Brandishing insults and a gun, Roy Warden routinely threatens Latinos with death. Some observers fear the worst.
TUCSON, Ariz. -- Sunday services were under way inside St. Augustine's Cathedral. Outside, the summer air was still and quiet except for a few birds chirping in a courtyard near the entrance. But the serenity was doomed. A car pulled up, and a graying, bespectacled man carrying a handgun and a loudspeaker got out, two cameramen in tow.
Working fast, he positioned a collection of lawn chairs on the public sidewalk in front of the Catholic cathedral, then encircled the lawn chairs with what appeared to be a series of pink jump ropes and planted two American flags. With the bravado of a professional wrestler, he then stepped into the roped-off ring he'd constructed, threw down a Mexican flag, and ceremoniously stomped on it, grinding his heel for the cameras.
Then he turned on the loudspeaker and addressed the worshippers inside St. Augustine's.
"You people don't seem to understand forbidden territory, whether it's a child's anus or the American border! You just want to push on in, don't you?" he screamed, his face flushed with anger. "We are going to be driving you back to Mexico real goddamn soon!" Spit flew from his mouth. "Get used to it! My name is Roy Warden, and I burn Mexican flags!"
With a fanny pack loaded with water bottles strapped to his belly, a Glock 9mm on his hip, and a bullhorn to amplify his outrage, Roy Warden, 59, emerged this spring as one of the country's most controversial, volatile, and, many believe, dangerous characters of the anti-immigration movement. Along with occasional sidekicks Russ Dove, a former militia leader and convicted car thief, and Laine Lawless, the founder of the group Border Guardians who earlier this year urged neo-Nazis to terrorize Hispanics, Warden has burned and trampled Mexican flags in public, nearly started at least one riot, regularly wreaked havoc on Tucson City Council proceedings, and E-mailed a death threat to a prominent local public defender. Without regular followers or even a named group behind him, Warden is a one-man band of immigrant-bashing hate, a man so untamed that other anti-immigration activists shun him as an embarrassment.
Warden's tactics are over the top even for southern Arizona, a longtime hotbed of anti-immigration extremism. A typical Warden event has him standing within a roped-off "defensive perimeter" on a public sidewalk or in a city park, threatening to shoot anyone who crosses his line, then trampling and burning a Mexican flag while shouting insults through a bullhorn. In one recent instance he called Mexican immigrants "cowards and traitors who have abandoned the dream of Zapata and Marcos to feed like dogs on the table scraps of gringos."
Tucson is 70 miles from the border. Thirty-five percent of the city's half million residents are of Mexican descent. More often than not, Warden draws an angry crowd whose members he then bullies and taunts with carefully worded death threats such as, "If you try to inflict deadly harm upon me, I'll f------ blow you away!"
Warden may come off like a raving lunatic, but he is well versed in free-speech and self-defense laws, and he exercises his rights to the limit. As he explained to the Tucson City Council last May: "I am empowered to use deadly force to protect my own life. Now this is what it's gonna mean. It's gonna mean I'm gonna have a perimeter, I'm gonna speak through a loudspeaker down in the barrio, any place I want, and if people try to kill me, try to overrun my position, I will discharge a shotgun in their face!"
Interviewed by the Intelligence Report, Warden didn't shy away from his earlier remarks. "My safety, and the public's safety and the safety of those who oppose my viewpoints, is best ensured when everyone — police, rednecks, open border activists, judges, mayor, City Council, etc., etc. — truly understands I will blow the freaking head off anyone who offers me the imminent threat of deadly force."
Like many who've seen Warden in action, Matt Lowen, a human rights activist with the American Friends Service Committee, suspects that Warden may have "serious mental issues." "He reminds me of a child that doesn't get enough attention and continuously acts out and thrives on negative attention," Lowen says.
Warden's tantrums have been punished with frequent spankings in the Tucson media, plus two arrests in the past six months. Also, his website has been hacked, and Warden claims the reason he now lives out of his car is that he was evicted from his rental home in retribution for his demonstrations. He also says that gangbangers in baggy pants have followed him and that he has received many death threats from as far away as Colombia.
Whether Warden is a lunatic or just acts like one in order to raise a ruckus, he makes himself impossible to ignore, and his opponents say that he's the natural outgrowth as well as a symbol of the increasingly harsh tone of the national debate over immigration -- a debate in which mentalities and methods that were considered extreme in the past have now shifted into the mainstream. Three years ago, anti-immigration hard-liners were often portrayed as erratic fringe elements in the major media, with President Bush labeling one group "vigilantes." Now, anchorman Lou Dobbs hails them as heroes and patriots on CNN.
"The demagoguery and scapegoating of immigrants by public figures in the national media has encouraged the Roy Wardens of the world to be more brazen and violent," says Rich Stolz, a Tucson-based immigrant rights organizer with the Center for Community Change. "As long as fundamentally violent policy proposals like border militarization, vigilantism, mass deportations, and migrant concentration camps go unchallenged in the public debate over immigration reform, anyone with a Roy Warden mindset will perceive that they have a free pass to use the anti-immigrant platform to preach hate and violence."
Many in Tucson worry that it's only a matter of time before Warden either shoots someone or gets shot. "He's just waiting for the time when he feels threatened, his space is invaded, and that gun is going to be fired," Lowen says. In the meantime, as Warden's antics and rhetoric grow more inflammatory, they consume more time and energy among pro-immigration forces in the Arizona border region. In this respect, Warden is a success, a strategic diversion. "Activists in the Latino community really can't do anything but think about Roy Warden, follow him around with cameras waiting for him to slip up," Lowen says.
One of those activists is 16-year-old Arturo Rodriquez, who decided last June to find out what would happen if he stepped over Warden's line.
'I'll Put You in the Ground'
In the tiny living room of his Tucson home, Arturo Rodriguez connects his video camera to a television and presses play. Although his mother has seen the footage that pops up on the screen several times, the images still bring angry tears to her eyes, which she wipes away with the back of her hand.
The footage is of a demonstration Warden held June 3. Behind the camera was Arturo, a skinny teenager who wears glasses. Braces peek through his shy smile.
Arturo's a budding activist. He explains that he wanted to document Warden's activities this summer. "I was scared," he admits, "but sometimes you just have to suck it up." His footage shows Warden establishing his usual "perimeter" around a piece of sidewalk with a length of clothesline. As Warden rants and paces, Arturo and a friend step over the barrier. Warden erupts in the teenager's face.
"Get out of here!" Warden screams at Arturo, his face filling the video camera's lens. "I'll put a f------ bullet in your head!"
Arturo continues to film as Warden rages and moves toward him. "You get away from my border," Warden says. He then shoves Arturo backward. "You better stay out of our area because I'll put you in the ground if you don't."
Arturo turned his footage over to the police, who arrested Warden for assault, disorderly conduct, and two counts of making intimidating threats. Warden's trial on these charges is pending. In preliminary court appearances, he has used a Mexican flag as a doormat and worn a T-shirt bearing the legend "Chicana Pendeja" (very loosely, a------) underneath a large photo of Isabel Garcia. Garcia is the Pima County legal defender and leader of the human rights organization Derechos Humanos.
Last May, Warden circulated an E-mail with the subject line "Warden to Isabel Garcia: I will blow your freaking head off." The text read: "If any of your pendejo thugs assault me in any way, break through my perimeter, make any threat of deadly force upon my life, etc., I will not hesitate to draw my weapon and blow your freaking heads off."
Interviewed about the E-mail by a television news reporter, Warden said: "I don't understand what the problem is. It's conditional: you try to kill me and I will kill you first. It's very simple."
Garcia, who Warden calls a "hairy-breasted Amazon," has been working on immigrants' rights issues for 30 years. Her parents were activists, and she held her first picket sign when she was 10. She's used to threats and insults and says she's not afraid of Warden, but she is frustrated by the effect his anti-immigration Tasmanian Devil act has had. Garcia points out that while massive immigration reform marches on April 10 drew millions of people into the streets all over the United States for peaceful marches, the Tucson march turned violent when Warden staged a flag burning in the middle of a park along the marchers' path. The crowd surged toward Warden, causing a Tucson police officer to draw his gun. Six young immigration activists were arrested on charges of aggravated assault on a peace officer, interfering with governmental operation, hindering prosecution and disturbing the peace, while Warden was arrested the next day and charged with suspicion of assault, criminal damage and reckless burning (these charges, like those resulting from his confrontation with Arturo Rodriquez, are pending).
"He really gets himself into this state of such venom and hatred. He calls us animals," says Garcia. "He'd like a young Latino to attack him. Then he'd pull out a gun and shoot him."
Jekyl and Hyde
Outside the St. Augustine Cathedral, Tucson radio journalist Jessie Bhangoo watched as Warden continued to rail against immigrants and the Catholic Church.
"You people are a chamber of horrors and you will not push into our country and destroy our culture with yours!" Warden shouted, his voice straining with emotion as police watched from a distance and television camera crews began to arrive. Bhangoo approached Warden and, with a tape recorder rolling, asked him why he was targeting the cathedral. Warden explained his belief that American parishioners are leaving the Catholic church due to sexual abuse scandals, and the church is bringing in Mexican immigrants to fill the pews. The church's "main concern is filling up the church with people that are more compliant, people that won't complain about the sodomy, people who won't give them any trouble. That is why they are openly courting the Hispanic people and helping import them from Mexico," Warden told Bhangoo, using a measured tone.
Then he started up on the loudspeaker again: "You Mexicans make me sick! You violate our law! You let priests screw your own kids! What is wrong with you? Maybe that is why you Mexican men are so violent, because you are frustrated, because you got sodomized when you were kids and you couldn't do anything about it, so now you beat your women. Yeah! Real tough guys aren't you!"
Bhangoo interviewed Warden a second time at Warden's home a week after the St. Augustine protest (Warden still maintained a residence at the time). At ease amidst a clutter of newspaper clippings and numerous empty grape juice containers, Warden sounded more articulate and rational than he ever does in public. "For months, I have sent out E-mails to all of the open borders groups asking them if their leadership would consider sitting down in something like a presidential debate format ... a town meeting where we would pick a local newscaster of trustworthy reputation and have a public discussion of the issues beyond the rhetoric and beyond all the sound bytes and the propaganda and discuss the issues," Warden told Bhangoo. "They simply don't want to discuss the issues, they have never agreed to that."
Wardens' transformation was startling. "At the rally, Warden incited the crowds using inflammatory language. But when I sat with him and turned on the microphone, his vocabulary expanded and his statements became a little more reasonable," Bhangoo says.
Locked and Loaded
During the demonstration at the church, Warden had spoken of his plans to prevent illegal immigrants from voting in the upcoming elections. He pledged to have people with cameras at Hispanic precincts snapping pictures of voters. "We will take every picture of every face and we will check your name and time against the voter roll and then we will run your name and your picture through software supplied to me by Homeland Security," he vowed. "We'll bring the law down upon your goddamn heads so fast you won't believe it."
When Bhangoo asked in the later interview what he meant by "we," Warden claimed to be working with several government law enforcement agencies. Pressed to reveal which ones, Warden's answer was vague -- and hard to believe. "You go through the FBI, you go through the Freedom of Information Act. If you know how to approach these people and you know how to write the applications, you can do it."
With or without the FBI on his side, Warden says he has no plans to turn down his volume in the weeks leading up to the elections, or after. "I've ordered dozens more flags," he wrote in an Aug. 12 dispatch to his E-mail list. "We're going to be very busy from here on out."
"I don't think Warden's going to stop," Lowen says. "He's wrapped his identity up in his crusade against [immigrants]."
In addition to his Glock, Warden wrote in August that he'll bring a baseball bat and a stun gun to future protests.
"We're locked, cocked and ready to rock," he said. "America is the stronghold, and here in Tucson, Ariz., we Americans will make our stand."