Even though it has been more than three years since the national Minutemen organization based in Arizona, and run by movement cofounder Chris Simcox, shuttered its operations, there are still would-be vigilante militiamen out patrolling the Arizona desert on the lookout for illegal border crossers. And because they are smaller cells and increasingly radical, they are proving to be a real problem.
Most recently, one of these militiamen made headlines when he got into an armed confrontation with a Maricopa County sheriff's deputy. This was especially noteworthy, since Sheriff Joe Arpaio -– a well-known nativist figure himself -– made a point of denouncing the vigilantism of the border watchers.
The border-watch movement has significantly dropped in popularity in recent years, largely due to the murders of an Arivaca man and his 9-year-old daughter by movement leader Shawna Forde in 2009, as well as the lethal rampage of onetime border-watch organizer J.T. Ready in 2012, and capped off by Simcox's recent arrest on charges of child molestation.
Nonetheless, they have come creeping back along the fringes in the form of small cells that do not attempt to answer to a national movement and are freer to become much more radical than the Minutemen, who in contrast aspired to appear mainstream and often vowed to "weed out" criminals and extremists – though the cases of Shawna Forde (who, it emerged, had a long and prolific criminal record) and Chris Simcox (who had previously been accused of molesting a child but never charged) make clear that was never really the case.
The new border militias make similar vows, but also do not pretend to be a mere "neighborhood watch" calling in violations to the Border Patrol, as the Minutemen did. They are drawing down on people they confront in the desert, as the clash with the deputy demonstrated.
The militias are also raising the level of fear and concern among people who do humanitarian work along these borders. Juanita Molina of the Border Action Network in Tucson described for Hatewatch a milieu in certain areas of the border where deaths have been occurring amid harassment and vandalization by border militiamen.
Molina also volunteers for the humanitarian group Humane Borders, which puts out water stations in areas of the desert where migrants are crossing and the highest incidence of deaths -– most of them related to dehydration –- have been occurring.
"The issues with militias out in the desert itself are significant," Molina said. "Most recently there have been a series of deaths that have occurred in the Gila Bend area. And although humanitarian groups and law enforcement are very concerned about that area and can see that there has been an increase in deaths, unfortunately, there has been such a severe problem with the militia that humanitarian groups and law enforcement have had concerns about patrolling and even entering certain areas of the desert."
Molina said that she and her workers encounter "everyday attitudes" among militia groups that are uniformly hostile and violent: "It's not uncommon for us to receive threats or to have our offices, our trucks, our water stations vandalized, stabbed, shot," she said. "We live with this violence every day."
A TV crew from KPHO-TV in Phoenix recently went out with one of these militia crews and filmed them in action in the desert, as well as at a recruitment gathering. The militiamen insisted on anonymity -– dubbing themselves such monikers as "Reaper" and "Raptor" -– but insisted they were only out to perform a public service.
"We're here to protect our community, first and foremost. Protect our state, second. And in doing so, that also means curbing the flow of drugs into our cities," the man dubbed Reaper told the reporters.
This militia is being operated by a former California Minuteman named Robert Crooks, who has since removed himself to Arizona. As did Simcox and his colleagues, Crooks insisted to the KPHO reporters that he "wants to change the way militias are viewed" and claimed he doesn't accept felons or racists. He also dismissed the confrontation between militiaman from his crew and the Maricopa County sheriff's deputy.
"In reality, it was just the fog of war," said Crooks, adding that he is trying to cut down on drug smuggling through the Vekol Valley. "I've been shot at 23 times in 24 months," he said.
The man dubbed "Reaper" also described for the reporters how the group allows for military contractors – a number of whom showed up for a recruitment meeting, including some on active duty – to participate without officially joining so that the contractors can get around government prohibitions against joining militias.
"So we have runarounds that will legally allow for membership without the membership," said Reaper. "So you'll pass your polygraph, and everyone can sleep at night."
Crooks, who goes by the nom de guerre "Little Dog," has a colorful history as a Minuteman. He got his start running border watches in the Campo, California area for movement cofounder Jim Gilchrist and his Minuteman Project. He was described (though misidentified as "Robert Cook") in a 2006 New York Times piece about vigilante border watchers.
The piece profiled a border watcher named Britt Craig, who appeared to be running a completely solo operation outside of Campo. This probably would not be exceptional, except that Craig refused to recognize the leadership of the Campo unit of Gilchrist's Minuteman Project -– namely, Robert Crooks, who so openly and aggressively insulted Craig on e-mails to his charges –- calling him, among other things, "a swine who lives in a cat box" -– that it eventually came to fisticuffs on the main street in Campo. Craig broke Crooks' glasses after the man refused to apologize for the insults.
Crooks had a falling out with Gilchrist a year later and formed his own outfit, calling it the Mountain Minutemen. Crooks sent Gilchrist a taunting e-mail, telling him he was a weakling who could "Talk the Talk" but not "Walk the Walk".
Attached was a video, shot through a night-vision scope, watching two or three men in the distance atop a hill, on the other side of a barbed-wire fence, surveying the ground. “All right, come on across, motherfuckers,” a man said quietly off camera. “Yeah, go that way. I dare you to go that way. That’s my fucking trail, bitch!” He keeps muttering for several minutes, calling his targets "cockroaches." Then he shouts out: “Hey putos [“faggots”], one, two, three!” -– followed by the chambering sound of a shotgun shell, then a blast and a flash.
“This video shows how to keep a ‘Home Depot’ parking lot empty,” Crooks told Gilchrist. Gilchrist, whose Minuteman Project had earlier provided Crooks’ group with supplies, responded by banning Crooks from contact with his own group. When asked by reporters, Crooks denied being the shooter in the video.
A week later, a second video featuring the same night scope and the same shooter surfaced, and it was far more disturbing, because it purported to show the actual shooting of a border crosser with a backpack. Again, Crooks later admitted that the shooting was faked.
Cross-posted at Hatewatch.