In spite of U.S. efforts to crack down on illegal immigration and drug smuggling on the U.S-Mexico border, recent reports from U.S. law enforcement agencies indicate such activity is again on the increase. There's also been an increase in violent clashes between U.S. agents and Mexican smugglers in the border area. Some property owners on the U.S. side of the border have taken up arms as a result of what they describe as threats to their lives and livelihood.
Ranchers and landowners along the border in southeastern Arizona, have literally taken up arms to protect themselves from what they call "an invasion." They say illegal immigrants along with drug smugglers have made life dangerous along the boundary line and that the passage of so many people has cost millions of dollars in damage.
But Miguel Escobar, the Mexican consul general in the Arizona border town of Douglas, is concerned that armed vigilantes could create a climate of violence in the area. "There could be far more violence as a result of militia groups stirring up anti-immigrant sentiment," he said. "The inflammatory rhetoric of some groups can lead to nothing good."
One of the main groups operating on the border is the Ranch Rescue network. Spokesman Jack Foote, speaking to VOA by telephone from his home in Abilene, Texas, said his group is not against immigrants, but is against violation of property rights. Mr. Foote said his movement is growing fast. "We started in June of 2000. We finished our last field mission just last month, in October. In our first field mission, the first day, we had six people," he said. "This last one, we had 40. We are expecting that for our next mission, we will have over 100. So, we are coming to the border, and we are coming in increasing numbers."
Mr. Foote said ranchers have had to take up arms because law enforcement agencies have failed to help them. He said ranchers have suffered damage to fences, buildings, irrigation systems and livestock, and, in some cases, have been physically threatened by intruders.
For this reason, Mr. Foote said, property owners have had to take up weapons. "They are all armed down there. It is just considered an absolute necessity because of the rampant lawlessness that exists in these border county rural areas," he said. "You are not talking about an environment where you can pick up a phone and call for law enforcement to come and protect you. It does not exist. Law enforcement response times, when you can actually get a hold of someone, are measured in hours and days, not minutes."
Mr. Foote accepts the use of the word "vigilante" to describe his actions, but only in what he calls the "positive sense of the word." He said Ranch Rescue volunteers are defending property and upholding the law, but they are not dispensing justice. He said they sometimes detain people, but they hold them for law enforcement agents.
But human rights groups say the vigilantes appeal to racist instincts, and that they encourage violence toward immigrants. The U.S. House of Representatives is expected to hold hearings on the vigilante situation on the border when the new Congress goes into session in January.