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The Growing Vigilante Movement

This is an excerpt from 'Wetback Nation : The Case for Opening the Mexican-American Border' (Ivan R. Dee) by Peter Laufer. Laufer visited Cochise County in 2003 and spoke with Chris Simcox, one of the organizer's of April's Minutemen border patrols.


Tombstone, Arizona is a typical Western tourist mecca. In the late nineteenth century, the mining boomtown's saloons really were full of outlaw gunslingers. Today busloads of tourists come to Tombstone looking for the warm Southwest sun and to cheer the actors who recreate the famous gunfight between Wyatt Earp and the Clanton Gang at the O.K. Corral.

But underneath the veneer of simple, friendly locals catering to out-of-town visitors, Tombstone is a simmering cauldron of conflict. The Mexican border is just a few miles south. Tombstone lies directly in the path of undocumented migrants heading to Tucson, Phoenix, and points farther north.

Several months before my first trip to Tombstone, an out-of-work California schoolteacher drifted into town and took a job washing dishes in the O.K. Café. Before long, Chris Simcox hung up his dishtowel and went to work as assistant editor at the weekly newspaper, the Tombstone Tumbleweed.

Soon after Simcox went to work for the paper, he bought it. Local gossip says the capital came from his new girlfriend, the owner of the O.K. Café. "The paper was failing horribly," he tells me. "We were selling maybe four hundred copies a week. It wasn't making it. You know, no advertising."

His takeover of the Tombstone Tumbleweed is a story Chris Simcox tells often. His office phone rings incessantly. Reporters worldwide want to hear him complain about illegal immigration into Cochise County, and about how he founded the vigilante group he calls the Civil Homeland Defense Corps. Since he bought the paper, Simcox has turned the weekly into a propaganda sheet for his group's border activities. It's a change he's proud to report. "It's been nonstop. I mean I've done hundreds and hundreds of interviews. It's working."

What's working? I ask him. What are you accomplishing?

"Getting everyone across this country to understand what's going on down here in this border. That it's ridiculous. We've been at war since 9/11 basically. We were attacked by people who came in, and then you watch what goes on in this border and you think, my God, it's a free for all. There is no real national security when you have an open border like this one here. Our government will not protect our borders. That's my number one concern."

This concern fills the 16-page paper each week. The January 30, 2003 issue is typical. The editorial complains that a couple of tourists from Oregon were unable to get the county sheriff or the Border Patrol to respond when they called after they "spotted a group of eight suspected illegals walking just off the road. . ."

Frustrated, reports Simcox, the couple came to the newspaper's office because they had heard about the Civil Homeland Defense Corps. "There are so many illegals everwhere we go," he quotes them as telling him. "We can't even take a hike anymore without running into a group. We think this will be the last time we winter here in the south near the border. Our government had better do something!"

Simcox ends his editorial with his call to action. "Sounds like it is up to us, friends, the citizens. If you don't like it or it scares you? You can hide, or run, or you can join us as the eyes and ears of the citizens who can make a difference. Civil Homeland Defense is the only immediate solution." In a following editorial he charges that five thousand "illegals" came through Cochise County while Border Patrol officers watched the Super Bowl. "Hasta la vista," he writes, "welcome to the United States. Hope you enjoyed the game."

Forty-two years old when we talk in 2003, Chris Simcox looks much younger. His office is cluttered, dominated by his computer terminal and his electronic drum set. He wears the Tombstone uniform: work shirt, blue jeans, cowboy boots.

Simcox warms to his new passion as he tells me about his "work" on the border, he's wide-eyed and excited. "I mean, granted it's, you know, the little boy with his thumb in the dike basically. But we go down to the border when we can and with however many numbers we can put together and we help patrol that border. Using the same tactics and the same procedures and the same humane interaction that the Border Patrol uses. We work shoulder to shoulder with Border Patrol. We're on Border Road, which you'll see when you go out with us. We're in our vehicles. We drive back and forth. We create a presence that says, 'There's activity here, don't come across.' " He expresses some compassion for the Mexicans he's looking for during his patrols. "They're human beings. I mean, there's a reason why they're coming across, and that's because Mexico's not taking care of their needs, their own government. I've seen people out there in bad shape. But I've also been shot at by, you know, drug dealers. There's been so many drug busts, it's incredible. Something's not right."

It's impossible to determine if Simcox has slowed migration from Mexico, but he has managed to disrupt life in Tombstone. I'm staying at Curley Bill's Bed & Breakfast ("The Best and the BADDEST in Tombstone! Wyatt Earp Slept Here -- You Can Too!!!"), a few blocks across town from the Tombstone Tumbleweed offices. I get in late in the evening, but Larry "Curley Bill" Alves is still up, offers me a glass of wine (red or white) from the two boxes lined up on the top shelf of the refrigerator, and wants to talk as soon as he hears why I've come to town.

"His military training was in the Boy Scouts," Alves is disgusted with Simcox's talk about guns and shooting. "I'm a conservative Republican, but I'm an ex-senior non-com in Vietnam. He's a little kid who never got to play soldier as a kid." Alves sees a direct relationship between his bed and breakfast business and Simcox's ability to draw national news coverage. "This militia stuff hurts tourism. People in this town don't like this at all."

At breakfast the next morning Alves's wife, Sally, continues the assault on the new guy in town and his antics. "Local people are sick of listening to all that crap," she says about Simcox's tirades in his newspaper. "If you could still run people out of town on a rail, he'd be run out of town on a rail. I've had a couple of people cancel reservations, afraid Simcox and his group were walking around with assault rifles and camouflage. It's too bad when a guy doing something bad owns the town's newspaper."

"Are you a hero?" I ask Simcox the next day. "Are you a villain? Is the town divided? Are they behind you?"

"Oh, I'd say there's a division," he admits. "The people along Allen Street, the business owners, certainly are unsure because this town survives on tourism. They don't want to do anything that's going to rock the boat or potentially hurt tourism." But he's convinced Sally's cancellations are not his fault. "This does not hurt tourism," he says about his Civil Homeland Defense Corps. "This has not changed this town at all. In fact, with the amount of people that come in that door wanting to meet me, from other places, we're attracting tourists." He laughs. "So we've helped the town."

No question Simcox is generating attention. The day he and I talk there is a reporter from Newsday in town looking for him and he's waiting anxiously for a camera crew from HBO that he's expecting wants to film him for a documentary about the border.

"We do nothing but identify where they're coming across," Simcox is now explaining his tactics. Days before we talk he and one of his troopers were arrested by a National Park Ranger for straying onto federal land at the border. The specific charges were carrying a loaded weapon inside a National Park and interfering with law enforcement. Rangers confiscated Simcox's patrolling gear: a pistol, two-way radios, a police radio scanner, a mobile telephone and a camera.

"Why were you armed?" I ask him.

"I'm always armed."

"Why?"

"Why? Because it's my Second Amendment right. The US Constitution and the Arizona State Constitution give us rights to keep and bear arms. I have a concealed weapons permit. I refuse to be a victim. I've had now eight death threats since I've started this. So, you know, I'm not going to be a victim." He laughs.

"It's my right, and that's enough said right there. I have a right to be armed. We, the people who volunteer, choose to be armed or not." He says all the volunteers carrying weapons along the border pass a proper gun safety class and hold a concealed weapons permit. They know the law. They're responsible citizens. We're not out there threatening people, which is why we conceal our weapons. We're not out there looking for trouble."

Simcox claims he stumbled onto the National Park land by accident during one of his routine patrols.

"If we see any crossings we let the Border Patrol know right away. We just do nothing but report the crossings and the illegal activity, at the encouragement of President Bush. That's what he's encouraged Americans to do for a year now, to report suspicious illegal activity. And you can't find anything more suspicious and illegal than coming across our border. That's all we do. We're neighborhood watch volunteers."

The Border Patrol is less enthusiastic. "As long as they don't impede our duties in the field, we don't really deal with them," is the official response from the US Border Patrol's Tucson sector spokesman Frank Amarillas.

Chris Simcox has no military experience and no police background. It's a lapse he regrets. "I do come from a family that always gave its service to its country, okay? We love our country, we're willing to fight for it. I've lived in New York most of my adult life. I have seen so much crime and so many people who come here from other parts of the world who commit crimes." As he quickly skips through his biography, Simcox highlights an event that may well explain his fixation about Mexicans coming across the border.

"I've been a victim of crime by a guy who didn't speak English in New York City. I was mugged."

I point out the fact that just because the guy didn't speak English doesn't mean he wasn't born in Manhattan.

"True. True. It's just a crime. Crime is out of control. Drugs are out of control." Simcox quickly changes his target and blames the Federal government for failing to secure the borders, "so it's just my basic patriotic duty to do what's necessary."

Not that Simcox and his followers believe they can secure the US border with Mexico, not even just the Cochise County border with Mexico. They hope their efforts force Washington to militarize the border.

"Troops on our border," is the solution he says. Troops would create "a true sense of national security. When you talk to the folks out there that's the only thing that will deter them from coming across. We've talked to them. I talk to them all the time. The only thing, they're not afraid of us. They're not afraid of the Border Patrol. They're not afraid of anything. They're going to come in to America because we leave it wide open and it's so easy. Troops on the border would force Mexico to deal with their own people, to start spending some of its money to support the citizens of that country. Build infrastructure. Improve their cities, improve their schools, improve their education. That's why they come here, because they admire our system. Well if they admire it why the hell aren't they doing it themselves? Okay? That's frustrating. It's not our job to take care of that."

"Chris Simcox's principal malady is that he is an incurable racist," writes Miroslava Flores on the Website La Voz de Aztlan. Another La Voz de Aztlan writer identifies Simcox as a "vigilante thug calling for anti-Mexican armed militia."

Not so, Simcox protests to me. "Since when do your nationalistic views and your patriotism and your wanting to provide security for your neighbors and fighting crime make you a racist? Okay?"

He insists he's not a vigilante. "A vigilante is someone who is judge, jury and executioner basically. Someone who certainly takes the law into his own hands. We don't. We report illegal activity, that's it. That's all we do. And we create a deterrent to anyone who would break the laws of coming across that border."

Despite his protestations, when I first called his office to arrange a meeting with Simcox, his assistant said he couldn't come to the phone because he was keeping Mexicans he suspected of being in the US illegally in place under a Tombstone tree while a colleague tried to summon the Border Patrol.

"We do not apprehend." It's obviously a matter of definition. "We locate. We don't hold 'em. We just follow 'em. We give the Border Patrol the coordinates of where these people are, whoever they may be." He insists he doesn't discriminate against Mexicans. "We have turned in people from Poland, from Germany, from Spain, from China, from all over the world. I don't care who's on the other side of that border, if they're coming in to America illegally. Okay? ."

Chris Simcox tells me he knows what to look for when he patrols the border. "People who've entered this country illegally, it's quite obvious, most of the time." Of course even trained Border Patrol officers make identification mistakes. The mayor of a Los Angeles suburb - Latino, but a native US citizen -- was famously picked up in an INS raid and Cheech Marin starred in a tragic comedy about such a false arrest, Born in East L.A. Doesn't he risk making an embarrassing mistake: tracking a US citizen -- maybe even a loyal Tombstone Tumbleweed subscriber -- and calling the Border Patrol out to deport him or her.

"I don't risk anything," he insists.

"You risk fingering some guy who's your neighbor and a potential advertiser and subscriber."

"So what? So what? They get their feelings hurt, they can go see their therapist. We're at a time of war. I sat atop those World Trade Center buildings. People come back and forth across that border all the time."

I remind Simcox that the 9/11 hijackers all came into the US legally. They flew into US airports, they didn't cross the Arizona desert by foot.

"Yes, the INS should be cleaned out. But we seal our borders first. And maybe a little bit of isolationism is okay for awhile."

"Or not possible in this world today," I suggest.

"No, it's possible. If we can send two hundred thousand troops across the world, it's possible to shut down those borders, I'm sorry. I don't accept that at all. I've said that many times. For my government to tell me that with all of the equipment and all of the troops we have that they can't do anything about this border? I don't accept that."

Chris Simcox walks out of his office with me into the bright Arizona sun. He poses for a photograph in front of the paper's sign ("The official newspaper of the Town Too Tough To Die!"), crossing his arms and looking severe and concerned. "You're giving your patriotic self-important look, huh?" I suggest. He just looked at the camera.

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