TOO TOUGH TO DIE
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?"
* * *
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 dcolletage—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.
* * *
* * *
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.
* * *
* * *
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."
* * *
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 caf 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."
* * *
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