Are American Vigilantes Hunting Down and Murdering Immigrants as They Cross the Arizona Border?
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The mountains near here rise as jagged and unforgiving obstacles on the horizon for immigrants and smugglers who cross the border by moonlight and make their way northward along the foothills, stopping in the cypress groves for rest. It’s a natural passage and the easiest route to travel.
But it was also here, on April 8, that a group of what was described as four white men wearing camouflage opened fire on a packed truck carrying immigrants illegally into the country, killing two of them. The victims, Gerardo Perez-Ruiz from the central Mexican city of Toluca and another man believed to be from Guatemala, were part of a group of 20 to 30 immigrants driving through a remote desert wash near Eloy when the group of gunmen suddenly appeared.
According to statements provided by five surviving immigrants, the gunmen yelled, “Alto!” — “Halt!” — as the truck neared, then fired their weapons before disappearing without another word into the pre-dawn darkness.
The murders this spring were not the first in the smuggling corridor near Eloy. In fact, they bear distinct similarities to the killings of four immigrants in the area in 2007 — high-profile incidents that accelerated fears that U.S.-born vigilantes had begun a shooting war meant to turn back the tide of undocumented immigrants.
For more than 10 years now, the bulk of undocumented immigrants from the south have poured across the Arizona border, pushed by a change in U.S. border policy from the coastal cities and states into the far more treacherous Sonora Desert crossing. Partly as a result, the number of those dying, or being killed, as they cross the border has accelerated dramatically. Between 2004 and 2011, an average of 223 bodies of migrants have been found every year in just the Tucson Sector, now the busiest section of the border — and that doesn’t include hundreds of skeletonized remains. Although most of the deaths certainly were the result of searing heat, in hundreds of cases, the victims’ remains were too rotted to be sure.
The recent shootings near Eloy, coupled with the murders in January and February of 2007, have raised these worries again. An internal Department of Homeland Security (DHS) report from the earlier period, obtained by the Report, said the 2007 shootings were likely connected to each other. And in the second incident that year, police found two men with non-Hispanic names “concealed in the brush” nearby watching the police response — a “curious” fact, the DHS report said.
Through it all, most Arizona authorities have dismissed virtually all the non-weather-related deaths as the result of attacks by drug and human smugglers — and there is little doubt that that is behind some of the mayhem. But many activists and at least some in law enforcement fear that a small but committed cadre of hard-core extremists on the border may actually be engaging in murder.
Matt Browning, a retired Mesa police detective who spent years undercover infiltrating racist border and neo-Nazi skinhead groups, is one of them.
“In Arizona, we might not have Hammerskins or Volksfront or the Klan,” Browning said, referencing some of the more prominent contemporary white supremacist groups. “What we do have is a lot of angry, militant white men on the border sitting like hunters waiting for these people to come across.”
‘Hispanics Would Be Killed’
This May 2, a man named Jason Todd “J.T.” Ready strode into the house he shared with his girlfriend and her family in the Phoenix suburb of Gilbert. Minutes later, a frantic Lisa Mederos was on the phone to 911 reporting threats from an enraged Ready. Next came the sound of a shot, and the line went dead.
By the time police arrived, Ready had shot Mederos, her grown daughter and her boyfriend, and the young couple’s 15-month-old daughter, before walking outside and shooting himself dead as well. Another Mederos daughter, who survived by hiding in a bedroom, told police Ready had done all the killing.
Authorities quickly concluded that the quadruple murder and suicide was the result of a domestic dispute, although the details remain murky. But the slaughter, coming 24 days after the latest Eloy murders, again raised the specter of vigilante violence — Ready was a well-known neo-Nazi who since 2010 had been heading armed, aggressive border patrols with a group he started, U.S. Border Guard. He had been close to Russell Pearce, the legislator who authored Arizona’s S.B. 1070 anti-immigrant law and went on to become state Senate president as a result.
The Pima County Sheriff’s Department, which investigated both the 2007 and the 2012 killings near Eloy, cleared Ready of involvement in the April attack — and, indeed, it still has no suspects in any of the Eloy area murders. But after Ready’s death, the special-agent-in-charge of the FBI’s Phoenix office, James Turgal, revealed his agency had been investigating Ready’s activities for nearly five years.
Ready, Turgal told a local TV news reporter, “rode the edge of that dividing line between protected speech and criminal activity.” Turgal said his probe involved “domestic terrorism” and the shooting of immigrants. But he did not further clarify those comments, and the FBI declined to elaborate on them to the Report.
Still, the news was not entirely surprising.
Ready was an ex-Marine court-martialed twice for bad conduct, and over his years in Arizona he had developed a reputation for intemperate talk and violence. Running for Mesa City Council in 2006, for instance, he chased a Latino man into a dead-end street in a car, apparently because he thought the man was undocumented. Ready later claimed the man fired at him with a BB gun. Ready returned fire with a .38-caliber revolver he kept in an ankle holster. Neither man was hurt, and police ultimately arrested the Latino man, who allegedly had fired first.
In the ensuing years, Ready would attend several neo-Nazi events and joined, for a time, the National Socialist Movement (NSM), currently the country’s largest neo-Nazi group. At one point, at a Tea Party rally in Tempe, he distributed an NSM flier featuring his name, a picture of a landmine, and the following words: “We should be actively advocating daily to mainstream America the most humane, non-racist, fair border security plan available. Namely, A MINEFIELD!”
In 2009, an anti-immigrant activist who had worked with Ready approached Stephen Lemons, a columnist with the Phoenix New Times newspaper. According to Lemons, David Heppler said that Ready had recently told him of plans “to drive into South Phoenix on a Friday night disguised as officials with the U.S. Department of Homeland Security and look for a house or yard party to raid, during which several Hispanics would be killed.” Heppler said Ready and friends had drawn up a list of equipment for the planned raids and even asked him to join them on dry runs.
Lemons turned Heppler over to the FBI, he said, and the man agreed to become an informant. However, he was later reportedly dropped by the FBI after telling a business partner that he was working as an informant.
In another incident, on Sept. 27, 2010, a U.S. citizen called the Border Patrol to say he’d encountered Ready while hiking and that Ready had asked him to join his U.S. Border Guard group. According to Border Patrol documents obtained by the Talking Points Memo (TPM) news site, the man said he was reporting the incident “because JT Ready mentioned ‘killing’ and harming the illegal aliens.”
While still with NSM, Ready also recruited Jeffrey Harbin, son of a well-known local neo-Nazi. In January 2011, the younger Harbin was arrested with three homemade bombs that he was apparently transporting for use against immigrants on the border. Twelve more devices were found in Harbin’s home. Ready said he didn’t know what the bombs were for, “but I will say that domestic terrorism is real.”
Twice during 2011 — on Feb. 26 and July 17 — Border Patrol agents found Ready and others detaining immigrants in the desert, according to documents. Ready had flex-cuffed an immigrant in the first incident and pointed guns at a group in the second, both likely criminal acts of false imprisonment. Agents reported the incidents to the U.S. Attorney’s office, but no action was taken.
Ready was growing increasingly paranoid. This April 29, he E-mailed friends about his fears: “I sleep with a Loaded shotgun under my bed and a 9 mm on the nightstand. I have 2 Ar-15’s, other hardware, and a trained German Shepherd in the backyard. Mossad or ZOG [a neo-Nazi acronym for Zionist Occupied Government] or the Cartel or some ANTIFA [antifascist] freak may make a move on me.
“Hopefully I can give them their just desserts first.”
Three days later, J.T. Ready murdered his girlfriend and her family and then committed suicide. Arriving at the bloody scene, police found, among other things, six 40 mm anti-tank grenades.
Hints of Violence
The suspicion of vigilante violence in Arizona does not rest only on the exploits of J.T. Ready, or even the six murders near Eloy. Over the years, a number of cases have cropped up that hint at possible campaigns of killing.
In 2005, during the first major muster of the anti-immigrant Minuteman Project, the Intelligence Report interviewed two men who described themselves as members of the neo-Nazi National Alliance (see related story, p. 12). Identifying themselves only as Johnny and Michael, the two said they were part of a six-man team who had joined the muster, in part, to scout future sniping positions.
“You get up there with a rifle and start shooting four or five of them a week,” said Michael, outfitted with body armor and a semi-automatic pistol, “the other four or five thousand behind them are going to think twice about crossing that line.”
In 2009, a Border Patrol agent found a live pipe bomb on a smuggling route near Tucson that was described as “moderately complex,” according to a classified memo released by a group that hacked the Pima County Sheriff’s Office.
Another hacked memo, this one from the Arizona Department of Public Safety, revealed that a militant group called “A Concerned Citizen” was trying to shut down a stretch of interstate to stop smugglers in 2010. The memo warned of the “potential for human rights violations and a possibility of violence.”
Other documents also revealed episodes of apparent extremism that were previously unknown to the public. In March 2011, for example, Border Patrol agents encountered a heavily armed man in the desert south of Tucson. The man, identified as Tim Foley, told the agents he had military experience as a sniper and that he planned to conduct “mercenary type operations” along the border. He also allegedy told them he had deployed an improvised explosive device in the desert.
The deadly rage of many nativists who came to Arizona in recent years was highlighted in the person of Shawna Forde, founder of the vigilante group Minuteman American Defense. Forde, along with two confederates, is on death row for the 2009 murder of a Latino man and his 9-year-old daughter. The pair were shot in their own Arivaca, Ariz., home, not while trying to cross any border. They were U.S. citizens who Forde intended to rob in order to fund her nativist activities.
Chris Simcox, who co-founded the Minuteman Project and went on to form the now-defunct Minuteman Civil Defense Corps, told the Report in an interview that he knew nothing of any specific murders, but recognized a reality that has long plagued the movement — that some do come to the border to hunt Latinos.
“You don’t know who you’re attracting [to the border],” said Simcox, who is now working as a private math tutor in Phoenix. “You got guys spinning off, and spinning off, all the time. That was the thing that concerned me the most.”
Still, the most intriguing cases may be those near Eloy.
Investigators have noted a number of marked similarities linking the 2007 cases and the murders last April. In each case, authorities believe there were four attackers who were described by at least some witnesses as white. In 2007, they wore similar “military style” clothing; in 2011, the attackers were described as wearing camouflage-style clothes. No spent shell casings were recovered in any of the attacks, suggesting that the killers used “brass-catchers” to avoid leaving evidence. In all three, the attackers wasted few shots and seemed to coordinate their work carefully, covering each other as if they had military training.
The DHS document analyzing the 2007 attacks contained another remarkable detail. After the Jan. 27 shooting, responding law enforcement officials heard vehicles a short distance from the shooting site, but out of sight. They found two men who claimed that they were watching the police response to the shooting — but were actually not in a position where they could see that response. “It is curious,” the document said, “that the subjects did not attempt to approach the scene as several other onlookers had, but they choose [sic] to remain concealed in the brush.”
The DHS’ conclusions were not definitive, but they were intriguing. “It appears that the same group of individuals is working in concert to intentionally kill [illegal aliens],” it said. Robbery or theft of drugs “did not appear to be the motive in either incident as the subjects were left unmolested after the shootings.”
Recently, the Arizona Daily Star reported an apparent resurgence in border activities by groups led by men like Jack Foote, a Texan who once headed a paramilitary anti-immigrant group called Ranch Rescue (and who reportedly recruited Tim Foley, the man who told officials in 2011 he had sniper experience). Foote’s Ranch Rescue disbanded following a 2003 lawsuit filed by the Southern Poverty Law Center on behalf of immigrants terrorized on a Texas ranch. But the Daily Star reported that Foote recently returned to the Arizona border with a new group, the Arizona State Defense Force Foundation. The group is recruiting “field researchers” with “prior Tactical Ground Operations training and experience” to scout the border for “evidence of the ongoing cross-border insurgency.”
Are some individuals or even groups in Arizona targeting immigrants for death? It remains impossible to say. But it’s hard not to think about the kind of anger that came from Jack Foote recently, after the state Legislature rejected the Arizona Special Missions Unit, a newly proposed state-sanctioned border militia.
“We have now washed our hands of our state’s Legislature,” Foote said in words that worried many. “Now we are going to do things our own way.”
And there is much to suggest that something else may be going on. For years, the area has been crisscrossed by “civilian border patrols” — the “Minutemen” groups that President George W. Bush characterized as “vigilantes” and that were enraged by what they saw as a purposeful invasion. A neo-Nazi leader who led fellow armed radicals to the border spoke of laying mines to prevent non-whites from entering — and later reportedly asked a witness to help him surveill homes where he hoped to murder Latinos. Law enforcement has found at least one pipe bomb planted on a smuggling trail, and last year a neo-Nazi was arrested with other bombs he was taking to the border. Still other neo-Nazis told the Intelligence Report several years earlier that they were scouting sniper positions at the border.