Bordering Chaos: A report from the birth-pangs of America's Citizen Border Patrol Militias

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by Christopher Ketcham

EDITOR'S NOTE: This article was originally published in a shortened, much-bowdlerized form in

I camped out in April 2005 a mile north of the Mexican border, in the foothills of the Huachuca Mountains of Arizona, and heard two voices talking in the darkness. They were Minutemen, so-called after the nascent Minuteman Project, the “citizen border patrol” movement that wants to put a stop to illegal immigration. A wise old voice said, “Hell, when the government destroyed the unions in the 1980s, they destroyed all those protections that people had fought for to keep their wages fair. Mexicans ain’t got no protections at all. So the wages keep gettin’ pushed down and down. The Mexicans showed up twenty years ago and said, ‘What can we do?’ Dry-wall, the crap-end of the business, back-breaking, the worst. White dry-wallers charged $15 an hour. The Mexicans did it for $10 an hour. The next wave said, ‘We’ll do it for $7 an hour.’ Dry wall illegals today get $4 an hour.”

In the daylight, a Minuteman named Roy, from Midland, Tex., who voted for John Kerry, tells me he came to take a stand against the illegals who he claimed had stolen American jobs, depressed American wages, gutted the American middle class. A 33-year-old electrician named Johnny Petrello, who lives on the Arizona border, tells me, “In 1990, I was making $15 to $20 an hour on construction sites. Now I make $8 an hour. The issue is not the Mexicans: they’re good workers, they show up on time, work all day and go home.” Globalization, in short, was the issue. Globalization – labor’s global race to the bottom – was what sent the Minutemen by the hundreds to secure the borders in a borderless world, driven by the same vast pressures that drive the millions of those migrants every year inexorably northward chasing the jobs that the “free market” destroyed in their towns and on their farms.

But the Minutemen for the most part did not conceive of the problem on this scale, or if they did, it was haltingly, blindly. So instead they would seal the little stretch of fence from the Huachuca Mountains to the town of Naco, 30 miles out of 2,225, sealing it the way the Border Patrol, undermanned and overworked, could not, by standing guard at half-mile intervals all day and night, some carrying pistols, some carrying only binoculars, some holding scribbled signs, perched in lawn-chairs, some fat and stupid, some old and grim or worried and depressed, some benighted – Mexican migrants, the worst of the Minutemen cried, brought leprosy and plague and crime waves and threatened the “cultural dominance” of “white America” – and all of them angry, hating their government for a betrayal that they were only beginning to understand.
The line where they held the vigil is always shocking for newcomers to see, who can’t quite believe that the four dingleberry strands of wire, strung on metal posts, this barbed piece of junk, is our “border.” But the falling-down fence, backed annually by a billion and a half dollars in funding to the agents of the Border Patrol, persists as the first line of defense in two dead-end wars that define existence on both sides of the border, always tragically. The primary and better known of these wars, the one against illegal drugs, is a stone-cold failure, a systemic social crack-up whose cost in pain and suffering and treasure is possibly without peer in American history. We all know that story.

The other war, the war on illegal immigrants, is no less troubling but more complexly so. Nowhere perhaps is this more evident than in the Minuteman Project, so-named for obvious reasons of propaganda, invoking the country’s first citizen militia, the revolution its men led in battle. The Project, billed to last the entirety of April of 2005 (and since spawning multiple similar citizen actions on the border, e.g. last fall’s Operation Sovereignty), commenced operations on April Fool’s Day, with a fanfare and “orientation” in the cardboard cowboy town of Tombstone, in Cochise County, where along with a hundred or so of the first wave of volunteers, there descended a locust swarm of media that outnumbered the volunteers two to one. Primed by past stories of anti-Mexican vigilantism on the Arizona border, the reporters expected – wanted – violence, something good for the cameras, which of course meant horror for migrants at the hands of the Minutemen: a beating, a shooting, a stabbing. Unfortunately for the scrum of cameramen and photographers in the dust, the movement’s key organizer and barker, a hyperactive and bone-thin 43-year-old named Chris Simcox, who was once a schoolteacher, intoned on a feed to Lou Dobbs that his intentions were peaceful.

It had taken four years for Simcox to arrive here, live on CNN, an odyssey that began with the fall of the towers on Sept. 11 – when Simcox went crazy at the sight, abandoned his family in California, disappeared into the desert – and which peaked with an epiphany in a tent on a mountain. He arrived in Tombstone from his wandering in 2001 armed with a message and money enough to buy a local ailing newspaper, the Tombstone Tumbleweed, where he front-paged his plea: “A public call to arms! Citizens border patrol now forming! Protect your country in a time of war!” He exhorted Americans to “wake up” because “we cannot rely on law enforcement to enforce the laws.” In an open letter to George W. Bush, who he calls “one of the most evil men,” Simcox warned, “You can stop me by throwing me in jail, killing me or otherwise….What you cannot change is my passion.” In January 2003, federal park rangers arrested Simcox after he wandered onto parkland “hunting for Mexicans,” as a local reporter described. In his possession was a loaded pistol, two walkie-talkies, a police scanner, a cellphone, a digital camera and what appeared to be a toy figurine of Wyatt Earp on a horse.

But convicted on a misdemeanor firearms charge and serving out a year of probation, he’d put away his pistol, re-angled the rhetoric and in the process netted to the cause some 1,700 volunteers, each pledged to a few days or a week or even the entire month of picket duty on the border. “This is the Boston tea-party!” he told me, standing among his followers. “We are re-establishing the can-do attitude! We’re tough and tenacious but humane and civilized. We are the American spirit. We say no, we mean no. The word is temerity – rock-solid character! We are challenging two governments. This is about will.” High drama suits Simcox, and I get the feeling that even when alone talking to his cat he acts as if addressing a sea of people. And now indeed it wasn’t only Lou Dobbs and CNN who listened: by the second week of April 2005 he was talking live almost every night to the millions of listeners on Sean Hannity; reporters from Newsweek, Time, BBC, Mother Jones, Rolling Stone, Harper’s, the big networks, the little networks, awaited their turn at his side.


I got to know Simcox in 2003, when I was wandering around the desert looking for border stories. The place was full of bad news, which was not new; it was as dysfunctional as it had been for decades. But in recent years Border Patrol had stepped up enforcement in the populous border cities of Texas and California – warrens like El Paso and Tijuana that offered an easy crossing – and migrants were increasingly bottlenecked in southern Arizona, along remote, waterless, sunboiled paths, a stretch of desert Spanish explorers centuries ago rightly dubbed “El Camino del Diablo.” Of the 1.1 million illegal immigrants captured during 2004, just over half attempted to cross in Arizona. On the border’s entire length, at least 2,500 migrants have died in the crossing since 1994, most of them in Arizona. The tragedy of this human flood, needless to say, has resulted in more problems for Arizona’s cadre of Border Patrol agents, who in greater numbers than ever were being shot at, stoned, ambushed, both by migrants and drug traffickers. In 2004, there were 118 assaults on border agents in the 30 miles of the Naco area alone. In 2002, a U.S. Park Ranger was killed by AK-47 fire in Organ Pipe Cactus National Monument. In 2003, a Border Patrol agent of Mexican origin was murdered when he went south near Agua Prieta to visit his family. In 2004, near Douglas, Ariz., Agua Prieta’s sister town, a man in his trailer home exchanged fire with narcotraficantes who in retaliation burned to the ground an adjacent trailer on the man’s property. Mexican military and law enforcement units working the border were no help; they have been tied to assault, robbery and kidnapping incidents (including, to take one of the most egregious examples, the 2004 kidnapping of a family of five in Candeleria, Tex.). According to an investigation by the Washington Times, drug lords spend some $500 million a year in bribes and payoffs to the Mexican military; as early as 1998, DEA investigators recommended the U.S. no longer share intelligence with Mexican lawmen for fear of compromise.

Gangs that once moved drugs are now also smuggling human beings, taking hold of a business worth billions of dollars. A May 2000 General Accounting Office report noted the “significant and growing problem” of alien smuggling on the U.S.-Mexico border and tied the trend to terrorist threats – this a year and a half before the 9/11 attacks. “[Aliens] are smuggled as part of a criminal or terrorist enterprise that can pose a serious threat to U.S. national security,” the report said.

The huge migrations, the violence, the trafficking is fitting and expectable, for nowhere else on the planet do the riches of the developed world abut directly, and therefore obscenely, the poverty of the developing world. So neither was it strange that on the U.S. side, in answer to threats both real and imagined, a citizen militia movement was spawned, with varying charismatic leaders staking out territory, competing for converts. The extremist nature of the groups tended to discredit them upon inception. Most hearkened to the model of the mythological paladin cowboy of the Old West, in keeping with the history of atavistic violence that made Cochise County infamous not only for the gun-play of Earp and Holliday and the OK Corral but for its anti-Mexican pogroms. As early as the 1850s, lynchings of Mexicans were commonplace here. In the 1970s, the Hanigan clan was accused of imprisoning and torturing Mexicans on their property, but years passed before the family was brought to justice. In the 1980s, a white supremacist group even set up sniper nests across the desert to pick off migrants.

More recently, a surly rancher named Roger Barnett and his brother and several others famously rode on horseback rounding up “narco-state refuse” across Cochise, where the wealthy Barnett was once a sheriff’s deputy (Barnett had every right; he was patrolling his own land). A porcine drunk named Glenn Spencer, who headed up a vigilante group called American Border Patrol, advocated unmanned aerial vehicles in perpetual buzz in the skies over the border. Spencer in a drinking binge accidentally shot up a neighbor’s house in 2003. And then there was the vigilante group known as Ranch Rescue, who perhaps typified the old school of citizen militia: manned by ex-military, highly weaponized, led by the baby-faced blowhard Jack Foote, who talked of invading Mexico and killing the leaders (Foote was a big fan of the Iraq occupation). One of Foote’s militiamen had been arrested in early 2003 on assault charges after allegedly pistol-whipping a migrant waylaid deep in the desert; the arrest prompted a civil lawsuit from the Southern Poverty Law Center.

I crashed at the Ranch Rescue compound in Christmas 2003. Other intrepid reporters, having apparently failed to visit the place, talked of great Waco-like works in progress there – helicopter pads, an underground bunker, windmills, big guns mounted on dune buggies – but there was no work. A lot of beer drinking, whiskey sucking, bean eating, interspersed with patrol mornings and evenings; a lot of pot-smoking, which I found strange, as much of Ranch Rescue’s purported mission was to interdict drugs – “Only if it comes in legally do we want it,” the men told me, not realizing the stupidity of what they were saying.

The day after Christmas, six of us went on patrol past midnight, in full fatigues and face-paint, carrying Kalashnikovs and FALs and Galils and Glocks and extra ammo and body armor; one of the men wore a sniper’s ghillie suit, a desert camo get-up webbed and sliced with hundreds of flitting leaf-shapes that with the mask pulled down made him look like Swamp Thing. We followed many little paths in the cold wind, took a knee, listened. One of the men whispered, “I got movement!” Then suddenly the Rescuers were screaming “Alto! Alto!” and charging through the brush with rifles raised, and I could hear a woman cry out in Spanish and a child whimper. There, surrounded in the moonlight, stood a knot of shivering blank-eyed Mexicans – indigentes, Indians from the look of them – a tiny mother, three teen-aged girls and a boy trying to make it north, carrying nothing. They stared like cattle. No one among the Rescuers knew much spanish, so the men’s babbled attempts in the language at first flabbergasted the captives. There was much signing and pointing and “No Mexicanos aqui, por favor,” and then I think the Mexicans understood they would not be beaten or shot or raped, and they smiled with huge terrified smiles when finally the good-looking Ranch Rescuer everyone had dubbed Ken Doll Marine, who was just out of the fighting in Iraq, told the women to get close together so he could snap a photo towering before them with his arms crossed. The Rescuers then gave them water and poundcake and sent them south. Perhaps the poundcake was a nice show for the reporter on the ride-along. The whole affair was disturbing and kind of tawdry.

One of the Ranch Rescuers, a little guy from North Dakota nicknamed Billy Bonny, felt it. Billy sat on a stone looking deflated with his shotgun and his desert slouch hat and a bandolier of shiny 12 gauge rounds. “I didn’t think they’d be so…small,” he said. Back at the ranch, we smoked victory cigars for the occasion, shot whiskey, and an ex-Army Ranger named Rick Spanbauer and I ate psychedelic mushrooms. “I’ve been doing this for two months,” said Spanbauer, who was wounded in Afghanistan during fighting in 2002. “I got bored after the services. I’m bored! I’m a sniper. I shoot people! I didn’t come here for a selfless act.” He smiled in his honesty. Ken Doll Marine, who wanted fun, changed out of fatigues into jeans and primped himself to “find some Latina pussy” over the border in Agua Prieta. By day, keep them out of my country; by night, fuck them in the ass in theirs. So it went.

Things ended badly with the Rescuers that Christmas and in the months after. I woke up from the nightmare combo of psylocibin, tequila, beer, on a floor strewn with bullets and old socks, remembering a few key things. Billy Bonny and Ken Doll and a third Rescuer had headed below the border to drink. Billy came back alone, scared, mumbling, looking speeded out or coked up – sweat matted his bowl hair, his big eyes batted, he sucked his cheeks, he muttered something about his equipment, a gun, said “gotta go, gotta go” in a lost little murmur, and tore down the road in his junker hatchback, kicking dust in the night, never to return. Rick Spanbauer told Ken Doll and the second cohort to “probe” Billy to “see if he was a FBI plant,” Ken Doll apparently threatened him with some kind of violence below the border, and little Billy freaked. I suspect the men poisoned Billy with a drug. Not long thereafter, Jack Foote and the men had a falling out – they came to hate his petulant ways, his pretentious speeches – and Ranch Rescue fell apart, with the Rescuers threatening, as one of them put it, “to make Jack my prison bitch – I’m gonna come on his face!”


The assault rifles, the invasion of Mexico, the drunks with guns, the pistol-whippings – just the kind of lunacy that Chris Simcox now desperately needed to avoid in the ranks of the Minutemen. “The whole world is watching,” Simcox said. The new face of the movement would be clean and presentable. There would be a filtering of volunteers, phone interviews, background checks. There’d be no long guns – no assault rifles, no shotguns – though the men could wear pistols, and there’d be no capturing or detaining of migrants, no contact at all between the Minutemen and their quarry. Standard operating procedure would be this: you call in the sighting to Border Patrol and leave it at that. If you have the equipment, video-tape everything.

I caught up with Simcox on the 8th day of the Minuteman Project, when he was mustering ten new recruits in the village of Palominas, where there is a dirty little restaurant called the Trading Post that on its land hosts several dirty little RV campers and a porto-san. Beyond was the empty scrub desert and the border two miles away. “The government can’t afford to let this thing succeed,” Simcox told the recruits. “So stick to the S.O.P.: That’s the most important thing. It’s gonna get boring, because we have shut down this border”— this was true: migrant crossings in the Naco sector had dropped to almost nil. “But don’t get suckered into an encounter. People coming across to work are victims. Just as you are. Your most effective weapon is your video camera. Someone approaches, your video camera is on!” I noticed Simcox wore a bullet-proof vest: there had been death threats to the Minutemen, which was at once frightening and titillating for them, some of the men looking pleased at the news. A report in the Washington Times averred that the leaders of the Central American drug gang Mara Salvatrucha, known as MS-13, had called for its members to disperse along the border for armed attacks on the “vigilantes.” According to the Cochise County sheriff’s office, in a report that was never verified and which I came to conclude was in fact bogus, the FBI also had it on good information that a mysterious man named Vega was on his way from Tennessee in a black Escalade – to kill a Minuteman.

I remember once talking with a different Simcox – the version 1.0 who was a mess of contradictions, who hadn’t yet streamlined himself for the press – going out on patrol when no one much cared about him or his message, when his movement consisted of six or so men who together called themselves Civilian Homeland Defense. Sitting in the Palominas plain under the stars in December of 2003, Simcox had more time then, so over several nights we sat whispering, quiet, waiting for migrants. We captured a group one cold morning around 6:30 a.m., Simcox chasing through the arroyos, up the berms, through the mesquite and the spiky ocotillo plants until finally we came upon a family of round little Indians with babies. They were country folk, farmers, the people worst hit by NAFTA policies that crushed the sale value of their chief product, corn.

Simcox called in the coordinates to a Border Patrol unit that approached on foot in the dawn and we re-positioned on a hill as the Indians were taken away. “There’s only one way to stop this,” Simcox said slowly. “Mo-bi-li-zation – militarize the border! It would create a boom economy! Think about it: A bi-national workforce that builds towers and video cameras and sensors. I’m tired of this wishy-washy pussy country we’ve got. Republicans are stuffed suits! Pussies! Why is America not standing up and enforcing the law down here? Cause everybody’s a victim, right?” He scowled and scoffed and huffed, then calmed down and said, “I got dual feelings about migrants. I’m pissed at ‘em because they’re breaking into my country. But I feel for ‘em because they’re dying in the desert for a minimum wage, being exploited by two governments. Cheap labor! Capitalism! Exploitation! What in god’s name is going on in this country? Who mows your lawn, washes your laundry, picks your food in the field, so you can have time to sit around watching ‘Friends’? This is a psychosis.”

He told me that for 13 years he taught class at the private Wildwood School in Los Angeles, which was “famous for teaching tolerance and diversity to the kids” (as Simcox put it), and when he was young he produced rap albums in New York City. He told me that he once had cancer of the lung which derailed a career in minor league baseball. He said after Sept. 11, he got fired from the school, his wife divorced him, took their teen-age son. “My life collapsed,” he said. He exiled himself to the desert, to Organ Pipe Cactus National Monument, a remote and hallucinatory place on the Mexican border where the cactus with their arms out look like men with guns or women dancing. One hot day, hiking, he saw a convoy of troops, a truck and a jeep moving fast, escorted by jogging men carrying Kalashnikovs. Simcox hid in the high rock, terrified, awed. He went to the park rangers, who shrugged. “Drug dealers,” the rangers said. “Calm down.” “Calm down!” Simcox told me. “No! This was an army! September 11! They’re crossing the border! You guys aren’t gonna do something about it?” Simcox lived in the desert alone in his tent for three months, watching the drug convoys come. “I wanted to join the Border Patrol – too old! Too old? Our country is under attack! I applied to the Army, the Navy, Air Force, Marines – too old!” A few days before Christmas, 2001, at 5,000 feet of elevation, the high desert, the cold morning froze the zipper on his tent, so he melted it open with his cook stove. “That was it for me,” he said. “I came in from the wilderness.” He drained all his accounts, even those he’d saved for his child, bought the Tombstone Tumbleweed and fulfilled his destiny.


So now four years later, Simcox went up and down the line of the border near Naco cheering the troops, who were as contradictory as Simcox had once been. Observers with the American Civil Liberties Union camped close by, on their own lawnchairs, watching the watchers. The ACLU boys and girls, righteous in effort, were almost as tiresome as the Minutemen, but to their credit Simcox had apparently captured a group smoking marijuana. “Stoners! We’re gonna get that video to Sean Hannity,” Simcox said. The ACLUers concluded that the Minutemen were for the most part ignorant xenophobes.

Through the scrub, I spied Xavier Zaragoza, a Mexican-American reporter with the Douglas Daily Dispatch who has been toiling on a documentary film about border politics for four years and in the process has become a sort of border guru for visiting journalists like myself. Zaragoza with an impish smile said, “Every time I walk up to the Minutemen they say, ‘You a citizen?’ What are they judging me on? Skin color. ‘You speak ‘merican? Eh?’ I hear over and over: It’s an invasion! Stealing our land! They bring leprosy! ‘You speak ‘merican?’ Pretty sad.” Zaragoza had footage of grandmothers dead from the crossing, of migrants gathered to dash the border, of infants captured by Border Patrol, of the men of Ranch Rescue imploding in alcohol and idiocy, and now with his camera he was getting inside the Minuteman Project. He was sick of the border. “This place is a nightmare,” he said.

Either I had the good luck of being white, or the good luck of finding intelligent Minutemen. Scott Smith, of Annapolis, Md., made it a point that unlike many of the other volunteers, he would carry no pistol: “If I have to carry a gun to sit somewhere in this country in a lawnchair with a pair of binoculars,” he said, “then there’s something wrong with this country.” Mike Gaddy, from Farmington, N.M., a retired Army paratrooper and columnist [link here to his excellent column, “A Breeding Ground for Tyrants”?] with Lew and, from his truck brought out a biography of the maverick Marine lieutenant Smedley Butler. “War is a racket,” Butler famously observed in 1935 after a long career strong-arming foreign powers and peoples in pursuit of American “interests.” Gaddy, like Butler, spent over 30 years of active duty in the services: “’64 to ’94: ‘Nam, Grenada, Beirut, Panama, Desert Storm,” he said. He tapped with his powerful hands a page in the book that excerpted an essay of Butler’s: “I spent most of my time,” wrote Butler, “being a high-class muscle man for Big Business, for Wall Street, and for the bankers. In short, I was a racketeer for capitalism.” Gaddy, nodding, his red beard shining, said, “When I read Smedley Butler, it was like the sun came out. It explained my whole life.”

I bumped into Johnny Petrello, who I knew from a previous visit to Arizona and who was one of the original members of Simcox’ Civilian Homeland Defense. Petrello had assisted on enough citizen arrests of migrants that a $10,000 bounty was placed on his head by Mexican gangsters operating out of Naco. Petrello laughed about it; he was sympathetic to migrants: “If I was a Mexican, a Guatemalan, Haitian or Colombian, you bet your ass I’d be trying to get into the United States, by any means necessary.” But he said the illegality of the migrations was “a slap in the face” to his grandfather, who arrived from Palermo, Italy, to Ellis Island.

He seemed genuinely anguished, groping, confused. “The more I look for answers, the more questions I have,” he said. “And for this I’ve been called a Nazi, a fascist, a white supremacist, a racist, a redneck. A CNN reporter once asked me, cameras rolling, ‘John, how many Mexicans have you murdered on the border?’ I nearly threw up. What a sucker punch. How could you even answer that without legitimizing it?”

Like Petrello, many Minutemen felt the need to impress on reporters that they were “not racists.” This was only truly compelling, as much as such declarations can be, when offered by the dozen or so Mexican-Americans who stood guard, such as Ruben Medina, of the San Fernando Valley in California, whose father and mother were first and second generation Americans, the sons and daughters of legal Mexican immigrants. Outraged that the services of six emergency rooms at the hospitals in the San Fernando Valley had been cut because of the systemic pressures brought by illegal aliens, Medina heard the Minuteman call and took off work for a week. His complaint echoes far and wide on the border, into hospitals, schools, prisons: social services on the Tohono O’dham Indian nation, in Tucson, in Phoenix are meeting a crushing burden of illegals who rarely pay for the service.

The Minutemen I interviewed seemed to recognize what this amounts to: tax-payer subsidies to the businesses that illegally employ the aliens. I went down the line a ways and met Barbara and Jack Fagan, who had driven from Spokane, Wash., and who bitterly complained of this issue: They no longer wanted to pay taxes for private companies to profit from illegal labor. A wind kicked up and blew dust in eyes and mouths and ears, but the couple, both retired, appeared to enjoy themselves. I asked if they wore guns. Barbara Fagan said, “I’m wearing a crochet needle and thread.”
There was, of course, at least one drunken asshole among the Minutemen. I was in Palominas talking to an 18-year-old girl named Shelly Miller, who was pregnant and whose three-year-old son-in-law played in the dust. Shelly, who has lived on the border all her life and watched migrants cross her land without trouble, was not happy with the Minutemen, and nor was her family, who grow hay in irrigated fields nearby. “These people come here for a minute and they think they’re men,” she said. “Many are from back East, they’re old. They don’t live on the border, they don’t know the border, they know hearsay, what they’ve read. They’ll get some ego boost from saying they’ve defended the border.” Then, she said, they will depart, and nothing will change, except that migrants crossing her land will now expect her father and uncle and grandfather to be armed and hostile. “These Minutemen are putting the children, the people waiting at a bus-stop, the people in their homes in danger,” she said.

At that point, the asshole walked up, stumbling and mumbling and cursing her and me. “So,” he said, drawing close. He stunk of peppermint schnapps and coffee and had rotten yellow teeth. “What’s this little girl – anti-Minuteman, eh? A l’il bit iffy about the situation, little girl?” He leered, swayed, Ashley recoiled. “And you – New York reporters! I’ve never been east of Jackson, Wyoming. So I say fuck y’all!”

“People like you make us feel ashamed,” Ashley said quietly.

“I’m trying to help you,” he screamed.

“Help me with what?”

“Freedom!” There was more screaming, Ashley was near tears, and finally she picked up her three-year-old and walked across the road to her home.

The asshole, with his cowboy accent and droopy face and watery eyes, reminded me of one of Simcox’ former right-hand men, a transplanted Californian named Craig Howard, who Xavier Zaragoza had taken to calling “Yosemite Sam.” Howard, who roared incessantly, like the cartoon figure, carried a single-action .44 caliber revolver in a shoulder holster – a cowboy gun with an eight-inch barrel – and wore a big moustache like Wyatt Earp in the movies and bragged about stabbing out with his bowie knife the water jugs that migrants stashed in the washes, so that the water ran into the sand and the “little Indians” would have nothing to drink in the heat. Howard was paranoid and creepy and probably a sadist, the kind of person who runs over stray dogs with his F-150 or saves the wings he picks off flies.

But Simcox had purged Howard from the Minuteman Project. “He just wasn’t fitting in with the new program I got going on here,” Simcox told me.


Given that the duty of a Minuteman is fiendishly boring – Simcox, granted, had warned this – I went hiking in the Huachuca Mountains, where the migrants had likely been driven by the citizen patrols. Here, there is lots of canyon cover and the mountains are unpeopled. On the stone ledges at the lower elevations, barren but for yucca and desert holly and yellow grass, and on the high slopes furred with pinyons and blessed with a very little water, there is a splendid view of the sprawl of American humanity below in the town of Sierra Vista, one of Arizona’s fastest metastasizing retirement communities. Like Phoenix, like Tucson, it seems a phenomenally stupid site for a city – this is desert, a place of limits – but the land is cheap, the water flows for now, until it won’t. Lack of water, of course, is what kills the migrants in the Huachucas, but the desert babylons beckon: the population boom of Arizona shows no sign of let-up, the cheapness of the homes in part due to the low cost of Mexican labor.

The trails and the brush and washes in the Huachucas are often filthy from the passage of illegals. I find diapers, water jugs, candy wrappers, condoms, tuna cans, an infant’s cowboy boot, filthy underwear, gloves, sweaters, scarves, in what look like desperate, hunted scatterings, the things thrown wildly. Night-hiking, I once heard migrants sounding like an army on the web of pounded Huachuca paths known as Smuggler’s Trail. They stomped and whispered and were gone. Who are they? I think of my friend Jonas Esclava, who was my translator when I traveled the high sierra of Oaxaca on a story and who quit college to support his mother, sister and niece in Oaxaca City. He came north but was caught twice at the border, near the town of Sonoita, west of the Huachucas, 1,400 miles from home. Finally, penniless, Jonas made the long trip back to Oaxaca. In New York City, where I live, Mexicans are the fastest-growing population, and they can be found wherever rents are cheap, wherever they can live as many to a room without trouble from the authorities. They live in the shadows. In the restaurants, the menu assures that the cuisine is French or Italian or Moroccan but it is usually made by Mexicans.

Everyone in Mexico now has a story to tell of the crossing, the story of a cousin, a friend, a mother, a son. Take a random sample: Jose Andres Perez, 21, who I met at a Border Patrol detention center, lived in Puebla, 1,200 miles south of the border, in a three-room hut that he rented with his mother and father and 13 others. They together worked a lemon farm, but the money wasn’t enough – 300 pesos, or $30, a week – and his parents, overworked, had become ill. So Perez made the journey north over 20 days’ travel, moving day and night, mostly on foot, but sometimes, if he was lucky, on hitched rides. At the border, before crossing, banditos robbed him at gunpoint of 500 pesos, along with his backpack and food – everything he had. In the dusty broken down bordertown of Naco, he found a coyote to guide him over the desert, into the towering Huachuca Mountains.

Coyotes prey, like their animal namesake, on pollos – chickens – pollos like Jose Perez. When a coyote gang leads pollos north, they march their cargo fast and cruelly. Families are often separated, wives from husbands, mothers from children, to keep them scared. Sometimes the coyote feeds his pollos stimulants, a 500 mg. diet pill mix of ephedrine, caffeine, and aspirin. Stragglers are abandoned. Ironically, the diet pill slows people up, because of its diuretic effect – migrants literally piss their lives away in the desert. Thus the Huachucas in high summer litter with corpses.

Jose Perez crossed with a group of 16 others, after midnight, in cold December, so he wore three torn layers – a plaid button-down shirt, an orange vest, a blue windbreaker – to keep warm. His dusky face was covered in dirt, his jeans – he wore two pair, one over the other – soaked in red mud. The group labored up the ridges, through the spiny cactus, to 7,000 feet, and snow fell as they climbed. Then they dropped, exhausted, into a sheer valley called Ash Canyon, where the coyote told them to sleep. As Jose Perez lay in the snow, he thought of Los Angeles, where his two brothers had a job for him, sewing pants at a few dollars an hour.

The next day, Perez was captured by Border Patrol after his coyote abandoned him while he slept. He is perhaps lucky he never reached Tucson or Phoenix, key hubs of the human smuggling industry, where, as in all industries, competitors have arisen who kidnap and torture and murder migrants for a ransom. The tragedy that is ongoing in the Arizona desert and in the human smuggling industry is a natural and perhaps even necessary outgrowth of U.S. policy. Border Patrol enforcement in California sends the migrants into the low desert or into the high mountains like the Huachucas, where they die. Demand grows for passage: human smugglers supply it and inevitably the smuggling gangs battle over control of the routes and the cargo.

Hiking in the Huachucas, I once met a U.S. park ranger, formerly with the Border Patrol, who explained to me that “border policy is insane. Clinically insane. The diagnosis is schizophrenia.” As such, the policy is a model of waste and futility. More than a billion dollars a year is sunk in keeping the illegals out, and once they’re in, billions of dollars depend on them staying. Without illegals, the American economy would collapse in a fit. Whole industries – agriculture, meat-packing, restaurants, hospitals, construction, landscaping – would be devastated. It is no stretch of the truth to say that the hand of the Mexican migrant feeds the United States. He picks the food in the fields, stocks it on the shelves in the supermarkets, cooks it in the restaurants, cleans the dishes afterward. And yet the migrant must be deterred at all costs.

The double-dealing comes naturally to legislators in Congress, who like to appear to act tough on immigration – polls regularly show some three-quarters of American public opinion demands it – while also sucking up to the big business that demands cheap illegal labor. “Stopping the flow at the border is a small part of the issue,” the ranger told me. “Because they all make it through. I’m catching the same guys the next day, the same day, a week later.” Meanwhile, “interior enforcement” – raids on farms and construction sites that employ migrants – has declined by 80 percent since 1998. In 1992, INS fined 1,063 employers for illegal labor violations. By 2001, that number had plummeted to a piddling 78. My friendly ranger saw this hypocrisy first-hand in his five years with Border Patrol: “We’re not going in and taking ten thousand aliens from the tomato harvest, because of the huge economic impact. We don’t wanna cause a political uprising – people want their cheap lettuce, man!”

A senior agent with Border Patrol, who wouldn’t let me use his name, told me that business lobbyists in the last two decades have neutered interior enforcement. “The business lobbyists will never let us stop illegal immigration,” the agent said. “Back in 1986, Congress passed a law allowing for employer sanctions. The Border Patrol was one of the first agencies empowered to do this. We fined companies like mad. We even fined Disneyland – they had 400 aliens working for them, fined them something like $400,000. Then B.P. got pulled off internal enforcement and no one took up the slack.”

“What happens to an illegal if he loses an arm working on farm machinery? No workman’s compensation. He goes to the hospital, and more likely than not, he doesn’t pay the bill. Then he goes back to his employer, who doesn’t want anything to do with him. The employer calls INS. That’s an exploited worker. Why not hire the illegal? He works just as hard, if not harder, than an American, and for half the money. That’s the big magnet. If you’re ever gonna stop this, you gotta start fining employers. You gotta demagnetize the job pull.”

“Or put an ocean between Mexico and the United States: there’d be a revolution in that country. Look at the place: No one works. People barely get by. Poverty everywhere. You put that situation in any other country, you’d have a revolution. The U.S. is the outlet, the safety valve, for political pressures on the Mexican government. Mexico releases those pressures onto U.S. soil.”

Chris Simcox appeared to have a solution, or at least the primitive gropings toward one. He envisioned a draconian guest worker program. “All employer-paid,” he said. “Government holds the employer accountable with stringent regulations on migrant labor. The employer pays for medical check-up and care, immunization, safe transport into the country, insurance, safety and proper ID – anything that an American worker would have. All of a sudden employers are right back to paying $21 an hour. That’s good capitalism.”

I told him that this seemed to contradict his avowed distaste for government regulation, but Simcox didn’t let contradictions trip him up. “No,” he said. “It’ll stop people from being exploited. It’ll make employers think about hiring Americans again, because they’re gonna have to pay the same goddamn wages.”

But people want their cheap lettuce. I wonder if the argument could be made that in addition to big business and the politicians they purchase there is a third colluding party in the illegal immigration racket, and that would be the average American consumer, the kind of consumer who drives globalization, who demands cheaper and cheaper goods, who fails to make a connection between the crazed consumption of commodities and the commodification of people who produce, at ever cheaper cost, the things consumed. I remember listening to those voices of Minutemen in the darkness of the Huachucas, the old man and the young man at their campfire. The young man talked about the need to make “good money.” The older voice acidly replied, “Well, it depends on what good money is. Good money used to be living just for what you needed and maybe a little more. But people today don’t see it that way. ‘Cause the problem now in this country, the problem that Mexicans don’t have, is that people want more: more house, more car, they wanna live on their own terms and to hell with everybody else. This is what we call the American way. American values! I don’t see no values there.”

The old man paused, the fire guttered a moment in the breeze, and there the conversation ended. When they stamped their fire, the form of the jagged mountains above us came out stark in the starlight, and it was a good warm bright night to walk abroad. And opposite the mountains, I could see the blooming city light in the sky over Sierra Vista, boom-town for those who want more as cheaply as they can get it.

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