There's a reason the history of American border militias is riddled with sociopaths and violence
The return of border militias in response to Donald Trump’s fearmongering about a “crisis” on the U.S. border with Mexico—and the threats, intimidation, and violence that these militias bring—is not just an accident. Indeed, these militias have played key roles over the past decade-plus in stirring up the politics that put Trump in the White House and help keep him there now.
The new border watchers, particularly the United Constitutional Patriots in New Mexico who have been harassing asylum seekers, are very much in the historic mold of the militias who have prowled the southern desert for the past two decades. Fittingly, the leader of the UCP was arrested over the weekend for being a felon in possession of a firearm.
Where did these border militias come from? What are they really about? And why do they have such a history of criminality and death attached to them?
Let’s explain their history.
The idea of a “citizens border watch” grew out of the longtime embrace by the radical right of vigilante violence, a la the Ku Klux Klan. Indeed, the very first such operation was organized in 1977-79 by David Duke and Tom Metzger.
The concept gained new life in the 1990s with the rise of the small-cell militia concept as part of a larger “leaderless resistance” against the federal government. The main progenitor of the concept was a California man named Glenn Spencer, who ran an outfit called American Patrol that claimed Latinos wanted to reclaim the U.S. Southwest for Mexico as part of “Reconquista.”
Spencer moved his operations to Arizona in the early 2000s and renamed it American Border Patrol. That was when things started to take off for him and his border-militia concept. Taking Spencer’s cue, Casey Nethercott, another Arizona resident, started a border-watch operation called Ranch Rescue. They developed legal problems in short order.
Nethercott, who had done prison time in California for assault in the 1990s, and some of his fellow Ranch Rescue members in 2003 assaulted two Salvadoran migrants who had crossed the border on foot and wound up on a ranch where the nativist border watchers operated. The migrants were held at gunpoint, and one of them was pistol-whipped and attacked by a Rottweiler. With the assistance of the SPLC, the migrants sued their attackers and won a $1 million civil judgment against Ranch Rescue.
Nethercott eventually had a tense standoff with Border Patrol agents at another ranch property; when FBI agents tried to arrest him for his role in that incident two weeks later, they wound up shooting the white supremacist who was accompanying him at the time.
Indeed, while the phrase “rule of law” even today is often bandied about by the remaining bands of vigilante nativists, the record demonstrates that this was a peculiarly flexible concept for many of the border watchers and their associates.
Another Spencer devotee was a Tombstone man named Chris Simcox, who in late 2002 started up a Tombstone Militia devoted to patrolling the border. He shortly changed the name to Minuteman Civil Defense. Simcox was a fairly mediagenic young man who quickly attracted a lot of press. Documentarians started showing up at the border, capturing the attitudes of Simcox and his volunteers.
What was also clear was both Simcox’s overweening paranoia, as well as the potential for real violence that ran as an undercurrent in everything he did. Note how Simcox is insistent that immigrants are providing cover for terrorists crossing the border: This became the cornerstone of the right-wing belief that national security is utterly dependent on immigration policy, and that border crossers represent a potential terror threat.
In 2004, a California nativist named Jim Gilchrist heard Simcox being interviewed on a right-wing radio program and got the idea to make the border watch a national callout that would last for a month on the border. He contacted Simcox and the Minuteman project was started.
It all came together in a big media event in April 2005 that really only lasted about a week, but drew tons of national TV coverage in the border area south of Tombstone. About the third week into what was supposed to be a month-long affair, everyone had pulled out.
Simcox and Gilchrist, it turned out, hated each others’ guts, and barely were able to maintain a façade for the first couple of weeks. Near the end of it, the Minutemen founders announced they were splitting off into two separate organizations.
Simcox was going to keep MCDC going, but with an emphasis on other border-security measures, such as building a fence. This meant a national fundraising effort, which Simcox shortly began.
However, the SPLC’s Dave Holthouse and Susy Buchanan did an investigative piece on Simcox in January 2006 that raised all kinds of questions about what kind of person the Minuteman leader really was, including his behavior suggesting pedophilia.
The fence-fundraising effort continued for the next couple of years and was wildly successful in separating nativist suckers from their dollars, with about $6 million raised. No fence was ever built. I did an investigation of it in 2008 and found it was almost entirely a scam.
Gilchrist’s half of the split of the organization in 2005 was to keep the Minuteman Project name. His primary objective was to continue to organize border watches in other states and locales.
Now, one of the questions reporters posed to Simcox during the April 2005 mediafest was why, if they’re concerned about border security, they only focused on the Mexico border and not the one in Canada. He promised that they would set up northern border watches too. So in summer of 2006, a Washington state “detachment” of the MCDC began organizing border watches in Blaine, Washington, that attracted a handful of participants to a site near the border.
It was not exactly a serious operation. The Canada border in these parts of the country is constituted of a mere green ditch between the two roads. The only border crossers they ever caught were people sneaking into Canada from the U.S. Mostly there was a lot of posing for the press, just like in Arizona.
The border watches were extremely unpopular in the Blaine/Bellingham area, and the Bellingham City Council held a hearing on their activities. Simcox flew up to participate, and he told the councilors that the Minutemen were like Martin Luther King Jr.
A hairdresser from Everett named Shawna Forde was one of the people drawn to these events. In short order, she more or less appointed herself the press secretary for the Washington MCDC. She escorted Simcox around town.
When a Seattle PBS station held a “town hall” session on immigration in Yakima, Forde was the person who represented the Minuteman perspective. She did this without the knowledge of MCDC leadership, who decided right then to remove her from her position, though they were delayed when Forde got into a car wreck the night of the forum.
About the same time, Shawna (who secretly had a rap sheet as long as your leg) was caught rummaging through the private effects (pharmaceuticals) of the border watch operation host at his home, and was fired in early 2007.
Barely skipping a beat, she announced she was forming her own border-watch organization, and called it Minuteman American Defense (MAD). She invited Jim Gilchrist to Everett for an anti-immigration rally and organized her own Arizona border watches the summer of 2007.
After she hosted Gilchrist again in early 2008 for an Ellensburg appearance, he became enamored of her work and named Forde the Project’s “border patrol coordinator.” MAD’s website became a sub-page of the Project’s main site. More border watches in Arizona ensued.
They met up again that summer at Glenn Spencer’s Arizona ranch, where they surveyed Spencer’s collection of model planes he uses for patrolling the desert.
That December, desperate for money, Forde sent her then-boyfriend to the home of her husband, John Forde, who was in the process of divorcing her; if John had died intestate, she stood to inherit over half a million dollars. The boyfriend shot John Forde five times. Forde, however, managed to survive—as he dialed 911, he shouted at them: “Shawna Forde did this!”—though he was in a coma for three months.
Shawna, in the meantime, moved back into her former home, and then claimed that she was raped in the home by Mexican cartel members who wanted to silence her. A few weeks later, she was shot in the fleshy part of her arm and claimed it was the cartels again.
Everett police, despite John Forde’s admonishment, believed Shawna’s alibi in his shooting and did not arrest her. Then she quietly vanished to Arizona and began organizing border watches in the Altar Valley again. This is when she met Albert Gaxiola, a cartel operative in Arivaca, and began working on her scheme to create a border-militia training compound.
Her plan, according to her brother, was to rob drug smugglers on the border at their safe houses and use the proceeds to purchase a ranch in the borderlands she could convert into her envisioned training compound. In late 2008, ranches were cheap and abundant in the area.
That May, a notice appeared on the MAD and Minuteman Project website announcing that Forde had hired an experienced combat veteran known only as “Gunny” to be her “operations director.” It later turned out that “Gunny” was a Wenatchee white supremacist named Jason Bush who had done multiple stints in prison but had never served in the military. He had, however, been closely linked to a couple of murders in Washington state already.
The morning of May 30, Forde, Bush, Gaxiola, and a person never identified went to the home of a small-time marijuana smuggler named Juan Flores Jr. pretending to be Border Patrol. After being let in, they shot everyone, including a 9-year-old girl named Brisenia.
Flores’ wife, Gina Gonzalez, survived and eventually drove the invaders out of her home with gunfire. An unbelievably horrifying 911 recording captured it all.
Forde, Gaxiola, and Bush were all captured in less than two weeks. All three went on trial in 2011, and all three were convicted. Forde and Bush are on Death Row, while Gaxiola is essentially serving life with no chance of parole. Brisenia Flores and her father were buried in Sahuarita, south of Tucson, where Gina Gonzalez grew up.
National leaders of the Minuteman movement—particularly Simcox and Gilchrist—hastily tried to put distance between themselves and Forde and her group. To this day, Gilchrist tries to claim that he had little to do with her.
But while Forde’s conviction severely damaged the border-watch movement (as one ex-MCDC leader put it, “A lot of people felt, well, you’re a Minuteman, you’re a killer”), that was not the end of it.
In April 2012, one of Forde’s associates in the desert, a Tucson man named Todd Hezlitt, was charged with sexual conduct with a minor for an affair he had with a 15-year-old girl from a local high school where he was a coach. Two months later, he fled with the girl to Mexico. A few weeks after that, the girl turned herself in to the American consulate in Mazatlan. Hezlitt was caught a short time later and extradited. He eventually wound up agreeing to plead guilty to the sexual conduct charges in exchange for not being charged with kidnapping, and was sentenced to six years in prison.
Another violent incident from a former border watcher erupted in Arizona in May 2012 when Jason Todd “J.T.” Ready, a longtime leader of the state’s neo-Nazi National Socialist Movement, and an organizer of independent NSM border watches in Arizona, went on a shooting rampage at the home of his girlfriend. Before committing suicide, Ready shot and killed his girlfriend, Lisa Lynn Mederos, 47; her daughter, Amber Nieve Mederos, 23; the daughter’s boyfriend, Jim Franklin Hiott, and Amber’s 15-month-old baby girl, Lilly Lynn Mederos. Investigators later found chemicals and military-grade munitions that apparently belonged to Ready at the residence.
The final capstone on the saga of the Minutemen was Chris Simcox’s conviction in 2016 on two counts of child molestation, for which he was sentenced to nearly 20 years in prison. The trial was noteworthy because Simcox defended himself pro se, and so was very nearly placed in the position of being able to cross-examine his victims; fortunately, the courts intervened and prevented that spectacle.
Despite this history of criminality associated with border militias, they haven’t entirely gone away. Barely a year after the Forde trials, a veteran of dubious background named Tim Foley began operating a border watch in the Altar Valley with an outfit he calls Arizona Border Recon. Foley has been blessed with friendly reportage such as this piece in Vice, as well as being featured in largely positive light in the Oscar-nominted documentary Cartel Land.
In Texas in the summer of 2014, a panic whipped up by right-wing media about Central American refugees inspired a group of “Patriots” to head to the Rio Grande and set up a militia operation called “Camp Lonestar.” Like the recent New Mexico militia incident, these militiamen also filmed themselves detaining and harassing border crossers. It created a fraught situation with neighbors who disapproved of the heavily armed vigilantes.
Eventually, the operation folded shop. Like most far-right outfits, its end came amid arrests, internecine bickering, and accusations of fiduciary misdealings.
Now a fresh wave of militiamen are heading to a variety of locales along the border, inspired by Donald Trump’s “caravan” fearmongering. As usual, they are not actually helping improve security on the border. If anything, they pose new challenges for authorities down there, including their propensity for stealing shit.
And as always, they are a bag chock full o’nuts, a volatile mix waiting to combust into violence. The New Mexico militia that’s been detaining hundreds is a classic case, run by a man now under arrest who promotes the QAnon conspiracy theories.
This history of sociopathic and criminal history is not merely an accident. As I explained in my book about the Minutemen, And Hell Followed With Her: Crossing the Dark Side of the American Border (2013, Nation Books):
[T]he Minutemen and their leadership in particular not only made rhetorical appeals nearly certain to attract psychopaths but embraced, encouraged, and inflamed Shawna’s own fast-rising arc of radicalization. They empowered her psychopathic behavior even as it became manifest in the movement’s own broiling inner turmoil. The Minutemen were not Shawna Forde’s victims but her enablers.
The rhetoric of the Minutemen and their related nativist organizations—including, nowadays, the Tea Party—appealed to psychopaths like Shawna Forde and Jason Bush because it reflected so much of their interior psyches and moreover provided an irresistible opportunity for grandiose self-inflation and validation.
Minuteman rhetoric often reflected the very traits of personality disorders, particularly in its political mind-set, which sought to blame weak and helpless (contemptibly so, from the nativist view) others for their own, often self-inflicted, national problems. It was frequently grandiose, particularly in its claims to be preventing terrorist attacks and its larger claims to be in the act of “saving America”; it indulged a marked propensity to lie and dispense false information, ranging from Glenn Spencer’s Ebola rumor and Reconquista claims to Chris Simcox’s bogus border-fence scam to Jim Gilchrist’s bathetic, and ultimately futile, attempts to distance himself from Shawna Forde. The Minutemen also frequently distorted facts, if they did not outright falsify them, in order to manipulate public sentiment, and they did so remorselessly.
Most of all, despite occasional lip service to the plight of immigrants, the Minutemen’s rhetoric was profoundly lacking in empathy for the targets of their ire; indeed, the more callous and cold-hearted the remark, the more widely it was circulated. If ever there was a movement tailored to recruit and promote psychopaths, it was the Minutemen.
Shawna Forde’s symbiotic embrace of the Minutemen was not accidental nor even the random result of circumstances, as is often the case with psychopaths and the means they employ to their often criminal and sometimes violent ends. It was a virtual inevitability, given the nature of their politics, agenda, and rhetorical fuel.
What movements like the Minutemen most offer psychopaths like Shawna Forde is the opportunity to remake themselves into their own hyperinflated view of themselves as Heroes with a capital H, all without the hard work, sacrifice, and dedication that usually comprise the foundations of real heroism. This is something the Minutemen shared in common with nearly all brands of right-wing extremism: a core ethos dedicated to constructing and establishing their own heroic identities, a grandiose kind of self-validation.
The Minutemen in particular were noteworthy in promising a path to heroic status. The Arizona desert is an exotic and adventurous place, still largely wild and always potentially dangerous all on its own. Add to that the thrill of hunting down and catching lawbreakers in the act, and you have something straight out of a testosterone-fueled action film. All in the name of saving America from “illegals.”
Moreover, the border militias are not just a weird local phenomenon. They are a national one. They have created a national legacy, one in which they have altered the shape of public discourse and heightened fear and hatred of immigrants.
The most obvious of these, of course, is The Wall: thanks to their fence project, the notion that erecting a simple barrier to solve the complex problem of immigration has become embedded right-wing conventional wisdom, touted most loudly by Donald Trump.
The Minutemen also gave us the legacy of linking the border and immigration to national security. It’s actually utter rubbish, but it’s become another right-wing cornerstone that “we must secure the border before passing immigration reform.”
What, exactly, do they mean by “border security”? It’s hard to pin down the exact definition of a “secure border”—reflective of the fact that it is a coded phrase—but in the hands of various Congressional Republicans, what emerges is a fantasy portrait of a militarized fortress-style border with Mexico secured by a towering fence and the constant buzz of manpower patrolling it. In the immigration-reform bill passed by the Senate (but still bottled up in the House), the legislation requires construction of 700 miles of new double-walled border fence and 20,000 more Border Patrol agents to man it.
Notably, these proposals all envision such a facility along the 1,954 miles of border the United States shares with Mexico. No such fence is envisioned for 5,525 miles of border that we share with Canada—even though, when it comes to national security, we already know which border terrorists are likely to cross. And it’s not the southern one.
Of course, building a second fence two and half times as long as that proposed for the Mexico border would be outrageously expensive – especially when the latter already fits that description.
Indeed, what would taxpayers be getting for their “border security”? In 2007, the non-partisan Congressional Research Office conducted a study that put the costs for constructing and maintaining a 700-mile fence to be $49 billion. By the time any construction begins, those costs are likely to be in the $75 billion to $100 billion range. Yet, as a column in Forbes recently examined, the number of illegal border crossers caught or deterred by such a fence will number only about 100,000 annually—which works out to a cost of about $40,000 per immigrant caught.
Moreover, it will at best only put a dent in the problem. That’s because about 40 percent of all undocumented immigrants come here legally to begin with, through various kinds of visas, and then simply never leave. Another significant percentage of them arrive through human-smuggling operations that are not deterred by fences.
As Rep. Henry Cuellar, D-Texas, told the Forbes reporter: “Simply stated, a fence is a 14th century solution to a 21st century problem.”
Moreover, insisting on emplacing “border security” before providing a sane and legal path to citizenship for millions of immigrants is a classic case of putting the cart before the horse. Border security is only realistic when one’s borders are not overwhelmed, and it can’t be achieved until the conditions that overwhelmed the Mexico border—particularly the trade policies that damaged the Mexican economy and drove millions of people out of work there, along with antiquated immigration laws and policies ill suited for a modern nation competing in a 21st-century global economy—are brought under control. Comprehensive reform at least begins that task.
Meanwhile, in Arivaca, the memory of young Brisenia Flores lives on. The militias there are facing hell from the locals, who understand the deeper nature of the creature they’re dealing with.
La Cantina Gitana, where Shawna Forde met Albert Gaxiola, no longer lets these people drink at the town’s only watering hole. “We have a strict no-militia policy at the bar because of the history of militia violence in this town,” said a bartender who works there. The rest of the nation would do well to follow Arivaca’s lead.