there’s some good news. Jeff is back on the grid and making his way down to León.
JEFF MILLER: I'd been kept apprised of what was going on and showed up to do my normal ‘Cover the Escape route’ mode.
NARRATOR: But there’s also another reason why he’s there.
NICK BROKHAUSEN: This is common practice with us two. Yeah. We give the other guy a debrief on what we're doing, who we're working with, where we're at, etc... So if something goes sideways, the family doesn't have to count on the US State Department to find out what happened to you. You've got a lead on what really happened because if you depend on them, in about 10 years, you might get a letter from them.
NARRATOR: With dusk approaching, Nick, Rick, and Mike load into the van ready to trace the ransom. Driving them is a state police officer - the only one who is technically meant to be armed.
NICK BROKHAUSEN: But we had developed such a rapport with the police unit that he showed up. He was armed and he had four extra guns including, I think, one or two submachine guns and two or three pistols. He says, “I'm not allowed to give you these guns. But if something happens and during the emergency, you happen to get your hands on them, I'm sure you will be forgiven,” which is the way he put it.
NARRATOR: The white pickup and the white linen-clad driver roll out of the compound. The mission is live. Nick’s van falls in with the police convoy some 10 minutes behind. Eventually, the police unit radioed in to say their man has collected the burner phone. Immediately, he is told to head out of the city.
NICK BROKHAUSEN: We could hear the conversation that he was having with them inside the truck. And the police were monitoring that conversation and assisting them in knowing where they were going because when the kidnappers told them, “Go 13.6 kilometers on this highway,” they knew exactly where that point was.
NARRATOR: The police convoy weaves left and right through León’s side streets to avoid detection. Before long, they’re in the desert. The Comandante calls Nick to say they know who the gang is and the likely drop point.
NICK BROKHAUSEN: It was way out off the toll road. And you get to an overpass, you get off and then go down the gully, the arroyo on foot a couple of hundred meters, and drop the bag. And that was the instructions.
NARRATOR: Nick’s man arrives next to the drop point on an exit ramp. He’s ordered out of the pickup, to lift up his shirt and pull up his trousers to prove he’s unarmed. Then he grabs the bag full of cash and moves toward the arroyo. Darkness envelops the toll road. As soon as Nick’s man steps off the asphalt he disappears, along with $4m. This is the most dangerous part of the mission.
NICK BROKHAUSEN: You never know what's going to happen at the drop. I mean, somebody else could just stumble on it and realize, “Hey, there's somebody here with a lot of money” and just kill your messenger, take the money, and it's not the gang. Or the gang grabs it, kills your messenger, and tells you that another bandit group did. It wasn’t us. So you're always very, very vigilant at that point. And it's really nerve-wracking for both the law enforcement and for us because it's our guy. And they make sure that they don't screw it up and somehow get your guy killed as well.
NARRATOR: Fifteen minutes go by. Everyone is beginning to wonder what’s going on.
NICK BROKHAUSEN: And then he was instructed, “Okay, now you can leave.” And he was very relieved. And so were we. They didn't kill him.
NARRATOR: Eventually he reappears, gets into the pickup, turns back on himself, and heads toward León. Back at the compound, Jeff is waiting to debrief him which turns out to be difficult. Despite only recently leaving one of the most elite fighting forces in the world, the bag man is clearly affected by what he’s just experienced.
JEFF MILLER: It was his first time doing things like and you find that no matter what the credentials of a person are, you don't know what someone's reaction to the stress is going to be. He was definitely spun up. Without a doubt, he was definitely spun up. I don't think he was ready to lose it, but he was on the edge.
NARRATOR: Back in the convoy, the Comandante radios all units to inform them that the hostage has been released. Nick’s team is told to head to the drop site.
NICK BROKHAUSEN: We got notified by the police that the bag was not there anymore.
NARRATOR: They fire up the machine and follow the trail off the toll road. The signature gets stronger and stronger on the device. They zero in on the drop site and spot the two bags that carried the money. They’re empty. Next to them is some discarded packaging. Nick can already tell it’s from space blankets - a foil-looking material that smothers any signal emitting from whatever it covers.
NICK BROKHAUSEN: The bad guys are on a learning curve all the time. They know all about trackers, electronic trackers, beacons, and all that sort of stuff. And then usually what they would do is they would take the money out of the bag that it came in and put it inside something that had metal, metal foil, or in a box that was all metal stacked so that no signal can get out. And then they left with it and they discarded the bag.
NARRATOR: But this is where the chemical taggant comes into its own.
NICK BROKHAUSEN: The machine was programmed to inhale through the tubes. Take that sample and put it in an oven where there was radioactive material and they had tweaked the fluorocarbon so that you could read it down to parts per billion.
NARRATOR: Nick knew that no matter how much metal they encased the bills with, the taggant was traceable.
NICK BROKHAUSEN: We picked up the trail right there. It was hot. And we started following the track. There was only one way in and one way out from the drop site. So we just followed it back to the highway and started following it.
NARRATOR: The police unit measured the tire tracks at the drop point. The vehicle they want is large - a pickup or SUV. A remote surveillance unit says they’ve spotted two cars that fit the description.
NICK BROKHAUSEN: And we just went to the turnoff point for both of them. One was hot. We knew that the vehicle still had the ransom in it.
NARRATOR: After several minutes following the trail though, there’s a problem. The signature starts getting patchy, dropping in and out. The team all looks to Nick. He can see what they’re thinking. Is the machine failing at a crucial moment?
NICK BROKHAUSEN: And this thing was sensitive to parts per billion, so it would lose a couple of hundred million on its intensity over and then spike back up to really intense.
NARRATOR: But Nick knows the technology. Whatever the reading has to be correct. He starts thinking outside the box, using the training that all Green Berets have for unexpected situations. Eventually, he figures it out.
NICK BROKHAUSEN: The guy's a smoker. At that time of year it’s cold outside and what he's doing is, he's rolling down the window to let the smoke out because the other guy's complaining or whatever. And that's why we're getting this spotted trail, so it’s a learning exercise for us.
NARRATOR: By this point, the team has been cooped up in the van for over 12 hours, tracing every flicker from the machine draped over the desert.
NICK BROKHAUSEN: You can't stop to eat, You can't stop too long to do bodily functions and you got to stay on it.
NARRATOR: The atmosphere is getting tense.
NICK BROKHAUSEN: The squabbling between Rick and the ex-homicide cop went on constantly. I kept looking at that state police officer, and he just looked at me and rolled his eyes. One guy was arguing, “Well you're not doing it right. You're not reading it right.” “Well, how do you know I'm not reading it right?” It's like a couple, like an old married couple between the two of them.
NARRATOR: They follow the trail ever deeper into the Mexican night.
NICK BROKHAUSEN: We came to a road junction. We took a right and we followed it down probably a mile, two miles. And when I say dirt road, it was a dirt road from Arkansas. Big holes in it. So we’re being jostled around inside there. And finally, we realized that the thing just stopped.
NARRATOR: The gang has intentionally doubled back on themselves to create two trails. The tension in the van threatens to boil over. Their driver, the state policeman, is starting to have second thoughts about loading the vehicle with weapons.
NICK BROKHAUSEN: By that time, I wanted to kill both of them.
JEFF MILLER: Well, pretty much everybody wants to kill everybody. Yeah. Yeah. You can't even imagine the stress level of that sort of situation where everything is riding - you've got a human life on the line, you've got millions of dollars on the line, and everybody is just tensed up, as tense as a human being can be for hour after hour after hour and... Yeah. People start to exhibit strange personality traits that may have been covered up under normal circumstances.
NICK BROKHAUSEN: Yeah, yeah, yeah, yeah. The guy who felt the sorriest about it was a state cop from the unit that was assigned to drive the van.
NARRATOR: Nick tries to calm himself down by singing the old desperado tune Pancho and Lefty in Spanish.
NICK BROKHAUSEN: It was either that or try and do square roots or something to take your mind off what's actually going on.
NARRATOR: The others collect themselves too as the state policeman doubles back to the highway. They pick the other trail up and follow it down to an intersection. Dawn is rising to the east. The van tops a hill and the machine spikes through the top of the chart. In the distance, they spot a small village. This is it.
NICK BROKHAUSEN: We hadn't gone into the village, but we were getting really high readings so we knew that the money was there.
NARRATOR: Nick radios the Comandante.
NICK BROKHAUSEN: I said, “I think we're close to the hideout. You might want to move your reaction force up to at least this point. And Roger, we're moving now.”
NARRATOR: But the commander has some news too. Both good and bad. The good?
NICK BROKHAUSEN: They had the Mexican military with them as well. And they had come up and that. And so they were basically a convoy of Humvees and SUVs.
NARRATOR: But what the commander says next is not what Nick wants to hear - they’re at least thirty minutes from his position. On top of this, one of the team - Rick - has evidently not calmed down from the pressure of the chase.
NICK BROKHAUSEN: I kept hearing somebody screaming in Spanish and I thought maybe we'd been discovered by somebody. And when I got there, it was Rick. You got to picture this. He's wearing an $800 tracksuit, a designer tracksuit, and he has at least one of the pistols shoved in his belt line. And he's got his hand on the submachine gun and he's screaming in Spanish, “I've been sitting here for over a day tracking you. If I have to come down there and get you, we're going to kill everybody in the village and the dogs.” And he’s just going on and on, and that the state police officer was down there and he’s going, “Aren't we supposed to be clandestine?”
NARRATOR: With help now feeling a long way away, Nick and the team grab the four pistols and two submachine guns from the van and take up defensive positions.
NICK BROKHAUSEN: We were in between this cut. There was high ground on both sides. And it was a good area. If they came out that way and came up to us, we had the kill zone covered.
NARRATOR: The convoy is still at least 10 minutes away.
NICK BROKHAUSEN: Oh God, it was an eternity. And I could see them in the distance when they got closer because the roads went down through the hills, and you could see the road, and then it would disappear for a couple of miles and then back again. I could see the convoy coming towards us intermittently as it broke the hills and I'm on the radio with the Comandante saying, “Well, we've been discovered, so you might want to get up here now.”
NARRATOR: Nick’s driver, the one state police officer who is at the scene, turns to Nick and asks if his crew is always like this. Before he has a chance to answer, they hear the gang stirring in the village.
NICK BROKHAUSEN: Right after that, we started seeing lights coming on. And of course, then by that time, the gang was all alerted and those that weren't trying to escape decided, “Let's have a donnybrook here.”
NARRATOR: A donnybrook? That’s a brawl, to you and me. With that though, the convoy roars over the hill and into the village. Three military Humvees split left and right, cutting off the escape routes.
NICK BROKHAUSEN: I mean, it was beautiful to watch because the special police unit was in the front and they encircled the village and set up one on the backside very, very quickly before anybody had a chance to really react.
NARRATOR: Gunfire breaks out. The assault unit exits the convoy, ready to make entry.
NICK BROKHAUSEN: They came up and we didn't know which house it was in. And they didn't want us to go forward any further than we were.
NARRATOR: The Comandante decides they’ll go door to door, clearing out sicarios as they go. Then, the order is given. More intense gunfire erupts throughout the village as the assault unit rips through several houses. After a minute or so Nick can hear that the raid is one-sided.
NICK BROKHAUSEN: Yeah. There were casualties on the gang side. They dial several people in. You know these guys do this for a living. I was talking to them. They said they do anywhere from 14 to 15 forced entries a month. That's like, one every other day so they got it down to a science.
NARRATOR: Nick motions to his team to regroup back at the van. The raid is complete. Once the unit has locked down the area, the commander comes over to Nick. Not all of the ransom money is in the village. Meanwhile, the police have identified the safe house where the hostage was being held. The commander wants them to check it out and see if they can pick up the trail of the remaining cash.
NICK BROKHAUSEN: So we were going to that location and we decided to stop at that [Supermercados] Gigante to get something to eat. When we pulled into the parking lot, the machine spiked right off the bat. So we knew somebody that had been with the gang and touched the money had been in that parking lot.
NARRATOR: Nick orders the team to drive around the parking lot so he can monitor when the machine spikes. He thinks it’s coming from a Chevrolet Caprice diagonally across from them.
NICK BROKHAUSEN: And by that time, this guy came, a young younger man, probably in his late 20s, early 30s, with two women who obviously were his relatives, older ladies. They'd been shopping. They must have had five or six bags. They went over, they stopped at the Capri Classic. He opened the trunk to put the packages back inside and bingo, we got a huge spike.
NARRATOR: By the time the man and his family turn from the trunk they’re confronted with assault rifles. The state police unit has surrounded them and the parking lot. The commander asks Nick to set up the machine at one exit while each car files out.
NICK BROKHAUSEN: We were able to basically identify who had been in contact with the money or who had been in a vehicle with the money because they were still hot. They had extremely high readings. Not somebody that was standing on the street when the thing went by and he got lightly dusted with the taggant. These guys were hot. So you know, they had a point to start from, ”We know you’re involved.” “Oh, no. I'm down here visiting my mom.” “Well, no, you're not. And we know you're not.”
NARRATOR: As the sicarios are rounded up, Nick remembers what time of year it is.
NICK BROKHAUSEN: It was Christmas time. What happened is that they decided to go Christmas shopping with their portion of the loot and they went home and picked up their mother and her aunt to go Christmas shopping with the portion of the ransom money they had.
NARRATOR: Satisfied that the bills are now accounted for, the Comandante says his goodbyes to Nick and his team. They head back to the compound and link up with Jeff and the bag man, who has finally calmed down from the drop. The next day, Jeff flies back home to L.A. Nick stays a few more days and catches up with Carlos - the man who had initiated both their missions. He breaks character from his usual relaxed demeanor to show his gratitude for their efforts. Both hostages have been released without a scratch. Despite the success though, it is the last mission of its kind that Nick and Jeff do in Mexico. Nick learns a few years later that several of the special assault units that he so admired are killed in a shootout. The situation in the country deteriorates to a point where it simply becomes too dangerous for them to operate.
NICK BROKHAUSEN: Mexico was transitioning from individual robbery outfits bandits to an organized system of crime that encompasses everything - prostitution kidnapping, bank robbery, and drug dealing. it became a corporation, a massive corporation, ruled by four or five large cartels and probably another 10 smaller ones that were regional. Mexico was tearing itself apart.
NICK BROKHAUSEN: We did a couple of investigations but nothing like an actual drop, a kidnapping recovery.
JEFF MILLER: Yeah. Nothing, nothing big.
NARRATOR: If you’d like to hear more about Jeff and Nick’s escapades you’ll find them in their book Vagabonds: Tourists in the Heart of Darkness. I’m Vanessa Kirby. Next time, we’ll go deep undercover in sub-Saharan Africa with a fearless - and faceless - detective.
Minnesota-born Nick Brokhausen (pictured) was a member of the US Special Forces with a 17-year career that included combat tours in Vietnam with MACVSOG, a highly classified special operations unit.
California-based Jeff Miller joined the US Army and was selected for intelligence work with the US Special Forces. He has since worked with an array companies as an Instructor.