Border Disputes - Armed Vigilantes in Arizona

February 07, 2013

Read the full report: Border Disputes - Armed Vigilantes in Arizona (PDF).

On October 16, 2002, 13 members of Ranch Rescue, an extreme anti-immigration group, launched a “patrol” of the Arizona-Mexico border near Lochiel, Arizona. Dressed in camouflage military uniforms and carrying rifles and other weapons, the members of the patrol (somewhat self-importantly dubbed “Operation Hawk”) trudged across the desert, allegedly looking for “armed drug smugglers.” On this occasion, it actually found some smugglers, though not armed ones, who dropped the marijuana they were toting and fled into the desert.

Ranch Rescue allegedly conducts its activities on private property with the consent of property owners. However, the Nature Conservatory, which owns the land where Ranch Rescue was conducting its activities, mistakenly assumed that the vigilantes were from the U.S. Border Patrol. When it found out the group was not the Border Patrol, it asked Ranch Rescue to leave and also subsequently installed locks on gates to the property (previously, it had left the gates unlocked for the benefit of the Border Patrol).

Although Ranch Rescue did not themselves try to apprehend the alleged smugglers during the operation, local law enforcement and customs officials were unhappy with the encounter. The incident comes at a time of increasing activity by extremist vigilante groups along the Arizona border in recent months, which have created tension and fear on both sides of the border. Undaunted, Ranch Rescue is now planning “Operation Thunderbird” along the Arizona border for the spring of 2003, in order to document “the threat to Arizona Citizens from armed cross-border incursions by armed drug smugglers and foreign military and paramilitary units operating on US private property.”

Historically, hate groups and other extremist groups have tried to exploit immigration, legal and illegal, as an issue to gain support and publicity. Anti-Semite and former Klansman David Duke organized Klan border patrols in the late 1970's. In the early 1980's, White supremacist Louis Beam conducted paramilitary activities to intimidate immigrant Vietnamese fishermen in Texas. Beam, then head of the Texas Knights of the Ku Klux Klan, urged Klansmen to reclaim their country “by blood.” More recently, in October 2002, New Jersey white supremacist radio talk show host Hal Turner encouraged his shortwave audience to “kill every single one of these invaders.”

Turner’s remarks reflect a new radicalism. The September 11, 2001, terrorist attacks gave extremist groups an opportunity to exploit the fear and anger that the attacks raised in the United States. Extremists sought to direct those emotions against immigrants. Racist groups such as the Council of Conservative Citizens blamed the attacks on a lack of American vigilance against immigrants. Just months after the attacks, the neo-Nazi National Alliance distributed fliers in the Chicago area that featured the World Trade Center and the phrase “Close our Borders!”

In March 2003, a number of white supremacist groups, including White Revolution, the National Socialist Movement, Aryan Nations, the Celtic Knights of the KKK, and the Creativity Movement (formerly World Church of the Creator), joined to hold an anti-immigration rally in San Antonio, Texas, to speak out against the “tide of illegal brown wretched refuse steadily darkening our land.”

Given these sentiments, it is no surprise that the effort of right wing extremist groups to take the law into their own hands and administer their own form of “justice” coincides with a wave of border violence in Arizona. Several extremist groups are spearheading an effort to mobilize armed vigilantes to “patrol” the Arizona border and stop what they view as a Mexican “invasion.” By appealing to xenophobic fears and creating a menacing atmosphere in the communities in which they are active, they could detonate an already volatile situation.

The most organized of these groups openly invite people to “patrol” the borders using technology and weapons. Meanwhile, they promote an ideology that is often not one of immigration reform or immigration control, but simply of hate and intolerance. Their hope is to capitalize on recent alarm over a rising tide of illegal immigration in Arizona that naturally followed increased U.S. Border Patrol presences at once popular crossing points such as San Diego and El Paso.