Civilians patrol border

Groups put selves, crossers in danger, law enforcement says

Tucson Citizen
Oct. 28, 2002

In the sprawling ranch land just north of the Arizona-Sonora border, teams of men outfitted in camouflage and armed with rifles are camped out round-the-clock, waiting for an illegal immigrant or drug smuggler to cross the line.

The men are not U.S. Border Patrol agents.

They are a loose-knit band of civilians - reserve police officers, sheriff's deputies, a former Navy SEAL - who are the brawn behind the organization Ranch Rescue, a controversial movement to protect private land in Arizona.

The armed citizen patrol, which originated in Texas, is staking out the Arizona border in hopes of sending a message to the U.S. government, said Jack Foote, spokesman for Ranch Rescue: Take care of the border or we'll take care of it ourselves.

Ranch Rescue is the second anti-immigration organization to take root in the state this year.

The American Border Patrol, spearheaded by California transplant Glenn Spencer, has set up headquarters in Sierra Vista to document the wave of humanity crossing the border illegally.

The American Border Patrol records citizen reports of illegal crossings and puts video footage and photos of crossers on its Web site, Spencer said. The idea is to seek out ranch owners and homeowners who report "suspected border intrusions," he said.

The American Border Patrol tries to distance itself from Ranch Rescue, but also has fueled tensions with immigrant advocates.

The situation has law enforcement worried, especially the actions of Ranch Rescue members, who last week scared off drug smugglers and netted 279 pounds of marijuana near the hamlet of Lochiel, on the border 65 miles southeast of Tucson.

"We understand the ranchers are frustrated" with immigrants and drug smugglers crossing their lands, said Kyle Barnette, a U.S. Customs associate special agent in charge in Arizona. "However, it's not an environment that novices or amateurs should be meddling in.

"It's almost militialike," Barnette said. "Our concern is for the residents and the people that come into the country illegally, for their safety."

Ranch Rescue members will continue to patrol in Arizona for at least a month, Foote said. They are rotated through undisclosed locations on Arizona's border in "deployments," he said.

"By conducting these missions," Foote said, "we are standing shoulder to shoulder with the border county landowners in saying to the state and federal governments, 'Either you will keep these criminals off private property, or you will accept the fact that we are going to do so.' We are not going to offer them any other choices but those two."

Law enforcement agencies do not appreciate the ultimatum.

Local, state and federal authorities have monitored the group, which at one point reached an estimated 50 to 60 people, said Santa Cruz County Sheriff Anthony Estrada.

"Any confrontation they have ... could be deadly or dangerous," Estrada said. "One of our concerns is what were they going to do if they did run across any illegal crossers. You never know what's going to happen when you have civilians dealing with that type of issue."

Ranch Rescue's activities come as relations between immigrant advocates and proponents of tighter border controls in Arizona are strained tighter than the barbed wire fence that separates much of the U.S.-Mexican border.

Two migrants' slayings near the rural community of Red Rock were reported in the media the same day as the marijuana seizure. Television news reports initially raised the idea that "vigilantes" may be responsible for the shooting, although investigators now say that appears unlikely.

Pinal County Sheriff's officials say they suspect the gunmen were competing migrant smugglers known as "coyotes."

Ranch Rescue's presence at the border has fueled protests by immigrant advocates, who called "Operation Hawk," its Arizona mission, a vigilante terror campaign."

"It seems pretty coordinated to me," said Isabel Garcia, a founding member of the immigrant advocate group Derechos Humanos. "Looking at their Web sites ... and hearing from the folks in the border areas, they have people who are Soldier of Fortune kind of guys. It's pretty frightening."

Much of the war over illegal immigration is being waged via the media and Internet.

Customs officials say Ranch Rescue called the media before notifying them of the marijuana bust. The group was accompanied by a journalist with Soldier of Fortune magazine, which describes itself as a "journal for professional adventurers."

"For Ranch Rescue's purposes, it is good publicity, 'Oh, look, we got 300 pounds of weed,' " Barnette said.

"Well, so what? It's not that difficult. I could stand in the parking lot of my office, hit a 3-iron in any direction and hit a dope load on any given day," he said, adding that U.S. Customs agents in Arizona seized more than 195,000 pounds of marijuana last year.

"People in this environment realize this is no big accomplishment," Barnette said. "I would suggest I could train a chimpanzee to catch 300 pounds of weed."

Armed ranchers detaining immigrants at gunpoint is not new in southern Arizona.

Since January, Cochise County Rancher Roger Barnett and his brother, Don, say they have caught more than 2,000 illegal immigrants on their 22,000-acre ranch two miles north of the border.

Roger Barnett, 59, patrols the ranch on weekends. He has installed 11 sensors on his property that alert him to crossers. He's now talking about buying a helicopter to catch the immigrants more easily.

"It's my American right. In fact, every American ought to get on a bandwagon and do it theirself (sic) to keep the United States as they know it now. Because if they don't do it, if they continue letting these people come in and run over them, they are going to take this country over."

Sheriff Estrada conceded there is little law enforcement officials can do unless members of groups such as Ranch Rescue cross a line and break the law.

"Like every other resident or citizen of the United States they have a right to be wherever they want. Unless for some reason the property owners tell them, 'I don't want you on my property,' " Estrada said, "There wasn't anything we could do."

The Nature Conservancy, which owns the land where Ranch Rescue confiscated the marijuana, promptly asked the group to leave after the marijuana seizure made headlines. Foote said the group had permission of the land manager. The Nature Conservancy said the land manger confused Ranch Rescue with the U.S. Border Patrol.

Foote said his organization is gaining permission of more landowners for its missions. At the same time, membership in Ranch Rescue, which originated in Texas, is growing rapidly, he said.

Two years ago, the organization had six members and focused mainly on repairing damage to fences caused by illegal immigrants and smugglers.

Ranch Rescue now has 250 members who each pay $15 for an annual membership or $45 to become a lifetime member. Foote said participation in the first mission is free.

Foote said the organization includes women. He said he was unsure if there were minorities on the membership roster.

Foote boasted that the members typically have a strong background in the military or law enforcement. The 13 members who seized the marijuana Oct. 16 included a former Special Forces soldier, a former Navy Seal and two Canadian light Infantry soldiers, he said.

Also included was a reserve police officer and a deputy sheriff. Foote would not say where the members were from, but divulged that one "expatriate" came from China to participate in "Operation Hawk."

Spencer, of the American Border Patrol, is trying to keep a careful distance from the more radical Ranch Rescue operation.

"I've been aware of Ranch Rescue for a couple of years," Spencer said. "I don't condemn what they're doing, I just say that's not my style. We are interested in getting information to the people in the most effective way we can."

But he still has been engaged in a very public battle with Garcia, the immigrant advocate, in interviews and news conferences.

Garcia calls him a "racist."

Spencer calls her "an agent of Mexico."

Miguel Escobar Valdez, the Mexican Consul in Douglas, said the American Border Patrol and other organizations are cause for alarm for people living along the border.

"The appearance of organizations that have a definite anti-immigrant profile are always a matter of preoccupation," he said.

"From my perspective, they send a message of radicalism and intolerance that tends to muddle the very complex immigration issue."

What's a vigilante?

According to Merriam-Webster Online Collegiate Dictionary, "vigilante" means: "a member of a volunteer committee organized to suppress and punish crime summarily (as when the processes of law appear inadequate)."

Broadly defined, the definition, according to the dictionary, reads: "a self-appointed doer of justice."


Ranch Rescue

According to its Web site, Ranch Rescue is a "volunteer organization composed of people who believe that when government fails or refuses to act, individual citizens are obligated to act on their own." The group originated in Texas, but now has chapters in eight states including Arizona, New Mexico and California. Until recently the group focused on mending border fences and picking up trash immigrants leave behind. Last week, 13 volunteers with Ranch Rescue seized 279 pounds of marijuana after conducting surveillance and scaring off smugglers near the border, about 65 miles southeast of Tucson.

American Border Patrol

The aim of the Sierra Vista-based American Border Patrol is to inform the public about what's happening at the border, said Glenn Spencer, the organization's founder. The Sherman Oaks, Calif., native, has been an anti-illegal immigration advocate since the 1980s. The new organization, based out of a mobile home in an undisclosed location south of Sierra Vista, is a mixture between a "think tank and neighborhood watch," Spencer said. The American Border Patrol records citizen reports of illegal crossings and puts video footage, summaries and photos on its Web site. The organization tries to distance itself from Ranch Rescue.

Roger Barnett

A member of the American Border Patrol, Barnett says he and his brother have assisted in the arrest of more than 2,000 illegal immigrants crossing his 22,000-acre property in Cochise County this year. Barnett, 59, is known to carry a 9 mm pistol while working on the ranch, which is equipped with high-tech sensors to notify him of people crossing the property. Barnett says he is wrongly portrayed by the media and immigrant advocates as a "vigilante" because of his efforts to aid the Border Patrol, which he says is overwhelmed. Barnett is not affiliated with Ranch Rescue.