Reconquista Garcia claims militia efforts are "incendiary and outrageous"
DISPATCH FROM TOMBSTONE, ARIZ.
Up in Arms at Mexico Border
A newspaper editor's militia fulfills what he calls his patriotic duty to thwart illegal migrants. Some fear lawsuits or even deaths could result.
By Tom Gorman Times Staff Writer
December 8 2002
TOMBSTONE, Ariz. -- If these were the days of frontier justice, newspaper editor Chris Simcox would fit right in. With a .45-caliber handgun strapped to his side, he rustles through river-bottom oaks and reeds, looking for outlaws.
His prey: foreigners, and maybe terrorists, who illegally cross into the United States from Mexico. His posse: 600 citizens who share his frustration about the porous border.
Simcox, owner and editor of the Tombstone Tumbleweed, has formed an armed militia to patrol the U.S.-Mexico border, fulfilling what he says is his patriotic duty to thwart illegal immigrants by placing them under citizen arrest.
About a dozen members of the militia held their first strategy meeting Saturday at the O.K. Cafe, a sourdough biscuit's throw away from the corral where Marshal Virgil Earp, brothers Wyatt and Morgan and buddy John "Doc" Holliday shot and killed three cowboys for carrying guns in town.
Townsfolk complain that the militia's activities will tarnish Tombstone. Authorities and civil rights activists warn that Simcox's tactics will lead to lawsuits, if not injuries or deaths from gunfire.
"We're seriously concerned, because we could end up having citizens killing people or getting harmed themselves," said Mary Frances Berry, chairwoman of the U.S. Commission on Civil Rights. The agency has asked the Justice Department for a report on the militia's activities.
Others applaud Simcox. "He's drawing attention to a problem that's largely ignored by politicians and agencies who are supposed to protect us," local rancher Henry Harvey said.
Anger about the growing number of illegal immigrants crossing Cochise County's 82-mile-long border with Mexico has been mounting for years. The number of arrests more than doubled in two years to 438,489 in 2000 as the Border Patrol heightened enforcement elsewhere in the Southwest and immigrants found the borders near here easy to breach.
Immigrants arrested for committing crimes in the county cost Cochise County nearly $5 million that year in police, court and jail costs, said Pat Call, chairman of the county Board of Supervisors. "We're having to bear the brunt of the federal government's failed border policy," Call said.
After the Border Patrol built sturdier fences, increased lighting and added agents along this part of the border, the number of crossers caught dropped to 156,950 in the last year, but critics argue that more needs to be done. The Border Patrol would not disclose the number of agents assigned to the county, but the agency has more than 1,700 agents along the Arizona border.
Simcox's militia, called the Civil Homeland Defense, is one of at least three citizens groups formed along the U.S.-Mexico border to intimidate illegal immigrants from entering the country.
"I don't really believe the militia will make that much of a difference," said Greg Moore, one of Homeland Defense's volunteers. "But we have to make a statement to the government.
"We're not going out half-cocked, and we'll try to screen out all the wackos," said Moore, who served in the Marine Corps and now operates a Tombstone bed-and-breakfast inn.
Simcox hopes that deploying militia members visibly along the border 30 miles south of here, in small groups and in 24-hour shifts, will deter illegal immigrants. Those who cross will be captured, handcuffed using plastic ties, read their Miranda rights and placed under citizen arrest until picked up by the Border Patrol, he said.
Cochise County Sheriff Larry Dever is wary of citizen arrests. "There's not a person in this county who hasn't experienced a great amount of frustration over the federal government's lack of responsibility," he said. But that doesn't allow Simcox to engage in activities that may be legally viewed as kidnappings, Dever said, and "we're prepared to take action if necessary."
Militia members will identify themselves as security guards, Simcox said, and he is toying with creating laminated ID cards embossed with "President's Volunteer Corps."
Simcox said he will screen members' criminal backgrounds and gun safety knowledge by having them qualify for a state concealed-weapon permit. Guns will only be drawn for life-and-death self-defense, he said, and if the immigrants run, they will not be chased. "There's no doubt someone will be killed one day -- one of us -- by drug traffickers," he said.
Simcox and his supporters contend that illegal immigrants strain the nation's drug enforcement and health-care systems and burglarize ranches and homes near the border. Simcox also worries that terrorists may sneak across with biological or chemical weapons.
"I'm trying to force the president of the United States to do his job," Simcox said. "He took an oath to protect us from enemies. He has no business sending troops to foreign countries when he hasn't sealed our own borders."
Simcox, 42, is a former Los Angeles elementary school teacher and home-school consultant who moved here last year. He said he encountered so many illegal immigrants and heavily armed drug traffickers when camping that he joined 40 men volunteering as security guards for landowners adjacent to the border. They notified the Border Patrol of the exact locations of crossings, but agents seldom responded, he said.
After a couple of odd jobs, he was hired as a reporter on the Tumbleweed, and later bought the weekly. Readers said the paper improved under his guidance, and circulation increased.
But no one in the town of 1,500 was ready for the Page One headline Oct. 24 that betrayed his border-protection obsession: "Enough Is Enough! A Public Call to Arms! Citizens Border Patrol Militia Now Forming!"
Simcox smiled as he recalled the uproar. Some residents quickly enlisted, some ridiculed him, and others worried about the town's image and the possibility of violence.
"Tombstone is turning into a militia camp instead of a family-oriented tourism town. This is giving the whole town a black eye," said Sally Alves, who runs a bed-and-breakfast inn.
Tombstone's Wild West image drives the town's singular industry: tourism. A stagecoach plies the historic main street where the original Bird Cage Theater and Big Nose Kate's saloon are now crowded by souvenir shops and Western clothing stores. Cowboys packing six-shooters and wearing dusters sell tickets to reenactments of shootouts.
Civil rights activist and defense attorney Isabel Garcia, who co-chairs Derechos Humanos, said Simcox's call to arms "is incendiary and outrageous."
"In this country, we don't allow the military -- or militias -- to enforce civilian laws," she said. Citizens can only make arrests if they witness a felony, or a misdemeanor where immediate action is required to thwart more wrongdoing, she said. Under federal law, crossing the border illegally for the first time is a misdemeanor.
"You can't have civilians taking the law into their own hands and detaining people -- especially if you're in no position to know for sure if a law is broken," she said.
Legal issues aside, Mayor Dusty Escapule said he's "afraid some innocent people are going to get hurt or killed, and we'll have an international incident on our hands.
"I'm worried [Simcox is] going to attract radicals who want to go on a human hunt."