Karen Branch-Brioso, St. Louis Post-Dispatch, stltoday.com, May 4
PALOMINAS, Ariz. — Wearing a camouflage jacket that cloaks the semi-automatic handgun at his waist, Chris Simcox aims his binoculars less than a mile away toward the seven strands of barbed wire that divide this remote desert town from Mexico.
Since October 2002, the Moline, Ill., native has made it his self-appointed duty to send illegal immigrants back to the other side of the barbed-wire border. Simcox calls it a “neighborhood watch.”
Cochise County, Ariz., style.
“It is the wild, wild West out here,” said Simcox, 43, owner of the Tombstone Tumbleweed, the weekly paper he uses partly to recruit members for his Civil Homeland Defense Corps patrol group and chronicle its exploits. “But it’s not us.”
Undocumented immigrants have surged through this southeastern Arizona county in recent years. After a decade of federal security buildups elsewhere along the border, the remote mountainous deserts of the state are now the preferred point of passage for illegal crossers. They leave behind trash, slashed fences — and at times their own dehydrated or frozen cadavers — en route to better-paying jobs in the United States.
Many in Cochise County sympathize with the migrants’ plight. But few dispute that the increased migrant traffic and drug smugglers that use the same well-worn trails have wreaked havoc in the area.
“The end result, so far, in Cochise County has been devastation of the environment, degradation of the quality of life, a tremendous collision between residents and illegal immigrants from all over the world,” Cochise County Sheriff Larry Dever says.
Simcox’s group and other civilian patrols that cropped up in recent years have recruited some disgruntled property owners. But they also have drawn significantly from those who have come from other states, attracted by the groups’ doomsday warnings about still-porous borders post-9-11. Some, like the Missouri Militia, based in the Kansas City area, have arrived in full camouflage with semi-automatic weapons to patrol ranchers’ property.
Five Missouri Militia members answered the call of Ranch Rescue, a group founded in Texas that became the first organized civilian patrol to set up camp on the Arizona border. The group’s stated mission: to protect private ranch property. Its approach has a more military feel to it than Simcox’s group, whose members are mainly middle-aged and elderly volunteers dressed in jeans and sitting in camp chairs along migrant trails.
A third group in Cochise County, American Border Patrol, uses higher-tech means to patrol the border. Founder Glenn Spencer sends up planes, unmanned drones and infrared cameras to track and report the surge of illegal immigration that has shifted to Arizona from his home state of California. Then he airs the video of undocumented crossings on his Web site.
The Rev. Robert Carney is a former St. Louis resident who left town to enter the priesthood at 43. For years, he served in parishes along the Arizona border. Today, he runs a binational, interfaith group to promote understanding about the reasons migrants make the illegal trek.
Some of the armed groups are more worrisome to him than others.
“I don’t think we’re overly concerned with Chris Simcox. He is not recognized by any of the other vigilante groups. They kind of laugh at him, really. But there are others who are very dangerous people that we’ve been concerned about from the beginning,” he said.
Carney said Ranch Rescue didn’t have great numbers. “But we have people who have gone in to see their weaponry and have been frightened by what they saw there.”
For a week last November, the Missouri Militia conducted patrols for Ranch Rescue on a ranch in Douglas, Ariz., less than a mile from the border. The sight of the volunteers in full battle garb and weapons set off a flurry of complaints — from the Mexican consul in Douglas to the mayor to civil rights groups.
“This is the first time we’ve actually seen them move to the border and set up camp, going through maneuvers, painting faces, wearing camouflage,” said Mayor Ray Borane of Douglas, home to the nation’s largest Border Patrol station. The station is almost next door to the ranch where the Missouri Militia carried out its maneuvers.
“Their presence was very volatile. They were right on the border. They might have had a confrontation with drug-runners or people-smugglers or the Mexican army. And then to what degree might it go?”
Eric Niepman, 49, a carpenter from Liberty, Mo., who drove down to the border with four of his Missouri Militia colleagues, said he didn’t know what the fuss was about.
“I can’t understand the furor over this. We’re just five guys who wanted to go down and do their patriotic duty,” Niepman said. “The first thing here is the rule of law: They’re not applying to emigrate. The next thing they’re doing is trashing the owner’s property. They’re not all poor people. There’s a lot of bad people. Good Lord, there could have been a person come over with a ‘dirty bomb,’ in this day and age.”
Ranch Rescue founder Jack Foote dubbed the Douglas ranch “Camp Thunderbird” and used its address as the Arizona headquarters for Ranch Rescue. Then, ranch owner Casey Nethercott was extradited to Texas to face charges of beating two undocumented Salvadoran migrants on a ranch there; Nethercott cut ties with Ranch Rescue in early April and had Foote evicted from the ranch.
Niepman said the group’s “rules of engagement” were clear: detain illegal crossers on the ranch until the Border Patrol showed up to arrest them, but never point their weapons at anyone except in self-defense.
He said he never did point his gun, saying, “I didn’t see anybody.”
Fellow Missouri Militia member Bill Skolaut of Odessa, Mo., says he did. The golf pro — a teacher at William Jewell College — said that, using his night-vision scope, he saw more than 100 people cross the border illegally.
“There were only five that we actually confronted. At least another dozen or two got away from us and the Border Patrol apprehended them,” said Skolaut, 47, who says the uproar over their presence was unfounded.
“Unfortunately, the word ‘militia’ brings fear. We are not anti-government. We are definitely not a white supremacist group. We are concerned citizens.”
The civilian patrol groups all seem to share a love-hate relationship with the Border Patrol. They like the beefed-up patrol along the borders. But they feel nothing short of a military presence is enough, particularly in these remote desert lands.
In the 1993 budget year, apprehensions by Border Patrol agents in the Tucson, Ariz., area accounted for less than 8 percent of the 1.2 million arrests of migrants crossing the Southwest border. The biggest chunk of migrants — 44 percent — were captured in the San Diego sector.
But the crackdowns in San Diego and El Paso, Texas, boosted the immigrant traffic through Arizona. In the budget year that ended in September, San Diego agents nabbed just 12 percent of the 905,065 undocumented crossers arrested. The Tucson sector caught 38 percent.
The arrest numbers are a rough gauge of overall illegal border traffic. And while Simcox acknowledges the Border Patrol is catching a greater percentage of the migrants, he insists that hundreds of thousands more elude capture, most of them through the Arizona desert.
“Border Patrol has improved it, maybe, from catching one in five to catching one in three. . . . But it would take a military division to seal this border,” says Simcox. “We’re going to put 40,000 troops on the border of Iraq. We won’t (stop) until the president puts troops on this border.”
So Simcox’s group and the others are intent on embarrassing the federal government into stepped-up enforcement. The Border Patrol presence in Arizona has grown by leaps and bounds in recent years. Today, 2,400 Border Patrol agents are assigned to the Tucson sector, which includes Cochise County, and to the Yuma sector of western Arizona. That’s an increase of almost 400 agents in less than three years.
Border Patrol spokeswoman Gloria Chavez said that while the agency encouraged citizens to report suspicious activity along the borders, “We do not encourage citizens to take the law into their own hands. We have immigration agents and very capable Border Patrol agents that are tasked with the responsibility of enforcing the immigration laws of the United States.”
Simcox, like the Ranch Rescue volunteers, says he’s not taking the law into his own hands. When his detractors refer to him as a “vigilante,” he bristles.
“A vigilante is judge, jury and executioner,” says Simcox, gaunt, even with the omnipresent bulletproof vest he wears beneath his turtleneck. “We don’t detain, arrest or punish. All we do is assist our inept federal government.”
Still, in his weekly newspaper in October 2002, Simcox called the civilian patrol group he planned to form “a vigilance committee, a committee of vigilantes.”
He has softened his approach in other ways. The gun he used to wear open in a holster he now wears concealed so as not to intimidate. Yet most of his sidekicks out on the migrant trails still wear their guns in full view. They all insist they have never removed their guns from the holsters while on patrol.
Post-9-11 call to arms
Many, like Simcox, are recent transplants from California. As a young adult, Simcox lived in Southern Illinois, where he attended John A. Logan Junior College and worked odd jobs at his family’s businesses in Carterville. He managed a record store at the Carbondale Mall until 1984. Then he tried his hand as a recording engineer in New York City for two years before moving to Los Angeles in 1986.
He had worked more than a decade as a private schoolteacher and tutor in Los Angeles when terrorists attacked on Sept. 11, 2001. Simcox decided that his 15-year-old son should learn to use a gun, which worried his ex-wife. Within days, she took him to court to seek full custody of their son, which a judge granted.
“We had made a pact to always keep him away from guns because of the Los Angeles scene, even though I packed a gun every day,” Simcox says. “But after 9-11, I told her, ‘This is the point where I’m changing my pact with you, mother. The world has changed. There’s no way I can allow my son to live in this town without preparing him to defend himself.”
Simcox left LA, seeking solace by camping for three months in the borderland desert of Arizona.
“I found heavily armed drug dealers, driving over this pristine reserve. I encountered over 3,000 people crossing in three months, all along the border here,” Simcox says. “Here we were, three to four months following Sept. 11, and people were just flowing across.”
He eventually landed in the tourist town of Tombstone, Ariz., about 30 miles north of the border, and bought the weekly with his retirement savings. Five months later, in October 2002, he issued a front page “Call To Arms” to create his civilian patrol.
Craig Howard, 58, a contractor from Brea, Calif., answered the call for personal reasons.
“I was building a patio in Pomona. I heard Chris Simcox on a radio show saying he was forming this neighborhood watch group to patrol the border,” said Howard, who left California to join the Civil Homeland Defense Corps. “It’s hard to compete with all those millions of Latinos. People would tell me, ‘You cost too much. I have to hire some Mexicans.’ They just wanted me to fix their mistakes.”
Today, Howard is among the faithful few who regularly join Simcox along the border by Palominas. He brings along his dog, Trombone, three flashlights and two handguns: a nine-shot revolver he calls his “sissy gun” and a .44-caliber Magnum.
“I never had to pull ‘em,” Howard says.
Instead, the Civil Homeland Defense Corps members say when they come across undocumented immigrants, they shine lights into their faces and tell them to stop and sit down. Someone videotapes. Someone calls the Border Patrol.
Sometimes the immigrants sit and wait. Sometimes they run.
On patrol in April
Laine Lawless, 54, also came to Cochise County from California. She arrived six months ago from the San Francisco Bay area in search of a gun-friendlier state and a respite from liberal politics.
“If you’re not a socialist, your name is poop there,” said Lawless, who plastered her truck with bumper stickers (“I Support Our Border Patrol” and “Cowgirls: How the West was Won”) and joined the Civil Homeland Defense Corps after finding it on the Internet.
Wearing a bulletproof vest, a Browning 9 mm semi-automatic and a belt buckle that reads “Nobody Raped a .38,” Lawless has found her niche in the desert.
Her companions on patrol one night in early April included Carmen Mercer, 49, a German immigrant who owns the OK Cafe in Tombstone, and John Stathas, 73, who makes the 94-mile trip to the border from his Tucson home by motorcycle.
“My parents immigrated from Greece in the 1920s,” said Stathas, puffing on a pipe stuffed with cherry cavendish tobacco while eyeing the desert trail for undocumented immigrants. “They had to be healthy and they had to have sponsors for five years. And then I think about what we’re going through here, with free welfare, free hospitalization for undocumenteds. If I get a catastrophic illness, nobody’s going to pay for me. I’m just furious because the government will not seal the border.”
Stathas’ voice softens when he tells of the patrol that most rattled him. One night, he surprised a group of illegal immigrants near the border. One of them, a woman, carried an infant in her arms.
“That was so sad,” he says.
There are no such encounters — sad or otherwise — on this April night, however, at least for the Civil Homeland Defense Corps volunteers, who wait in camp chairs under cover of darkness and mesquite. While their radios are abuzz with reports of sightings by the Border Patrol, none of the migrants crosses paths with the group.
The volunteers break patrol early at 8:30 p.m., chilled by the 60-degree air.
They will return the next evening and leave before dark, thwarted by a thunderstorm.
“Fair-weather vigilantes,” Howard jokes as the first truck prepares to leave.
Both nights, as they drive their caravan of trucks out of the rough and rutted borderland roads, they see the same sight. As their radios crackle with news of reported sightings of immigrants, they see the Border Patrol trucks rumble past them, headed in the opposite direction, toward the seven strands of barbed wire.