TOO TOUGH TO DIE

On the borderline with the Minutemen, the media and MS-13

Photos by James BunoanTheAmericanAMbandgivesupbeforeIndio:

"Spanish-spanish-spanish-MINUTEMAN- spanish-spanish-spanish-ARIZONA,"warnedtheradioinMorenoValley,California.Coast to Coast AM, tonight'stopic—catastrophismasoriginoftheuniverse—hadfiveseparateU.S.stationsbehindit,eacheventuallyunravelingintohoursofscratchyranchero.ButpastDavisRoad,aknownsmugglingcorridorthatcurlsthroughArizona'slightlessdesertinterior,isamomentofclearreception:"Comingupnext,"saysKTAN1420."WilltherebeawarwithMexico?"

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John Wayne lived in Newport Beach but played a cowboy back in Arizona, and that romance rides again with the Minuteman Project, the civilian-border-control organization that Jim Gilchrist—a 56-year-old triple-degreed ex-reporter/ex-CPA/decorated ex-Marine who lives in Aliso Viejo—led from a recruiting website on the Internet down a two-lane state highway to Tombstone, Arizona, the tourist town in the center of Cochise County that hangs its entire economy on telling stories about stout-hearted men who took the law into their own hands.

Gilchrist's own announcement drew immediate counterprotests—one actually outside his own home—which turned into rumors of counterattack just before the Minuteman left for Arizona. Transplanted El Salvadoran gang MS-13—children of that country's decade-long civil war, inheritors of leftover military hardware and proud possessors of experience using it—was going to send a heavily armed volunteer force of its own to protect its investment in the Cochise County smuggling corridors and make a different point about the perforated American border. As genial retirees scouted limited free parking, the early media hype about an armed vigilante invasion suddenly seemed sadly hopeful. Tombstone calls itself the Town Too Tough to Die, but if the guns weren't cooling back in the hotel room, this weekend in the desert might be Granddad's Last Stand.

The first morning felt like a tailgate party. Gilchrist and the volunteers arrived on April 1; politely, not a single person mentioned any significance in the date. Waiting for them was Chris Simcox, a former California resident, now editor of the TombstoneTumbleweedand head of Civil Homeland Defense, another homegrown civilian-border-control organization—not to be confused with American Border Patrol (led by Glenn Spencer, also a former California resident), who have their own unmanned aerial-reconnaissance vehicle, or the Arizona Guard, who are working on purchasing some M-60 machine guns.

Also waiting in Tombstone were more than a hundred reporters, trying not to trip on one another's satellite-transmission set-ups; also waiting were the 1,400 or so residents, watching from their shop windows as red-faced pudge-tubs in full camo clopped down the wooden sidewalk with rifles slung over their shoulders; also waiting were a half-dozen of the 2,200 Border Patrol agents who have been assaulted 130 times during the past six months—one was beaten to death in Naco, Sonora, in 2003; another was just apparently accidentally run over at a Circle K at the end of March. Also waiting was a scruffy bunch of protesters—red-haired girls with signs reading FRONTERORISMO—and maybe waiting, too, were those members of MS-13, biting down smirks as they scanned sniper scopes over camper vans with wheelchair lifts, and maybe even waiting were a few of the half-million illegal immigrants—one-fifth of the national total—who'd been caught crossing the Arizona border during the last year.

There had always been a lot of waiting to do in undersettled Cochise County, which dots a population smaller than Fullerton's across an area half as large as Los Angeles County—waiting around until someone got careless, at which point a mistake could be made, perhaps involving a forgotten mineshaft or a rattlesnake or a pistol that was supposed to be unloaded, and someone would get killed. The basic Minuteman protocol was simple: go out into a desert described as ground zero for illegal immigration and wait for something to happen, then alert the Border Patrol—and maybe bring a pistol for self-defense. That's mostly legal—plenty of recreational horse riders keep small arms close by—but a Department of Homeland Security contractor was right to describe the situation as "vastly pregnant."

The Border Patrol didn't want more people out in the desert with guns, no matter whose side they were on. And the TucsonWeeklypredicted bloodshed as early as 2002, though in a technical sense, it hadn't happened—no civilian volunteers had been involved in actual combat on the border yet. But by another measure, the combat never stopped: the running AK-47 battle down Route 191 last month, the three illegals captured and tortured by a 19-year-old unemployed butcher in 2003, the "Border Bandits" who zigzagged trucks across the line to rob and assault Cochise County residents in the '90s, all the way back to the smugglers who shot it out with fed-up civilians in Tombstone in 1881.

That tourist bait massaged into the famous Gunfight at the OK Corral was just a particularly stylish moment in a long, ludicrous history of bullets finding bodies on the other side of a fence. But inside Big Nose Kate's Saloon—the only doorway on Tombstone's main street leaking laughter and light at 10 p.m.; inside, a Doc Holliday re-enactor was karaoke-ing Willie Nelson in full costume and a schoolteacher named Vinnie was vamping for drink orders in a low-cut 1880s d├ęcolletage—is a stained-glass mural that warms the room like a fireplace, and underneath three dangling pairs of cowboy boots was a cheerful legend: TOMBSTONE, ARIZONA: VIGILANTE JUSTICE. You could see where a guy could get ideas.

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Thistall,soft-facedkidnamedMikecameallthewayfromPeru—originallyfromGeorgia,hesays,explainingtheflappingstateflaghe'swedgedintothedirtagainsthislawnchair—tomakeapoliticalstatement;at22,heisthesecondorthirdyoungestmemberofGilchrist'sMinutemanProjectvolunteerforce,whoseranksrunfromlessthan500to1,000or1,500—dependingonwhoistalkingtowhom—andwillspend30dayssittingontheirownlawnchairsatlocationsalongtheU.S./Mexicoline.MikeisonsecuritydetailattheMinutemen'sbasecamp,thethis-side-of-abandonedMiracleValleyBibleCollege,aboutfourorfiveisolatedmilesfromtheborder,wherecellphonesdon'twork,roadsaren'tpavedandfencesdon'tevenkeeptheneighbors'dogsintheirownyards.Thepistolridinghiship—oneofonlytwovisibleamongabout150Minutemenpinkinginthesuntoday—isastrangebrightorange.

"Yeah—it'saflaregun,"hesays."Ionlycameoutherewithaflaregun.Ionlyhuntfish."

Areyouworriedaboutgoingoutintothedesert?

"No,"hesays."WhenIlivedinPeru,Ispentsixmonthsoutinthedesert.I'mnotworried.Butsomeoftheseotherguysareold...."

Butareyouworriedaboutgettingkilled?Mikeisalittleslowansweringthatone.Maybeit'sthefirsttimehe'sbeenasked.

"Well,"hesays,"whateverhappens,happens."

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