For over a decade, Ed Calderon worked in the fields of counter-narcotics, organized crime investigation, and public safety in the northern border region of Mexico. During this period he also coordinated and worked executive protection details for high-level government officials and visiting dignitaries — often in some of the most dangerous parts of the country.
His journey here was a fairly unlikely one. Calderon was in the process of pursuing a medical degree when the tragic events of 9/11/2001 unfolded. He faced a turning point in his life like so many others and decided to leave the academic world to serve his nation on the front lines as best he could.
It would prove to be a long, strange trip into the darkest corridors of human existence for him and his family.
His study into the indigenous Méxican criminal culture, from occult practices to endemic modus operandi, has led him to be recognized as one of the world’s preeminent researchers and trainers in the field of personal security that has come out of Mexico. Ed has had the privilege of sharing his expertise with members of federal law enforcement agencies including the FBI and BORTAC, Navy SEALS, Indonesian Kopaska, Mexican and United States intelligence service agents, and members of special forces groups from all over the world.
His time in the academic world prepared him to be a world-class writer as anyone who has read his work in Skillset, Recoil, OffGrid, or his own personal blog: Ed’s Manifesto can attest. His easygoing nature has made him a favorite on the podcast scene, too.
I first came to know Ed before all of this. He was a member of the Usual Suspect’s Network where I was an Administrator and a Moderator in the Emerson Knives forum. Ed contributed a lot of detail about Libre’ fighting and some unorthodox martial arts and weapon concepts. I didn’t know much beyond his screen name and that he was very knowledgeable with regard to his posts.
We met in person a few years later at an Emerson Close Quarter Combat class in Southern California that lasted a weekend and we have remained close friends ever since. I wrote about a few of his old operations on the long-gone website tactical-officer.com.
What impressed me the most was a story he related about being separated from his team while literally storming a castle. It literally sounded like something from a bad spy movie from the 60s or 70s, but over the years as I’ve talked to Ed, that sounds like how the cartels do a lot of things.
According to Ed:
“We were tasked with hunting for a few high-level Narco leaders that had evaded capture. This was not unlike the US Military’s mission in Afghanistan to round up high-level Al Qaeda and Taliban leaders. In a similar manner, the Narcos rely on the support of the local populace and the impenetrable nature of the Sierra Madres.
“Narcos make it a point to win the hearts and minds of the local people. They appear to these people like benevolent revolutionary bandit leaders or modern-day Robin Hoods. In turn, they use the locals against outsiders, be they a rival cartel or the police.”
One could see how this behavior is often mimicked by drug gangs in the United States in the inner cities as well as in rural locales. It makes the job of a police officer difficult at every level when the local population is terrified of criminal repercussions. Having them depicted as heroes can make enforcement impossible, especially with regard to witness testimony or lack thereof.
According to the intelligence provided to Calderon’s unit, this particular group excelled at keeping the rival cartels out of this area of the country, using any means they deemed necessary. They had a base of operations high in the mountains and all routes leading in and out were watched by the local populace and the local police.
One of the biggest hurdles to these types of operations is when the local government and the police are paid off or threatened into serving the cartels. When they are compromised they cannot be trusted to help in any way, which makes these types of operations extremely difficult.
Ed said, “We do not have access to the technological advantages that our brother officers to the north have. In this case that meant keeping tabs on this group by direct observation by our own people.
“This can be a huge risk with the local community in their pocket. We found out that the local population was made up of fans of a particular clothing designer’s t-shirts and hats. Some members of our agency had been working the border and confiscated a container full of counterfeit Ed Hardy clothing. They shipped it down to us and we set ourselves up as vendors in the local markets as our cover story. Within a matter of hours, we attracted a few suspected Narco members as our customers.”
After three weeks of intelligence gathering on their own, Calderon’s team discovered that a high-level Narco was going to be coming through the area on his way to spend the week at their place up in the mountains. They set up four observation posts in the hills in order to determine the route they would be taking. Eventually, they pinpointed a location near a small hill face that they assumed was a cave of some sort. It turned out to be a series of generators and well-camouflaged garage structures.
According to Ed, the place was guarded by a group of eight men, armed with a mix of M-16 variants and AK-47 rifles. A few handguns were observed tucked in their waistbands. In later observations, he made out the leader, who was sporting a silver and gold gun thrust in his belt.
Upon closer inspection of the site, it turned out the hillside was actually the house, the outside of it was masterfully made to look like a rock face, and the local vegetation had grown over it to make it hard to spot from a distance. It looked to be a two-story building with several rooms and one large storage room that had a press and scales for making marijuana packets.
Ed’s unit began to see preparations being made for a party; trucks with food, beer, girls, and even a musical group showed up. They were ordered to set up and wait for our high-value target.
According to Calderon: “Every night, cartel music would play, and we saw how most of the guards just passed out drunk, even the ones supposedly standing watch.”
“On the day of the raid, at 1600 a convoy of five vehicles arrived, with one of the men we had on our list. We were shocked to see most of his bodyguards wearing combat uniforms identical to the ones that we were wearing, including the vest and gear. We had to rethink our next move because as far as we knew, these looked exactly like our unit members.”
By this time, the command was as confused as the team was by the presence of these men wearing matching uniforms. By 8 o’clock that night, they received word that every single one of their officers was accounted for, and that these men were not from their agency. After a few hours it was clear that the cartel types were not trained at all; a few of them even fell asleep in the convoy vehicles. Upon closer inspection, it was noted that the slings on their rifles and other pieces of gear were not right either.
“Command gave the order to capture and the assault commenced. The ones in the cars were the first to go down and there was no perimeter security. They were all inside the house at the party.”
At the entrance, they observed that the weapons cage was almost full. The team secured it and moved in to the main structure. Going down a hallway they were spotted by one of the bodyguards and a firefight started. Almost immediately the other Narcos opened up on the team, firing through the walls and four members of their unit were killed instantly.
“We regrouped and pushed in, as they retreated to the second floor with our main target. When we made it up the stairs we found ourselves in a long hallway with lots of rooms, so we had to move and clear each room. With our unit members providing overwatch, giving medical attention to the downed men, and handling the detainees we found our assault team getting smaller as we pushed forward. Every room had hostiles inside firing at us. Room by room it was a mess.”
Then, the unthinkable happened.
“As I was moving to clear a room I realized that I was alone, all the sound and confusion got to me and I somehow lost track of my team. I saw a unit member walk toward me in the hall and gave him a quick second look.”
Something was definitely off and Ed relayed the story that made me realize how close to the edge he was in terms of mental preparedness and immediate assessment.
“I noticed that the magazines on his vest held 40 rounds; we do not use 40-rounders in any way at all. And now we were face to face.
“Knowing that this was not a member of my unit and one of the hostiles wearing one of our uniforms, I grabbed his rifle and shoved him against the wall. I was holding his rifle across his body and I could not go to my sidearm without letting go of his rifle. I drew a knife that I was carrying on my off-side, an Emerson Knives folding Persian Tactical fighter, and stabbed him a few times. The first strike hit his rifle but after that, I scored a few critical hits to his arm and chest.”
Immediately, he felt others grabbing at him and he quickly realized it was the other officers from his own unit. As they were dressed the same as the bad guys, they took no chances and put both of them in zip ties. The team dragged them outside and once they recognized Ed, they cut him loose. His assailant had bled to death by that time from the knife wounds.
The team found the high-value target inside and captured him alive along with the last three remaining members of his bodyguard. He was airlifted by helicopter straight to the airport and then on to Mexico City, where he is currently serving time in federal prison on multiple drug trafficking and organized crime charges.
The next words out of Ed’s mouth literally made my skin crawl.
“In the aftermath, we found out that a former member of our unit was working with them and had recommended that they use our same uniforms. This tactic of theirs created a lot of confusion during the raid and was responsible for why we lost so many good men that day.”
So the first question I had was, “What happened to the knife?”. Because, after all, the Emerson Persian has an extremely fragile-looking tip. Ed produced the knife and even Mr. Emerson seemed surprised that the tip had not broken off.
I learned a lesson on Persian-style blades that day for sure.
What impressed me the most about that story was his state of mind. Sure, I know plenty of Special Ops types in all branches of the military who have found themselves in similar situations, but hearing him relate the story about picking out the 40-round magazine in the chest pouch of a
guy dressed like him amid the noise and confusion and smoke gave a true insight into how on the edge he had to live and react.
Currently, Ed travels North America doing security consulting and conducting seminars and private training courses in anti-abduction, escapology, unarmed combat, region-specific executive protection work, and unconventional-edged weapons work, and uses his platform to reach other veterans in transition with a focus on “the afterparty” — healing and recovery for former military, law enforcement, and others facing their second life.