TOO TOUGH TO DIE

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

* * *

Ben Traywick was the original Wyatt Earp—the first guy to sprout the mustache and tell the tourists the real story of Tombstone, back in the early '70s. Now there's an entire cast of hired cowboy characters walking Tombstone's wooden sidewalks, but Traywick passed the mustache down to his son after 18 years and assumed a new duty as the official city historian. He's lived in Tombstone since 1968, but he still defers authentic resident status to the old-timers who were there before him, and as a gentleman, he'd rather not discuss Chris Simcox at all: "I don't think he and I have agreed on a thing since he's been here," he says—which would be since about the middle of 2002.

The character of the illegal migration that has always passed through Cochise County has changed, he acknowledges. People are more desperate. ("Now, they shoot back," adds Traywick's wife, Mary Dolores). Houses and trailers get robbed—sometimes over and over, if they're in an unlucky location—fences get cut, and cars get stolen because the family ducking under the barbed wire in search of a better life has become big business, with human smugglers (known as coyotesor polleros) charging hundreds if not thousands per head to lead a crossing into Arizona—and the violence naturally follows the money. These are the same stories Simcox and the Minutemen might tell, the same stories you'd also hear from the Border Patrol, the sheriff's department, the ranchers and even just the residents along the county's southern edge. Not one county local interviewed—not even the guy with the MINUTEMEN GO HOME sign—disputes that dangerous things are happening around the border.

But Traywick and his wife don't veer toward the white-minority rhetoric ("ILLEGAL aliens and their offspring will be the dominant population in the U.S. and will have made such inroads into the political and social systems that they will have more influence than the U.S. Constitution over how the U.S. is governed," Gilchrist wrote on the Minuteman Project website. "The United States of America is under invasion") or the direct-action tactics, preferring that the federal government simply do its job. Though Traywick has a pistol in his desk during this interview, it's not something he cares to wave around. A lot of the Minutemen come from states where they can't even use their guns, he says: "This is a big deal for them. But if they're not familiar with the border, they could cause an international incident."

Simcox himself was fined $1,000 in 2004 for carrying a loaded firearm into the Coronado National Memorial, a mountain area notorious for illegal crossings; the Traywicks had an acquaintance who'd spent months in jail—and had his truck confiscated—after the Mexican police found spent shotgun shells. At least the border had physical markers every mile, though not on the Mexican side, where U.S. Marine construction sentries steal them for souvenirs. The rest of the desert was calico with overlapping legal jurisdictions, private and public properties, plus invisible infrared from the Border Patrol night-vision and radar bleed from the surveillance blimp that hung tethered over Sierra Vista, which reportedly drifted back to base each night with fresh bullet holes in its reinforced skin. Simcox and Gilchrist were proud the Minutemen had registered volunteers from all 50 states; for Traywick, that made things even worse. "We live here," he said. "We understand what the border is like. They don't."

* * *

A bulldog-cheeked ex-Hawthorne cop who now lived in Fullerton wouldn't let us into the camp at Miracle Valley without press credentials, but was happy to mis-hear that we worked forThe Orange County Register. He wouldn't be a martyr for the Minutemen, he said: "I'm 65—I don't need 19 virgins!" But what if MS-13 shows up? He gurgled under his polo shirt as he pivoted his belly north, where an RV spined with CB antennas was making a painful turn into the gravel driveway. "MS-13 showing up will be the biggest mistake they ever make."

* * *

April 1 was the first official look at the volunteers already condemned by two presidents: a guy in an eye patch parking an old brown van, a freelance varmint killer (with LIFE DAMAGE CONTROL peeling off the back of his truck) who'd been there since 8 a.m. and would leave within the hour when his meds wore off, a bright-eyed 66-year-old from northern California who was selling $3 "UNDOCUMENTED BORDER PATROL" badges ("I made that up!" she said) 20 feet from a NO VENDING sign, two tweaky thirtysomethings with pistols velcroed into glossy camo holsters who mouthed off to the Weeklyphotographer, and a jiggling mountain of Texan fat waving a DON'T TREAD ON ME flag and refusing to give his name—about what everyone expected, except a lot less of them.

Convenient computer problems prevented the Minutemen from an accurate count; totaled with those registering—also conveniently—blocks away from reporters at the Tumbleweedoffice, they estimated a few hundred. A very sympathetic head count was closer to 150. When Jim Gilchrist made his own official debut—gliding down a slim fire escape for a press conference, hours after everything was scheduled to start—the straggler Minutemen in the audience had to brace their boots as hefty TV camera guys bulldozed past them.

"Oh, you'll love him," the Weekly's Gustavo Arellano had said about Gilchrist. "He's great!" And he really was: genial past any boundaries of protocol—he'd break stride through a puddle of media just to wave at someone he recognized from Orange County—articulate, funny and animated with an honest Jimmy Stewart idealism that made him exactly the aw-shucks! spokesperson the Minutemen needed to make up for members who'd growl "goddamn commie!" when reporters passed. He'd been a "wacko" in college himself, he said once—evidently, he now felt much more rational. He squinted and smiled into the late-morning light as fuzzy boom mics rose to surround him.

"How can you say you're helping when the Border Patrol says you're making things more difficult?" asked a high-register British accent.

"They've been told to say that by their leaders—that's not the opinion of the rank and file," Gilchrist said.

"What will you do if you encounter armed smugglers?" asked a flat American accent.

"Probably run," said Gilchrist. "This is not a war—this is an association under the First Amendment."

"Why are you against the Mexican people?" asked a blocky Spanish accent.

"I'm not against the Mexican people!" said Gilchrist. "I'm against illegals, terrorists, the loss of U.S. sovereignty. It's people like you who turn this into a race issue when it's not—it's a law issue!"

And then little blooms of applause from the Minutemen as Gilchrist leaned in: "But," he said, "I still like you!"

His bodyguard—a nervous guy named Scott, with a trim ponytail dripping back over his giant neck—was propelling Gilchrist inside Schieffelin Hall, where registered Minutemen would hear Colorado Representative Tom Tancredo tell them how right they were, when there was one more question: "What about MS-13?" You could feel the tingle run through the TV people.

"Two people said they've overheard they're coming, and one was convincing," said Gilchrist. "But we don't think they're serious. The worst thing they could do would be go out and kill Americans in wheelchairs, amputees, Ph.D.s—they're businessmen, and that's bad business."

And that was the last official communication, until Chris Simcox—who had been lying low inside—poked his head out hours later and was heckled by reporters who'd been waiting weeks for a response to their request for press credentials. We never got ours: on our third and last attempt, we found a pale middle-aged woman wedged like a sausage into the only slim gateway to the Minuteman headquarters—the back yard of Simcox's Tumbleweed, now optimistically known as "the command center." She was lying on her back with one puffy leg elevated.

"Where's my husband?" she asked, her voice fluttering. "You're not my husband!"

"Do you need any help?" we asked.

"No," said a Minuteman quietly. "The paramedics are on their way."

The first significant visits to the border would be the demonstrations in support of officially anti-Minuteman Border Patrol personnel in Naco and Douglas the next morning, and they'd already had their first casualty, literally in their own back yard. The ambulance was there within minutes.

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