Men with Guns: Churches, Human Rights Groups, Border Crossers, and Civilian Militias Are Mixing It Up on the U.S.-Mexico Border

By Reel, James | Sojourners Magazine, July-August 2003 | Go to article overview

Men with Guns: Churches, Human Rights Groups, Border Crossers, and Civilian Militias Are Mixing It Up on the U.S.-Mexico Border


Reel, James, Sojourners Magazine


In the southeastern corner of Arizona, Cochise County rides the Mexican border. And there's a burr under its saddle.

Armed civilian groups are patrolling the international boundary, scouting the rolling grasslands and rough hills for people who have entered the United States illegally, and in many cases detaining them until the U.S. Border Patrol arrives to take them into custody. The leaders of these militias say they are compensating for inadequate government enforcement of misguided immigration policies that allow undocumented workers, drug smugglers, and possibly terrorists to "swarm" across the border, damaging private property, harming the environment, and intimidating rural residents.

Human-rights organizations charge that these militias terrorize people they assume to be undocumented immigrants, violate state laws limiting militia activities and civilian arrests, escalate the potential for violence, and maintain links to racist hate groups.

"People were already being harassed by the Border Patrol, and now things have gotten even worse," says Jennifer Allen of the Tucson-based Border Action Network. Mexican Americans born and raised in the United States, she says, "used to go out hunting or hiking, but they've been dragged out of their tents and harassed to such a degree that they don't go out of the city anymore. And now these vigilantes are out there with the attitude that if you're brown and out in the desert, you must be an undocumented migrant. So even the residents are in danger because the vigilante groups are bringing people in that are racist and hunting for anyone with brown skin."

Border Action Network asserts that some militia members have openly consorted with out-of-state representatives of racist groups. One public meeting in May 2000 was attended not only by such local militia backers as Roger Barnett and Glenn Spencer, but also by two representatives from David Duke's National Organization for European American Rights and members of an Arkansas Klan group.

QUESTIONS OF RACISM aside, militia members are reacting to, and contributing to, an already dangerous situation. In the past couple of years, smugglers have become increasingly desperate, aggressive, and in many cases violent. Groups of illegal immigrants have been fired upon--and people killed--by drive-by assailants who have never been apprehended. Law-enforcement agencies theorize that the killers are rival smugglers, while human-rights activists speculate that the attackers could be U.S. vigilantes.

John Fife, pastor of Tucson's Southside Presbyterian Church and a leader of the sanctuary movement in the 1980s, has decried the killings, no matter who is responsible for them, as "the culmination of a history of dehumanization and racism and militarism on this border that has gone on for a long time. Too long." Such faith-based groups as Humane Borders and Samaritan Patrol have given humanitarian aid to border crossers in trouble, but they are ill-equipped to contend with such violence--and the potential for more.

Border Action Network, while acknowledging that the border situation has become dangerous and untenable for crossers and residents alike, has been calling, with limited success, for state and federal authorities to take the militias out of play.

Much of the militia activity is centered in Cochise County, which by frontier standards is relatively populous. Here, private ranches cover hundreds of acres crisscrossed by roads. There's more private land along the border in the ,other Western states, but most of the organized militia operations so far have taken place in southeastern Arizona. The major exception is Ranch Rescue, based in Texas with chapters in New Mexico, Arizona, and California. According to its spokesperson Jack Foote, Ranch Rescue has deployed about 200 volunteers in a variety of "operations" over the past two and a half years.

Two other high-profile militias operate exclusively in Arizona.

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