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

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

In a shelter housed in a Catholic church in Agua Prieta, Mexico, would-be immigrants to the United States discuss the Minuteman Project, which they've heard about in 'Danger!' fliers circulated by the government.

Machine Guns and Minefields
Richard Hodges, lifetime Cochise County resident, lives with his wife on a homestead just off the Naco side of Border Road in the same house his great-grandfather built in 1897. Curious about the Minuteman Project, he cruised up and down Border Road, along with several other local residents, snapping photos and chatting up the vigilantes.

"Some of them seem all right, and I do give them credit for putting their money where their mouth is and for bringing a lot of attention to the problem of illegal immigration. But a lot of them are a little too extreme, a little too racist for my taste," Hodges said. "They were talking to me like they're white supremacists or something, and they were assuming I must be too just because I live here and have to deal with all the illegals. But I don't care too much for those kinds of attitudes. That's just not the correct mentality people need to bring down here. That sort of thinking should have died with Hitler."

Back when he was a kid, Hodges said, the average Mexican didn't have any reason to sneak into the U.S.

"They had it pretty okay in Mexico, so when my daddy found a Mexican on our property, he'd put a shotgun on him, you bet, but it wasn't because he didn't like Mexicans, it was because he knew that Mexican was probably on the run, because their criminals would run to America just the same as our criminals would run to Mexico. My father would order them to take off their pants, them give them a choice: either walk back to Mexico with no pants on, or wait for the sheriff."

Things are different now.

"I see illegals on my property all the time, and I don't point a gun at them. You can tell just from looking at them they're no threat. They don't scare me. They're not out to get me. They just want to go on their way. Sometimes I'll call Border Patrol if it's a really big group. Other times I just say, 'Oh, what the hell,' and let them be. I do worry that some of them are coming into the country for a welfare free ride, and I'm sure a few of them are criminals, but I talk to these people a lot, and I'll tell you, most of them are coming here to work. Pure and simple."

The immigration problem can't be solved in America, Hodges said. It can only be solved in Mexico.

"I was in the Air Force, and I saw how the Soviets did it. Sure, we could build a wall, and put machine-gun towers on top, and create a no man's land with a minefield, and we start machine-gunning people and blowing them to bits, and it might curtail them a bit, but it won't stop them from coming so long as we allow the Mexican government to keep treating its people so poorly. You can put the Marines on the border, you can build all the walls and bring in all the Minuteman Projects you want. They're not going to stop. There are millions and millions and millions of poor, desperate people in Mexico, and hunger is a powerful motivating force."

But no matter how desperate, it was hard to imagine any but the most foolhardy of undocumented immigrants would dare attempting to cross into the U.S. along the mile of Border Road staked out by the Minuteman Project, not when it was so easy for them to just hike an extra mile in either direction and circumvent the vigilante enforcement zone, which was a hive of activity easily spotted a distance.

The vigilante blockade was augmented by a constant procession of U.S. Border Patrol agents, Cochise County sheriff's deputies, curious local residents like Hodges, and the omnipresent media. Also, while they posed for the cameras, staring dramatically at absolutely nothing but empty desert through their spotting scopes and binoculars, the Minuteman Project volunteers were themselves under constant watch by roving clusters of American Civil Liberties Union legal observers, who the Minuteman volunteers referred to over their radios as "traitors," "Jane Fondas," and "ACL-Jews."

The Minuteman volunteers were stone-faced toward most of the reporters and camera crews that cruised up and down Border Road, trolling for interviews and footage. But the vigilantes cheered the arrival of Fox News Channel crews ("They're our people," said Michael) and that of anti-immigration CNN anchor Lou Dobbs, whose coverage of the Minuteman Project was particularly supple.

Gilchrist and Simcox had difficulty sharing the spotlight. Cochise County, it turned out, wasn't big enough for both their egos.

Once when Simcox saw Gilchrist surrounded by reporters, he said to himself, but loudly, "There goes Gilchrist, holding down his own fort again."

And to one group of volunteers, Simcox said, "Listen up, I need everybody to understand that while the California people did a good job of getting you here, now that you're here, this is my show, because this is Civil Homeland Defense territory, so just understand that, okay? Thanks."

Of the two, Gilchrist revealed himself to be the more hackneyed media ham.

The afternoon of April 2, a documentary film director posed Gilchrist in front of Johnny, Michael, and Carl standing shoulder-to-shoulder before the border fence, with their backs to the "sniper's nest" they'd been so fearful of scant hours before.

"We are not racists," Gilchrist said on camera. "We don't endorse racism, and we're not a hate group. We've told white supremacists they're not welcome here, and we've kept them out. The only hate group members here are from the ACLU."

Johnny and Michael put on their poker faces.

"The ACLU are no different from white supremacists," Gilchrist said. "They're a clear and present danger. They have the same mentality that murdered Martin Luther King, and they want to kill us. Literally the ACLU wants to kill us by invoking violence. We've been vilified and castigated as ghoulish monsters, as gun-toting, baby-killing war machines.

"We are not in favor of violence, and we don't hate immigrants. We don't have any problem with Mexicans. If they come into the country legally, we want them here. We want America to be a melting pot of all different kinds of people, where every race, color and creed is blending together."

The two neo-Nazis bristled. Melting pot? Was he serious?

"We are a peaceful demonstration. We're doing this peacefully, the way our founding fathers wanted us to. We don't need baseball bats and tire irons and guns and flamethrowers and bulldozers to wipe people out and level villages. We can do this peacefully, same way Martin Luther King sought justice for American blacks. We're followers of Gandhi and Martin Luther King..."

"End of interview," Johnny said.

He and Michael abruptly walked away.

Once they were out of earshot, Johnny called King "an Alabama silverback" and made gorilla noises. Michael said, "I hope he [Gilchrist] doesn't believe that crap. I realize he's gotta be all PC for the media, but come on — Gandhi didn't wear a gun. We're in a race war, not a peace march."

'Avoid Them!'
Midway through April, the Minuteman Project declared total victory.

"Citizens in lawn chairs, armed only with cell phones and binoculars, shut down a 25-mile stretch of the border," Simcox boasted at a press conference held at the Miracle Valley Bible College compound. "We showed our government it can be done."

In reality, the citizens were armed with considerably more than cell phones and binoculars, and they were active along two miles of the border at most, and those two miles were not even continuous.

As proof of their success, Gilchrist and Simcox touted a potent statistic: the number of Border Patrol apprehensions of suspected illegal immigrants in the Minuteman Project enforcement zone dropped almost 90% during the month of April, compared to previous years.

But government officials on both sides of the border say that's because the Mexican government made a huge effort to warn immigrants looking to cross about the Minuteman Project, and thousands of immigrants either walked around the vigilantes or simply hunkered down in the Mexican border city of Agua Prieta and waited for the vigilantes to go home at the end of April.

The governor of the Mexican border state of Sonora, Eduardo Bours Castelo, ordered 44 members of the Sonora State Preventative Police Force to patrol a huge cattle ranch opposite the Minuteman sector of Border Road, in order to intercept unwary migrants before they reached the vigilante posts.

The Mexican federal border patrol agency Grupo Beta, which is assigned to protect immigrants from bandits and to search for those who have succumbed to the scorching sun, also bolstered their forces.

"We're trying to scare them. We tell them they may be shot by the Minutemen," said Enrique Palafox, the Grupo Beta commander in Agua Prieta. Both the state and federal patrols informed the immigrants of the Minuteman Project watch post locations and offered to give them rides back to Agua Prieta so they could either wait out the vigilantes or at least re-supply with food and water before setting out again on an alternate route.

The streets of Agua Prieta were posted throughout April with bright red fliers that warned in Spanish: "Danger! Publications in the United States and Mexico are reporting that during the month of April, hundreds of vigilantes from the United States will form patrols along the border from Agua Prieta to Naco. It's possible these individuals will have guns. They are not part of the Border Patrol or the government of the United States. Avoid them! They're dangerous!"

One night during the second week of the Minuteman Project, at Centro de Atención al Migrante Exodus, or C.A.M.E, a temporary shelter for immigrants housed in a Catholic church a couple miles from the border in Agua Prieta, a group of nine men in their late teens and early 20s from Vera Cruz sat around a long table, hungrily downing soup and tortillas. They said they were determined to get into America so they could make 50 dollars a day as laborers, instead of the 50 pesos (about $5) they earned for ten hours of cutting sugar cane at home.

"I'm not coming into America to rob anyone," said the group's apparent leader, a 20-year-old farm kid named Luís. "If I wanted to rob for a living, I could do that in Mexico. Please, tell the Minutemen I don't want to fight."

By the end of the Minuteman Project, its organizers claimed to have assisted in the capture of 336 undocumented immigrants from Mexico and Central America. In addition to the posts along Border Road, the Minuteman Project set up a chain of camps 40 miles east of Border Road and 35 miles north of the border. There, volunteers staked out a series of dry washes and culverts around a highway that serve as "lay-up spots" where exhausted immigrants stop to sleep and wait for rides after hiking two or three days over mountains and through open desert.

Judging by Minuteman Project radio traffic, the vigilantes patrolling the lay-up spots busted far more immigrants than those on the higher profile Border Road, but their final tally of 336 is impossible to verify because the U.S. Border Patrol does not record the identity or affiliation of citizen informants.

Border Patrol officials did say the Minuteman volunteers were more hindrance than help because they so frequently called in false alarms and set off ground sensors.

"The Border Patrol didn't want them, my community didn't want them here, and I didn't want them here," said Douglas Mayor Ray Borane. "All they succeeded in doing was creating hard feelings and spreading a racist message. The amount of media attention they received has been totally out of proportion to their actual impact. The Mexicans have a saying that I think applies quite well to the Minuteman Project: 'It was all song and no opera.'"

Brown and White
Chris Simcox bounded onto the stage in Washington D.C.'s Lafayette Square. With the White House in the background, he grinned ear-to-ear and gave the cheering crowd a double thumbs up.

It was the morning of Monday, April 25. The Minuteman Project had less than a week to go, and Simcox had left his troops in the field — by then their numbers had dwindled to fewer than 50 — in order to be received as a champion in the nation's capital by the "immigration reform army" gathered there for "Hold Their Feet to the Fire," a week of rallies and lobbying sponsored by the Federation for American Immigration Reform, or FAIR.

FAIR Executive Director Dan Stein had personally invited Simcox. "For many Americans, the Minuteman Project looks more like Lexington and Concord," Stein stated. "It represents the escalation of action required to face down the arrogance and contempt of selfish greed. In my view, those who see it differently mistake the matter entirely."

Standing above an adoring audience, Simcox said the Minuteman Project in Arizona was just the beginning. "This has been a dream come true for citizens," he said. "We were bold enough to stand up and tell the federal government that it's not securing our borders. But our efforts will continue in the future with a multi-state campaign. There will be no compromise!"

Simcox left the stage to a chant of "Thank you, Chris! Thank you, Chris!'

The Minuteman volunteers and the FAIR enthusiasts draw their inspiration from the same cauldron of seething resentment. They're fed up with being asked their language preference by automated operators, with hearing Spanish on their radio, seeing it on billboards, and with struggling to be understood by busboys and hotel maids who "speak Mexican."

The news that Los Angeles had just elected its first Latino mayor in 100 years was just another foul omen that America really is being conquered, one fake green card and one minimum wage job at a time. They don't care to discuss the complexities of global economics. They don't want to hear about international trade policies or economic migration.

They see the world in brown and white.

"Thanks to the gross malfeasance of our government, Americans are going to be fighting for their nation on the streets of their own cities," wrote Glenn Spencer, a prominent anti-immigration activist, Minuteman Project volunteer and repeat "Lou Dobbs Tonight" guest, in a May 2 essay publicized on his America Border Patrol Web site. "Many are not going to survive this conflict alive. Thousands will die."

Already, imitation groups waving the Minuteman banner have formed in California and Texas. The same week that Simcox appeared in D.C., California Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger praised the Minuteman Project in a radio show, saying he'd welcome border vigilantes in his state.

"I think they've done a terrific job," he said. "It just shows that it works when you go and make an effort and when you work hard. It's a doable thing. It's a shame that the private citizen has to go in there and start patrolling our borders."

Gilchrist and Simcox have both announced they're forming separate splinter vigilante groups. In May, Simcox claimed that "over 15,000" people had already joined his new organization, the Minuteman Civil Defense Corps.

"We are now undertaking the task of recruiting, training and deploying thousands of U.S. citizens to the four southern border states with Mexico," he said.

"We have a mandate from the citizens of the United States who are no longer just demanding better border security, they are now willing to participate in securing the borders themselves," Simcox said. "Our intentions are to follow the will of the people."