Borderland Security: Vigilantes Are Far from the Fringe in Arizona. Instead, Organizers Say, Ranchers and Border Agents Mirror a Violent Border Society Where Racial Profiling Abounds and Prosecution of Abuse Is Rare

By Chaddha, Anmol | Colorlines Magazine, Winter 2003 | Go to article overview

Borderland Security: Vigilantes Are Far from the Fringe in Arizona. Instead, Organizers Say, Ranchers and Border Agents Mirror a Violent Border Society Where Racial Profiling Abounds and Prosecution of Abuse Is Rare


Chaddha, Anmol, Colorlines Magazine


Thirteen-year-old Rosita Gonzales * heard strange noises while she and her brothers were playing in a tent they had set up in the backyard. She grabbed her backpack and ran toward the house. Behind her home in Pirtleville, AZ, a tiny desert town on the U.S.-Mexico border, the Border Patrol agents who were prowling in the brush assumed the girl to be a fleeing undocumented migrant and opened fire, shattering her kneecap. Although she survived the shooting, the incident became one of many incidents that have created and maintained an atmosphere of violence and harassment throughout towns near the southern Arizona border.

This past year, community organizers with the Border Action Network (BAN) went door to door in border towns like Douglas, Ariz., to assess how the increasingly active presence of Border Patrol agents has affected the lives of the city's 15,000 residents--an estimated 93 percent of whom are Latino. They heard stories of relentless harassment by local law enforcement and Border Patrol agents who flagrantly racially profile local residents, previously quiet neighborhoods made unsafe by Border Patrol vehicles carelessly speeding through the streets, and physical abuse and intimidation that painted a picture of what Jennifer Allen, executive director of BAN, describes as "low-intensity warfare." And in this war on migrants, the residents of towns like Douglas have been unwillingly placed on the front lines.

Hunting People Down

Local residents also expressed fear of the vigilante groups that have emerged in tandem with the rapid expansion of Border Patrol activity in this region. These groups of white ranchers and other sympathetic nativists believe that the federal government is coming up short in its efforts to crack down on undocumented migrants, and they are determined to take on the responsibility of patrolling the borders themselves. Promoting themselves as patriots protecting American jobs and defending national security, particularly in a post-9/11 context, the camouflage-clad vigilantes routinely stop groups of migrants at gunpoint, demand to know their immigration status, order them to the ground, and detain them until Border Patrol agents arrive.

Despite concerns about human rights violations by groups acting as extralegal law enforcement outfits, local authorities have failed to prosecute any of the ranchers. While mainstream media outlets and local public officials portray these groups as fringe elements, vigilantes and Border Patrol agents occupy essentially the same piece of a violent border society. "The vigilante groups emerge within a larger political climate that says it's OK to hunt people down at gunpoint," Allen explains. "The Border Patrol does the same thing regularly."

Over the past decade, the Border Patrol has implemented its Southwest Border Strategy, which has entailed the construction of longer and taller walls and fences in an attempt to seal off the major points of entry and increasing the number of agents patrolling these areas. San Diego and El Paso were the first high-traffic areas targeted by the agency through Operation Gatekeeper and Operation Hold the Line. But rather than reducing the scale of migration across the Southern border, this strategy has had the effect of pushing hopeful migrants away from these cities and forcing them to cross in desert regions under life-threatening conditions of extreme heat and no access to water.

Along the border, smaller towns like Douglas, in Arizona's Cochise County, have witnessed a dramatic influx of migrants who are discouraged from entering near the larger cities. County Attorney Chris Roll says he began noticing the increase around 1998, and that by 2000, the number of migrants passing through the county every month matched the county's total population of 115,000. Roll explains that the agency's strategies "tend to simply move the problem around from one area to another." Instead of deterring migration altogether, the Border Patrol's strategy amounts to a cat and mouse game on the Southern Border that is being played with the lives of undocumented migrants and town residents. …

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