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How the Brutal Murders of a Little Girl and Her Father Doomed the Xenophobic Minuteman Movement

The brutal killings of Junior and Brisenia Flores highlighted growing extremism on the fringes of the anti-immigrant movement.

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“I sat up and grabbed Brisenia. I was telling her not to die on me,” she testified in Gaxiola’s trial. “She was shaking really hard.”

Then the “short fat woman” had come back into the house, cried “Oh shit!” and ran back out demanding her crew finish the job, while Gina made the mad scramble for the kitchen and her husband’s pistol. Gonzalez recounted again and again how she had fended them off while curled up on her kitchen floor, firing madly away. And in each trial, the jury heard the riveting 911 call she made, with gunfire erupting in the background, followed by Gonzalez’s agonizing wait for the medical help that finally arrived some 18 minutes later.

Testimony like this — and the attendant press attention — meant that, by the end of the first trial for Shawna Forde in March, the Minuteman movement was functionally finished. All three trials produced murder convictions: Albert Gaxiola got a life term in prison, while Shawna Forde and Jason Bush are both on Arizona’s Death Row. And the court of public opinion inflicted the death sentence on the Minuteman movement, even as it tore itself apart.

First came the finger-pointing and internecine warfare that erupted in the wake of Forde’s arrest, particularly between William Gheen, of the Americans for Legal Immigration PAC, and Jim Gilchrist, who continues to claim that his associations with Forde were “not extensive.” Gheen urged Gilchrist to step aside: “Do the movement a favor and announce your resignation,” he wrote. Another California nativist, Chelene Nightingale of Save Our State, attacked Gilchrist in an e-mail posted briefly at the Minuteman Project Web site: “As a mother I am sick to death that a little child was murdered! Murdered at the hands of people that were endorsed on the Jim Gilchrist MMP [Minuteman Project] site. Wasn’t it bad enough that your forum is a sewer full of lies and bashing of patriots? Or are each of you being paid by say the SPLC [Southern Poverty Law Center], La Raza to destroy the movement with your filth and personal connections?” Gilchrist dismissed their attacks as the product of jealousy.

In the spring of 2010, Chris Simcox’s Minuteman Civil Defense Corps announced that it was closing up shop. The precipitating event was an e-mail that Carmen Mercer sent out to members in mid-March, announcing: “This March we return to the border locked, loaded and ready to stop each and every individual we encounter along the frontier that is now more dangerous than the frontier of Afghanistan.” Mercer said she received a “dramatic” response to the mail from members — many of whom, evidently, responded that they intended to show up at the border fully armed. Mercer said this inspired the MCDC board to dissolve itself because of fears that they would not be able to control participants, and they might be held responsible for people who failed to follow proper “rules of engagement.”

“I’m afraid that for many citizens, the passing of health care against the will of the people and now indications that Obama will try to pass amnesty may be the straw that will break the spirit, or may be the straw that ignites frustration that we, as an organization, may not be able to manage or contain,” Mercer wrote in announcing the dissolution of the MCDC. “This organization has grown too big for its own good; or rather, the problem has grown too big and serious for us to manage. I predict soon the violence will spill over the border (it already is) and I predict Americans, on their own, will lock, load and do what the feckless cowards in Washington refuse to do.”

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