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Report from the Front: A First-Hand Account of the Minuteman Project

June 5th, 2007 | 6 min read

By Matthew Lee Anderson

In a classic episode of The Andy Griffith Show, the indefatigable Barney Fife gives Gomer Pyle a ticket for making an illegal u-turn.  When Barney makes the same u-turn a second later, Gomer runs after Barney shouting “Citizen’s arrest, citizen’s arrest.”

Vigilantism or responsible citizen activism?

That is the dilemma posed by the controversial Minuteman Project.  The recent debate over the immigration bill has been largely about the woeful shortcomings of the unfortunate Border Patrol, which is understaffed and largely incapable of stemming the flow of illegal immigrants across the Mexican border.

In order to address this problem, Jim Gilchrist began the Minuteman Project, in which normal citizens loan their eyes and ears to the Border Patrol to aid them in apprehending illegal  immigrants crossing the Mexican border.  The project has been a lightening rod, as is clear from the way Gilcrist was received at Columbia University.  Detractors have charged them with being vigilantes and racists, while supporters contend they are simply living out the American spirit.

I have been undecided on what I think of the Minutemen for some time.  On the one hand, I admire their passion for the rule of law and their desire to see America honor that rule.  On the other hand, I have had concerns about their approach to supporting the rule of law.  While citizen involvement is crucial in a democratic republic such as our own, it seems that it should be limited to electing representatives, not fulfilling executive powers.

It was with an immense amount of curiosity, then, that I received this first-hand report of a weekend at the Minuteman Project from a friend and a man for whom I have no little amount of respect (I will keep his name anonymous).  His account is even-handed and responsible, and if nothing else gave me a broader perspective on the problem of illegal immigration and an exceptionally helpful perspective on the attitude and mindset of those involved in the Minuteman Project. As someone who had never heard a first-hand account of the Minuteman Project, I found the report fascinating.  The report is below the fold.

The trip was a real eye-opener and something every American should see firsthand. In the April 07 muster, this small band of minuteman volunteers put themselves up against some of the most ruthless drug runners and “coyotes” anywhere and spotted and reported over 450 illegal aliens to the Border Patrol, who were able to round up less than half of those. (In April 2005 the same group covering the same area spotted under 50.) The volunteers were out about 14 hours/day covering the small fraction of the border area they have taken on. They averaged about 20 people on patrol over 35 miles, so you could optimistically assume they saw  20% of the immigrants passing over. Coyotes now charge $2,000 to $5,000/head and often rape the girls for final payment as they approach the border. There are “rape trees” where they hang the panties like trophies. The coyote makes agrees to get his clients to a pickup point on the state highway where a van takes them further in. If spotted, they dessert the 10-40 immigrants they are guiding and make a run for it, leaving their clients to hide/scatter and find their own way.  As the saying goes, “there’s more where that came from”. If caught, they are back in business soon after being processed and deported. We came across a “drug bag” that was left behind to lighten the load for the last dash. I understand this is very common. There are lay-up areas where the illegal aliens do the same and are provided with ‘American’ style clothing so they’ll blend in. I’m told prayer rugs and even Korans have been found and these areas are pretty trashed with litter, bags, diapers, clothes and even valuables. 

April and October are month-long musters for the minutemen I was with. The other 10 months they only go out one weekend per month and the dates are published on their website so the bad guys can easily lay low during those weekends. This weekend we assisted in only 8 apprehensions. The Border Patrol is officially neutral on our presence but unofficially very grateful. I observed some exchanges with our leadership that were obviously friendly and our plans are always made known to them. We effectively free them to patrol other areas until called in. Two months ago the minuteman group I was with was directly responsible for a big drug bust of some $1M in cocaine and 4 tons of marijuana. Their presence inadvertently diverted this drug run right into BP hands. For fear of retaliation, however, this is one of those stories best left untold. Most of the local citizenry are also very grateful though some, no doubt, have their livelihood inconvenienced by us. Each valley or zone that crosses our border is “owned” and the owners don’t like having to redirect their drug runs into competitive lanes for fear of retaliation, so we’re unpopular with some very bad guys (including an official in a nearby Mexican city, who actually confronted some of the minuteman leadership)

Saturday at midnight found my partner Mike and me in a unique situation. A vehicle approached from the South (very unusual) and disappeared behind a ridge in front of us. About an hour later the vehicle drove back south and some 15 minutes later I heard noises about 20 yards away. Mike accidentally made enough noise for them (him?) to retreat. We have a limited quantity of night vision equipment and we were without, so we could not really see what was happening. We listened carefully for about an hour and heard some more noise but I think they figured we were there waiting for them. The BP was, as usual, monitoring our radio chatter and so they were coming by a few times/hours once we spotted the vehicle. Some of the guys that have been at this for a couple years are convinced that this was either drugs or a VIP terrorist-crossing attempt. We stayed till about 2am and they could easily have waited us out and come over when we departed. It hit me (hard) that I was ill equipped to be there. I intend to return much better able to handle a potentially dangerous situation. Though I was wearing a borrowed vest (armor) I was un-armed – having realized last week that I was supposed to have registered my firearm with the Dept of Justice – Bureau of Firearms within 60 days of residency. I did not bring it along as it would reflect badly on these good people had I been discovered illegally in possession of it. 

This is very rugged country and the minuteman volunteers have undoubtedly saved some lives by being there. “Bailey the wonderdog” (who arrives with his masters at each muster) discovered one illegal who made it to our camp last October. He’d had nothing to eat or drink for three days and was crawling along with a broken leg. The minutemen always carry provisions for illegals in trouble but standard operating procedure is not to touch them lest there be allegations of mistreatment. Cameras, preferably video, are standard equipment (volunteer supplied) to document encounters.

The minuteman organization–and particularly it’s founder Chris Simcox–have gotten some bad press and I intend to dig into the truth of it all. However, I am nothing but impressed with the concept and what I experienced last weekend. There were no cowboys among the 48 people I was with. No show and tell about guns and no contempt for people trying for a better life; just a serious resolve to do what needs to be done when our government won’t fulfill one of its basic obligations. I spent $50 for a background check on myself, passed a vetting interview and committed to abide by the SOP (standard operating procedure). Among other things, the SOP and much lengthier manual dictate that we spot and report but never block or restrain. There were 7-8 woman and a couple of them go out on “ops” regularly but most come to help out on base. They have a well-run communications center, good maps, some limited but good night vision, thermal imaging, listening equipment and are well coordinated. There is a well-defined protocol for safety and efficiency but there are no illusions about the fact that we are simply volunteers. This means there is no para-military feel about how things are done. In fact, military terminology is avoided. They are just concerned citizens doing what they’re allowed and trying to assist a very constrained Border Patrol perform an impossible job.  

Sunday morning we had a guest speaker come and teach us about venomous critters, their habitats/habits and what to do if stung/bit. This post is also forming a search and rescue team that will further our efforts to provide aid and increase safety our own members.

I was made aware and simultaneously angered by how intentionally our government is ignoring the problems on the border. It was a great release to be able to do something more that just stew over, or write to my congressman about all this and I’ll be there again.

Matthew Lee Anderson

Matthew Lee Anderson is an Associate Professor of Ethics and Theology in Baylor University's Honors College. He has a D.Phil. in Christian Ethics from Oxford University, and is a Perpetual Member of Biola University's Torrey Honors College. In 2005, he founded Mere Orthodoxy.