The San Diego Minutemen, a particularly virulent nativist group, is making a thuggish name for itself. But it is also wracked with serious internal problems.
Members of the San Diego Minutemen, many of them given to wearing flag-themed clothing, regularly confront suspected undocumented immigrants like these men at a shopping center in Vista, Calif. Photography by Todd Bigelow
OCEANSIDE, Calif. — For Halloween last year, Jeff Schwilk turned his front yard into "Casa La Migra," a play on the Spanish words for U.S. immigration authorities. To depict the Mexico-California border, he fenced his yard with sheets of corrugated tin, rimmed with coils of black cord representing barbed wire. Border-hopping scarecrows straddled the fence.
Members of the San Diego Minutemen, the nativist extremist group Schwilk founded in 2005, showed up in mock Border Patrol uniforms to greet trick-or-treaters. Over a megaphone dubbed the "Alien-ator," they shouted, "Alto, la migra, la migra," a demand to "halt" that was heard all over the neighborhood. Painted on the tin fence were "ACLU Sucks" and "Enrique is Gay" — a jab, no doubt, at Enrique Morones, director of the pro-immigrant humanitarian organization, Border Angels.
"We discovered there is nothing scarier to an illegal alien (and their little anchor baby goblins) than a mock border fence scene," Schwilk crowed in a later E-mail. "Most people (Americans) thought our theme was hilarious."
Halloween or not, the San Diego Minutemen take year-round pleasure in scaring immigrants. On Saturday mornings, when they travel to the sleepy suburban gas stations where immigrant day laborers go to find work, they create scenes that would play well in a show called "Nativists Gone Wild." They call immigrants "wetbacks" and "Julios." They pull out Mace and threaten passing motorists who disagree with them. Calling those who hire day laborers "slavemasters," they've been known to slap flashing amber police lights on their SUVs and chase the would-be employers down. When they're not busy physically intimidating migrants, they take to the airwaves and the Internet to accuse them, without a shred of evidence, of running child prostitution rings and practicing "voodoo Santeria rituals."
But it's not only immigrants that the San Diego Minutemen (SDMM) have trouble with. Late this winter, police began scrutinizing members and supporters of SDMM for possible involvement in a cruel attack on what little property is owned by the residents of a local migrant camp. Another Minuteman was recently charged in connection with an assault on a group of immigrants and falsifying a police report.The group, in short, does not merely target immigration policies it doesn't agree with; it harasses and vilifies individual men and women.
The SDMM also has been rejected by the very groups it borrowed its name from — the Minuteman Project and the Minuteman Civil Defense Corps (MCDC) — because even for these hard-line groups, the SDMM is a bit much. "[T]hey don't abide by our rules, our SOP [standard operating procedure], and would not be considered Minutemen," said Carl Braun, MCDC's California leader.
The group isn't much better off internally. Earlier this year, two SDMM principals who had been romantically involved filed dueling legal actions and traded invective and even, one says, physical blows. Two of its top spokesmen have quit, one of them writing in a subsequent newspaper column that Schwilk "has the ability to schmooze people who, by nature, are peaceful to become angry and vindictive and to commit acts they normally would not even consider."
The San Diego area is no stranger to immigrant-bashing or even more extreme forms of nativism — John Metzger, the son of the White Aryan Resistance leader who lives nearby, still regularly calls in to local radio shows to remind listeners of his father's participation in a 1979 "Klan Border Patrol." But that Klan effort, and most of the nativist attacks of the past, pale in comparison with the SDMM.
"I've been up and down the state," says Claudia Smith, a long-time pro-immigrant activist with the California Rural Legal Assistance Foundation. "There's a rawness to the anti-immigration feeling here. You can almost taste it."
'Bring It On, Bitch'
The scene unfolds on a Saturday morning in March in Bonsall, Calif. Palm trees, rolling brown hills, a McDonald's and an Arco gas station mark the area where a couple dozen jornaleros, or day laborers, wait for work. It's not untypical of the 40 or so informal day labor sites spread throughout metropolitan San Diego.
But on this day, the circus of the San Diego Minutemen and a sideshow of pro-immigrant observers already have arrived. The handheld cameras favored by both camps are rolling and the epithets stand ready.
A small black pickup arrives. The driver signals and two Latino immigrants quickly climb into his cab. But the truck can't get out of the lot before one of the Minutemen thrusts his upper body into a window.
"This is not a legal hiring center. Do what's right for your country," the Minuteman admonishes the driver, handing him a list of licensed day labor sites and a flier entitled "Stopping SPP," a reference to a supposed secret government plan to destroy U.S. sovereignty by merging the country into an European Union-style federation with Canada and Mexico.
At another day labor site that day, a Minuteman is yelling at immigrants. "Hey, putas," the man shouts, calling them whores, before he remembers that Spanish has gendered word endings and starts calling the men "putos" instead. The word translates best into the English-language epithet, "faggot." A motorist who's stopped by the Arco station to top off his tank leans out his window to tell off SDMM leader Schwilk. "Hey, Billy boy," he begins.
Furious, Schwilk demands that the man get out of his car. Then the SDMM boss pulls out a can of Mace. "Bring it on, bitch," Schwilk says. "Bring it on." The man drives off instead.
There doesn't seem to be much holding an angry Jeff Schwilk back these days. On another day at the Bonsall day labor site, the SDMM founder was videotaped angrily slapping a magnetized flashing amber light on the roof of his mini-SUV. With the light whirling, he roared away, chasing someone who had just hired a day laborer out of the lot and down the road. A half-hour would elapse before Schwilk returned to the filling station.
Robert Baca, a worker with the North County Mobile Health Clinic, says many undocumented workers have been chased out of McGonigle Canyon by teenage vandals and members of the San Diego Minutemen.
A Crime in the Canyon
There are an estimated 270,000 undocumented immigrants living in the San Diego metro area and perhaps another 100,000 undocumented workers who cross the border there from Mexico each year. But the San Diego Minutemen may well end up being remembered for their persistent attempts to roust a few hundred immigrants living in a sad little plastic-tarp shantytown, a settlement of people who can't afford to live anywhere other than a rough canyon 20 miles north of the city. McGonigle Canyon straddles the breach between the affluent suburbs of Carmel Valley and Rancho Penasquitos. Most of the canyon is privately owned by a few farm interests and real estate development companies. For decades, seasonal workers from Mexico have made temporary homes there, called cartones, that are built out of scrap lumber, tarpaulins, and even tomato plant stakes and discarded couches. They live there with the forbearance of the private property owners. In the late 1980s, when as many as 10,000 migrants camped in the canyon, the area came to be known as "a little Mexico."
Over two decades, health worker Robert Baca says he's seen the camps intermittently vandalized by teenagers and the migrants periodically evicted due to expanding real estate developments. Aside from these encounters, Baca says, getting check-ups and vaccine shots from his North County Mobile Health Clinic were among the few interactions McGonigle's migrants had with outsiders.
That was until San Diego Minutemen began to show up in the canyon to film and hassle migrants in the last couple of years. Then it began to get really ugly. Last summer, Baca says, SDMM members started a shoving match with health workers and immigrants at the mobile clinic. "They were out here screaming and yelling at workers using our services. They formed a line to intimidate workers from coming up to the truck," he recalled. "Most migrants have to be convinced, just to visit our services, that they won't be mistreated or deported."
Things quickly got worse still. Last fall, hundreds of locals joined Minutemen and even some state politicians for a campout meant to "reclaim the canyon." The event was organized by local resident Julie Adams and KFMB-AM radio host Rick Roberts, but it was attended by dozens of SDMM members (both Adams and Roberts had worked closely with the group). Roberts brought hundreds of T-shirts to the campout that read "I am an Illegal Immigrant" — his plan was to distribute them to the migrants, many of whom speak no English, an idea he evidently found amusing. But by the time Adams, Roberts and the other protesters arrived, most migrants had fled the canyon, tipped off by warnings from Spanish-language radio and other supporters of the jornaleros.
That was the first scare for McGonigle Canyon's migrants.
Then, this Jan. 27, the men and women who remained in the McGonigle shantytown returned from a day's work to find their homes and meager possessions sliced to ribbons. Pants had their seats cut out. Shirts had been cut in half. Sleeping bags were sliced open. Tarp roofs, always scant protection against the chilly winter rains, drooped from their supporting frames in tatters.
Roberto Peña, a migrant who lived in the canyon, told police that he came back to his shack early that afternoon and spotted a group of four men and women using knives to cut up migrant property while a tall, blonde woman videotaped them. The men, he told police, chased him with knives. Peña ducked into the bushes. He lay there, according to a police affidavit, "watching the group destroy his property [when] he heard them saying, 'Fuck Mexicans'."
Two months later, at the end of March, police searched the homes of Schwilk and Adams, looking for video or other evidence. But they started looking at SDMM principals earlier, focusing in first on Christie Czajkowski, the SDMM's self-proclaimed "Minute Mom."
The Videographer and Her Man
Six feet tall, blonde and striking, Christie Czajkowski is quite possibly the only SDMM member who could pull off wearing a sequined American flag baseball cap. And she was, until quite recently, the group's chief videographer, a woman known for aggressively shoving her video camera into the midst of confrontations involving migrants, Minutemen, pro-migrant activists, and police.
She can also be hard to miss, which is why many eyebrows were raised when she became the only person identified by migrants from a photo lineup.
Czajkowski denies any role in the Jan. 27 attack, although hers was the first house to be searched by police looking for evidence in the case (computers and other items that might have contained images of the attack were seized).
But she does offer some insight.
"We had a special op in the canyon that day beginning at 8:30 a.m.," Czajkowski confirmed to the Intelligence Report in an interview. But she insisted that she spent the morning at an anti-immigration rally in San Juan Capistrano, nearly 60 miles to the northwest, and, indeed, a photo of her at that event appeared the next day in the Orange County Register.
Czajkowski acknowledges that she came back to McGonigle Canyon that afternoon. She says she arrived just in time to see Schwilk and others walking out of the canyon. At the time, she and Schwilk had been dating for months and were even considering living together. They have since broken up amidst a welter of accusations and bitter recriminations.
"I know you want to know what happened in the canyon and I wish I could tell you," Czajkowski told the Report. "As angry as I am now, I would love more than anything to tell you Jeff is responsible… . But I can't say it because I didn't see that."
She says she did hear something, however.
Czajkowski claims that Schwilk asked her to tell people that she had never seen him at all in the canyon that day. She said she responded unequivocally to her former lover: "If someone asks if I saw you guys there, I can't lie."
Love Goes South
After that, their relationship quickly unraveled. The weekend after the McGonigle Canyon attack, Czajkowski attended a Superbowl party at Schwilk's house — a celebration that ended amid the blare of police sirens.
Like always, she filmed the incident. It began with an argument over who owned the many videos that Czajkowski had filmed and Schwilk posted on the group's website. In her Superbowl video, Schwilk, holding a can of beer, swats at the camera, yelling, "Out of my fucking house now!" Czajkowski and her camera retreat as Schwilk backs her into a doorway. That's where the film stops.
Today, Czajkowski claims that Schwilk struck her after the video ends. For his part, Schwilk says Czajkowski was trespassing at his house and filming there without permission. In court, he obtained a restraining order against her, but a judge allowed it to lapse weeks later. Czajkowski, meanwhile, filed a $700,000 lawsuit against the SDMM leader, based on his alleged physical abuse.
Since then, the one-time "Minute Mom" has been booted out of the Minutemen. She's been branded by radio nativist Rick Roberts as a traitor to the movement. The entire domestic soap opera, coupled with the McGonigle Canyon attack and a series of other untoward incidents, has left the SDMM better known for its follies than its attempts to save America from immigrants.
Schwilk lays the blame for his image problem at Czajkowski's doorstep. At least that's what he told her. In a voicemail recording that Czajkowski posted on an Internet site, Schwilk can be heard urging her to scuttle her Superbowl Sunday footage. "I hope you won't post the video," Schwilk says, "because you will destroy the San Diego Minutemen, the strongest Minuteman group in the nation."
Minutemen leader Jeff Schwilk regularly orchestrates public confrontations with people he suspects of being undocumented and their allies. On a recent day in Vista, Calif., he faced down nemesis Claudia Smith of the California Rural Legal Assistance Foundation. Members of Schwilk's group have rained down sexually explicit epithets on Smith and other women who oppose them.
Christie Czajkowski isn't the only woman angry at Jeff Schwilk. A number of women who were never part of the SDMM say he's a raging chauvinist.
"There's a real misogyny to their actions," says Claudia Smith, the activist and veteran of many encounters with the SDMM. "You were never just against them. You were a 'commie bitch.' You were called a 'commie cunt'."
In her charges, Smith is echoed by an unlikely ally — radical nativist, ex-militia member and Mexican-flag-burner Russ Dove. Although Dove, an ex-felon, is one of the harder-line nativists in a hard-line world, he has helped Czajkowski prepare her civil suit against Schwilk. (In April, Dove even posted a defense of Czajkowski on the neo-Nazi National Vanguard web forum.) He compares the SDMM leader's alleged abuse to accusations brought against Chris Simcox, leader of the Minuteman Civil Defense Corps, by one of his ex-wives.
"It's a driving force for me," Dove says. "I'm tired of them justifying the abuse and beating of women. I've had enough of it."
So has Joanne Yoon. A 24-year-old Korean-American college student who helped monitor SDMM rallies for pro-immigrant groups led by the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU), Yoon recently filed a $1 million defamation lawsuit against Schwilk and a one-time SDMM spokesman named Ray Carney. According to Yoon's suit, the two men circulated photos of her in late 2006, along with comments referring to her as "the Korean anorexic ACLU slut." They were posted to a Schwilk Yahoo group entitled "Korean Kommie Kunt."
Under pressure, Schwilk finally renamed the Yahoo group "Joanne_Yoon_ACLU_Goon," saying "because it contained a non-pc [politically correct] word, by popular demand I renamed it." That didn't stop Ray Carney from allegedly sending an E-mail to SDMM members suggesting that one reason that Yoon wanted to help defend immigrants was a fondness for "Brown Schlong."
The Selling of 'Rape Grove'
The misogyny of the SDMM leader is an accompaniment to his propaganda about an unclean Third World nation next door, brimming with cheap labor and sex trafficking. The group's rationale for attacking immigrants shifts often from staving off an illegal alien invasion to reversing ecological plunder to stopping slave labor. But what has gotten SDMM the most mainstream mileage is its scary claim that the migrants of McGonigle run a child prostitution ring in one corner of the canyon.
They call it the "Rape Grove."
The SDMM's only evidence for this is a half hour of shaky, hand-held video footage shot covertly by Czajkowski and SDMM activist John Matthew Monti in McGonigle Canyon. (Monti was charged in April with four misdemeanor counts of battery and four counts interference with civil rights, in addition to one count of filing a false crime report. The charges stem from a Nov. 18 incident at a day labor site in Rancho Penasquitos in which Monti initially claimed to police that he'd been attacked and robbed by immigrants.) Filmed in December 2006, "Rape Grove" is the most widely linked and downloaded SDMM video of all.
But what "Rape Grove" proves isn't clear at all. Despite its highly provocative title, no sexual activity, let alone child prostitution, is ever seen. Even the on-the-fly voiceover by Czajkowski never once includes the word "rape."
Pricey homes line the rim of McGonigle Canyon, where the few remaining undocumented workers sleep in dens of earth and leaves.
The video opens with daytime shots of immigrant men walking around the canyon. Minutemen are seen placing calls to the police to report that they are observing a prostitution transaction. Two officers arrive and look around, but, finding nothing, end up warning the SDMM members they could be arrested for trespassing on private property. In a final section, the video shows Minutemen walking through canyon brush in low light, searching for the alleged prostitution.
It's not easy to find, although Czajkowski, sounding obsessed, is looking. Spotting a condom and a tampon on the ground, she turns excitedly to migrants nearby. "Do you have lots of penis here?" she asks in broken Spanish.
And that's it. As the video rolls out its final minutes, various Minutemen can be heard expressing frustration that they can't find any evidence of prostitution. At one point, even Czajkowski sounds unhappy. "Really, that was a big waste of time," she says. "I don't get what we're waiting for."
Incredibly, to this day, the SDMM and its sympathizers circulate this video as proof of a child prostitution ring nestled in the wilds of McGonigle Canyon.
Two Views of McGonigle
John Carlos Frey, an L.A. filmmaker, spent a year documenting the lives of the residents of McGonigle Canyon for his 2006 film, "The Invisible Mexicans of Deer Canyon" (Deer Canyon is an older name for the place). It is a place, the film suggests, of real hardship — but also, at times, extraordinary beauty.
An immigrant named Pedro says he lives in the canyon to save $700 a month on what a studio apartment would cost him in Escondido, some 20 miles away. Another shows Frey how he lines the ground under his bed with stones to keep down fleas, while a third finds a rattlesnake curled up in his bed. Workers are shown eating and cooking, some with propane stoves and others on campfires.
Hidden away in a willow grove far inside the canyon, the film also shows a chapel built for the masses conducted by representatives of Our Lady of Mt. Carmel, a Catholic church in a nearby town. Wood pews spiral out from a pink adobe altar inlaid with turquoise tiles and topped with silk flowers and a statue of the Virgin of Guadalupe, the patron saint of Mexico. It is a beautiful and quiet place that, since the late 1980s, was home to services for those with no other church. (Late last year, the structure was taken down by the church because of encroaching development.)
But to the men and women of the SDMM, this canyon has long been a Third World hellhole, a terrifying vision of what America is fast becoming. Although few of them live anywhere near here — with area homes averaging $500,000 apiece, hardly any can afford the neighborhood — they come here to protest and to engage in what they call "recon." To them, that means collecting and disposing of "litter." To the canyon's residents, that "litter" is personal property that the SDMM members are stealing and destroying in an attempt to push them out once and for all.
To the SDMM, after all, this is a place not of struggling and marginalized workers, but of child prostitution and "voodoo Santeria sacrifices." The "voodoo" charge originates in an SDMM video, now posted to YouTube, showing Minutemen walking around a manmade mound of soil and smooth stones. They can be heard suggesting that this is a Santeria altar that likely contains the remains of animal sacrifices, perhaps even dead human bodies. But Frey didn't have to speculate. Just a few months earlier, he asked canyon residents about the mound. Pointing to the green shoots emerging from the mound, they explained that it was a traditional Mexican planter used to start young lemon saplings.
But the truth has never distracted Jeff Schwilk.
"This beautiful American open space canyon will finally return to its original glory once it heals from the devastating environmental nightmare of 400-2000 migrants trashing the place for decades," Schwilk wrote in an SDMM E-mail not long ago. "It will soon be free from tons of disgusting trash, human waste, weekly child prostitution, drug dealing, other crimes, families and babies living in unsafe and unsanitary conditions, massive alcohol consumption, and the extreme fire danger posed by illegal camp fires. And the recently discovered open practice of Santeria in the canyon, the demonic voodoo religion practiced in some places in Latin America, complete with illegal animal sacrifices."
Whither the SDMM?
Jeff Schwilk and his followers remain under scrutiny by police, held at arm's length by national Minuteman groups, and subjected to criticism by former spokesmen including Ray Carney, who accuses Schwilk of "wearing a clean white suit while everyone else gets dirty playing in his mud."
But Schwilk soldiers happily on, convinced that his battle against "foreign subversives" is turning the tide. He boasts of getting a day labor site in Oceanside closed and, less credibly, of exposing invidious Mexican government meddling in U.S. immigration policy.
One SDMM "success" is apparent. A look around today shows that Schwilk and his allies may be well on the way to pushing the last migrants out of McGonigle Canyon. The remaining immigrants, terrified of vigilante operations, now build only the slightest and easiest to hide shelters. This March, a reporter found no lean-tos higher than the knee. One bed was made of sticks, mud and stones, a human nest no bigger than a surfboard. In another spot, a radio, lamp, sweaters, phone cards and a love letter written in Spanish were left behind, indicating their owners left in a hurry.
Schwilk, meanwhile, has started working as the communications director for the local chapter of the American Independent Party (AIP), which opposed civil rights legislation and served as the electoral vehicle for segregationist Alabama Gov. George Wallace's presidential campaign in 1968.
AIP, currently affiliated with the far-right Constitution Party, has joined in the battle to end illegal immigration in recent months. But while this hard-line party's leaders have enthusiastically endorsed Schwilk, the daughter of the party's founder told reporters that she was "very disturbed" by his appointment. Given Schwilk's political and legal record, Nancy Spirkoff told the North County Times, linking the AIP's name to his is "a blow to the party." Is Jeff Schwilk winning his battle? That's open to debate. But one thing is sure. Despite its record, the SDMM has gotten some traction.
That was especially obvious last November, when KNBC-TV of Los Angeles ran a story on McGonigle Canyon. Using "undercover" footage shot by the station, and clearly inspired by the "Rape Grove" allegations, reporter Ana Garcia did a two-part series that purported to show how the canyon had become a den of "drinking, drug dealing and prostitution." Aside from footage of the canyon, the series focused in on interviews with Julie Adams, the woman who led last fall's effort to "reclaim" the canyon (this was not mentioned in Garcia's piece), and Brook Young. Young is a SDMM associate whose website includes links to an array of hate groups and features videos with celebratory titles like "Commies Get Beat Down."
"Lots of beer drinking and the drunkenness that goes with it, as well as drug dealing and prostitution," Garcia says in her staccato voiceover. "The women are driven into the village in groups, the brothel set up in the bushes." There was just one problem. None of the KNBC's footage showed anything like prostitution, let alone drug dealing or even drinking. Lauren Mack, spokeswoman for the federal immigration office in San Diego, had told reporters earlier that officials were unable to substantiate any complaints of sex trafficking in the canyon. San Diego Police Capt. Boyd Long, who worked with federal officials to carry out undercover surveillance of the canyon, said the very same thing. But none of that seemed to bother KNBC, which ran its piece during sweeps week.
Garcia did cut away during her first piece at one point to ask Capt. Long about the sex trade: "And what about the prostitution we caught on tape?"
"I don't know that prostitutes are going in there," the police captain replied. "I'd like to see any evidence or video footage you have."