Arizona Extremists Start Anti-Immigrant Citizen Militias

As extremists peddle their anti-immigrant rhetoric along the troubled Arizona border, a storm gathers

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TOMBSTONE, ARIZ. -- In 1881, it took just 30 seconds and 25 gunshots at the O.K. Corral to stamp this tiny border town onto the national imagination. This past October, it took just one editorial in an error-prone local newspaper to turn this Old West tourist trap — and the mean, green border country in which it sits — into a symbol of how vehement and reckless America's anti-immigration movement has become.

"ENOUGH IS ENOUGH!" hollered the banner headline of the Oct. 24 Tombstone Tumbleweed. "A PUBLIC CALL TO ARMS! CITIZENS BORDER PATROL MILITIA NOW FORMING!" In slightly smaller type, Tumbleweed owner, publisher and managing editor Chris Simcox exhorted his fellow Arizonans, "JOIN TOGETHER TO PROTECT YOUR COUNTRY IN A TIME OF WAR!"

Simcox was not talking about a war in Iraq. He was talking about a war being fought in the Tumbleweed's back yard, on the border between Mexico and the United States. There, Simcox wrote in language echoing Patrick Buchanan and other anti-immigration extremists, "a swarm of uncontrolled refugees" is "fleeing a marxist structured government" in what amounts to an "invasion" of the U.S. To repel this supposed invasion, Simcox called for drastic measures: a "committee of vigilantes" that would prowl the borderlands, catching immigrants and sending them back south.

The beauty of vigilantism, Simcox wrote, is simple: "We actually have more freedom to tackle the problem than the Government and law enforcement agencies that are bogged down in the quagmire of laws and restrictions."

Anyplace else, the notion that gun-toting private citizens don't have to answer to "laws and restrictions" might sound flat-out ridiculous. But amid the copper-colored mountains and lush-but-thorny desert of Southeast Arizona, the vigilante legacy of the Earp boys has never completely died away. It appeals to folks like Simcox, a transplant from Los Angeles. "The guy is a lunatic," says Tombstone mayor Dusty Escapule, "and is going to get somebody killed."

'I'd Shoot Every One'
Simcox is far from alone. Over the last five years, the Wild West mentality has been revived in this desert. With a vengeance.

In the mid-'90s, a major change in U.S. border policy shifted migrants away from urban areas in California and Texas — where access has traditionally been easy — and forced most of them to cross through far harsher terrain. The idea was that crossing through deserts, and over rivers, would deter migrants from making the trip.

Instead, the main result of the policy was to transform southern Arizona into the most popular place to cross from Mexico, with hundreds of thousands making their way through this treacherous desert every year.

Understandably enough, such a state of affairs did not please ranch owners in this combustible corner of Arizona. They found their livestock being stolen or killed for food, their cattle fences being cut, and trash and human waste dotting their land. Several ranchers responded by arming themselves with Colt .45s, M-16s and high-tech surveillance systems to detect "intruders."

At least 20 private citizens have reportedly used their arsenals to apprehend — and, in some cases, abuse and shoot — migrants coming over the border.

"If I had my way," one rancher reportedly bellowed at a meeting with U.S. Border Patrol officials last summer, "I'd shoot every single one of 'em."

It hasn't quite come to that. But this past fall, the ranchers' "self-defense" efforts — and their fury — not only inspired Simcox, who says he got fed up with the "criminal" immigrants he encountered in Los Angeles; it's also attracted one of the nation's leading anti-immigration extremists, who is using the craziness here to stimulate fear and loathing of immigration across the U.S. And in October, a heavily armed paramilitary group established a "semi-permanent" presence in the area after conducting a two-week hunt for drugs and migrants.

So far, local law enforcers have declined to prosecute apparent acts of vigilantism, though the U.S. Commission on Civil Rights has joined the aclu, the Mexican government, human-rights groups and local governments in calling for an end to the violence. "If you don't prosecute these people for beating Mexican nationals or killing them," says Mayor Escapule, "then it's kind of like open season."

Which is exactly what human-rights advocates fear, as millions more migrants tread perilous paths through the Johnsongrass and saguaro cactus over the next few years. "You've got people running around down there with guns, thinking the sheriff's in support of what they're doing," says John Fife, who runs a Tucson-based group called Samaritan Patrol. "It's straight out of the Old West. When you get that kind of mindset, with this kind of immigration crisis, you've got all the potential for trouble. Real trouble."

A History of Torture
Trouble — real trouble — is nothing new in these parts. Ask anybody north or south of the border, and chances are they can tell you: Cochise County has a hard-earned reputation for racist violence.

That rep was cemented on a hot August day in 1976. Three Mexican nationals scaled the border fence into Cochise County, headed for nearby job sites. When they stopped to refill their water jug at a windmill, they were taken hostage at pistol-point by young rancher Tom Hanigan, who was soon joined by his brother, Patrick, and his elderly father, George, a right-wing political activist. According to attorney Antonio Bustamante and Tom Miller's book On the Border, the Mexican men were told, "All right, you fucking wetbacks. You're not going anywhere."

While George Hanigan stood guard with his shotgun and guffawed, his boys hog-tied the Mexicans — later immortalized in folk song as los tres mojados — and used a knife to saw off their hair and strip off their clothes. The gringos built a mesquite fire near the naked migrants, burning their clothes and sacks of food while threatening and taunting the men. "Let's see if your Virgin of Guadalupe can help you now," George Hanigan sneered.

One of the Hanigan boys pulled a long iron out of the fire and dangled its hot end over the naked men's bodies. The other young Hanigan allegedly took it from him and touched it to one of the men's feet, again and again, until the stink of burning flesh mingled with the mesquite. The old man grabbed a knife and threatened to cut off one of the men's testicles. One of the men had a rope tied around his neck and was dragged through the scorching desert sand.

"When they'd had their fun," recalls long-time community activist Max Torres, "they cut them free one at a time, pointing them to Mexico and opening fire with birdshot." One of the men ended up with a back full of 47 pellets; another had 125. "Imagine the horror of the two remaining — and then the one remaining — as they heard the shots," Torres says.

Miraculously enough, los tres mojados survived to tell officials about their ordeal. Even more miraculously, the Cochise County attorney indicted the Hanigans on 11 counts each. Then the miracles ran out. George Hanigan died before the trial — but that only meant that he didn't live to be exonerated. An all-white jury of their Cochise County peers found Tom and Pat Hanigan not guilty of every charge.

For the next two decades, vigilantism broke out sporadically in Southeast Arizona. Sometimes the outlaws were local ranchers, like the one in 1980 who chained a 16-year-old Mexican immigrant by the neck to an outhouse toilet, torturing and starving him for four days.

Sometimes they were outside agitators like Civil Materiel Assistance, a paramilitary group that was also mixed up with the contras in Nicaragua. In 1986, CMA reportedly detained immigrants at gunpoint and later turned them over to Border Patrol agents, after having "had their fun" with the captives for hours.

But it was the Hanigan episode that let migrants know, once and for all, what could happen if they crossed into Cochise County. And now that the United States' hugely expensive "Southwest Border Initiative" has ensured that hundreds of thousands cross the border here every year, the memory of los tres mojados hangs over this desert like a bad dream.

Scariest of all, in many ways, was the way law-enforcement officials reacted. The Hanigans' only mistake, a couple of them told Tom Miller, was not finishing off the Mexicans. "I can see shooting them, you know, blowing their heads off," said Drex Atkinson, then a senior Border Patrol agent. "But torturing them makes no sense."