TOO TOUGH TO DIE

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

* * *

There's supposed to be some sort of retribution in Naco, the photographer had said yesterday. He'd heard it from two jumpy documentary-makers at the only Internet café in town. Like a counterprotest? I asked. No, he laughed. Like combat.

* * *

Bryan Barton was a real, live, young Republican: only 24, but he'd timed it so that by the time he won his congressional campaign, another birthday would make him old enough to legally serve in Washington. He'd been right behind Gilchrist at the weekend rallies, a jumpy, skinny, even giggly kid in a suit and tie who wedged his website into every sentence—"Double-U-double-U-double-U-votebarton-dot-com!" he'd chirp, and then laugh mock-self-consciously. He knew all the Minutemen—"Stop eating our beef jerky, Bryan," Chris from Fountain Valley had sighed; "Sorry—another politician looking for a handout," Bryan said, his mouth full—and he was out on the line at Border Road (this time in shorts and a sweat shirt, looking like he was running for Secretary of Partying Down) arguing with legal observers and warning people that UC Riverside professor Dr. Armando Navarro—an anti-Minutemen activist whose mention always drew a melodramatic silent-movie boo-hiss! response—had been tooling surreptitiously along the border in a silver Honda Civic.

Also, Barton was lost, and it was dark, and he didn't know how to get back home to the camp at Miracle Valley Bible College. We did, though press wasn't allowed in—we'd been sent away Thursday. We made the obvious deal: "How you gonna spin THIS one into something bad?" Bryan said and laughed, getting ready to follow two liberal-rag reporters down a long, lightless dirt road. "Don't go too fast—I drive like an old man. An old Minuteman!"

It took a long talk with the guard at the gate. The Miracle Valley campus hadn't been improved since probably the '70s, a terminal case of rural Arizonan ain't-broke-can't-afford-to-fix-it-anyway. Long flat dorms with bubbled paint smothering the brick beneath alternated with scruffy grown-through sidewalks. The cupola on the church had white slit crosses, visible over rows of Minuteman vehicles all the way back to Highway 92—the only easy landmark between the Huachuca mountains and the San Pedro river. It cost Minutemen $5 per night to stay in the dorm rooms. The desert darkness was a thing to wade through here as well, and Bryan was just an excited smudge as he parked and stepped protectively toward us.

"Oh, you guys are gonna wanna stick around tonight," he said with a grin. "Things are gonna get crazy!"

Someone hurrying past us spun around midstride—all that was visible were the white dots of his eyes, like two holes punched through a training target. And then a long-scoped rifle, bulging under the muzzle, the black streak of its barrel wavering as he breathed.

"Who are you?!" he asked, heels caught mid-pivot.

"It's okay; I'm a Minuteman," said Bryan.

"NO! WHO ARE YOU?!" he shouted, fingers diving for his rifle strap.

"I'm Bryan Barton!" said Bryan, patting himself for credentials, explaining where he'd been and where he was going. The man exhaled, satisfied, not even looking at us as he loped east across the parking lot. It took 30 more feet to the dorm for Bryan to explain. MS-13 was coming tonight. Between 11 p.m. and 5 a.m. Either at Miracle Valley or Naco. How did they know? A credible threat, as the terminology went. Inside was the husky Hawthorne cop who'd retired to Fullerton, who'd refused us entry to the camp the very first day. His pistol was on a desk next to his Chloraseptic throat spray, its silver lip licking the edge of its holster. He was surprised to see us, too. Another Minuteman came in just then; somehow, it was obvious he had new information.

"Listen, I just came down here from Security to pound on doors, but you guys are up, so I'm telling you, too—they said that anyone who is able to provide security needs to provide security."

"What's that mean?" asked a man with glasses and an orange camp pass. He was a medical doctor, we were told later, but he hadn't told the Minutemen organizers because he didn't want to be stuck in the camp hospital when he could be out on patrol.

"It means get your gun and get it loaded," said Husky.

"But I don't have a gun," the doctor said.

"Then get near one of us who has," said Husky.

Then we waited, sitting with Husky—old friends by now, though we knew not to ask for his name—and forgetting to mention we were with the press as white-haired men with bulletproof vests clattered in and out the front door. Husky never got up—his hand felt the desk around his pistol, and his back was to the wall, facing the door and large bay windows, one covered by a crooked sheet. Bryan had disappeared, and it was just us, reporters with our backs to thin panes of glass.

He knew guys in MS-13, Husky said. He taught at a JC in Cerritos, often to gang members who'd come straight from prison to try and learn a trade. They're very serious, he said. So don't get too near the windows, he continued, and don't depend on adobe bricks for cover—a bullet wouldn't even slow down. "Oh, God, why me!" he croaked, illustrating what we'd say if we were behind the wrong kind of bricks. And don't leave this building, he said. You'll get shot. You media guys, he laughed, though he was discreet enough not to mention it until no one else was in the room. You're the dumbest ones out there. Just a camera. Not even a gun. No flash photography right now, I told the photographer.

Husky was laughing again because he was about to lose a bet—his money said an MS-13 attack would come Wednesday. He was a man you might describe as mercurial, tumbling into sudden pits of solemnity, when his rough voice would deepen further and he'd look at us through the center of his glasses. He'd found a pile of diapers, discarded dresses from a tiny girl, empty water and formula bottles out on patrol, left by a family carrying its children over the Huachuca mountains—"If I found 'em, I'd feed 'em and help 'em," he said sadly. "I feel for 'em." But he was laughing a moment later when he described some other guys they'd found down by the river, whose backpacks they'd confiscated while waiting for the Border Patrol to show up. "Pissed them off!" he said.

In 1982, there'd been a Waco-style shootout in Miracle Valley between county law enforcement and a relocated Chicago church, leaving seven sheriff's deputies and two church members injured and two other church members dead. Now there were again civilians walking pickets in the dark, and when a new Minuteman held the lobby door open to bring in his wife with her plastic bags full of groceries and his baby daughter in a bright pink jump suit—just minutes after we'd been told not to go outside—it felt finally and deeply bad. If the Minutemen were so dedicated to peaceful observation, why had the credible threat not been relayed to county police? These were the two worst answers: because the Minutemen were doing something they didn't want the police to see, or because the Minuteman wanted that firefight. Maybe the police already knew; maybe the Border Patrol and the sheriff's department were already out there, cutting through the weeds with flashlights and walkie-talkies. But no cars drove past and no sirens shone through the windows. Instead: nothing but excited, uneven silence. Cochise County had historical precedent for this sort of thing, if anybody wanted it. But down both hallways from the lobby were unlocked rooms with old women and little children. Had the Apaches ever killed old women and little children? I couldn't remember. How much had things changed?

But it was an old woman who told us: "It happened in Naco," she said. "They got swarmed. Two dozen young men. But I guess the Border Patrol was really ready."

"What?" I asked. It felt like my ears has just popped. "We just came from Naco. There's not that many people there. Are they okay?"

She shrugged. "Hope so."

"What kind of guys? Guys looking for trouble?"

"Yeah," she said, and then walked—just like that—back to her dorm room. Was that it? Husky pulled three shiny clips out of his overall pocket, adjusting them side-by-side on the desk next to his pistol, each copper bullet head like a fingertip. He examined them for a moment, then hoisted himself upright and picked them back up.

"Well," he said. "I'm going to bed. Wake me if anything happens."

* * *

SierraVistalookedlikeanycityatnight—wantedbadlytobeanycity,infact,vyingforyearstoattractaRedLobsterfranchise.Ithadthefirsttrafficlightswe'dseenforhours.AttheonlyDenny'ssouthofInterstate10,highschoolgirlswithdyed-greenhairandnowhereelsetogoweregigglingaboutsongsthey'ddownloadedofftheInternet.Wewere20minutesawayfromthelastMinutemanpost."Whatdoyouthink?"Iaskedthephotographer,whostillhadhiscamerabagtuckedprotectivelybetweenhisfeet."What'sgoingtohappenoverthenextmonth?Someonegoingtogetkilled?""Absolutely,"hesaidashestoodtopayourcheck.

CZIEGLER@OCWEEKLY.COM

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