Civilians Patrolling the Border

Posted Jan. 20, 2003
By Kelly Patricia O Meara
Insight on the News

President Bush’s call for Americans to be more vigilant is being answered by Simcox and other citizen activists along the U.S. border with Mexico.

Tombstone, Ariz., is where Wyatt Earp became a legend. It took just 30 seconds in a blazing gunfight for three no-good cowboys to die with their boots on. They were sent to the Boothill Graveyard from the infamous shootout at the O.K. Corral, forever synonymous with vigilante justice. Today, more than 120 years after the cloud of spent gunpowder settled on the dead, trouble again is brewing in these parts and all eyes are focused on vigilante justice in Tombstone, "the town too tough to die."

Chris Simcox didn't come to Tombstone looking for trouble. The problem was growing long before the 42-year-old former elementary-school teacher ambled into town from Los Angeles. But once aware of the gravity of the situation Simcox, the new owner of the historic Tombstone Tumbleweed, wasn't going to be run out of town just because threats were being made against his life. The newly made editor and publisher fully expected that the message he sent to his neighbors across the border in Mexico would ruffle a few feathers.

"It was after 9/11," explains Simcox, "that I became aware of the problem of illegal entry over our border. I spent several weeks vacationing out here in our national parks. We were being told by the president that we had to be vigilant, be more aware of what was going on around us. But while I was camping, in the span of two weeks I ran across five paramilitary groups trucking drugs across the border."

Simcox shakes his head. "These were highly organized groups; three vehicles, with the camouflage-wearing troops escorting the vehicles on both sides in columns and carrying automatic weapons -- AKs, mini-14s, the whole works." The outrage is apparent on his face and in his voice as he says, "These troops are so sophisticated that they're covering themselves with camouflage military netting and they're driving right across Organ Pipe National Monument, one of the most pristine cactus reserves in the country, which is right on the border. In fact, just a few weeks ago, the Park Service listed Organ Pipe as the most dangerous national park in the country because of the drug smugglers coming through it."

The publisher's voice rises as he says, "I saw this criminal activity in broad daylight, and these guys aren't the average migrants; these are real troops. Given what had just happened on 9/11, I hoped they were running drugs and not something even worse. When I told the Border Patrol what I saw they said, 'Yeah, we know, but there's nothing we can do about it.' I said, 'You've got to be kidding. We were just attacked and the president is telling everyone to be vigilant and our Border Patrol can't do anything about this?' That was when I realized something was really wrong. We're under attack but we leave the borders wide open. People are coming across in thousands, even as organized military units, and there's nothing we can do about it -- there's no way of knowing if these people illegally crossing our borders are terrorists? That's when it occurred to me that I own a paper, and I thought, 'Wow, if the rest of the country won't print what is going on out here, at least I can.'"

In October last year the Tumbleweed editor ran his first article on the extent of the illegal crossings along Arizona's 200 miles of border with Mexico. The headline read: "Enough is Enough! A Public Call to Arms! Citizens Border Patrol Militia Now Forming!" A border resistance had begun that many critics of Simcox's efforts believe will end in bloodshed. Simcox is a newspaper man, but the headline earned him the labels "vigilante" and "racist" from those sympathetic to undocumented aliens and the groups supporting open borders.

Simcox insists the allegations are silly, and that those who know him will attest to his character. "There is nothing in my background," he seethes, "that would suggest I am a racist. I've never been a member of anything except the Boy Scouts, and what many don't realize is that I was married to a black woman for many years and have a biracial, African-American son. Calling me a racist is ridiculous."

The same apparently goes for the charges of vigilantism. "I carry a firearm," Simcox says, "because my life has been threatened on more than one occasion since I started Civil Homeland Defense, but carrying a firearm is not a prerequisite for being a member of the group. It is a prerequisite for members of this group to have a concealed-weapons permit, but that only means that the FBI already has checked them out and, according to federal law enforcement, they are squeaky-clean citizens."

He's just warming up. "We've been called vigilantes because we want to protect our border. We're not a militia. We're not out there to hurt anyone. We're not breaking any law and we're not taking the law into our own hands, as some say. The Border Patrol's statistics are that 1.5 million people crossed this border last year, and in October alone there were some 26,000. Those are just the ones that were caught. You have to triple it for the number that got through. We are well within the law to protect our territory and personal property from this illegal onslaught."

The newspaper publisher relaxes as he shifts into a quiet explanation: "Our motto is 'One mile at a time.' We are merely putting bodies on the border, acting as a presence, trying to create a deterrent to those who are trying to cross the border illegally. Off the record the U.S. Border Patrol -- the guys on the ground -- will tell you that they appreciate our help. We're just trying to stop the illegals from crossing the border in the first place and to create a model for other towns and cities along their portion of the border to do the same."

Simcox isn't alone in this battle and wasn't the first to kick up a dust storm over the illegal crossings. Glenn Spencer heads the American Border Patrol, a nonprofit think tank and neighborhood-watch program. "What we try to do," explains Spencer, a retired economist and long-time activist against official toleration of illegal immigration, "is to get people to report to us what they see on the border, acquire a database of border activities, map border intrusions and drug activities and provide an independent assessment of how our Border Patrol is doing. This is something that the government does all the time. We just happen to be here on the border and can report it as it happens."

Spencer's American Border Patrol is heavy with high-tech surveillance, often more sophisticated than its government counterparts. "We'll set up our satellite equipment," Spencer explains, "and send the data about SBIs [suspected border intruders] directly to our Website at We are not vigilantes or a militia group. I have even given up wearing a firearm so as not to give the wrong impression."

According to Spencer, "The point of our efforts is to go out on patrols on a regular basis, videotape what we observe and put the documentation on the Website so every American can see what is happening along the border on a daily basis. All any American has to do is log on to our Website to see what is happening along this border in real time. People will be amazed. When we find a group of SBIs we tell them this is the United States of America, they have been reported to the Border Patrol and please wait here. They usually just sit down. If they take off we do not attempt to stop them. If they run, they run. We're only trying to give the American people real information about this problem."

Insight found many others who, like Spencer and Simcox, can tell horror stories of what they've experienced along the border, but most are afraid to talk for the record. Living on the U.S. border is becoming more dangerous by the day, and they are fearful that violence will visit them if they are identified. According to one rancher whose Arizona property abuts the barbed-wire fence that is the Mexican-American border here, "People cross my property daily, and on more than one occasion I've run into drug smugglers on my land. When I first moved onto the property I was told that the stretch of land from Nogales to Douglas is known as Cocaine Alley. I don't doubt it, and I don't go anywhere on my property without a loaded pistol."

Another rancher tells Insight that "the drug runners are all through my property and have threatened to kill my kids. We've had trouble for a long time. Hell, I've even had Mexican federales on my property. We've got some trails down here that are so worn they'd qualify as Highway 10."

Henry Harvey, a retired California deputy sheriff and city manager, and longtime resident of the Tombstone area, is a member of American Border Patrol and helps other groups trying to stop illegal entries into the United States. "These illegals," Harvey explains, "aren't just Mexicans. One portion of the desert out here is called OTM [Other Than Mexican] Alley, and we know that since 9/11 persons from 160 countries have been arrested coming through there. What happens is that 'coyotes' [people smugglers] are paid upward of $1,500 to get them across the border, which usually is along an established trail. If the coyote and his group make it through the desert to their pickup spot, depending on when they arrive they'll lay up in the bushes and chaparral until they are collected for transport to wherever. While they are waiting for their transportation, they have food left for the illegals by people and organizations inside the U.S. who are empathetic to their plight. What is left behind is a mess."

One group that has been instrumental in helping the illegal immigrants is Tucson-based Humane Borders, established by the Rev. Robin Hoover. This group provides water to aliens crossing the border, "trying to take death out of the immigration equation." Asked if he thought he and his group were breaking the laws of the United States by aiding and abetting illegal immigrants, Hoover responds, "That's a silly conversation. These people don't make their travel decisions based on where the water is, they make their decisions based on the current Border Patrol deployment and their smuggling infrastructure."

Hoover is aware that many of his neighbors are calling for putting the U.S. military on the border to try to stem the tide of illegal entries, but he tells Insight the United States does not "have the political will or financial resources to close this border. The military is not trained for human rights or civil rights, and I wouldn't support a military on the border. You know, you've got Congressman [Tom] Tancredo [R-Colo.] talking about this, but he doesn't know what he's talking about."

When asked if the water his group provides to illegal aliens might be going to drug smugglers or terrorists, Hoover tells Insight, "I'm willing to reduce the number of people dying in our back yard. Have you heard of the biblical concept that the rain falls on the just and the unjust alike?"

Tancredo is chairman of the U.S. congressional Immigration Reform Caucus and on more than one occasion has called for putting federal troops on the borders to stop the invasion by illegals from all over the world. He notes the irony that Mexico already deploys troops along the border. "It's almost hilarious if it weren't such a serious problem," he says. "I have asked the president many times to put troops on the border, and we got a response from soon-to-be secretary of homeland defense Tom Ridge who said there will be no troops on the border because of 'cultural and political reasons that prevent it.'"

Tancredo says Ridge would not elaborate on what cultural or political issues prevent the U.S. military from defending U.S territory in this way. "I've been down on the border," explains the lawmaker, "and I've worked with Ranch Rescue and I've stayed in the homes of the people living on the border. I assure you that something very ugly is going to happen down there. The only way to stop the illegal entry into the U.S. is to put troops on the border. That is the only way it will ever stop. We don't even fight fires at night in some places down there because of the fear of the drug smugglers. It sounds unbelievable, but it is true, so the cynicism about elected officials not wanting to do anything about the illegal-alien problem is totally warranted."

Simcox couldn't agree more: "We are answering the president's call to be vigilant. We are going to do the job that he refuses to do. He is not protecting American citizens. So we say either recruit us, train us and support us -- or stay the hell out of the way."

Kelly Patricia O'Meara is an investigative reporter for Insight magazine.
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