TOO TOUGH TO DIE

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

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She'saverycuteBorderPatrolagent,withaponytailstandingstifflyatattentionandablackbandoverherbadgefortheofficerkilledlastmonth,andsheholdsupafingerasshetapsoutthestatsontheArizonaborder:sinceOctober,15BorderPatrolagentswereshot,20wererunover,79or80wereinvolvedinrockassaults—shepausesheretokickoverarepresentativerock,achippedpinkbruiserasbigasherboot—andtherestweresimplephysicalassaults."Andwe'rearmedfederalagents,"shesays."There'snotellingwhatthey'lldototheMinutemen."

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International Road is just a scribble between loose rocks—maybe the very ones aimed at armed federal agents—until it finally rolls up alongside the border fence and quits, halfway into a chunky, brushy hill that leads a rough wrinkle back across the Naco valley. At the very top of that hill is a bone-brittle concrete border marker in the shape of the Washington Monument, three feet high, 60 years old and crumbling at the corners, a still spot as the wind pushes the bushes back and forth in waves. It feels more like a tombstone than anywhere else in the county. And just in the next valley were the bright-white satellite trucks, turning blue through their own dust plumes as the sun sank—the last media retreaters, filing stories on the Minuteman patrol line for the evening news. After two days of demonstrations—liberally covered by the local and national press—the Minutemen dedicated Monday to full official deployment to the border. Except they'd already been there for days. Like Earl, a retired city of Anaheim employee who looked barely into his healthy late-30s: "The protests," he admitted, "were a ruse."

Simcox was resolving into a sharper strategist than he may have gotten credit for on the weekend herding the press to candy-cane stories such as the 150 retirees padding the asphalt outside the Naco and Douglas Border Patrol stations while the other Minutemen—an unknown quantity, militarily and politically—prepared positions unobserved in the field. Between rows of TV trucks on Saturday morning was the same sort of tourist bait Tombstone used to pay its bills: plenty of high philosophy—"We will do no harm!" Gilchrist boomed. "And we will be victorious!"—and low comedy. "How many of you consider yourselves vigilantes in the pejorative sense?" Gilchrist had asked, stumping from the back of a silver pickup truck. "Define 'pejorative,'" said one woman; "Ooh, that's a big word," said someone else. Gilchrist—his three college degrees perhaps grinding gears in his head—glided politely past that one.

Meanwhile, the Border Patrol reported 54 civilian calls that led to 118 arrests, as well as that the Minutemen were already tripping a sensor system used to track illegals. ("Oh, there's tons of Minutemen out there," one Bisbee resident said, pointing east. "There's a big fat one from Texas. Go talk to him!") The goofy disorganization of the first day was becoming more transparent as it became evident Gilchrist met with the media while other people did other things—in places where the press wasn't intended to go. Simcox led a convoy of reporters to the line on Sunday, 10 feet from the fence, where orange Grupo Beta—the Mexican border patrol—trucks would rear over the top of the hill to loop their headlights over a contingent of about 40 Minutemen, spaced every quarter mile in clusters of flags and minivans. Six more border crossers had supposedly already been caught by Monday nightfall.

Chris and his son Alex were from Fountain Valley, just two of the OC residents we found stationed at almost every post, and this was their vacation—they'd stopped at the Grand Canyon on the way to the Arizona border for what Alex called a good learning experience. They had brought food in case they were hungry; Chris, a friendly guy with a relaxed paternal kind of dignity, had a pistol in case of, well, other things. He'd pause to palm a walkie-talkie or eye a set of yellow lights bucking across the Mexican side as he talked.

"This isn't a liberal or conservative issue," he said. "It's a security issue. We need to control the border. If I thought that people had come out here to hunt Mexicans, I'd be upset, too."

His gun was disappearing into a shadow behind his leg as the sun decisively set: "I really don't want to kill anyone," he added.

Two posts to the east were Earl and Carrie, the retired Anaheim city worker and the South Texas rancher, who laughed about how their friendship was blossoming under the stars. They had unpatrolled desert on all sides but one, and they hadn't seen anything all day, though Carrie stopped the interview when she saw a TV news reporter walking north. They'd heard plenty, however: a Naco woman had come to visit, Earl said, bringing her two children, two of the very few white students at the local school, to meet the Minutemen in person. Playground grapevine said the Minutemen were already killing Mexicans, echoing rumors of rumors—a distinctive subcategory of information that thrives along the border—that Mexican TV news were reporting the same lurid vigilante-murder story. Earl and Carrie wondered if that would deter border-crossers or provoke them. Neither had any visible equipment besides a telescope and a walkie-talkie.

"The [Minuteman organizers] have really preached nonviolence," Earl said, who felt he had to apologize for the one or two meaner members who'd refused interviews down the line. He hadn't met anyone he'd consider a troublemaker. "You gotta realize we get a lot of rednecks down here, but they're a lot of talk. That doesn't mean action."

By now, it was really dark, a few hours from the 10 p.m. Minuteman shift change. Night skies in the Arizona desert are a thick blue-black; stars can't penetrate a tinted windshield, and the bristly landscape cuts moonlight into scraps. A sudden sweep of headlights was so bright it almost made a sound, but Earl and Carrie had their own headlights off, watching bushes shake themselves in and out of dim human-like silhouettes. The cemetery gloom of International Road settled around us, and when Carrie spoke again, it might have carried for miles.

"This is the safest time you could ever come here," she said. "They know we're here. They won't try anything. If you'd come down here by yourself, you'd be taking your life in your hands."

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