Vigilante injustice

Arizona militia members, a Colorado Republican and a national group with white supremacist ties have made a remote stretch of the Mexico border a flash point for anti-immigrant hostility.

Published May 22, 2003 11:39PM (EDT)

It's high noon in Tombstone, Ariz., a dusty little town that's part ranching outpost and part Old West theme park, and over on Toughnut Street, a block away from the tourists and the tacky souvenir shops, Chris Simcox is toiling away inside the cluttered office of the Tombstone Tumbleweed. An Associated Press feature on Simcox has just been wired to every newsroom in the country, and the atmosphere is chaotic. Phones in the little newsroom are ringing off the hook.

Simcox, the Tumbleweed's editor and owner, is in his element. After a failed marriage in Los Angeles, a stint of unemployment, the shock of Sept. 11, and three months camped out in the Arizona desert, he arrived here last year and has fashioned for himself a new life as the poster boy for the American anti-immigrant movement. He bought the newspaper in August; by October, he had clearly stamped it with his own personality. "ENOUGH IS ENOUGH!" declared the Tumbleweed's front page that month. "A PUBLIC CALL TO ARMS! CITIZENS BORDER PATROL MILITIA NOW FORMING!"

Within a month, Simcox claims, an untold number of Tombstone residents and others signed up to join his militia, called Civil Homeland Defense. Militia rules mandate that each member carry a pistol, for which a background check is required, and he or she must also wear a baseball cap emblazoned with an American flag. The group patrols along the Cochise County chaparral between Tombstone and Mexico, searching for people who look like illegal immigrants. When suspected illegals are caught, Simcox says, they are "humanely" placed under citizen's arrest and turned over to the U.S. Border Patrol.

There are those in Tombstone who say that the 41-year-old former teacher is an eccentric, an egomaniac and a threat to the local tourism industry. While Simcox says his militia has 600 members, others here say the number is far smaller. "Chris can only get a three-man patrol going," says Jeff, a bartender at the Crystal Bar on Main Street. "Basically, the kind of people who want to join his group can't even pass a background check."

However quixotic his character, Simcox is a leading figure in a loose but committed alliance of anti-immigrant forces that have turned Cochise County into a national flash point for escalating tensions over illegal immigration. The alliance includes not only local ranchers, landowners and law enforcement officials, but also former high-ranking Border Patrol agents and U.S. Rep. Tom Tancredo, a Colorado Republican. Quietly backing their efforts is the Federation for American Immigration Reform, a controversial anti-immigration group that in the 1980s and 1990s received more than $1 million from a shadowy group accused of white-supremacist leanings.

In Cochise County alone, self-styled vigilante groups in recent years have harassed and detained hundreds, perhaps thousands, of migrants suspected of entering the country illegally. They claim they are only enforcing U.S. laws too often ignored by law enforcement officials. But human rights advocates are worried about a climate here and through much of southern Arizona that seems increasingly primed for violence.

In 2000 Miguel Angel Palafox, a 20-year-old migrant, was shot in the neck by two horsemen dressed in black who attacked him near the border town of Sasabe, about 50 miles east of Cochise County. Palafox crawled back to Mexico with a T-shirt wrapped around his wound and lived to tell the tale, though the riders remain unknown.

Last October, in the small town of Red Rock, between Tucson and Phoenix, two undocumented immigrants were found shot to death by a roadside. Manuel Ortega, a spokesman for the Mexican Consulate in Tucson, says the two victims were part of a group of 12 migrants resting around a pond south of the town. While most of the group slumbered, one of the migrants told the consulate staff, two masked men dressed in camouflage and armed with machine guns appeared from the woods, firing upon the group and killing the two before the others scattered. The Pinal County sheriff's office is treating the killings as a dispute between rival people smugglers, or coyotes, but Ortega says his office has never seen a killing like that involving coyotes.

As co-director of the Tucson human rights group Derechos Humanos, attorney Isabel Garcia has campaigned to bring anti-immigrant vigilantes and brutal coyotes to justice for more than 25 years, and she sees good reason to question the focus of the sheriff's investigation of the Red Rock murders. "It seems highly unlikely that coyotes would use camouflage clothes and highly unlikely that they would kill people who would bring in more money," she said. "We've never seen that."

No one has suggested that Simcox's group is involved in the deadly violence. But critics say he is the embodiment of a troubling climate of intolerance and impatience that poses a vivid threat to Mexicans and other illegal migrants near the border. Local officials have condemned the vigilante activity. U.S. Rep. Raul Grijalva of Tucson, a Democrat, has called for an investigation of the growing militia movement there.

But the office of U.S. Attorney General John Ashcroft has not yet replied, and in the meantime, Simcox has grown bolder.

"I dare the president of the United States to arrest Americans who are protecting their own country," Simcox said, in comments carried by the Washington Times earlier this year. "We will no longer tolerate the ineptness of the government in dealing with these criminals and drug dealers. It is a monumental disgrace that our government is letting the American people down, turning us into the expendable casualties of the war on terrorism."

When White House press secretary Ari Fleischer was asked whether President Bush approved of Simcox's militia, his response was carefully ambiguous: "The president believes that the laws of the land need to be observed and the laws need to be enforced." Which might mean one of two things. Perhaps it was a warning that militia groups should stay within the law. Or perhaps it was an acknowledgment that federal agencies have failed at the border -- and a careful way of cheering on the vigilantes.

The U.S.-Mexican War ended after two years, in 1848, costing Mexico nearly half its territory and giving the United States incredible riches that came with the land spanning from Texas to California. At many points along the border, tension between Anglos and Mexicans has simmered ever since. Some would argue that the U.S. border policy with Mexico has been dysfunctional for nearly as long.

On the one hand, the U.S. agriculture industry and other sectors of the economy rely heavily on migrant Mexican workers and offer lucrative reasons to cross the border illegally; on the other, U.S. law subjects those who are caught crossing to arrest and deportation. With such a contradictory border policy, and with enforcement stretched impossibly thin along the desert frontier ranging from Texas to the Pacific, people can interpret the law in whatever way suits their interests.

But in the expanse of Cochise County, which abuts the vast and treacherous beauty of the Sonoran desert, the failure of such policy has become vivid in the past decade.

The vigilante culture here is, in many ways, just a side effect of Operation Gatekeeper, a U.S. Immigration and Naturalization Service campaign that literally walled off U.S. border cities like San Diego and El Paso from Mexico. Migrants on their way north to jobs in the fields or to reunite with families were forced either to stay home or to venture into more remote, rugged terrain along the border with Arizona. Hundreds of them have been found dead over the years, having succumbed to thirst, hunger or overexposure. For many Cochise County property owners, Gatekeeper meant daily encounters with dozens of immigrants crossing their land, often leaving trash in their wake while accompanied by the ruthless and violent coyotes who were hired as their guides and safekeepers.

The resulting anger gave rise to vigilante efforts led by part-time rancher Roger Barnett -- who has placed thousands of undocumented migrants under so-called citizen's arrest -- and refined by Glenn Spencer, who last year founded the high-tech militia American Border Patrol. Simcox is the latest to take up the cause, but clearly, all three men and many of their followers have taken inspiration and aid from John Tanton, a man known as the godfather of the modern anti-immigration movement.

Before founding the Federation for American Immigration Reform -- better known as FAIR -- in 1979, Tanton was best known for his environmental work as national director for the Sierra Club's population committee. His belief that population growth posed a dire risk to the environment led into the realm of anti-immigration activism; in Tanton's mind, poor immigrants reproduce at a greater rate than citizens of the United States and other Western countries who are more affluent and more highly educated. The Southern Poverty Law Center has extensively researched Tanton's connections to the anti-immigration movement and white supremacist groups, and in an investigative report last year, the center published a Tanton quote from 1975 that still provides critical insight into his thinking. "Their [Third World] 'huddled masses' cast longing eyes on the apparent riches of the industrial West," Tanton wrote then. "The developed countries lie directly in the path of a great storm."

That same year, French novelist Jean Raspail's racist "Camp of the Saints" was published in English, and it quickly became one of Tanton's favorite books. Raspail's polemic novel portrays the invasion of Europe by hordes of sex-crazed Africans, dirty Arabs, and "Hindus" who enslave white women on sex farms. Raspail urges the reader to "repulse the invasion and destroy the invader. Assuming, that is, that we are willing to murder -- with or without regret -- a million helpless wretches."

Today Tanton's publishing company, the Social Contract Press, is the sole publisher of "Camp of the Saints," billed as "the controversial, politically incorrect novel" on its Web site. Compared with most of Tanton's other creations, the Social Contract Press is probably the most stridently nativist. Other Tanton-founded groups like U.S. English, which mobilized opposition to bilingual education programs, and the Center for Immigration Studies, a pseudo-think tank that claims impartiality, have employed respected figureheads like former Reagan aide Linda Chavez to project a moderate, rational tone for their arguments against immigration.

When discussing immigration as a phenomenon, Tanton's style is usually dry and pedantic. But on a few occasions, he has openly expressed his contempt. In 1988, when Tanton's private "Council of Wise Men" memos were leaked to the press, a bitter white-nationalist philosophy cracked through the façade. "As Whites see their power and control over their lives declining, will they simply go quietly into the night?" Tanton wrote. "Can homo contraceptivus compete with homo progenitiva if borders aren't controlled? ... Perhaps this is the first instance in which those with their pants up are going to get caught by those with their pants down." This revelation prompted the resignations of Chavez as U.S. English's president and Walter Cronkite from its board.

After the scandal, Tanton resigned as FAIR's executive director and focused on developing another project, US Inc., which is essentially a financial umbrella group for his network. He remained on FAIR's board of directors, and the group continued to court controversy. According to Form 990 returns filed with the IRS for 1988 to 1994, FAIR received nearly $1.3 million from the Pioneer Fund, which issues grants for research to prove Hitlerian notions of the biological superiority of the white race. And in 2001, Tanton-founded groups like the Center for Immigration Studies, NumbersUSA, US Inc., and FAIR were granted a total of $220,000 by eccentric rightist billionaire Cordelia Scaife-May of the Scaife Family Foundation.

Tanton did not respond to a message requesting an interview. FAIR's assistant director, David Ray, in an interview with Salon, bristled at questions about the Pioneer Fund, describing the donations as "insignificant." He also called "insignificant" any "financial or strategic information" FAIR has provided to Simcox, Spencer and Barnett. According to Form 990 returns, FAIR and Tanton's US Inc. donated $50,050 between 1998 and 2001 to Spencer's American Patrol and Voices of Citizens Together (American Border Patrol's political wings).

Were the Red Rock murders were committed by vigilantes? That's "just speculation," Ray replied. But don't Simcox, Barnett and Spencer raise the risk of anti-immigrant violence when they act independent of the law to mete out justice? "The onus is simply on the federal government to regain control of the borders," Ray said. "If they fail to do that and it goes on year after year, what we're going to see is increasing numbers of citizens speaking out against out-of-control immigration and defending their property."

Most days, Roger Barnett commutes from his home outside Douglas to his towing and propane companies in downtown Sierra Vista, a city between Tombstone and Douglas that is home to a large community of military retirees. In his spare time, Barnett likes to graze cattle on his 22,000-acre property just outside Douglas. He owns 7,000 acres of his land but the rest is leased from the state, a spread that puts his official rancher credentials about on par with those of President Bush and Robert Redford. With a ruddy face, husky physique, Wrangler jeans and a gravelly voice, he at least looks the part.

Almost immediately after Operation Gatekeeper started in 1995, Barnett says, he began to notice an explosion of migrants crossing his land on their way up from Mexico. The migrants left piles of trash and human excrement, he says; they frightened wildlife and cut fences on his cattle pens. In 1996, he says, he became fed up and started placing them under citizen's arrest and turning them over to Border Patrol agents. On March 10, 1999, while the problem festered, Barnett and 20 fellow landowners signed a proclamation of revolt: "If the government refuses to provide security, then the only recourse is to provide it ourselves." Barnett's bold statement grabbed the media's attention. By 2000, he had been featured on ABC's World News Tonight, in the New York Times and elsewhere.

"I'm prepared to take a life if I have to," he told USA Today.

Tanton was apparently among those to take notice of Barnett's down-home appeal and his penchant for grabbing headlines. In 1999, FAIR brought Barnett to Capitol Hill for "Immigration Awareness Week" to describe his hardships to concerned members of Congress. The following year, Tanton's US Inc. hired Barnett to spearhead its "Border Defense Coalition." According to the September 2000 edition of the Oltman Report, by FAIR's Western Regional Director Rick Oltman, the project consisted of hoisting freeway billboards advocating a U.S. Army deployment along the border with messages like "If this was Scottsdale [a wealthy suburb of Phoenix], the troops would be here now." Barnett was assisted by former U.S. Border Patrol agent Bob Park, a friend of Tanton's.

Now 61, Barnett says he says that in the past two years, he has turned almost 5,000 migrants over to Border Patrol agents. "It needs to be done," he rumbles. "They [the Mexicans] are gonna take over our country ... Do you remember what the Iraqis did with our pilots in Desert Storm? They took them hostage. It's the same deal here."

Since Barnett views Mexican immigrants as an invading army, it is only natural that he seeks apprehensions away from his property. In the past three years, rumors have floated around Douglas that he was randomly pulling over drivers on Highway 80 northeast of Douglas whom he profiled as Mexican. While most witnesses to the pull-overs have disappeared into the woodwork or demanded anonymity, a recent incident confirmed by the Mexican consul general in Douglas, Miguel Escobar Valdez, suggests Barnett as a possible suspect in a brutal and unprovoked attack along the highway.

On January 19, Escobar was called in to Douglas Hospital to interview Rodrigo Quiroz Acosta, a 37-year-old Mexican national hospitalized with bruises to his head and ribs. Quiroz told Escobar that he had entered the U.S. illegally, became stranded and fatigued, and ventured out to Highway 80 to search for Border Patrol agents to pick him up. Suddenly a white pickup truck barreled off the highway, nearly hitting him. Out stepped a man described by Quiroz as close to 60 years old and accompanied by a dog. The man began shouting angrily, kicking him in the head and pummeling him with a flashlight. Eventually, Quiroz was able to escape and was later apprehended by Border Patrol agents. Quiroz said his attacker was about 6 foot 3 and in his late 50s -- a description that could fit Barnett. A Border Patrol supervisor told Escobar that Roger Barnett -- who has a dog and drives a white pickup -- had detained a group of migrants an hour beforehand in the same area where Quiroz was attacked and that he was probably the attacker.

Before Quiroz was able to press charges against Barnett, he was deported. And the rancher angrily denies the allegation by Escobar that he assaulted Quiroz. "Oh, that son of a bitch," Barnett said of the Mexican diplomat, "... he lies out of both sides of his mouth." Though Barnett has never been formally accused of any crime, many in Cochise County's human rights community allege that he never will be because he is a former sheriff's deputy and his brother, Don, is the former Cochise County sheriff. The Barnetts, they say, have forged close ties with current Sheriff Larry Dever and U.S. Border Patrol officials, giving them an air of impunity.

"These guys, the Barnetts and Larry Dever, they're part of an old-boys' network," says the Rev. Robert Carney, a Roman Catholic priest who spent eight years as pastor at St. Luke's Parish in Douglas, 30 miles east of Tombstone, before moving to a Tucson church. "They grew up together, they hang together, and they work together."

Barnett acknowledges a friendship with Dever, but says the sheriff has backed off some for political reasons. Barnett claims to work directly with Border Patrol agents to profile and arrest illegal immigrants. When a person whom Barnett suspects is an undocumented migrant comes to retrieve a towed car at his office, he stalls them and calls Border Patrol. When agents arrive, they question the suspect, enter the name in a computer, and occasionally make an arrest.

When questioned him about the legality of the arrests in his office and the traffic stops on Highway 80, Barnett became infuriated.

"You a lawyer?" he asked with a sneer. "You're full of shit. I can stop 'em out on the road if I want. Didn't you hear what Bush said? Everybody needs to be vigilant and help the homeland security. I can do whatever I want."

Glenn Spencer was living in California's San Fernando Valley when he founded his for-profit anti-immigration group Voices of Citizens Together. Starting in 2000, Spencer was making fact-finding trips to southern Arizona, where he met in Sierra Vista with disgruntled local residents and explained his plan to launch a militia called American Border Patrol.

But it was only last year, during a California tax-fraud investigation focused on the Voices group, that Spencer decided on a move to Sierra Vista, a town 20 minutes east of Tombstone that is an outpost of conservatism in mostly Latino Cochise County. Barnett, as the anchor in the county's growing vigilante movement, served as a liaison to help Spencer acquaint himself with the local scene and get his border militia concept off the ground.

Today, Spencer tells people he lives at a secret location where he develops content for his three Web sites and broadcasts his syndicated AM radio show. A reporter, invited to the home on the condition that its location remain confidential, finds a prefabricated Spanish colonial model nestled in a luxury housing development. He works in a study surrounded by monitors, VCRs and computer gear; his bookshelves are filled with titles ranging from "Bordering on Chaos," Andres Oppenheimer's journalistic meditation on Mexico, to "The Bell Curve," a controversial book that concluded that blacks and Latinos historically have lower IQs than whites and Asians.

A portly, silver-haired man of 65 who could blend in at a bingo tournament, Spencer fancies his group more sophisticated than the gun-toting members of Simcox's upstart group. His American Border Patrol is guided by his pet conspiracy theory, "la Reconquista," or "the re-conquest." According to Spencer, the chief actors of la Reconquista include the Mexican government, the Roman Catholic Church, the Ford Foundation and "corporate globalists." Their goal, he claims, is to exploit the freedoms of liberal democracy in order to seize control over the United States, sending waves of Mexicans to break into the country and "recolonialize" land that Mexico lost in the Treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo at the end of the U.S.-Mexican War.

"This gang is here to subvert our immigration laws," Spencer booms. "They are a fifth column."

To prove his point, he swivels around to his computer and with the click of a mouse, former Mexican President Ernesto Zedillo appears on the screen speaking before the National Council of La Raza in 1997. "I have proudly affirmed that the Mexican nation extends beyond the territory enclosed by its borders and the Mexican migrant is an important part of that," Zedillo says in halting English. To a sober viewer, Zedillo's statement could be taken as a demonstration of his government's solidarity with Mexicans working in the United States. For Spencer, Zedillo's tacit advocacy for dual citizenship for Mexican-Americans is a declaration of war on American culture with a potentially apocalyptic ending.

"If we lose the United States to that cesspool of a culture," Spencer roars, "how would you like to give 15,000 nuclear weapons to Mexico? It will be the death of this country when hot-blooded, Latin-American macho people bomb the crap out of China or whomever gets in their way -- Grijalva [southern Arizona's outspoken vigilante critic in Congress] back in there with his finger on the nuclear weapon screaming, Let's get those cucarachas!"

In contrast to his bellicose rhetoric and pronounced hostility to anything remotely to do with Mexico, Spencer maintains that his new American Border Patrol is an apolitical nonprofit group -- totally separate from his American Patrol -- that will make the border a safer place by monitoring illegal traffic into the United States and by "broadcasting the invasion live on the internet."

To underscore the group's credibility, Spencer points to the support of local law enforcement officials like his assistant director, Ron Sanders, the former Tucson sector chief for the U.S. Border Patrol. Another member of the militia's board of directors, Bill King, is also a former U.S. Border Patrol chief for the Tucson sector. Board member Iris Lynch is the wife of a judge in Douglas. According to Barnett, federal border agents share intelligence with Spencer's militia, but that's a sensitive issue. Border Patrol officials in Tucson declined to comment on whether they cooperate with the local militias. Spencer, however, says Barnett's not quite right.

"It's not intelligence we're sharing -- it's experience," he explains. "As a member of our board of directors, Ron Sanders provides us with overall comments and guidance, based on his experience, as to the general direction of American Border Patrol. For example, he might say, 'You really need more people along the less-populated areas, not just around the major population centers' -- that kind of thing."

Spencer has announced ambitious plans to develop unmanned aircraft and special ground sensors that will "solve this border problem once and for all." To do this, Spencer claims to need all of $30 million. Whether he can raise the money is unclear, but Spencer does say he has solicited John Tanton, who sits on American Patrol's advisory board, as well as "various foundations."

Spencer's characterization of American Border Patrol as a viable solution to the border crisis is all the more unlikely after a look at his history, which demonstrates that wherever he goes, he has more success causing problems than solving them. In 1998, one man was arrested for burning a Mexican flag after Spencer gave a speech in Alabama before the avowedly white nationalist group Council of Conservative Citizens. In 2000, a member of the hard-line anti-immigrant group Sachem Quality of Life in Farmingville, N.Y., was arrested for threatening a local Latino family after Spencer gave a speech there.

And in December 2001, Spencer and a group from the California Coalition for Immigration Reform demonstrated in front of city hall in Anaheim, Calif., against the Anaheim Police Department's newly adopted policy of accepting Mexican government-issued identification cards as proper I.D. for illegal immigrants. According to an eyewitness account in the Orange County Weekly, Spencer's crowd was met by counter-protesters from the Communist Party and a group of Latino students who largely stayed out of the fray. Members of Spencer's group began shouting racial epithets at the counter-protesters and ripped down a red Communist Party flag, provoking a bloody, full-scale brawl.

Recently Spencer has curtailed his speaking engagements to focus on the American Border Patrol, but he apparently still finds time to deliver his trademark brand of anti-immigrant, anti-Mexican vitriol on American Patrol's Web site. There, he has tailored a section specifically to target liberal Latino politicians and activists. One of his favorite targets is Pima County legal defender and Derechos Humanos co-director Isabel Garcia, whom he has dubbed the "Reconquista Communista."

When Garcia was scheduled to speak at a solidarity rally in Tucson for migrants who had died in the desert, Spencer posted directions to the rally on the American Patrol site along with an "X" to mark where Garcia was to stand during her speech. Garcia says she was notified by FBI agents that day of impending threats to her safety and attended the rally with police escort.

Asked if she fears for her life, Garcia said: "I'm not too scared. I'm scared for the unknown Juan and Juana in the desert that aren't U.S. citizens like I am, that aren't protected like I am. That's who I'm scared for."

U.S. Rep. Tom Tancredo, a Republican, represents a district 1,000 miles from the Arizona border -- a Colorado district that includes Littleton, home to Columbine High School. But last February Tancredo traveled south and embarked on a four-day tour of the Arizona border. On the first day of his trip, Tancredo visited Organ Pipe National Monument, a desert wildlife sanctuary west of Cochise County where six months prior a young park ranger named Kris Eggle was shot dead while chasing suspected Mexican drug smugglers. As Tancredo has done before in press conferences on Capitol Hill, he displayed a photo of the handsome, bespectacled Eggle while pressing his case for the deployment of U.S. Army troops along the border.

Eggle is among a handful of American victims of the border chaos whom Tancredo uses to illustrate the violence and corruption that seeps in from the south. After his speech at Organ Pipe, Tancredo met with one of his favorite victims, Roger Barnett, along with a small group of Cochise landowners, to "hear their plight," as he says. Tancredo says he "absolutely" supports Barnett's citizen's arrests of immigrants as well as the activities of Simcox and Spencer "to the extent that they bring about attention to the border and the invasion that is taking place there."

In March, just days before the invasion of Iraq, Tancredo delivered a passionate address before the House of Representatives. Pointing to a photo projection of Barnett and his brother Don, who helps with apprehensions of undocumented migrants, Tancredo lauded them as "homeland heroes fighting a war on their private property."

Neither Tancredo nor his staff notified Grijalva, the Tucson Democrat, of the pending trip, a clear breach of congressional manners. "Other than some important protocol being violated," Grijalva told Salon, "if [Tancredo] is coming in here to further increase the crisis, to fuel the fire that is simmering here, I would make sure to point out to him that if anything would happen, he would be directly responsible for creating the situation."

Grijalva calls the border "a complex problem that can only be explained with rational discussion." Tancredo, however, seems to have little patience for nuance. For example, many local officials say his plan to deploy troops on the border could have costly consequences in towns like Douglas, where economies are based largely on the assembly of parts produced in Mexico's maquiladora factories. Tancredo's response? "The economic effect is not really my concern," he says. "My sole concern is securing our national borders."

Tancredo's district would suffer no such consequences, so there would be little political fallout at home. This has given him the freedom to develop a gung-ho platform of anti-immigration legislation that energizes grassroots and white-collar activists alike. At the mention of Tancredo's name, Chris Simcox leaps from his chair and yelps: "That's my leader! I'd vote for him for president tomorrow!"

Tancredo also enjoys star status among the white-collar anti-immigrationists of Tanton's network who have courted his support, donating $5,000 to his 2002 campaign through FAIR's U.S. Immigration Reform PAC and thousands more in personal donations. Leaders in Tanton's network have long sought a foothold on Capitol Hill and, through Tancredo, it appears their hopes have been realized.

The close working relationship between the Tanton network and Tancredo is most apparent on the Web site for the congressman's Immigration Reform Caucus. When Salon interviewed Tancredo earlier this year, the Web site contained links to FAIR, NumbersUSA, CIS and virtually every other Tanton creation. It also contained a link to VDare, a white nationalist Web site run by British writer Peter Brimelow that is named after Virginia Dare, the first white child born in the New World. When asked about the link, Tancredo was befuddled and indignant.

"If we are connected to VDare, and I don't think we are," says Tancredo, "then I will take action ... I do not want the support of these kinds of people and I do not need their support." After the interview, the links had mysteriously moved from the Web site's front page and were buried to next an essay Tancredo wrote called "Showing Immigrants Respect."

"If he doesn't know who he's in bed with, he needs to sit up and turn the light on," says Kat Rodriguez, coordinating organizer for Derechos Humanos in Tucson. "I personally hold him accountable for giving these groups added credibility and helping to promote them."

According to Devin Burghart of the Center for New Community, an Illinois-based watchdog group that monitors hate organizations, John Tanton has lent his support to Simcox, Spencer and Barnett in part as a smokescreen to distract from nagging accusations of white nationalism stemming from his memos and involvement with the Pioneer Fund.

"The militia movement in Cochise County signals not only a success for Tanton's group in that it has changed the political climate there," Burghart says. "It has also has provided Tanton and his ilk some much needed diversion, so attention is directed on Cochise County instead of the state capitol where they are introducing all kinds of anti-immigrant legislation."

The local reaction to the controversy is clearly mixed. In many quarters, there is public apathy and official foot-dragging. "The death in Red Rock and the lack of investigation and the lack of clarity to it is what we're seeing across the board," says Jennifer Allen, co-director of the Border Action Network, a relatively new, informal watchdog group. "None of the law-enforcement agencies are stepping up."

But a number of public officials, led by Grijalva, have begun to mobilize in recent months. In his first act as a congressman, Grijalva sent letters to Ashcroft and U.S. Attorney Paul Charlton requesting an investigation into Cochise County's vigilante groups. "The number of groups involved is growing and the safety of our citizens is diminishing," he wrote to Charlton. "Investigation will establish the ties these groups have to other hate movements across the country."

Well over three months later, neither Ashcroft nor Charlton has replied. "I don't think the rise of vigilantes would be tolerated in any other part of the country," Grijalva told Salon. "Unless there is something done, one would have to surmise that there are some inherent sympathies. Sometimes the support they [the vigilantes] get is the silence people have about them."

Some local leaders in Cochise County have joined Grijalva and the Border Action Network in voicing opposition to vigilantism. The Cochise County Board of Supervisors, in concert with Tombstone Mayor Dusty Escapule and Douglas Mayor Ray Borane, passed resolutions condemning vigilantism and the creation of anti-immigrant militias.

"This town's Hispanic," says Borane, referring to Douglas. "One of the reasons my administration's working to keep them [vigilantes] out of Douglas is it would take one little teeny spark to ignite somebody who might want to take one of them on themselves and we might have an ethnic battle."

Despite the looming danger suggested by Borane and others, all sides agree that as long as the federal government remains silent and continues along the path of Operation Gatekeeper, the vigilante movement in Cochise County will not go away. With the Bush administration sharpening its domestic focus to include the "war on terror" and the economy on the brink of recession, their is power apparently growing.

And Simcox is doing what he can to mainstream the movement. He fields requests graciously, with a boyish charm and a practiced cosmopolitanism that belie the paranoid image of someone who claims to pack a pistol and wear a bulletproof vest everywhere he goes. Journalists from as far away as Germany have sought him out in Tombstone. He has barnstormed from coast to coast to speak on behalf of local anti-immigration groups and boldly challenged the federal government to try to stop him. Apparently, people are listening.

"If we're attacked again," Simcox says, invoking the memory of Sept. 11, "you are going to see citizens defend their borders in a patriotic way and you are going to see people get shot on that border."

[Salon editorial fellow Mark Follman contributed to this report.]

This story has been corrected since it was originally published.

By Max Blumenthal

Max Blumenthal is an award winning journalist and the bestselling author of "Republican Gomorrah: Inside the movement that shattered the party"

MORE FROM Max Blumenthal

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George W. Bush Iraq Latin America Mexico Middle East Ronald Reagan Tom Tancredo