This Ain't No Picnic: Minutemen on Patrol
The sinister legions of the 'Drug Cartel' have little to fear from the latest incarnation of border hysteria. As for the rest of us ...
On the first of October, if you wanted to contact the Texas Minutemen for a look at their El Paso maneuvers, you rang up Shannon McGauley. The Dallas private investigator and former bail bondsman was terse and mysterious with his directions, as if setting up a payoff. "Call me at 11 tomorrow, I'll send someone to meet you." Tomorrow came: "Drive to the Fort Hancock exit. They'll be there." A third phone call led in turn to another set of cryptic directions, this time a woman's voice: "Take 20 toward El Paso, to where the wooden telephone poles turn to steel." There, on a generous expanse of privately owned land 50 miles southeast of El Paso, is what McGauley calls his "Command Center": Two navy blue silos bridged by a large hay-scattered barn.
Our Mission: Defending America's Southern Border From the Drug Cartel.
Laine Lawless, who drove all the way from Arizona to help out, modeled a "We Welcome All Species" shirt from Roswell. "I infiltrate the open-border lobby," she explained, describing her work with the group BorderGuardians.org. "I dress in disguise, go to their meetings, and post the stupid things they say on the Internet." Asked about that open border the lefties idealized, Lawless stuck out her tongue and said, "Eeew! Do you want to have drug smugglers as your neighbors?" On the gray-haired woman's hip was a handgun she described as a "Glock before there was a Glock." "The people who carry drugs, and who sell them, are armed," Lawless continued. "And they are not nice people." A Suburban, dubbed by its driver the "War Wagon," came dusting up the drive carrying Bob, who declined to give his last name for the protection of his wife, who otherwise might become a target of "the drug cartels" and Terry Trautman, a local gunsmith. They had just posted "No Trespassing" signs at all four entrances to the property. "Says it in English, Arabic, Chinese, and Spanish," Bob hooted. "We've got it covered!"
"I need someone on the other side," shouted a man in rainbow-reflected wraparound shades as he climbed atop a silo, swinging cable wires down to a group awaiting further instruction. Funded primarily by McGauley who says he's sunk at least $20,000 into the operation the Command Center would soon be equipped with wireless internet, cell phone reception, and a giant radio antenna for communication with other Minuteman groups, scattered throughout the surrounding counties and neighboring New Mexico. "He's here, but he's not here," McGauley warned about the telecommunications expert. "I needed him to come here, 'cause I needed a monkey."
Sucking an ever-present cigarette in the late afternoon sun, McGauley explained that the reason some guys are unwilling to divulge their identities is not because they are scared what people will think. Rather, the big fear is safety the word is the "Drug Cartel" has posted a $25,000 bounty on the head of each and every Minuteman. Though the Minuteman position is to end all illegal immigration "We're not against immigration, we're against illegal immigration," is the refrain it was the Drug Cartel an apparently shared obsession that hogged most of the conversation at the Command Center. "They come across along here," said McGauley, pointing toward the levees that border El Porvenir, Mexico. "You can tell they're drug smugglers because they carry backpacks."
McGauley hesitated a moment before adding, thoughtfully, "Sometimes it's just people carrying clothes."
"It's like a friggin' freeway," spat Trautman. "Just the other day, this old lady got threatened by one of 'em. They came right on in to her house, held a knife to her throat and said, 'We're gonna be taking drugs through here. If you tell anybody, we'll kill you.'" While we waited for sunset, there were dozens of equally unverifiable tales: how one local woman refuses to leave her house alone at night anymore; how another, who used to enjoy jogging around her ranch, has been forced, by her fear of the Drug Cartel, to buy a treadmill.
Though the men were mostly strangers, the eight or so gathered around the silos engaged in a lighthearted camaraderie as though they were old friends, swapping stories about run-ins with "illegals" and telling jokes that had everyone cracking up. Bob and Terry were the only local volunteers, and they both claimed responsibility for convincing the "big farmers" in the community to offer up their ranches to the Minutemen. The others were from the Dallas area, Austin, and Louisiana, and more were expected from as far as Indiana. McGauley said that 200 men were signed up to volunteer throughout the month, but he wasn't sure how many would actually be able to make the trip. "My dream is to be able to pay for them to come here," he said. "I'd like to be able to make it really easy for people to come on down."
There were three other men on the ranch that day, busy digging a plumbing trench for a trailer in which one of them planned to live. I asked them what they thought about all this, the guys in their Command Center and all the Drug Cartel talk. They laughed dismissively. One man, who lived on an adjacent property, said that living there was neither scary nor dangerous. And, though he thought there are problems with the way the border is run, he couldn't elaborate. "Something needs to be done about it," he mused. "But I just don't know if these are the guys to do it."
Ambushed by Communists
After the Drug Cartel, the next most-favorite subject was the American Civil Liberties Union in particular, Ray Ybarra. The Stanford Law student and Ira Glasser Racial Justice Fellow is the founder of the ACLU Legal Observers Project, the scourge of the Minutemen's existence. "I hear he wears a purse," laughed one, as the others slapped their knees. "A man-purse!" Lawless, who claimed she gets an "intellectual and political orgasm" from spying on the open-border lobby (e.g., the ACLU), described Ybarra and his kind as "playing the race card" by instigating chants of "White Power!" at pro-Minuteman rallies. McGauley, a portly fellow whose heavy breathing complements his endless smoking, also claimed to have a photo of an unidentified ACLU legal observer smoking pot. "Do you light a cigarette like this?" he asked knowingly, cupping his hand and holding an imaginary lighter to his pinkie. "I don't think so."
As night settled in, at about 9pm, McGauley and his crew busied themselves making their official Texas Minuteman identification badges with their makeshift DMV setup. They had promised the laminated photo IDs on lanyards to the El Paso Co. Sheriff's Department, along with a list of all volunteer names, birth dates, and driver license numbers. Outside in the dark, Bob and Terry fiddled with Bob's newest toy a heat-seeking device that runs on a nine-volt battery.
Suddenly, Terry tensed. "What the hell was that?" he asked, whipping out his handgun. Everyone sprang into action, walking blindly into the dark, calling out to watch out for snakes. "Look at 'em, they're swarming out there," Bob stage-whispered excitedly, his rifle resting on his shoulder. Below the truck traffic still visible on I-10, there were headlights in the distance. Someone was driving, very slowly, down Route 20. "Get on the radio and tell Ray to call the sheriff," Bob commanded in a calm, measured voice. "Tell him to get on the phone now, and tell him that we are in no immediate danger, but that there is ACLU/LULAC activity." The telecommunications expert ran into the barn to get a radio as Terry paced back and forth. A.E. Smith, a recent UT graduate whom everyone called "the Fonz" for no apparent reason, clicked his magazine into place.
"What should I say again?" whispered the telecommunications expert, radio pressed to his chin. "Tell him that we're being ambushed by communists!" exclaimed Bob in an excited whisper. "Tell him to tell Sheriff Leo that we're in no immediate danger, but there is activity!" When someone pointed out that they were out of the El Paso Co. Sheriff's jurisdiction, the men replied, nearly in unison, "It doesn't matter."
"He's the first sheriff to welcome the Minutemen," McGauley would explain later. "The most important thing is not to embarrass him." Asked what might embarrass the sheriff, McGauley shrugged, referring cryptically only to an "incident." The Sheriff's Office declined to be any more forthcoming, instead e-mailing a canned response that had been released months ago, when the news broke that the sheriff was unwilling to denounce the Minutemen. In that statement, after describing the Minutemen as "concerned citizens [who] consider themselves an extension of a neighborhood watch group," Sheriff Samaniego said simply, "They call the Border Patrol when they see someone trying to enter our country illegally. They sit in lawn chairs, armed with binoculars and a cell phone." Samaniego continued, "I don't want [the Minutemen] here. I can't stop people from coming to El Paso, Texas. I welcome the message they represent that our open borders have to be controlled for safety."
The telecommunications expert slowly repeated Bob's instructions to the Minuteman stationed at the Fort Hancock Motel. Meanwhile the Fonz, accompanied by his girlfriend Julie who said she joined the patrol because she was sick of speaking Spanish at the pharmacy where she works drove down to the end of the driveway to check out the action. "Aw, what's he doing?" moaned Trautmann. "Why not just invite 'em on in!" Minutes later, the Fonz radioed back that he had spotted a white SUV with its lights off and Department of Homeland Security plates. "What's the DHS doing sneaking around with their lights off?" Bob inquired suspiciously to no one in particular. "I thought we were on the same side."
After some reflection, the group generally concluded that the ACLU had faked the DHS government plates in order to pull off an ambush of the unsuspecting Minutemen. Luckily, the Fonz had scared them off. The Fonz himself was a good deal more skeptical and, despite his official allegiance, spent much of the evening rolling his eyes at the paranoid antics of his elders. At one point he muttered cynically, "Before the end of the night, the ACLU will have brought down the Twin Towers."
Shovels, Sí! ... Backpacks, No!
With the excitement momentarily subsided, and the Sheriff's Office duly notified of the false alarm, it was time to set out on patrol. After a stop at Subway to pick up provisions, the War Wagon led A.E.'s black pickup a couple of miles past Hideaway Lakes, a popular camping spot, and into Art Ivey's Rio Bravo Farms pecan orchard. The cars slowed midway down the long drive as Bob, via walkie-talkie, talked A.E. through his first patrol. "Okay, now. This is a waiting game," he explained soothingly. "You just sit tight there, partner. We won't leave you."
"So, I just wait here until I see somebody?" a nervous Smith radioed back.
"Tell him about the workers," Trautman reminded Bob, between bites of his sub.
"Oh, yeah. Okay, listen, Fonz. There might be guys out working tonight, 'cause they're irrigating. Which is a good thing, 'cause we'll hear 'em splashing around. Keep your eyes peeled for someone with a backpack. Over."
"Tell him, don't shoot if they're carrying a shovel," suggested Terry helpfully.
"You there, Fonz? Since there're workers out tonight, they might be carrying shovels."
Silence. Finally, A.E. responded. "So, look for a guy with a backpack. If he's carrying a shovel, he's okay."
"Roger that," said Bob, as he got out of the car and stepped into the desert midnight.
The patrol had begun.
For the next three hours, Bob and Terry stood around smoking and shooting the shit in whispers, while the earnest A.E., who so desperately wanted to spot an interloper, kept radioing in from his position 100 feet away to tell them, exasperated, that he could hear every word they were saying. At one point, A.E. and Julie thought they heard voices, "deep male voices," coming from their left. Freaked out, A.E. radioed in and Bob calmly told him to drive up to join the others, immediately.
"I don't mean to be chickenshit, partner," A.E. said after he pulled up. "But we're sitting there in the dark and we're hearing voices. We can't see jack!" Bob went to the War Wagon and took out his night-vision goggles, which, to A.E.'s dismay, were only Generation 1 and severely outdated: Seen through them, the world was a mottled and grainy green. Once in a while, the crack of a stick or a splashing sound would send them all to their knees, as they whipped out their guns and shone their spotlights toward the trees. There was a lot of whispered "Shh, shh, shh" and "What was that?" before Bob, fully equipped with his heat-seeking device and not-quite-cutting-edge night-vision goggles became absolutely certain there was someone out in the grove.
Someone radioed McGauley, who was alternately referred to as Our Glorious Leader, the Grand Poobah, and when he wasn't around Cheese-Dick. McGauley supposedly contacted the Border Patrol and was on his way. After a half hour or so, Bob had become convinced that there were two people hiding from them in the night, and that they were on the move. "We got 'em on the run now!" he whispered excitedly, as at a normal conversational volume Terry complained about Cheese-Dick's slow response. Finally, McGauley himself arrived with his state-of-the-art, $2,700 Generation 3 night-vision rifle sight sans rifle. Border Patrol was on the case, he claimed, and he knew so because he had passed a BP vehicle on his way here and they had flashed their lights at each other a secret code he shared with them, apparently. After more chatting and standing around, Bob was back on the hunt, aiming his heat-seeker into the darkness.
Suddenly, the heat began to move, up into the trees. Everybody was silent and serious, focused on a tree about 20 feet away, certain their prey was trapped. A slight breeze rustled the leaves. The Minutemen crouched. They continued pointing the spotlight, two guns, and the heat-seeker at the same tree until about 2am, when A.E. informed his buddies that Julie had a plane to catch in the morning.
With barely a second thought, the boys called it a night. They left the tree, and whatever or whoever was up it if anything to live in peace.
As we drove back to the Command Center, McGauley seemed satisfied with the Minutemen's night's work. "We're getting everything we want," he said. "We're embarrassing the Bush administration, and we're putting pressure on the lawmakers." He went on to talk about the next patrol they had planned for April a "turkey shoot" in which the Texas Minutemen, by their placement along the darkened border, would create a "funnel" through which all human traffic would have to pass with more Minutemen, and, he hoped, Border Patrol there to greet them.
Answering the Call
Southern border hysteria has a long and dishonorable history, but this latest, half-sinister, half-absurd version began in earnest last year, after former schoolteacher Chris Simcox up and left his California home to relocate to Tombstone, Ariz. Simcox briefly acquired the town's local paper, and on Oct. 24, 2002, the front page of the Tombstone Tumbleweed screamed, "ENOUGH IS ENOUGH! ... A PUBLIC CALL TO ARMS! CITIZENS BORDER PATROL MILITIA NOW FORMING!"
The call, made by a man who has since been quoted calling Mexican immigrants "the enemy" and immigration rights activists "domestic terrorists," reached, among others, Jim Gilchrist, a Vietnam vet living in California. Gilchrist, a CPA and former journalist who is now a candidate for California's 48th Congressional District (Orange County), came to Simcox with his brainchild: the Minuteman Project, featuring hundreds of brave American patriots monitoring a 9-mile stretch of Arizona's San Pedro Valley. Through Simcox's tireless promotion, word of the Minutemen spread, and people started calling. Construction workers, sick of "Mexicans stealing their jobs," called to defend their way of life. People tired of reading and hearing languages other than English called to preserve their culture. (Gilchrist, for what it's worth, lives in Aliso Viejo, Calif.) People who believe the entire southwestern region of the United States is under attack by "La Raza" called and volunteered to defend their homeland against the reclamation of "Aztlan," the ancient indigenous kingdom of Mexico. And finally, people who concur viscerally with the Bush administration's argument that military force, everywhere, is the only way to win the War on Terror, gathered up their guns and binoculars and heat-seeking devices and headed down to the California, New Mexico, Arizona, and Texas borders to stop al Qaeda from tap-dancing across and into our shopping malls and living rooms, unopposed.
Very quickly, there were inevitable fallings-out among the faithful. Simcox and Gilchrist soon split their followers into two groups: Gilchrist focusing on "Internal Vigilance Operations" (pressuring companies that hire undocumented workers), with "The Minuteman Project"; and Simcox maintaining the vigilante patrols with "The Minuteman Civil Defense Corps." It was the MCDC Web site that promoted the most ambitious Minuteman action yet Secure Our Borders which boasts a supposed 15,000 volunteers posted along the Mexican border from California to Texas, as well as a smattering on the Canadian border. (For some unstated reason, eternal Minuteman vigilance against alien invasion and the al Qaedan hordes fades in direct proportion to the distance from Mexico.)
McGauley has since had a falling out with Simcox, and he recently distributed an e-mail decrying Simcox, his flunkies, and their enthusiasm for potentially murderous "light-ups" of illegal aliens.
"We very well may find dead illegal aliens on CHD's [Civil Homeland Defense, the name of Simcox's group before he met Gilchrist] watch," he wrote. "If you joined CHD you will be liable and prosecuted as sure as I'm writing this so I advise you to resign asap." The two started to drift apart in April, during the first Minuteman Project, and things just haven't been the same since. Simcox, claiming that McGauley and his gang are miffed because they were terminated from MCDC, says the Texas Minutemen are engaged in "sour-grapes, vindictive smear campaign." He then went on to smear them right back. "Some of them are criminals," he fumed over the phone last week. "They have criminal backgrounds. Some of them have purposefully destroyed water stations set out by humanitarian groups. These are all people who are truly dangerous themselves." Connie Hair, MCDC's media contact will only say, firmly, that the men are not working together. In any case, the two have been successful, at least in public relations terms, in marshaling their troops of outraged U.S. citizens in pursuit of the same goal: The complete militarization of the border.
A History of Vigilantism
Despite all the talk-show amplification and the end-of-civilization rhetoric, this is nothing new. There have been white men playing cowboy on the U.S./Mexican border for as long as there has been a border. "I think the granddaddy of vigilante groups, as far as Texas is concerned, would be the KKK," Ray Ybarra explained quietly from his tiny office in the El Paso Farm Workers' Union. "There was a case called the Vietnamese Fishermen against the Ku Klux Klan [Vietnamese Fisherman Association, et al., Plaintiffs, v. The Knights of the Ku Klux Klan, et al., Defendants, 1981], and it describes how the KKK was training a militia and that part of their training was border patrols, like the Minutemen are doing now." Moreover, it's not only notorious hate groups like the KKK that have a history of targeting people of color, but more storied and honored official authorities like the Texas Rangers.
"The Texas Rangers were known as this sort of outlaw vigilante group who targeted Latinos," Ybarra continued. "And this history of vigilantism towards Latino people isn't recognized by the Minutemen. They come down here without realizing the fear that is in this community." Raised on the border in Douglas, Ariz., Ybarra has watched the dividing line change from what was simply a strip of land where he played with friends to a huge metal wall defended by people with guns. "Since the militarization of the border, there have been 3,500 deaths," he explained. "It seems like the only solution that people are coming up with now is more militarization, which is only going to lead to more deaths."
The most recent militarization that Ybarra describes began in the mid-Nineties when the Mexican economy and peso collapsed post-NAFTA causing more Mexican and Central American citizens to attempt to cross the border than ever. In response, then-Border Patrol Chief Sylvestre Reyes, now El Paso's Democratic congressman, implemented Operation Hold the Line hoping to apprehend migrants right at the border rather than, as in previous practice, arresting people once they had entered the U.S. Operation Hold the Line indeed deterred people from crossing the heavily guarded stretches of border in the city of El Paso, but it did little to stop the flow of illegal immigrants. Instead, the increased police presence in the city simply pushed migrants farther out, into the more dangerous rural areas of desert, where migrating people on foot routinely die of dehydration and exposure. Similar results have occurred in Arizona and elsewhere. This year alone, a record number of 456 people are known to have died trying to make their way into the U.S. on foot.
Meanwhile, Back in the Danger Zone
While McGauley and his Texas Minutemen were preparing for their monthlong protest on the border, Ray Ybarra and his ACLU Legal Observers were preparing for one of their own. In addition to training small groups of concerned citizens to monitor the Minutemen, Claudia Guevara, who has worked with Ybarra for the past year, had been doing community outreach for weeks in the area surrounding El Paso. At a meeting in Fort Hancock attended mostly by women, Guevara heard the community's concerns with the impending vigilante patrols.
"They were really upset, because their husbands work on these ranches," Guevara said. "One of these women was furious, because her husband sometimes works at night. She wanted to know: How were they going to know who's who?" Guevara also pointed out that walking across the border was something that the people in the area do, and have always done, as a routine part of life. "The ports of entry close at 10pm, and sometimes kids go over to party past 10pm, so then they'll just walk over. It's illegal to do that, but they've been doing it forever."
The ridiculous "patrol" that I witnessed is a perfect example of the dangerous absurdity of the Minutemen: Between the campers, the workers, and the kids who might have been drunkenly stumbling home carrying backpacks! all manner of folk could have easily spooked the jumpy hunters and gotten themselves shot. The Minutemen are playing soldier, making themselves feel important, deluding themselves into thinking their actions are actually making their families safer. The idea that these men, as Sen. Bill Frist suggests, are "filling a gap that needs to be filled" on the border is preposterous. But the literal, "military" effectiveness of the Minutemen though it is likely to cause only more deaths and injuries among largely defenseless migrants is not really the issue. Far more ominous are the xenophobic political careers like those of Gilchrist, Rep. Tom Tancredo of Colorado, and their ilk, being built upon the fanaticism of the vigilantes and on the backs of destitute working families fleeing northward in search of work.
Roughly speaking, the Minutemen are to today's anti-immigrant politicians as the Klan was once to the Deep South White Citizens Councils. The Minutemen make loud, fanatical, attention-attracting noise and a few months later, a re-election-campaigning Gov. Rick Perry announces new border "security" measures, including his own expensive high tech toys and the ever-present pressure on the Legislature for new wiretapping authority (to, what, eavesdrop on people hiding in trees?). And above and beyond these political opportunists, the Bush administration which has thus far clucked disapprovingly but very quietly against border vigilantism continues to build international politics based on a volatile combination of official xenophobia and expanding militarism. Currently, there are several pieces of immigration reform legislation looming, each claiming to be the one to "fix" the way the United States treats its immigrants, documented and undocumented.
Recalling what McGauley said driving back from our night in the woods, that the Minutemen were "embarrassing the Bush administration" and "putting pressure on the lawmakers," one can only hope he is right. Only, not in the manner he intends.
*Oops! The following correction ran in the November 4, 2005 issue: In last week's "This Ain't No Picnic: Minutemen on Patrol," we incorrectly stated that Shannon McGauley wrote the e-mail that warned of Chris Simcox as a danger. The e-mail, written by Max Worthington of the Los Angeles County Minuteman Association, was actually forwarded by McGauley. Also, Crisol Pro Educacion y Cultura airs segments of a community radio program on KOOP 91.7FM from 2-4pm every Friday, not daily. The segments air during show Formas en el Aire. The Chronicle regets these errors.