North of the Border
From the August 29, 2005 issue: With the Minutemen on the Mexican border.
Aug 29, 2005, Vol. 10, No. 46 • By MATT LABASH
The loosely organized, all-volunteer Minutemen have captured headlines and imaginations since their month-long stand on the Arizona/Mexican border in April. Make that their month-long sit, since much of their activity requires taking a load off in their best lawn chairs. They plant themselves on the border in everything from those old metal-tube jobs with vinyl webbing to the Wilderness Recliner with durable padded seat and insulated beverage holder, there to serve as reporting agents and visible deterrents against the gusher of illegal aliens our government seems unable, or unwilling, to stop. Their very logo is an advertisement for proactive passivity. It depicts a Revolutionary-era Minuteman holding a cell phone and binoculars, as opposed to the more forthright musket.
Even in school plays, however, I could never pull off the tricorn hat. It made my face look angular. And with the Sonora Desert sun hot enough to tan you through your clothes and turn your ear cartilage into crispy rinds, picking the appropriate lid warranted careful weighing of the evidence.
Some proponents cast these lawn-chair warriors, whose median age is near 60, as devout patriots conducting a high-stakes neighborhood watch, the "neighborhood" consisting of our lawless 1,900-mile southern border, large parts of which aren't even marked, let alone fenced. The Minutemen, they say, are just as likely to offer sun-baked illegals life-sustaining water as they are to hit speed-dial on their cell phones, ratting them out to the U.S. Border Patrol, which gives them an air-conditioned escort back to Mexico. According to boosters, they are watchdogs and humanitarians, having over the last three years rescued some 160 aliens who'd nearly perished in the desert.
It would seem, then, I couldn't go wrong with a straw grape-picker's hat in the Steinbeck mode. It sits atop the crown as a testament to American solidarity with oppressed-peoples-of-the-world. Made in China, probably in a sweatshop, it was a real steal at $2.50.
On the other hand, there are the Minutemen's legions of detractors. Mexican president Vicente Fox called them "migrant hunters," while George W. Bush denounced them as "vigilantes." The Minutemen do tote guns (though they encourage their ranks to secure concealed-weapon permits, the better, organizers say, to put the government to work weeding out potential wackos through criminal background checks). Yet the entire month of April, the heaviest thing that went down was the censuring of a new volunteer who gave a weary illegal water and Wheaties (along with 20 bucks), then photographed him wearing a T-shirt that said "Bryan Barton Caught Me Crossing the Border And All I Got Was This Lousy T-Shirt." Barton was summarily dismissed.
Whatever policing of their ranks they'd done, the Minutemen had been macheted in the press. Every sour-tempered hack and alternative-weekly assassin had turned up to call them extremists and xenophobes and depict them as backwoods mouth-breathers, just as happy to hunt Mexicans as to loll on the redwood decks of their double-wides. They were dismissed as "red-faced pudge-tubs in full camo," and their campaign disparaged as "Granddad's Last Stand." Journalists had it both ways, hinting at impending violence, then being dismissive when it didn't materialize: "These Minutemen are to real vigilantes . . . what the Disney Jungle Boat Ride is to Amazon exploration," sniffed one scribe.
It was a confusing picture. Often portrayed as feckless rather than cautiously law-abiding, the Minutemen still came off in the media as some sort of super-spawn of Bernhard Goetz and the Michigan militia circa 1995. So back at the hat rack, having not yet met a single Minuteman, I doubled down, selecting a black, militia-style "Try-to-Burn-This-Flag" Stars'n'Bars number. Just to be safe.
TOMBSTONE IS A TOWN that was carved out of Apache country. The prospector who named it, claiming that he traveled among the fierce Indians in the surrounding hills to "collect rocks," was warned that if he persisted in his folly the only rock he'd find was a tombstone. The town was welcoming that way.
Its Boothill Graveyard boasts of the gentle ends met by its inhabitants: struck in the head with fire pokers, stoned to death by Apaches, skulls crushed under wagon wheels. Nearly going tits-up after a mining bust, Tombstone was repackaged as a tourist trap, feeding off past glories such as Wyatt Earp's Gunfight at the OK Corral. The gunfights that still break out with regularity in its streets are fought with blanks by reenactors. In fact, before meeting Chris Simcox, the Minuteman leader and co-founder who doubles as the town's newspaper owner/editor, I make an afternoon of surveying these tourist wranglers, who, like the nation, seem divided on whether the Minutemen are a force for good or ill.
Outside the dust-caked OK Corral, a reenactor called "Ol' Joe" applauds the Minutemen's efforts since they help "keep illegals out," though he also calls them "bad" because they "keep the illegals from doing work us white guys don't want to do"--things like picking lettuce and busing tables, as opposed to pumping lead into the gentleman who plays Billy Clanton.
Over at the Helldorado Town gunfight theater, I spy a photograph of actor Bad Bob Waco, whose shaved head looks like a damaged baseball with its seams and stitches. The new, improved Bad Bob, in a black hat and red sash like the ones the Earps' cowboy nemeses used to wear, pulls a pre-show Dr. Pepper out of the cooler. He explains that the photo is of him after he did a "flip-off" from a second story and missed the mattress during a show. "Hit my head off the concrete," he says, knocking it with his fingers. "Now it's a metal plate."
"I reckon they're all right. I didn't think there was gonna be trouble like people thought there was," says Bad Bob, and his office manager Vikki, dressed in moccasins and a Geronimo shirt, concurs. Vikki details how Tombstone's been adversely affected by illegal traffic: how the migrants hide in the washes outside of town, littering them with drug needles and plastic Circle K bags. They bust pipes, pollute the water supply, break into houses, and cut down fences. The Minutemen's efforts mark the first time she's seen alien traffic go down in forever (rates of illegal entry were estimated to drop by as much as 50 percent along the 20-mile stretch of border that the several hundred Minutemen patrolled). Somebody needed to do something to bring attention to the issue, she says. Washington certainly wasn't paying any.
But a white-haired "No Toes Blake," who wears a marshal's badge, takes a less charitable view of Simcox and Co. Though he likes Simcox and used to work with him when Simcox was a "goofy sidekick" in the Helldorado show before taking over the paper, Blake doesn't buy his strategy. "If you wanna change something," Blake says, "you should vote the right people in. We don't need vigilantes around here." (He would say that. He's a law dog.)
Another Miss-Kitty type employee expresses the same concern as plenty in the tourist sector, fearful that their gunfights might be interrupted by actual bullets. She says Chris Simcox is just like all the other eccentric end-of-the-liners that the town attracts, putting her in mind of the drifter who thinks he really is Doc Holliday, down to the tubercular cough. She says Simcox is "really not liked around here. He carries a gun everywhere, and for good reason."
While Simcox is revered by plenty--including the Russian immigrant waitress who serves me a buffalo burger at the OK Café--he doesn't dispute that he has to look over his shoulder. He wears a bullet-proof vest most places and takes a coterie of heat-packing volunteers he sometimes calls "bodyguards" with him to speaking engagements. Many of them are retired military or law enforcement. Death threats have come from open-border types on both sides of the line, and he's been fired at by drug smugglers while on patrol. When I suggest we go out for dinner, he declines, saying he doesn't eat in restaurants since someone might poison him. He's joking. But when I ask to go to his house to take some notes on it, his good humor fades. "Nobody sees my house. I don't want you to know where I live."
Instead, I catch up with him at the joint office of the Tombstone Tumbleweed/Minuteman Civil Defense Corps, a fall-down frathouse-style adobe structure on Toughnut Street. Here, Simcox does everything from edit and write stories on lifeguard shortages, arts-and-crafts fairs, and immigration abuses (his favorite topic) to answer phones and sweep the floors. His paper enjoys something close to 100 percent penetration, but the town's only got 1,500 people. Apart from some stringers, he's close to a one-man band.
SIMCOX, 44, is boyish, with the wiry athletic build of a professional shortstop, which he dreamed of becoming after being drafted by the Cincinnati Reds and before washing out when a tumor was found in his lung. (He lost part of his lung, but is healthy now.) When the often stubbled Simcox is clean-shaven, he looks like Jimmy Olsen. But unlike the cub reporter, he showily puffs Macanudos as though he'd read about it being protocol in the Newspaper Publisher's Handbook. When I arrive, he's on the phone with a Houston radio show, putting out fires after a report that the Minutemen are coming to Texas. Many local pundits and political types are aghast. "The sky is falling," he says to me mockingly, exhaling a cloud of cigar smoke while on hold.
They'd better get used to it. Since the Minutemen's Arizona campaign dominated front pages in April, and a similar month-long stint in every state along the Mexican border was announced for October, eager volunteers have been hitting Simcox up to open chapters everywhere--in scores of inland states and every border state except Maine. Even Canadians, our lethargic neighbors to the north, want in on the action.
It seems the Minutemen are surfing a tidal wave of dissatisfaction. As a recent CNN poll confirmed, 96 percent of respondents felt illegal immigration should be a major issue in next year's election, perhaps because some three million aliens made it in last year, mostly through Mexico. Estimates of how many illegals our Border Patrol manages to intercept range from one in three to one in twenty. So it's small wonder that even unlikely politicians--such as Hillary Clinton and New Mexico governor Bill Richardson, who just declared a state of emergency in four border counties and who's requested a meeting with Simcox--are making border security the new black.
THE HEADQUARTERS SCENE is less hectic than it was in April, when 800 or so volunteers from around the country flocked to Tombstone, each with a couple of reporters in a back-pocket. Today, it's just me and a Belgian documentary crew making in-person demands on his time. But the phone brings a nonstop string of requests from talk-radio hosts, supplicants, and aspiring franchisees. Some don't bother seeking Simcox's imprimatur: There are now enough copycat organizations that even the splinter groups have splinters.
While Simcox gets held over on the phone by a greedy talk-show host, I make the acquaintance of the headquarters staff. They aren't exactly the nest of racist snipers and vipers I've been reading about on the plane. As I brush past Simcox's husky-lab mix lounging on the floor (he found the dog on the border while patrolling), I meet Lucy Garza, his able assistant who doubles as a screener. If Lucy hears any aspiring Minutemen disparaging Hispanics (a naturalized citizen, she's 100 percent Mexican), they are shown the door, although Lucy herself, when it comes to illegal immigration, is a bit of a fire-breather. "They come over. They reap all the benefits. They rape our country, our system, and they send all the money back home," she says, tearing up as she describes how the deserts are ravaged by waste. "It makes me ashamed of my heritage."
In a back room of the newspaper, under a "Homeland Security" poster that depicts the bumbling Beverly Hillbillies, sit a pair of mild-mannered husband-and-wife retirees named Jack and Brenda. Jack wears an earring and sandals. Brenda snacks from a Kirkland Fruit & Nut medley bag while logging phone calls from concerned citizens. She is so meek that she allows me to mistakenly call her "Betty" for 15 minutes before finally correcting me. "We're not a bunch of militiamen," says Jack, stating the obvious.
Attracted to the cause, the couple arrived in Tombstone in their RV last May and expect to stay through the October campaign. Like many Minutemen and Minutewomen, they are hard to place politically and seem pretty moderate across the board. Unlike many militia types, they don't count black helicopters in their sleep. In fact, they're not actually antigovernment at all, in the sense of wanting there to be less of it. Rather, as Simcox says, "We must force our government to do their job by threatening to do it for them." As some of their T-shirts attest, they're not vigilantes, they're undocumented Border Patrol agents.
I ask Jack what possesses a man to while away 10 or 12 hours of his day for free in what many have regarded as a hopeless cause, and he responds with a long list of grievances. When he gets a full head of steam, his "s"s tend to whistle. Having once worked for a "little bitty company called Xerox" that moved jobs to Mexico, he resents illegal aliens for depressing wages for the working class and for failing to assimilate. When he was in the Army and traveled anywhere for longer than two weeks, he'd at least make an attempt to pick up the language. He resents illegals' demanding rights they shouldn't have. (In Iowa recently, hundreds of them openly demonstrated to be issued driver's licenses, and no one was arrested.) "An illegal has more rights than I've got. Plus, the ACLU will defend him, they won't defend me," grouses Jack. In fact, when the Southern New Mexico chapter of the ACLU was found to have a board member who'd joined the Minutemen, the state director suspended the whole chapter.
Jack is sick of all the shoulder-shrugging capitulation. He's tired of his bank accepting matricula cards, issued by the Mexican consulate, so that undocumented immigrants can get home loans (no federal law prohibits it). He's tired of illegals' being "treated as super-citizens--free medical care, food stamps, housing assistance, paid schooling in their own language, everything immediately. Americans don't have universal health care. If you're not among the richest or poorest, you don't get it. The middle class is S.O.L." (s--out of luck).
His kettle on full-whistle now, Jack adds blackly, "I used to live in the greatest country in the world!"
Brenda shakes her head, indicating her husband's gone too far. "You still do. You live with me!"
But Brenda, too, feels the bite every day. She logs calls in her color-coded notebook, talking irate border-inhabitants off a ledge, frustrated beyond comprehension at the lapses in security. Sometimes they just need an understanding ear.
Simcox himself is quick to point out that Mexicans and other illegal immigrants are forced by hardship to pursue this course, and are as victimized by their corrupt governments as we are ignored by ours. "We don't blame the people coming across," he says, "I don't blame the victims. Man, I'd be doing the same thing. Actually, I'd be leading the revolution in Mexico." So I ask Brenda how she can begrudge these people a better existence, even if they're gaming our system, when she won the lottery by being born in America.
Brenda, who is Cherokee Indian, makes a distinction I hear repeatedly from the Minutepeople: that unlike many other groups of their stripe, they are not anti-immigration, they are anti-illegal-immigration. They even support increased legal immigration from Mexico and a beefed-up guest worker program, fully funded by the employers who elect to exploit cheap labor at the expense of Americans. In reassuring tones, Brenda frames it thus: "Everybody is thirsty. They're standing in line down the sidewalk to drink at the water fountain." The people she objects to, she says, are those cutting across the grass. "I don't care who I stand in line with, but everybody ought to stand in line."
Grandmotherly Brenda doesn't seem the type who'd be itching to dive into activism's mosh pit, but her breed is multiplying. Mostly, this is because whether one's reasons for concern about illegal immigration are economic, cultural, or related to national security, anyone who's bothered to examine the subject for a second knows that "border security" is an oxymoron on a par with "Senate intelligence" and "vegetarian meatball."
THERE ARE ONLY 2,000 Border Patrol agents out along the vast Mexican border at any time, and they are not only undermanned but often outgunned. Attacks on them are at record highs--around 200 in the Tucson Sector so far this year, according to Border Patrol. They are increasingly shot at like tin clowns being plinked by high-school hooligans with carnival-booth air rifles--except that it's hot lead flying from smugglers who move aliens and drugs and, in an increasingly common twofer, aliens hauling drugs as their fee for passage.
Not helpful is a negligent President Bush, forever singing the song of homeland vigilance, but providing only 210 additional Border Patrol agents when Congress called for 2,000. All manner of "OTMs" (Other Than Mexicans) are caught crossing the border--119,000 so far this year. Many are released on our home turf with a "notice to appear" for their deportation hearing. (Since last October, 70,624 have been released, including 50 from "special interest" nations, according to Border Patrol.) Many of these OTMs--98 percent in one Texas district--can't be bothered to show up for their hearing, since by the time the special day rolls around they are putting up your siding or driving your cab. They may even be committing crimes. Of the nearly 400,000 absconders who've avoided deportation, roughly 80,000 are convicted criminals, reported Time magazine. And according to the Center for Immigration Studies, illegal aliens make up at least 17 percent of the federal prison population. Says Simcox, "I thought we had enough child molesters and thieves of our own."
Also problematic are business-appeasing politicians, more concerned about providing generous amnesty packages for illegals already here than they are about shutting down the border. Simcox's co-founder, Jim Gilchrist, a retired California accountant, has turned his side of the Minuteman franchise into a pressure group targeting employers who hire illegals. Simcox is hoping Gilchrist is successful in taking down a captain of industry. "One high-profile perp walk," he says, would give the law some teeth again.
Judicial Watch recently uncovered a suppressed Border Patrol poll of illegals, conducted at the behest of the administration. It found Bush's "temporary guest worker" proposal, which aliens interpreted as a broad amnesty, had inspired 45 percent of them to cross illegally.
Lapses have become so flagrant that Rep. Tom Tancredo, a Colorado Republican and huge Minuteman supporter, features a regularly updated outrage-du-jour on his website entitled "Would you believe!" Sometimes anecdotal, sometimes empirical, these affronts fuel the passion of border-watchers.
Egregious incidents abound. From this year alone, there was: the Mexican government printing instructional comic-books on how best to cross the border; the Bahamian native who should've been deported but instead raped an eight-year-old girl and left her for dead in a trash container; the 16 foreign-born construction workers with fake documents who were hired to work at a nuclear weapons plant in Tennessee; the illegal aliens who broke into Rep. Jim Kolbe's Arizona house in his absence, treating it like a Motel 6 by showering, microwaving dinner, and changing into his clothes before checking out. It's all become such a joke that illegals, now that they've beaten the Border Patrol, have even decided to join them: One man, born in Tijuana, who used fake documents to sign up was just apprehended for smuggling illegals in his Border Patrol vehicle.
The numbers are just as galling. While Americans celebrate our cheap produce and cut-rate lawn service, the Center for Immigration Studies estimates that illegal immigration costs U.S. taxpayers $2,700 annually per illegal household. That's not including the thousands of American workers that illegals displace every year. As some watchdogs, including Simcox, point out, building a Texas-to-California border wall like the one around the West Bank is largely dismissed as chimerical. But if it were built, the estimated tab of $2 billion to $8 billion would still be considerably less than the $20 billion we pay annually in social services for illegals.
IF GUYS LIKE CHRIS SIMCOX seem a bit tightly wound about our border being in crisis, it's because he lives there, and it is. This he demonstrates by taking me out one night on patrol in the Huachuca Mountains and San Pedro River Valley. With us are a few Minutemen and one Minutewoman, Carmen Mercer, who's originally from Germany and became a naturalized citizen. Not paid a dime, and often fronting her own costs, she estimates she's been out on 800 to 1,000 border missions, sometimes two a day, when she's not running the OK Café. "You can imagine how much time is left for sleep," she says.
As we duck under barbed-wire fences and plod through the prickly pear, greasewood, and mesquite brush, the desert sky opens up like a black picnic blanket punched through with electric pinholes. Simcox works the land like an expert tracker, able to tell how long it's been since illegal traffic has moved through. He says a strong Minuteman presence in the region has mostly shut it down, even though as we speak, Border Patrol hops on a fresh batch just one culvert down from us.
It's a bit of a nostalgia tour, as Simcox relates one grisly tale after another about the people they find abandoned by heartless coyotes, the mostly Mexican smugglers who charge about $1,500 a head to move migrants through the daunting mountain passes, but who often split at the first sign of trouble. He tells me about the raped women and dehydrated babies and dead bodies that are constantly getting pulled out of the desert. Nearly 200 dead illegals have been found this year in Arizona alone. Simcox's strict Standard Operations Procedure manual bans Rambos and "Ninja Turtles," and his outfit enforces a "no-contact policy," meaning that to avoid any trouble or violence, which would surely undo the Minutemen with their legions of critics, volunteers are only to report the whereabouts of illegals to Border Patrol, and let them do the rest.
But the Minutemen are often forced to violate this policy to save migrants from death. Sometimes the illegals are so near expiration, after getting lost on a two or three-day walk through the desert, that they ask to be turned in. Ten aliens died on this stretch of border the weekend before my arrival. Out over the Fourth of July, Simcox's group saved one illegal by giving him water before turning him in, and found an unlucky comrade several yards away.
In the Tumbleweed's next issue, on the page after the crossword puzzle, he ran a photo of the cadaver. Just days gone, the body was already a sack of bones held together by paper-thin, shriveled skin. The man was missing a foot, his skull picked clean by wild animals. And he was in good shape, comparatively speaking. Sometimes, when bodies are found in the near-120-degree heat, they're so decomposed that their sex isn't identifiable. In the caption, Simcox blamed Bush, John McCain, and others who refuse to support securing our borders with military troops, for the man's senseless death.
Simcox points out various arroyos and washes where illegals who make it across lay up after being delivered by their coyote to wait for a ride to a town near you. Minutemen often give such spots facetious rest-stop-style nicknames, like "The G.W. Bush OTM Memorial Pick-Up." The places where the migrants congregate look like the contents of a Wal-Mart superstore, emptied ankle-deep. We find everything from school supplies to medications to baby clothes to soiled boxer-briefs to Don Pedro brandy (with limes) to baggies of garlic, which illegals mistakenly think will ward off poisonous snakes.
I ask Simcox the obvious: If women carrying babies can make it in without much trouble, assuming they don't get lost or dehydrated, how difficult would it be for a well-funded, well-armed terrorist with GPS navigation to skirt over the border? He looks at me like I'm a dim child. "Are you kidding?" he says. "Piece of cake!" About the biggest danger they'd face, from the looks of the trails, is tripping over one of the Jansport backpacks ditched by the thousands of Mexicans who've gone before them.
THE NEXT MORNING, we set out from Tombstone for a Minutemen recruiting meeting in Las Cruces. We work our way through the boot heel of New Mexico and along the southern border, stopping at ranches along the way to secure private property owners' permission to let the Minutemen walk the line during their four-state extravaganza in October. Trailing behind my SUV, which Simcox is driving, is Carmen, in another car, sipping a large green health-drink, as well as other members of Simcox's inner circle. They occasionally buzz in over the walkie-talkies that "Carmen has to tinkle," or that they should stop and eat. The hard-driving Simcox winces when they do. One gets the feeling that for him, eating is a distraction.
The posse includes Richard Humphries, a 70-year-old former undercover narcotics agent who resembles Elmore Leonard. For 20 years, Humphries had been going to Chihuahua, Mexico, to import pottery. He even owned a place there, which he's been forced to sell now that his profile's been raised on shows like Bill O'Reilly's. He and several other Minutemen have been warned by friends in Mexico that the Mexican cartels have placed a bounty on their heads. With the going rate at about ten grand per, the dark-humored lot occasionally debate whose head is worth most.
Then there's Al Garza, husband of Simcox's assistant Lucy, who moved to Tombstone a few years ago after retiring as a private investigator in L.A. The former Marine and decorated Vietnam veteran jokes that his title with the Minutemen is "ass-kicker and head-knocker." Originally suspicious that Simcox was a white supremacist, Garza went to interview him, liked what he heard and saw, and now goes out on patrols almost every other night. He makes no apologies, even though Hispanic detractors and some of his own relatives call him "coconut" (brown on the outside, white on the inside).
During one meal at a truck-stop/Pizza Hut, I ask Garza, who used to teach hand-to-hand combat in the Marines, where the most lethal pressure-points are. Before he can show me the proper way to punch someone in the neck, Humphries interjects, "I was gonna say a .45 slug in the forehead." Simcox nearly spits up his personal pan pizza. "Why are you doing this?" he says to his colleagues. "He's just going to use it against us!"
Ever image-conscious, Simcox knows that the first big Minuteman slip-up might be the last. When I show him the two hats I bought in advance of our meeting, he kind of digs the straw-grapepicker's lid. But the militiaman Confederate flag cap? "Great," he says. "That's just what we f--ing need."
As we cruise through New Mexico, Simcox explains how he became the nation's most politically correct "vigilante." Born in Moline, Illinois, the son of a small-arms machinist and a surgical nurse, he moved around most of his childhood after his parents divorced. He was living in Memphis when Martin Luther King was shot, and says he spent most of his life sticking up for black kids and battling racism, sometimes even among family members.
In college, he "majored in girls," which saw him married young and briefly. By his mid-20s, he was managing a Tower Records store and producing little independent rap albums on the side, constantly scouting unknowns in New York. "We'd go into the studio," says Simcox, whose whiteness cannot be overstated, "and I'd say, 'I've got some beats.' [The rappers] would go, 'You white, you got no beats, man.'" After listening to his stuff, they'd say, "'Damn, are you black?' I was down with the brothers," Simcox says, blowing cigar smoke out my window.
After his first divorce, he met his second wife, a black actress he married after six weeks, and with whom he had a son. Both dreamed of making it in the entertainment industry, so they moved to L.A. Unable to catch a break, Simcox instead became a teacher, first at a rough South Central school, where he said he more closely resembled a prison warden; later, at Santa Monica's trendy Wildwood school, chock-full of celebrity children, touchy-feely New Educationist theory, and a diversity committee, which Simcox headed.
He says they were the best years of his life, though as a middle-class father he tired of the runaway materialism, the parents' unwillingness to discipline their children, and their knee-jerk liberalism. After starting a lucrative tutoring business on the side, Simcox said he realized how poisonous the climate was when he walked into the house of a student and saw "Bush sucks--Hitler's second return" scrawled on his dry-erase board. "This is an eight-year-old kid!" Simcox exclaims, no fan of Bush's himself. "That's wrong to teach your kids hate in that way. It's just not right."
Simcox's second wife had divorced him years earlier, when their careers took divergent paths. They shared custody of their son. But then Simcox's life was transformed by a single event: September 11. "That was it," he says. "Just one of those seminal moments in your life that changes things. You know that your country's going to be different."
Fretting that L.A. was next on the terrorist hit list, he wanted to get his teenage son out of the city for a few weeks, and even enroll him in an NRA-gun-safety course for his own protection. His wife had a fit, claimed he was overreacting, and hauled him before a judge. "Like that," he says, snapping his fingers, he lost custody of his son, which he says was "a total mind-f--."
TO CLEAR HIS HEAD after 9/11, Simcox went on a camping trip in Organ Pipe Cactus National Monument on the Arizona-Mexico border. What he saw next gave him his life's mission. Sitting on some rocks drinking water in Land-of-the-Lost backcountry, he heard Spanish voices. He looked around and saw a procession of 60 illegals traipsing through the park. The next day, he looked across a valley with binoculars and saw another procession, guys carrying AK-47s escorting vehicles with camo netting. "I'm wondering, 'What the hell is this? Are these freakin' terrorists bringing nukes into the country?"
He ran to the Park Service. "Dudes," he said, "do you know what's going on here?" They waved him off, saying, "They're just drug dealers, no big deal." And of the illegals, he was told, "They're just coming here to work. Happens all the time. Don't bother them, they won't bother you." The park service, like Border Patrol, said they were outmanned and outgunned, they didn't have any support from Washington, and couldn't get the support they needed.
"That was it," says Simcox. "Bam. Right there, I said, 'Wait a minute. You and I can't get a pair of f--ing fingernail clippers through airport security. The Patriot Act is going to put us under the thumb of the government, and our borders are wide open, and our government says, 'Yeah, there is nothing we can do about it'?"
Simcox attempted to join Border Patrol, but was turned down as too old despite being athletically fit, even after he offered to take a desk job. "I was the only male in my family never to serve in the military," he says. "I wanted to give service to my country, I wanted to do something now." He did just that, in a way.
For the next several months, he camped all along the Mexican border, witnessing 3,000 illegals cross with his own eyes. Unable to interest news outlets in his findings, he blew into Tombstone, and ended up buying the paper for $50,000 after his brief stint as a Helldorado gunfighter. Now, he gets to tell as many stories as he wants, because after founding the Minutemen, he is the story.
He doesn't have much patience for detractors who've unfairly painted them as renegade Billy-Bobs. "We are the example of the most tough and tenacious, yet humane and compassionate, Americans you'll find in this country," he says. "We've faced hardcore gang members, we've been shot at, spit on, and never have we even unholstered a weapon. The innuendo that we're just a bunch of beer-drinking fools sitting around waiting to shoot somebody is an affront to great Americans," says the man who once campaigned for Ted Kennedy. "Especially many of them [who served] and who gave these damn, left-wing, commie journalists the right to say what they want so they can turn around and diss them. Jeez, what a bunch of punks, as my father would say. A bunch of college graduates that wouldn't lift a finger to defend the rights that they're given by people who fought for those rights."
Pre-9/11, says Simcox, "we were a soft target waiting to get kicked in the balls." He doesn't want it to happen again. "Political correctness?" asks the man who eagerly headed his school's diversity committee. "You can go smoke your political correctness. If enforcing the rule of law and getting tough on crime and telling the rest of the world you better not tread on me, if that offends you, go see a f--ing therapist. A bunch of namby-pamby little wimps we've got leading this country. Let's have some balls again! If our officials cower and risk American lives and sovereignty by not securing our borders, then they'd better get out of the way, because Americans are going to do it for themselves."
IN COLUMBUS, New Mexico, a one-horse town famous for getting pillaged and torched by Pancho Villa, I temporarily peel off from the Minutemen to shoot across the border to Palomas, a mere three miles away. My Spanish-speaking guide, who I'll call Paco, used to be the police chief of Palomas. It was a pretty thankless job. He was shot four times while doing it. Even last year, when the Mexican police tried to bust a local drug baron, the crime boss's henchmen riddled the station with bullets and set its cars aflame.
Since the Mexican border guards know Paco, they let us cross without showing ID. (More troubling is that on the way back into New Mexico, American officials who don't know Paco fail to make either of us produce identification.) Palomas is a stink-hole of a smuggler's town that looks like Falluja with Mexican food. The top two industries are exporting drugs and exporting humans. Ramshackle flophouses for aspiring illegals are everywhere, since Palomas is used as a staging area for crashing the border. Aliens take yellow buses to nearby Las Chepas, from which they set out on foot for the United States.
Paco, who knows everyone on both sides of the law, takes me around to see the sights. We drop by the old police station, where we're permitted to pose for photos with the one prisoner in the holding pen. He's so face-planted drunk on the floor that they don't bother shutting his cell. We knock back some Carta Blanca cervezas at one of the local watering holes, which doubles as a cathouse. "Like most things in Mexico, it's forbidden but tolerated," says Paco. As a tight Tejano band pumps accordion notes into the air, varicose-veined prostitutes slop enchiladas at the bar in full view of prospective customers. The hookers outnumber the johns by about two to one, and outweigh them by considerably more.
Paco has brought me to Palomas to introduce me to some aspiring border-jumpers, but he does me one better when we go to the town's central park. Under a creaky gazebo, amidst signs giving phone numbers to report suspicious activity, a half dozen coyotes hold court. Paco knows them because he once impounded one of their cars. They are all youngish, and despite Paco's vouching for me, they refuse to part with their names to the gringo who's writing everything down.
Through my translator, I conduct a round-robin symposium, as the coyotes recline on the steps in this dirt-poor town, their pockets bulging with so many greenbacks that they serve as a currency exchange for locals wishing to change pesos. One, decked in a Fila sweatsuit, anticipates a "little war" with the Minutemen, saying accidents will likely happen on their border runs, since the coyotes frequently holster cell phones, which can be mistaken for guns. They might have to use the services of Osama bin Laden, jokes one, since "he's a pretty savvy guy in the desert." The Minutemen shouldn't be out there, says another, sounding like an ACLU lawyer. "They are not law enforcement."
One can't blame the coyotes for wishing to stick with the law enforcement they know. Most of them have been apprehended and thrown out of our country anywhere from a dozen times to "too many to count." They take it about as seriously as an overdue library-book notice. None of them is disillusioned enough to find employment at the local furniture factory. Though if we ever put up a wall, one says he'll just stay on the other side and get a job as a snowplow driver in Denver.
They don't admit to leaving people behind in the desert--these are civic-minded coyotes. But when asked why their customers would risk death, they pull over a smiling Indian from Chiapas who's been quietly hovering on the edge of our circle. His hair is slicked back, and he wears baggy pants that were quite stylish back in 1991. They tell me and Paco he's trying to find enough scratch to make it over, but likely won't come up with it. He hasn't even eaten in two days, so they've taken up a collection to buy him lunch. Where he's from, he makes about 4 pesos a day doing fieldwork. In America, even 10 bucks a day would be a tremendous step up. The young man says he might try to make it over without a coyote, though he has no idea where he's going. I ask him if he's afraid. A coyote interjects, "He's more afraid of being hungry."
After share-time breaks up, I'm approached by a semi-retired coyote who speaks broken English. I ask him for his name, and he says, "Call me Ghost." He makes his living from plumbing and construction now, but still boasts, "I'm one of the best. I know the f--ing job." Oddly, he claims that these days, he is a pro-bono coyote, so that the people who most need to make it, do. "Man, everybody wanna go," he says. "They're gonna make it even if they die."
When I ask him why he no longer plays guide for pay, like his colleagues, he intimates that he's had a little trouble with our law, for moving things other than illegals. "I've done some bad things, but that doesn't make me a criminal, know what I mean?" He says he's facing 25-years-to-life if he's caught in America again. But Ghost doesn't care. Because the people that he helps "are good people who just want to live better." Plus, "Somebody helped my life once. I was in the desert dying, bleeding. Now it's my turn to return back the favor to another people."
Like Simcox, Ghost sees himself as a public servant. Since he was warned last year by American officials never to return, he's been back around 20 times. I bid Ghost adios, and tell him to stay safe. "Hey," he says cavalierly, pointing north, "see you over there."
THE NEXT DAY IN LAS CRUCES, the Minutemen stage their recruiting meeting in a barn on the edge of town, and everyone plays a part. Simcox and Co. present a squeaky clean image. He is so condescendingly earnest about orderliness and rule of law, the need to stick to protocol, clean up one's trash in the desert, and have absolutely no contact with aliens unless it's to help them survive that the former schoolteacher's instructions should come printed on a freshly warm purple-and-white ditto.
Protesters from places like the League of United Latin American Citizens pack the back. One of the women frets beforehand that the vigilantes "might kill us." But it's pretty obvious their paranoia is for show, since many bring their children, who freely skitter across the speaking area while several Minutemen make grandfatherly funny-faces at the kids. When one protester accosts Simcox in mid-Q&A, accusing him of being a racist, Simcox calmly retorts, "My biracial African-American son would take great exception" to that.
After the meeting, it occurs to me that I've spent many hours talking to completely level-headed Minutemen. So for balance, I head for the most eccentric looking freak I can find, who turns out to be Freddy Puckett. He wears two hearing-aids, an "Undocumented Border Patrol" T-shirt, and a camo boonie-hat with a "Kiss me I'm ugly" badge stuck to it. He's a walking Radio-Shack rack, with all his blipping phones and walkie-talkies and other electronic contraptions strapped to his torso.
But it seems I've misjudged Freddy. A disabled Vietnam vet who carries landmine shrapnel in his chest, Freddy's the one who saved the illegal in the desert over the Fourth of July weekend when he cried out for "agua, agua." Perhaps unaware that agua is "Sesame Street"-level Spanish, an ebullient Freddy says he understood because "my wife is Hispanic. I just love to save people's lives and protect America. That's what I do."
Freddy says during the Minutemen's April campaign, he spent over $2,000 to stay on the line, but it was worth it. "Put it this way," he says. "I'm 60 years old. Maybe I've got 10 left. I don't fear that border. I'd rather die there for a cause than in a hospital from some disease. . . . Believe me, I go to Mexico all the time. I love the Mexican people. I'm just afraid of the ones with the dirty bombs. I'm saying, 'Come across the border, just sign the guestbook like I do when I go over there.' . . . And I believe if we don't protect ourselves now, and make the government do their part, we're going down the tubes. I believe in what I'm doing. I figure this is my last stand to help save America."
Matt Labash is a senior writer at The Weekly Standard.