February 21, 2003

Vigilantes on the Rise at Mexico-U.S. Border

By: R.M. Arrieta
El Tecolote

SOUTHERN ARIZONA - Migrants crossing the U.S.-Mexico border are now prize prey for some groups in southern Arizona.

In early January, about ten unarmed volunteer members of a civilian militia in Cochise County prowled around the border near the town of Douglas in hopes of “catching” undocumented migrants trying to cross into the U.S.

The group, Civil Homeland Defense, is one of three main groups who say the Arizona-Mexico border is being “invaded” and that they are doing something about it.

Civil Homeland Defense, formed by Chris Simcox, publisher and owner of the Tombstone Tumbleweed newspaper, escalated the level of border hysteria when in October he published in his newspaper, a “public call to arms” to form a “civilian militia.”

“If you meet some of these ranchers and landowners and see how they’ve been terrorized by drug dealers and criminals and our government has completely abandoned them. That is unacceptable,” says Simcox, who moved from Los Angeles, California to Tombstone a year ago.

He says the group sets up about 100 yards off the border on private property. If anyone comes through the area, “We stop them, ask them for identification and if they have permission to be there. If they do not, we escort them to the nearest road and wait for the border patrol to show up,” he said.

Joining in on the action, is American Border Patrol (not to be confused with the U.S. federal border patrol). ABP was formed by Glenn Spencer late last year (2002). He’s the same man who formed California’s anti-immigrant group, American Patrol/Voices of Citizens Together. The VOC/American Patrol has been listed as a hate group by the Southern Poverty Law Center — which tracks hate groups across the country.

“We are not vigilantes nor do we advocate civilian law enforcement [activities],” Spencer insists. APB’s armed volunteers use high tech surveillance to track migrants and the Internet to send their message, which includes streaming video of migrants being detained.

Ranch Rescue, based in Abilene, Texas, takes pride in helping ranchers “protect” their land. Last year, the group was in Cochise County. Jack Foote, founder of Ranch Rescue blames the federal border policy for the increased foot traffic through private ranches throughout Cochise County, which, he says, spurred the formation of Ranch Rescue.

“Having Ranch Rescue around is sort of like have the Klan,” says Cochise County resident Cecile Lumer, of Citizens for a Border Solution. “People here are scared.”

Southern Poverty Law Center considers Ranch Rescue a vigilante group with links to anti-government organizations. The Alabama-based civil rights center conducted a four-month investigation into border groups. SPLC also warns that APB’s founder, Glenn Spencer has ties to white supremacist organizations.

A report released last month by Tucson, Arizona-based human rights group Border Action Network (BAN), details the growth of the vigilante groups along the Arizona border.

“The message that the vigilante groups are putting out,” says Jennifer Allen, co-director of BAN, “is that they have community support but this report demonstrates that community residents don’t support them and are afraid of the escalation of violence at the border.”

“Fear is a strange motivator,” says Tommy Bassett, who lives in the border town of Douglas and works with a human rights group, Healing Our Borders.

Human rights advocates and citizen patrols both blame the militarized border and federal immigration policy for increased tensions between migrants and ranchers.

“As the border patrol increases the amount of presence here, people are forced to go to more dangerous areas to cross, so what happens out here is that the ranching community gets really upset. These people aren’t the enemy, but they are bearing the brunt of an immigration policy that is funneling migrants through their property,” says Bassett.

According to the U.S. Border Patrol, illegal border crossings in the area were up 63 percent last fall compared to the same time period two years ago.

“The issue is complex and it’s not going to be solved with the narrow-mindedness we see among the militia groups. They pose a danger,” says Congressman Raul Grijalva, D-Tucson. The lawmaker has called for a federal investigation into the groups and a probe into possible civil rights violations.

The U.S. Commission on Civil Rights has also joined in, calling on the U.S. Justice Department to investigate. So far, there has been no response from the Justice Department.

The U.S. Border Patrol is not saying much.

“People are free to speak what they like. We won’t take action until someone breaks a law that we enforce. But we don’t encourage anyone taking the law into their own hands,” says Border Patrol spokesman Ryan Scudder.

“All of law enforcement has turned a blind eye to a lot of what has been going on for the past three years,” says Isabel Garcia of Tucson-based human rights group Derechos Humanos, and a public defender for Pima County. “These guys hunt people. I don’t understand how it’s not a crime, minimally, in state law, for these guys to be detaining people. What do our unlawful imprisonment statutes mean if that’s not what they’re doing?” asks Garcia.

Jorge Bassos is a pastor at Sol de Justicia, a church in Nogales, Mexico that helps migrants who have been deported. “These migrants have to face many things to get to the U.S. — the border patrol, the climate, the desert, animals. Now they also have to deal with these anti-immigrant groups and that has us very worried. These groups look like they are ready for war, not waiting for immigrants to pass.”

This story was produced under the George Washington Williams Fellowship for Journalists of Color, a project sponsored by the Independent Press Association.

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