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Operation Sovereignty

A Bang, a Protest, and a Whimper

Sept. 11 dawned grey and drizzly in South Texas, the overcast sky an ominous sign for Operation Sovereignty, the planned eight-week "observation and reporting vigil" along the Texas-Mexico border, jointly conducted by the Minuteman Project, the Texas Minutemen, and American Border Patrol.

Operation Sovereignty was timed to run symbolically from the anniversary of the 9/11 attacks through Nov. 7, Election Day. But by any standard, the two-month mission failed to live up to Jim Gilchrist's goal of loudly "alert[ing] Americans of the fact that 21st century Minutemen/women/children must help secure U.S. borders and encourage the enforcement of U.S. immigration, labor and tax laws."

Media interest had noticeably flagged since earlier Minuteman operations. Activist numbers and energy were also lower than expected. Those volunteers who did show up -- media estimates ranged from 200 to 500 -- reportedly submitted to a background check (cost $50) that vetted them for extremist ties, although this requirement was waived, according to the Minuteman Project website, "on a case by case basis for those with proof of a prior vetting process and identification card from a known and recognized Minuteman organization."

The pre-launch hype was nothing short of military in tone and scope, with the Minuteman Project website announcing the formation of "specialized units," including: Medical (physicians, EMTs), Reconnaissance ("Long-Range Recon Experience"), HAM (licensed radio communication specialists), Air Wing (pilots providing rotary engine or helicopter craft), LEO (any law enforcement experience, including military police), Legal (attorneys of any legal discipline), and Videography (seasoned camera experience).

As for the "air-wing," it didn't mount much of a national defense. On Sept. 29, a Minuteman-affiliated local police officer, Tom Bishop, lost fuel pressure on his Brantly helicopter and crashed five miles outside Carrizo Springs, Texas, 35 miles northeast of the Texas-Mexico border. Bishop, who was flying reconnaissance for "Operation Sovereignty" was not injured; his helicopter, however, was destroyed.

"I hadn't gotten there yet [for duty]," Bishop, 64, told a local reporter. "We were about 20 miles from the command point." After the crash, Bishop said the group was looking into acquiring alternative aircraft.

While local Border Patrol agents did not report a single Minuteman-assisted apprehension, a handful of "Operation Sovereignty" volunteers were spotted in mid-October rallying outside an El Paso courthouse in support of two Border Patrol agents, who were convicted of shooting a suspected Mexican drug runner in the buttocks as he fled south across the border in February.

Days after the El Paso rally, the Minutemen and affiliated groups had reportedly vacated Laredo altogether. On Oct. 19, the El Paso Times reported that "weeks before the scheduled end of the Minuteman Project's Laredo effort, the volunteer force has quietly left the area." According to Tim Bueler, Jim Gilchrist's spokesman, the volunteers "claimed victory."