Feature part 2: Wednesday, August 17, 2005
Playing Army

\r\nIn Arizona, Minutemen leaders and their volunteers spouted racist rhetoric.

By David Holthouse

Vigilante militias have been capturing, pistol-whipping, and possibly shooting Latin American immigrants in Cochise County since the late ’90s, when shifts in U.S. border-control policies transformed the high desert region into the primary point of entry for Mexico’s two most valuable black market exports: drugs and people.

But the Minuteman Project raised the stakes with a highly publicized national recruiting drive and a media blitz. These maneuvers generated massive and mostly positive nationwide coverage of a small gathering of weekend warriors who engaged in plenty of bigoted talk and became, at least for a while, the vanguard of America’s anti-immigration movement.

The Minuteman Project was the brainchild of Jim Gilchrist, a retired accountant and Vietnam veteran from Orange County, Calif., and Chris Simcox, a former California kindergarten teacher who left his job and his family, moved to Tombstone, Ariz., and refashioned himself into a brash anti-immigration militant following the 9/11 terrorist attacks.

Before the Minuteman Project began, Gilchrist and Simcox repeatedly claimed they had recruited more than 1,300 volunteers. But when their plan lurched into action this year on April Fool’s Day in Tombstone, fewer than 150 volunteers actually showed up, and they were clearly outnumbered on the Wild West movie-set streets by a swarm of reporters, photographers, camera crews, anti-Minuteman protesters, American Civil Liberties Union legal observers, and costumed gunfight show actors.

Their enlistees were nearly all white — although Gilchrist and Simcox had claimed prior to April 1 that 40 percent of their volunteers would be minorities, including, according to their web site, “American-Africans,” “American-Mexicans,” “American-Armenians,” four paraplegics and six amputees.

California and Arizona were the most heavily represented states among the Minuteman enlistees, but the volunteers reported from all regions of the country. Many, if not most, were over 50 years old, and their ranks included a relatively high percentage of retired military men, police officers, and prison guards. Women made up nearly a third of the volunteers, including a bevy of white-haired ladies selling homemade Minuteman Project merchandise such as “What Part of ‘Illegal’ Don’t They Understand?” t-shirts and the quickly ubiquitous “Undocumented Border Patrol Agent” badges (which bore color-copy counterfeits of the official Department of Homeland Security seal).

The keynote speaker at the opening day rally was U.S. Rep. Tom Tancredo of Colorado, the Republican who chairs the Congressional Immigration Reform Caucus.

Tancredo addressed a crowd of about 100 inside an auditorium not far from the OK Corral. Outside, a phalanx of private security police hired by the state stood between the hall’s entrance and about 40 anti-Minutemen protesters who banged on pots and pans and drums while a traditional Aztec dance group leapt and whirled to the cacophonous rhythm.

In late March, President George W. Bush had condemned the Minuteman Project at a joint press conference with Mexican President Vicente Fox. “I’m against vigilantes in the United States of America,” Bush said. “I’m for enforcing the law in a rational way.”

Tancredo said that Bush should be forced to write, “I’m sorry for calling you vigilantes,” on a blackboard one hundred times and then erase the chalk with his tongue.

“You are not vigilantes,” he roared. “You are heroes!”

Tancredo told the Minutemen that each of them stood for 100,000 like-minded Americans who couldn’t afford to make the trip. He applauded Gilchrist and Simcox as “two good men who understand we must never surrender our right as citizens to do our patriotic duty and defend our country ... and stop this invasion ourselves.”

Gilchrist is newly prominent on the anti-immigration front — he recently joined the California Coalition for Immigration Reform, a hate group whose leader routinely describes Mexicans as “savages.” But Simcox has been active since 2002, when he founded Civil Homeland Defense, a Tombstone-based vigilante militia that he brags has captured more than 5,000 Mexicans and Central Americans who entered the country without visas.

“These people don’t come here to work. They come here to rob and deal drugs,” Simcox told the Southern Poverty Law Center’s Intelligence Report in a 2003 interview. “We need the National Guard to clean up our cities and round them up.”

But that was the old Chris Simcox talking.

The old Simcox described Citizens Homeland Defense as “a committee of vigilantes,” and “a border patrol militia.” The new Simcox — the one interviewed for dozens of national tv news programs and major newspaper articles — characterized his new and larger outfit of citizen border patrollers as “more of a neighborhood watch program.”

The old Simcox said of Mexicans and Central American immigrants, “They have no problem slitting your throat and taking your money or selling drugs to your kids or raping your daughter, and they are evil people.” The new Simcox said he sympathizes with their plight and sees them as victims of their own government’s failed policies.

Gilchrist gave his sound bites an even more extreme makeover by frequently comparing himself and most of his volunteers to “white Martin Luther Kings” and the Minuteman Project to the civil rights movement. He and Simcox both declared in interview after interview that they had designed the Minuteman Project to “protect America from drug dealers and terrorists” as much as to catch undocumented immigrants.

For the most part, mainstream news coverage didn’t challenge these reinventions, even though Gilchrist’s militant rhetoric about immigrants “devouring and plundering our nation” was still up on the Minuteman Project’s web site, and Simcox’s statements had been published in his own newspaper and elsewhere.

Early this year, white supremacist and neo-Nazi web sites began openly recruiting for the Minuteman Project. In response, Gilchrist and Simcox announced that neo-Nazi skinheads and race warriors from organizations such as the National Alliance and Aryan Nations were specifically banned from participating. The two organizers said they were working with the FBI to carefully check the backgrounds of all potential Minuteman volunteers — only to have the FBI completely deny this was the case.

Gilchrist and Simcox then said they were personally checking out every potential volunteer using online databases. However, a computer crash wiped out the records of at least 75 pre-registered volunteers; perhaps as a result, during onsite registration at Tombstone, almost every person who showed up was issued a Minuteman Project badge and assigned to a watch post for the next day.

Gilchrist and Simcox also told news media prior to April 1 that the only volunteers who would be allowed to carry firearms would be those who had a concealed-carry handgun permit from their home states, an indication that they had passed at least a cursory background investigation. In fact, virtually no one was checked for permits.

While most of the Minuteman volunteers did not belong to racist groups, at least one member of Aryan Nations infiltrated the effort, and at least two members of the Phoenix chapter of the neo-Nazi National Alliance signed up as Minuteman volunteers. The two who identified themselves as members of the Alliance said four others from their group had arrived separately, to be less conspicuous. They said they intended to return in the fall and conduct small, roaming, National Alliance-only vigilante patrols, “when we can have a little more privacy,” as one Alliance member put it.

The day after the registration meltdown, the Minuteman Project sponsored a protest across the street from the Border Patrol’s headquarters in Naco, Ariz. It drew about 75 demonstrators, including the two National Alliance members, who sat quietly in camp chairs, wearing sunglasses and holding placards.

Their sign was decorated with a war-room graphic of arrows that represented armies marching north from Mexico and spreading throughout the United States.

“Invasion?” it asked. “What Invasion?”

This article was excerpted from Intelligence Report, a quarterly publication of the Southern Poverty Law Center.

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