Part 5 of 5
In recent years the desolate desert region around the border between Mexico and the U.S. state of Arizona has become the major crossing zone for illegal aliens and drug smugglers. The unlawful entrants have caused damage to private property, national parks and Indian reservation lands along the border. Some private citizens have formed vigilante groups to oppose the border incursions.
A major battle is under way in the deserts and mountains of southern Arizona. This area, which draws tourists from all over the world, also draws drug smugglers and illegal immigrants. It is seen as a battlefield by the U.S. Border Patrol, which is implementing a major crackdown here.
But many ranchers and groups favoring immigration restriction also see this as their battleground. Some ranchers have armed themselves and detained illegal immigrants on their land. The ranchers say the migrants have damaged their property.
Among other groups on the prowl are private citizens organized under the name "Civil Homeland Defense," a group based in the Old West mining town of Tombstone, about 40 kilometers north of the border. The editor of the weekly newspaper "The Tombstone Tumbleweed," Chris Simcox, started the group a few years ago after a visit to Organ Pipe National monument, which is on the border.
"During a two-week vacation there camping, I encountered five paramilitary groups of drug dealers just driving caravans of vehicles right into this country. I also encountered a lot of migrants coming through that area. I went to the park rangers and I challenged them and then I went to the Border Patrol and challenged them as well," says Mr. Simcox. "I said national security is the number one issue right now and here I encounter hundreds of migrants and heavily armed drug dealers bringing caravans of who-knows-what across our border."
Mr. Simcox says that since the terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001, he has been especially concerned about terrorists crossing the border. He says he and his armed citizen volunteers find more than Mexican migrants on their patrols along the border. "We have found people from Poland, a lot of people from the former Soviet Union, Kazakhstan, Bosnia, Belarus, Haitians," he says. "People from all over the world know that Mexico is such an unstable, corrupt government and country that you can buy your way into the United States by coming through Mexico."
U.S. Border Patrol officials say they are aware of the threat and are taking measures to block the illegal flow. They also say Mexico is fully cooperating in the effort to stop terrorists from crossing the border. David Aguilar, chief of the Tucson Border Patrol district, says citizens' groups should not take the law into their own hands. "We do not support, we do not condone some of the activities that have occurred out there in the past, especially in the area of non-enforcement detentions," he says.
Mr. Aguilar says law enforcement officials must take into account the rights of both the people being detained and the ones doing the detaining.
Agents in the field also express nervousness about the citizens' groups. "You never know, even agents, never know what type of group you are going to come across," says Agent Andrea Zortman, who works in the Douglas, Arizona sector. "They could be individuals who have drugs. They could be armed. They could be anything. Border Patrol agents go through an academy, five months long, and we are taught to deal with situations. Just for the safety of Simcox and other groups, we would prefer that they call us and let us handle it."
Chris Simcox says his volunteers, although armed, do not detain border crossers. He says many volunteers are former law enforcement officers who understand how to deal with such situations and that they follow the procedures he has developed for the group.
"I worked with attorneys, land rights people and we developed a model where we work within the law and we go out in the field and work directly on the border," says Mr. Simcox. "We locate and identify where groups are coming across and then we notify the authorities and they come and do the apprehensions."
Critics of Mr. Simcox and others who carry weapons on the border say they are dangerous vigilantes who are motivated by racism and xenophobia. Mr. Simcox denies this, saying he has sympathy for Mexican immigrants and wishes their country did more for them. Last year, federal agents arrested Chris Simcox for carrying a firearm on national park land. He says he was in an unmarked area and did not realize he had stepped into the park, but he was convicted on two federal misdemeanor counts and is now serving a two-year probation sentence, during which he is not allowed to carry a gun.
Mr. Simcox claims the arresting officers targeted him because of his political activism and he says he now sees the government as a possible enemy rather than as an ally in the fight to secure the nation's borders.
Photos Courtesy of Greg Flakus