Arizona Extremists Start Anti-Immigrant Citizen Militias

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

Border Justice?
A quarter century after the Hanigan case, officers of the law wouldn't be caught dead saying such things to a reporter. But while their words are more politic — "We don't want the crazies here," Cochise County Sheriff Larry Dever declared this fall — the recent rekindling of vigilantism has certainly not inspired a crackdown.

"Citizens' arrest is an American right," says Border Patrol spokesperson Ryan Scudder. "As long as they don't break the law, it's not our role to critique what they do."

But laws appear to be broken routinely during citizens' arrests in southern Southeast Arizona. The Mexican government has documented more than 40 possibly illegal citizens' arrests in Cochise County since 1999. The reports include questionable detentions by 19 different Cochise County residents, most of whom were armed.

In 14 incidents, migrants said they were detained at gunpoint while their captors called the Border Patrol to pick them up. In nine cases, shots were allegedly fired, either at the immigrants or as "warnings" for them not to flee. In five cases, immigrants said they were either shot or roughed up before the Border Patrol arrived. Seven of these detentions were reportedly made on public roads, despite local ranchers' claims that they only act to protect their property.

These reports are clearly just the tip of the iceberg, since migrants almost never report abuses (see Vigilante Violence). In a scathing 2001 report, the U.S. General Accounting Office said that "at least two aliens have been shot" by those who have "begun making citizen's arrests ... with loaded weapons." This fall, two more migrants were murdered, execution-style, just outside of Tucson.

The rancher who has most often been accused of illegal citizen's arrests and human-rights violations, former deputy sheriff Roger Barnett, boasts of personally rounding up more than 2,000 migrants around his 22,000-acre ranch — in 2002 alone. After a 1999 incident in which he was accused of holding seven migrants at rifle-point, Barnett made his Haniganesque attitude abundantly clear.

"If them poor bastards felt threatened, sorry," Barnett told the Arizona Daily Star. "If they don't like it, they better stay home."

Since the contemporary outbreak of vigilantism, local, state and federal authorities appear to have mostly looked the other way. "Prosecutions?" asks newly elected Congressman Raul Grijalva, who represents a big slice of southern Arizona (see interview, Vigilante Watch). "There haven't even been investigations."

Grijalva believes that race is a big factor in the lack of prosecutions. So does Douglas Mayor Ray Borane, whose town council passed a resolution this fall condemning both vigilantism and U.S. border policy. Borane asks a rhetorical question: "If it were American citizens that had gotten detained and held at gunpoint and who knows what else for two or three hours, I wonder what would happen?"

Current Cochise County Attorney Chris Roll says that his office has "had very few reports involving detentions of undocumented migrants" submitted by local law enforcement agencies. Roll says his office would "pursue a criminal prosecution only when there is sufficient evidence to provide a reasonable likelihood of conviction at trial." In a place where the Hanigans could be found not guilty, "a reasonable likelihood of conviction" has to be hard to find, even 27 years later.

Folks like Jennifer Allen, who runs a reform group called Border Action Network, say the real problem is that law enforcement officials "have a deep complicity" with the vigilantes. Sheriff Dever, despite his recent denunciations of militia groups and self-appointed lawmen, gave warm words of welcome and encouragement when anti-immigration groups came to Cochise in 2000 for a conference on "Illegal immigration: What can citizens do?"

David Aguilar, current chief of the Tucson Border Patrol sector, reacted angrily in 2000 when his bosses at the INS delivered a warning about "known racial supremacy hate groups" infiltrating the area. "I know many of the people in these groups," Aguilar, who declined through a spokesperson to answer questions about vigilantism for this story, told the Arizona Daily Star. "Some of my friends are in these groups. These people are not anti-immigrant, and [these] are not hate groups."

Ranchers, Racists and Reconquest
This September, the leader of one of the hate groups that came to Cochise in 2000 — a man so far right he calls the Wall Street Journal "anti-American" — set up headquarters at a secret location in Cochise County. The simmering cauldron of Southeast Arizona was now home to Glenn Spencer, one of the nation's noisiest anti-immigration rabble-rousers.

Spencer unveiled his new effort, called American Border Patrol (ABP), at a hotel ballroom in Sierra Vista. Though the Los Angeles Times had reported a year earlier that Spencer's California-based hate group, American Patrol, was "strapped for cash," the 65-year-old told his new neighbors he'd left his former home for far different reasons.

"California is a lawless, lost state," the white-haired Spencer declared, shaking his head sadly as he paced in front of a big American flag. "It's a mess. There's nothing I can do for California. It is finished."

But Spencer sees hope for Arizona — in the form of folks like Roger Barnett, whom he met at the anti-immigration shindig in 2000. "Talk about your real American hero!" Spencer gushed, introducing Cochise County's busiest self-appointed lawman as a key supporter of American Border Patrol.

Spencer insists that his outfit will not go hunting for migrants. Instead, he says, ABP's volunteers — known as "Hawkeyes" — will use high-tech surveillance and communications equipment to videotape "border intruders" as they enter the U.S.

The point is to expose viewers of Spencer's Web sites, Americanpatrol.com and Americanborderpatrol.com, to images of "la Reconquista" ("the Reconquest") — a Mexican "invasion" purportedly designed to win back territory lost in the 1848 Mexican-American War.

"If the Border Patrol had done its job, using the technology that is available to us, we could stop these people," Spencer said in November, when he was a guest on the Donahue show. "This is an invasion of the United States!"

Since he ambled into Arizona, Spencer has tried gamely to separate himself from his controversial past. While his Web sites look identical, the anti-Mexican rhetoric has been watered down on Americanborderpatrol.com. But at the same time, Spencer's American Patrol site has called migrant-rights advocate Isabel Garcia a "Mexican government agent" and accused Congressman Grijalva of formerly belonging to an "anti-American seditionist organization." Garcia, the Web site claims, is "part of an advance fifth column" of the Reconquista.

Garcia does not mince words in reply: "The man is a racist."

At least one of Spencer's local supporters has come to a similar conclusion. Francis McWilliams, a local retiree who was introduced as an American Border Patrol director in September, quickly resigned after hearing enough to deem Spencer "borderline xenophobic."

Though he said last summer that ABP would be the first of several satellite efforts of American Patrol, Spencer now says the organizations are totally separate. ABP has been set up as its own non-profit group, registered with the state of Arizona. (The agent who filed Spencer's corporation papers was the city attorney of Bisbee, John F. Kelliher Jr.)

When a reporter from the Tucson Weekly pressed Spencer about his racist comments in the past — "Mexican culture is based on deceit," "Chicanos and Mexicanos lie as a means of survival" — ABP's chief said these statements were his biggest mistakes to date. But he did not disavow them.

"The point was that Mexicans have to cheat and lie because their government is so corrupt," Spencer said. "It's a survival mechanism. But you can't say those things. We should be able to talk about those things. If we could, we might be able to work out some difficulties."