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

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

A Minuteman volunteer scans the desert for 'invaders.'
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Enemy Territory
While Gilchrist is newly prominent on the anti-immigration front — he recently joined the California Coalition for Immigration Reform, a hate group whose leader routinely describes Mexicans as "savages" — Simcox has been active since 2002, when he founded Civil Homeland Defense, a Tombstone-based vigilante militia that he brags has captured more than 5,000 Mexicans and Central Americans who entered the country without visas.

"These people don't come here to work. They come here to rob and deal drugs," Simcox told the Intelligence Report in a 2003 interview. "We need the National Guard to clean up our cities and round them up."

But that was the old Chris Simcox talking, not the new, spiffed-up, buttoned-down, ready-for-primetime Chris Simcox.

The old Simcox described Citizens Homeland Defense as "a committee of vigilantes," and "a border patrol militia." The new Simcox — the one interviewed for dozens of national TV news programs and major newspaper articles about the Minuteman Project — characterized his new and larger outfit of citizen border patrollers as "more of a neighborhood watch program."

The old Simcox said of Mexicans and Central American immigrants, "They have no problem slitting your throat and taking your money or selling drugs to your kids or raping your daughter and they are evil people." The new Simcox said he sympathizes with their plight, and sees them as victims of their own government's failed policies.

Gilchrist gave his sound bites an even more extreme makeover by frequently comparing himself and most of his volunteers to "white Martin Luther Kings," and the Minuteman Project to the civil rights movement. He and Simcox both also preposterously declared in interview after interview that they had designed the Minuteman Project to "protect America from drug dealers and terrorists" as much as to catch undocumented immigrants and turn them over to the U.S. Border Patrol.

The mainstream American media largely failed to challenge these flagrant reinventions, even though Gilchrist's militant rhetoric about immigrants "devouring and plundering our nation" was still up on the Minuteman Project's Web site; even though Simcox's statements are public record (many were published in his own newspaper, the Tombstone Tumbleweed), and even though the Minuteman Project's leaders already had a record of lying to the media.

Early this year, white supremacist and neo-Nazi Web sites began openly recruiting for the Minuteman Project. In response, Gilchrist and Simcox proclaimed that neo-Nazi Skinheads and race warriors from organizations such as the National Alliance and Aryan Nations were specifically banned from participating. Pressured by journalists to explain exactly how they planned to keep these undesirables out, the two organizers said they were working with the FBI to carefully check the backgrounds of all potential Minuteman volunteers, only to have the FBI completely deny this was the case.

Gilchrist and Simcox then claimed they were personally checking out each and every potential volunteer using on-line databases. Even if this were true, one of Gilchrist's computers crashed the morning of April 1, wiping out the records of at least 75 pre-registered volunteers. As a result, the registration protocol in Tombstone rapidly degenerated into a free-for-all, and virtually anyone who showed up and gave a name was issued a Minuteman Project badge and told where to go the next day to be assigned to a watch post.

Gilchrist and Simcox further claimed to the media prior to April 1 that the only volunteers who would be allowed to carry firearms would be those who had a concealed-carry handgun permit from their home states, an indication that they had passed at least a cursory background investigation. In fact, virtually no one was checked for permits.

While most of the Minuteman volunteers were not organized racists, at least one member of Aryan Nations infiltrated the effort, and Johnny and Michael said they were two of six members of the Phoenix chapter of the National Alliance who signed up as Minuteman Volunteers. They said the other four had arrived separately in two-man teams in order to cover more ground and be less conspicuous. They said the Alliance members came out to support the Minuteman Project, but also to recruit new members, and to learn the remote hot zones for border crossers in Cochise County. They said they intended to return and conduct small, roaming, National Alliance-only vigilante patrols in the fall, "when we can have a little more privacy," as Johnny put it.

The day after the registration meltdown, the Minuteman Project sponsored a protest across the street from the Border Patrol's headquarters in Naco. It drew about 75 demonstrators, including Johnny and Michael, who sat quietly in camp chairs, wearing sunglasses and holding placards.

Michael's sign was decorated with a war-room graphic of arrows that represented armies marching north from Mexico and spreading throughout the United States.

"Invasion?" it asked. "What Invasion?"

The graphic on Michael's sign was almost identical to the imagery on a billboard the Alliance paid to put up earlier this year in a predominantly Latino neighborhood of Las Vegas and on Alliance fliers that were tossed onto driveways and lawns in Douglas and Tombstone in late March during a dead-of-night distribution drive.

"Immigration or invasion?" those fliers read. "Non-whites are turning America into a Third World slum. They come for welfare or to take our jobs. They bring crime. Let's send them home now!"

Johnny and Michael offered their last names to no one, and never spoke of their jobs, though Michael said he had fought in the first Gulf War with the 82nd Airborne Division. At the protest, he wore a desert camouflage vest over a black shirt emblazoned with a white fist and combat boots. There were other small clues to the pair's ideology. Driving to the protest, they blasted the white-power rock band Youngblood. Johnny made several references to the "14 Words," a white supremacist adage ("We must secure the existence of our race and a future for White children"). Johnny also had a National Alliance symbol tattooed to the back of his neck and "Born in the C.S.A." (referring to the Confederate States of America) inked below his left jawbone.

"We both grew up in El Paso, and we've been racially aware since we were kids," Michael said. "In the sixth grade, El Paso put in a forced busing program, and I got sent to a middle school that was 95% Mexican. I got my ass kicked about every day. Johnny and I started backing each other up and we've been fighting Mexicans ever since."

Though both have lived in Arizona since the late '90s, the Minuteman Project marked the first time either has dared come near the border.

"The only way I'd be down here is with a bunch of other white guys with guns," Michael said. "Whites are the minority in these border towns, man. They've already been taken over. This is enemy territory."

Lock and Load

The Minuteman Project's "command and communications center" was located on the campus of Miracle Valley Bible College, a former cult compound just outside Naco. Stained mattresses and dusty junk cluttered the halls of the compound's dormitory buildings, where 100 Minuteman volunteers slept two to a room.

Another 30 to 40 vigilantes pitched tents on a weedy ball field with a rusted backstop, where tumbleweeds soared and bounced on shrieking desert winds.

The social atmosphere on the desolate compound was saturated with paranoia, military fetishism and machismo. A neatly printed sign posted to the communal shower room announcing "Women's Shower Hours 7-9 and 3-5" was defaced with a scrawled "NO! MEN ONLY!"

By day two of the Minuteman Project, volunteers had taken to calling the college's cafeteria the "mess hall," the dormitories "barracks," and the boundaries of the campus "the perimeter." Security was tight. Armed guards patrolled the perimeter and stopped cars at the front gate to check occupants for Minuteman badges. Minuteman security teams randomly placed trip flares in the desert outside the compound's structures to alert them at night to the presence of intruders.

Rumors of imminent danger flew through the dorms regularly, along with shouts to "lock and load," because the notorious Central American street gang MS-13 was about to storm the campus.

MS-13 is a favorite bogeyman of the anti-immigration movement, and in late March unsubstantiated Internet rumors began swirling that MS-13 leaders had issued orders for hundreds of MS-13 members in Los Angeles and Phoenix to converge in Cochise County and "teach the Minutemen a lesson." The Washington Times reported these rumors as fact on March 28 in a front-page article headlined "Gang will target Minuteman vigil on Mexico border."

The night of April 4, a cry of alarm went up throughout the Miracle Valley compound that "a credible threat" had been received that armed MS-13 gang members were about to lead a charge of hundreds of Mexicans "over the wire" and against the Minuteman posts along Border Road.

Furiously donning body armor and loading weapons, Minuteman Project security officers and citizen volunteers piled into vehicles and raced to the rescue, only to find that, like all the supposedly impending assaults on the Bible college, the MS-13-led attack never materialized.

The Minuteman Project's culture of fear sprang from the top and then trickled down through the ranks. A towering bodyguard dressed all in black shadowed Gilchrist, and Simcox often donned a bulletproof vest (Simcox is prohibited from carrying a firearm due to his 2004 conviction for illegally packing a pistol in a national park while hunting immigrants).

When Johnny and Michael first arrived at their assigned post on Border Road, they warily eyed a rock formation atop a hill about 250 yards away, in Mexico.

"That's a perfect MS-13 sniper's nest," Michael said. "Keep an eye out for any glints of metal up there."

Johnny pulled out a pair of vinyl rifle cases from a hiding place in the heap of camping and military surplus gear that filled the back of his Toyota 4Runner. Inside the cases were assault rifles, a violation of the Minuteman's weapons policy, which required volunteers to arm themselves with handguns only. "They're loaded, and there are extra clips in there, just in case anything goes down," he said.

Carl found a depression in the earth behind his pick-up truck and called his squad together.

"This is our fallback position," he said. "If we start taking incoming rounds, everyone dive here and get your head down."

But there were no incoming rounds, and no invading, dark-skinned hordes. Day after day, hour after hour, the Minuteman Project volunteers spaced in seven posts along a mile-long stretch of Border Road sat in lawn chairs and milled around, staring at dirt, cacti, and the occasional jackrabbit.

There was so little action on the Mexican side of the fence that a lone cattle rancher riding his horse just south of the border was enough to spark a flurry of radio traffic: "Station Two, this is Station One, we have a mounted possible hostile coming your way, over."

The rancher smiled, waved, and shouted, "Hola!"

"He's probably scouting our troop strength and positions," said Michael. "I don't trust that guy."