Minutemen, other Anti-Immigrant Militia Groups Stake Out Arizona Border

High-powered firearms, militia maneuvers and racism at the Minuteman Project

en Español

COCHISE COUNTY, Ariz. -- The predominantly Hispanic towns of Douglas and Naco are connected by the aptly named Border Road, a 20-mile stretch of rocky dirt that runs parallel to a ragged barbed wire fence separating the United States from Mexico.

The night of April 3, armed vigilantes camped along Border Road in a series of watch posts set-up for the Minuteman Project, a month-long action in which revolving casts of 150 to 200 anti-immigration militants wearing cheap plastic "Undocumented Border Patrol Agent" badges mobilized in southeastern Arizona. Their stated goal was to "do the job our government refuses to do" and "protect America" from the "tens of millions of invading illegal aliens who are devouring and plundering our nation."

At Station Two, Minuteman volunteers grilled bratwursts and fantasized about murder.

"It should be legal to kill illegals," said Carl, a 69-year old retired Special Forces veteran who fought in Vietnam and now lives out West. "Just shoot 'em on sight. That's my immigration policy recommendation. You break into my country, you die."

Carl was armed with a revolver chambered to fire shotgun shells. He wore this hand cannon in a holster below a shirt that howled "American bad asses" in red, white and blue. The other vigilantes assigned to Station Two included a pair of self-professed members of the National Alliance, a violent neo-Nazi organization. These men, who gave their names only as Johnny and Michael, were outfitted in full-body camouflage and strapped with semi-automatic pistols.

Earlier that day, Johnny and Michael had scouted sniper positions in the rolling, cactus-studded foothills north of Border Road, taking compass readings and drawing maps for future reference.

"I agree completely," Michael said. "You get up there with a rifle and start shooting four or five of them a week, the other four or five thousand behind them are going to think twice about crossing that line."

With a grilled sausage in one hand and a cheap night vision scope in the other, Johnny scanned the brush in Mexico, spitting distance away.

"The thing to do would be to drop the bodies just a few hundred feet into the U.S. and just leave them there, with lights on them at night," he said. "That sends the message 'No Trespassing,' in any language."

The conversation stopped just short of decapitating Mexicans and putting their heads on pikes, facing south.

"I don't really like violence, but if we did start doing what you're talking about, it would show we mean business for a change," said the group's only woman, and the only person who didn't carry a gun. "It would say, 'This is the USA, don't fuck with us!"

The woman, who said she was with a Pennsylvania anti-immigration group, had outraged Johnny and Michael that afternoon by reporting for duty with a Star of David pendant dangling below the neckline of her "I Survived the Minuteman Project" t-shirt. She also squabbled with them over the morality of pit bull fighting, and expressed her belief in animal rights and no-kill dog and cat shelters. They started calling her "Jew bitch" behind her back.

She got back on their good side by condoning blood lust.

"Damn, I thought you were one of them," Michael said.

"One of what?" the woman asked.

"You know, animal rights, pacifism, save the kittens, all that crap."

"Well, this may sound a little weird, but I just have more respect for the lives of stray cats and dogs than I do illegal aliens."

"That's not weird at all," Michael said. "Not one damn bit."

Playing Army

Vigilante militias have been capturing, pistol-whipping and very possibly shooting Latin American immigrants in Cochise County since the late '90s, when shifts in U.S. border control policies transformed the high desert region into the primary point of entry for Mexico's two most valuable black market exports, drugs and people.

But the Minuteman Project raised the stakes with a highly publicized national recruiting drive followed by a campaign of deceitful media manipulation. These maneuvers generated massive and mostly positive nationwide coverage of what in actuality was little more than a relatively small and ineffectual gathering of bigots and weekend warriors, led by a pair of dueling egos. While they played Army in the desert for a few weeks, this slapdash band was transformed by the hype into the elite vanguard of America's anti-immigration movement.

The Minuteman Project was the brainchild of two fathers: Jim Gilchrist, a retired accountant and Vietnam veteran from Orange County, California, and Chris Simcox, a former kindergarten teacher at a private school in Brentwood, Calif., who left his job and his family, moved to Tombstone, Ariz., and refashioned himself into a brash anti-immigration militant following the 9/11 terrorist attacks.

Before the Minuteman Project began, Gilchrist and Simcox repeatedly claimed they had recruited more than 1,300 volunteers. But when their plan lurched into action on April Fool's Day in Tombstone, fewer than 150 volunteers actually showed up, and they were clearly outnumbered on the Wild West movie-set streets by a swarm of reporters, photographers, camera crews, anti-Minuteman protesters, American Civil Liberties Union legal observers, and costumed gunfight show actors.

On the whole, the Minuteman Project's enlistees were nearly all white. This wasn't surprising, except that Gilchrist and Simcox also claimed prior to April 1 that a full 40% of their volunteers would be minorities, including, according to their Web site, "American-Africans," "American-Mexicans," "American-Armenians," four paraplegics and six amputees.

California and Arizona were the most heavily represented states among the Minuteman enlistees, but the volunteers reported from all regions of the country. Many, if not most, were over 50 years old, counting a relatively high percentage of retired military men, police officers, and prison guards. Women made up nearly a third of the volunteers, including a bevy of white-haired ladies from Orange County, Calif., selling homemade Minuteman Project merchandise like "What Part of 'Illegal' Don't They Understand" T-shirts and the quickly ubiquitous "Undocumented Border Patrol Agent" badges (which, oxymoronically, bore color-copy counterfeits of the official Department of Homeland Security seal).

The keynote speaker at the Minuteman Project's opening day rally was Tom Tancredo, the Republican Congressman from Colorado who chairs the Congressional Immigration Reform Caucus.

Tancredo addressed a crowd of about 100 inside Schieffelin Hall, an auditorium not far from the ok Corral. Outside the hall, a phalanx of Arizona Rangers (a state police agency) stood between the hall's entrance and about 40 anti-Minutemen protesters who banged on pots and pans and drums while the vibrantly outfitted performers of a traditional Aztec dance group leapt and whirled to the cacophonous rhythm.

In late March, President Bush had condemned the Minuteman Project at a joint press conference with Mexican President Vicente Fox. "I'm against vigilantes in the United States of America," Bush said. "I'm for enforcing the law in a rational way."

Tancredo said that Bush should be forced to write, "I'm sorry for calling you vigilantes," on a blackboard one hundred times and then erase the chalk with his tongue.

"You are not vigilantes," he roared. "You are heroes!"

Tancredo told the Minutemen that each of them stood for 100,000 likeminded Americans who couldn't afford to make the trip. He applauded Gilchrist and Simcox as "two good men who understand we must never surrender our right as citizens to do our patriotic duty and defend our country ... and stop this invasion ourselves."