The Week Online with DRCNet
Issue #260, 10/25/02
Vigilante Drug Bust in Arizona Opens Window into World of Hurt on Mexican Border
Armed vigilantes who say they are only protecting property rights and the American way, but whom some border watchers describe as racist thugs, made the news last week when they reportedly seized 280 pounds of marijuana from Mexican drug runners in the desert night. The group, Ranch Rescue (http://www.ranchrescue.com) is one of a number of similar groups that have sprung up in recent years along the US-Mexican border to undertake armed patrols against undocumented immigrants and drug smugglers, but which admit detaining and sometimes brutalizing thousand of Mexicans they encounter on the frontier.
On the night of October 15, according to Ranch Rescue members quoted in the Arizona Daily Star, members of the group on a surveillance mission on the San Antonio ranch south of Tucson twice encountered groups of smugglers. The Mexicans, confronted by the camouflage-clad, semi-automatic rifle-toting vigilantes, dropped their loads and fled back across the border, Ranch Rescue spokesman Jack Foote said.
The group turned in the seized pot late the next afternoon, but only after first alerting the media, said Santa Cruz County Sheriff Tony Estrada. "For some reason, they were able to contact the media, but not us," he told DRCNet. "Clearly they wanted this to make them look good in the press."
That's understandable. Ranch Rescue and associated groups such as the American Border Patrol (not to be confused with the official US Border Patrol) haven't won a lot of friends on the heavily Hispanic border. The groups are frankly anti-immigrant and tinged with racist sentiment, referring to incoming Mexican workers as "hordes of predatory criminals that pour across our private property every day," as Ranch Rescue put it on its web site.
The cops would rather see them go away. "Ranch Rescue is a vigilante group, and the Arizona Department of Public Safety does not support vigilantism," a DPS spokesman told DRCNet. "We believe that the Border Patrol and local law enforcement are quite capable of enforcing our laws," he said. "When people take the law into their own hands, 99% of the time bad consequences happen. We don't want to see anyone get shot, we don't want to see confrontations, and we don't want to see these people having to go on trial for shooting someone."
[Editor: It's important to remember that these particular laws are unenforceable, by law enforcement, vigilantes or anyone else.]
Ranch Rescue did not return calls to DRCNet.
Sheriff Estrada agreed with DPS. "We do not want these people here, especially along the border," he told DRCNet. "It's a very dangerous game. These people from outside the area come in looking for confrontations along the border, but there is real potential for an explosion. The smuggling organizations, the cartels that are moving people and drugs across the border understand the risk of law enforcement, but I fear what could happen if they run into armed civilians."
That could be just what the vigilantes want. A shootout or two between armed vigilantes and Mexican traffickers would strengthen the nativist campaign to bring the US military to the border. That campaign, led by Rep. Tom Tancredo (R-CO) and cheered on by a chorus of conservative commentators, is prominently featured on Ranch Rescue and similar web sites. In May 1997, a young Mexican-American named Esequiel Hernandez was shot and killed by a squad of US Marines on anti-drug patrol while he was herding sheep. The American Border Patrol, based in nearby Sierra Vista, also calls for the deportation of all undocumented workers.
It could also divert attention from the murders of at least 10 Mexicans in Arizona. On Tuesday, the Daily Star reported that police were investigating whether the self-appointed border guardians murdered two Mexican immigrants in the desert last week. A survivor of that incident told police that a dozen immigrants were attacked by men wearing combat fatigues and firing automatic rifles. Authorities found two bullet-riddled bodies. The whereabouts of the other nine immigrants are unknown.
While Pima County officials suggested the Mexicans could have been killed by coyotes (guides helping others cross the border), immigrant advocates scoffed at the notion that coyotes, who usually blend in with their charges so as to avoid detection, were responsible for the killings. "We have never seen coyotes or smugglers dressed in camouflage," said Isabel Garcia, Pima County public defender and a leading member of the Coalicion por los Derechos Humanos (Coalition for Human Rights). "We can't yet blame vigilantes for these killings, but this is very frightening," she told DRCNet. "We've asked the federal government to intervene. Nowhere else in the country would armed civilian vigilantes be permitted, not even in Washington, DC, where they've been hunting down a mass murderer. These killings crystallize the increasingly hostile and violent atmosphere created by failed US border policies," she said.
As if those killings weren't enough, authorities to the north in Maricopa County (Phoenix) are investigating the murders of eight more Mexicans whose bound, gagged and bullet-riddled bodies have been found in the desert since June. While investigators suggested that smugglers or coyotes could be to blame, they also conceded that it could be the work of vigilantes or hate groups, the Daily Star reported.
"If this had been going on in the Deep South, if someone was attacking blacks like this, something would have been done about it," said Maria Jimenez of the American Friends Service Committee US-Mexico Border Program, a human rights advocacy organization. "We sent a delegation to the Department of Justice, we asked them to intervene, but nothing has happened," she told DRCNet.
"We have a huge problem here in Arizona," said Garcia. "Area rancher Roger Barnett has been the main culprit. He admits detaining thousands of people at gunpoint, and the authorities have done nothing. Now we have the racist American Border Patrol coming in from California and these Ranch Rescue people from Texas. But the fundamental problem is the failed US policy of funneling people into this desert area," she said. "That is causing the kind of division that leads to this chaos and violence."
Barnett told the Daily Star on Tuesday that he and his brother, Donald, were allied with the American Border Patrol and they "had detained at least 8,000 illegal immigrants over the past four and a half years and turned them over to the United States Border Patrol. He said that the migrants, who are made to sit on the ground, sometimes 'get mouthy with us' and that he was forced to become physically aggressive to control them. 'If you go out there and you're not armed, you're a fool," said Barnett, who carries a 9-millimeter pistol. "Who's going to protect you out there?,'" wrote the Daily Star.
Under border control programs such as Operation Gatekeeper, which have made illicit entry into the US more difficult in easier climes, Mexican immigrants have turned to harsh mountain and desert routes to get across. In southern Arizona alone, the Border Patrol reports detaining 333,000 illegal border crossers last year. It also reports that in the year ending September 30, 134 migrants died on their way to the Promised Land, falling victim to dehydration, heat exhaustion, and exposure in the harsh Arizona desert. That's up from 11 in 1998, before operations like Gatekeeper spread across the border, forcing undocumented workers-to-be to take ever more dangerous routes.
"That's only the bodies they've found," said Garcia.
But it's not just people coming across the border -- it's drugs, too, of course, and the effort to suppress the lucrative trade has only made the border more dangerous, said Garcia. But drug policy and immigration policy are linked by more than the border, she added; they are driven by the same myopia "that views that border as the point of origin of US social problems. The solution is a change in US policy to demilitarize the border, stop Operation Gatekeeper, Operation Safeguard and all the rest. Recognize the reality that we need these workers," said Garcia. "And we have to end this failed war on drugs. They have 85% of Border Patrol enforcement dollars going to the Mexican border, so now these migrants are 'drug smugglers.' Of course, these days they're also 'terrorists,'" she said.
Garcia implicitly pointed out another parallel between the drug war and immigration policy. "It's easy to say the migrants are criminals, they're violating the law. Well, they're not like the Enron executives, who get to write the laws, are they?" she asked. "If there are 11 million people violating the law, that tells you something about the law, doesn't it?"
Thirty years of ever-increasing law enforcement hasn't worked for immigration or drug control, said Garcia. "What we are doing isn't working," she said. "Instead it has created a human rights crisis on the border. It's time for America to wake up."
Meanwhile, the flows of substances and people made illegal continue, the casualties mount, and the vigilantes plan further actions. And they're attracting some fine company. Last year it was the Ku Klux Klan and David Duke. Last week on the San Antonio Ranch, it was freelance mercenary Rob Krott and his "tactical team" of ex-military buddies." Krott, chief foreign correspondent for Soldier of Fortune magazine, told the Daily Star he was looking for adventure. Oh, and to protect property rights. Anyone up for a little Meskin huntin'?