Night with Minutemen borders on dangerous

This is a story from the Orange County Register.

Register columnist

Even before the shooting started, it was a wild night on the border.

I had gone down to the U.S.-Mexico border last weekend to take a look at the California Minutemen, the volunteer, civilian border watchers who have been in the news recently. An offshoot of the Minuteman Project in Arizona this past spring, the California Minutemen have spent the past 10 days strung out along a 30-mile stretch of border in San Diego County, their mission to observe and report illegal immigration and other illegal border activities.

Of course, their critics, including the ACLU and various Latino activist groups, call the Minutemen “vigilantes,” “racists” and even “terrorists,” and organized demonstrators have repeatedly accosted them during their border-watch activities. Meanwhile, the news media make a big deal out of the fact that many of the Minutemen volunteers carry firearms while they’re on the border - as if packing a pistol in desolate and dangerous country somehow makes you a nut.

But the 50 or so Minutemen volunteers who gathered Saturday at their temporary headquarters in a Veterans of Foreign Wars post in the tiny border hamlet of Campo, 40 miles east of San Diego, didn’t seem like nuts to me. The vast majority of them were retirees, or former military men, or working people with some time off who simply believe that illegal immigration - emphasis on the “illegal” - is a serious threat to our nation. And if the federal government won’t do anything about it, they say, then they’ll do what they can as citizens to stop it.

“There’s a lot of wonderful, brilliant people here who hate what’s happening to America,” volunteer Barry Ames, a Lake Forest heavy-equipment operator, told me outside the Campo VFW. As for being a gun-toting vigilante, Barry added: “I’m not here to shoot anybody. I’m not even armed.”

So as evening approached, the Minutemen volunteers, most dressed in T-shirts and jeans, crammed into a room in the VFW hall to get their nightly marching orders from California Minuteman organizer Jim Chase.

The rules were simple: You are observers, not cops. If you spot illegal activity, call the Border Patrol. Do not physically touch or impede anyone in any way. If you have a weapon, keep it in your holster unless your life is in direct and immediate danger.

With that, the volunteers headed out to take up their stations on the border. I tagged along with a group of 15 volunteers led by Bob Shuff, 65, of Fullerton, a burly, gravel-voiced former Marine and a veteran of the Minuteman Project in Arizona. Bob led a caravan of volunteers’ vehicles 20 miles east, to the tiny border town of Jacumba.

The border there is marked by a metal fence, 12 feet tall in some places, only 4 feet high in others, flanked by a dirt road on the U.S. side that snakes over steep hills and into rugged canyons. The fence isn’t much of a barrier; where you can’t just climb over or under it, it is riddled with gaps and holes.

The area is notorious for people and drug smuggling. Just the night before, the Minutemen observers had alerted the Border Patrol to a car stopping by the fence to pick up half a dozen illegal immigrants and reportedly some drugs; the Border Patrol caught them up the road.

This night, as the sun goes down, Bob Shuff positions small groups of volunteers at intervals along a half-mile stretch of border, each with a walkie-talkie.

“This is not a game,” Bob tells them. “Stay alert and be careful.”

It’s good advice. Border Patrol agents had already warned the volunteers to watch out for rocks being thrown over the fence; getting rocked is a common occurrence for Border Patrol agents here.

“We’re here because we think we can help,” Minuteman volunteer Susan Espinoza of Delta, Utah, tells me as she stands watch with her husband, Manny, a big-rig truck driver. “But it is kind of scary.”

It gets scarier. On the Mexico side of the border two men in a pickup drive up and glare at the volunteers over a low section of the border fence, then pepper them with dirt and gravel as they spin the truck around. From a dark hillside on the Mexico side voices shout out in English, “We’ll kill you, you ——s!” and “That’s a Mexican road!”

At one point, a rock sails over the 12-foot fence in the darkness and hits a female volunteer’s car. Then at about 9 p.m. some volunteers are driving their SUV on the dirt road when - bam! bam! - two gunshot rounds fired from the Mexico side hit the metal fence. (I heard two; others say there were three.) Shortly thereafter Bob Shuff and I are driving along the same stretch in his pickup when - bam! - another round hits the fence.

“This is no joke,” Bob growls. I’m certainly not laughing.

The gunfire has some of the Minutemen spooked. “Uh, isn’t this getting a little dangerous?” I hear one nervously say. Others say they don’t care, they want to stay.

But finally good sense prevails. At about 9:40 p.m. Bob orders the volunteers to safely regroup about a hundred yards back from the border.

Ironically, while they’re standing there, some San Diego County sheriff’s deputies, one armed with an M-16, drive up and make the Minutemen volunteers line up by the road for questioning. Apparently a nearby resident on the U.S. side had seen the Minutemen and called the cops. The police told them they couldn’t carry loaded guns or they’d be arrested.

As you might expect, this causes some grumbling. “We get shot at, and the cops are hassling us?” one says.

Finally, just after 10 p.m., Bob Shuff calls it a night and the Minutemen head back to the VFW post in Campo.

“We did what we could,” Bob tells me.

But despite the violence, and the continued threat of it, the Minuteman organizers say they won’t stop their border watching.

“We’re holding the line,” Minuteman co-founder Jim Gilchrist, a Marine Vietnam veteran from Aliso Viejo, told me later. “We’re going to win, we’re going to bring this to the attention of the American people.”

Well, I respect the Minutemen volunteers’ commitment and dedication to an important cause. But as you can see, the border is a dangerous place, and really no place for civilians, however well-intentioned. I fear that sooner or later one of them is going to get hurt or even killed.

Yes, maybe many of the Minutemen are willing to take that risk. But it’s a shame that, until the federal government and the politicians live up to their responsibilities to protect and secure our borders, some of them will feel that they have to.

Link to story.

One Response to “Night with Minutemen borders on dangerous”

  1. Salamander Says:

    Yes, sometimes criminals kill people. That does not mean everyone should hide in their “safe rooms.”
    If police arrest Americans for being armed they should be sued.

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