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Border Watchers Capture Their Prey -- the Media

April 05, 2005|David Kelly | Times Staff Writer

PALOMINAS, Ariz. — Jim Gilchrist bounced into the Trading Post diner here Monday, ordered coffee and toast and began smoking vigorously.

His cellphone occasionally rang, his two-way radio squawked and a coterie of followers hung on his every word.

Things were going better than he could imagine. The founder of the Minuteman Project, designed to put volunteers on the southeastern Arizona border to deter illegal immigrants, had attracted more than 200 journalists from around the world.

Mexico responded with more troops and extra police at the border to deter migrants. The U.S. Border Patrol boosted its ranks by 500 agents and Gilchrist had become a minor, if international, celebrity.

"None of this would have happened if it wasn't for the Minuteman action," he said. "This thing was a dog and pony show designed to bring in the media and get the message out and it worked."

Indeed it did. For weeks, the 56-year-old retired accountant from Aliso Viejo had promised 1,000 volunteers would be arriving in Arizona come April. But when the activists showed up Friday, they numbered about 200, a roughly 1-to-1 ratio with members of the news media.

The Minutemen's presence set off some protests from immigrant-rights groups, and Mexican President Vicente Fox called on the U.S. government to protect illegal immigrants coming across the desert.

President Bush outraged many of the activists by calling them vigilantes. They responded by calling Bush the co-president of Mexico and a leader who had failed his responsibility to secure the country's borders.

On Monday, the official start of the monthlong project, Gilchrist said there were 450 Minutemen, though the number could not be verified. He also said the volunteers had aided in the arrest of 146 illegal immigrants. The Border Patrol would not confirm the figure or say what role the activists had played in any apprehensions.

Gilchrist waved off such details, preferring to look at the big picture.

"Look, I struck the mother lode of patriotism by using the Minuteman theme," he said, lighting another cigarette. "Then I used the theme of Martin Luther King -- nonviolent action, never let up and keep getting the message out. To me, the illegal aliens are economic refugees. They are not an invading army. It's a silent Trojan horse invasion that is eroding our culture."

He paid his check and made for the lead car in a convoy heading out on patrol. Gilchrist handed everyone walkie-talkies and issued them nicknames -- Dingo, Sierra, Tango.

The line of cars took off down the road. Gilchrist, who has traveled with a bodyguard in Arizona because of assorted death threats, was anxious that interloping vehicles might slip into the entourage.

"Dingo, is that a Mustang that doesn't belong to us?" he said over the radio.

Affirmative, came the response.

"Well, OK, we'll just have to go with the flow," he replied nervously.

A few miles toward the border with Mexico, the cars pulled onto a dirt road, and everyone got out and followed Gilchrist through the desert. There were piles of old clothes, knapsacks, underwear and empty bottles left by illegal immigrants.

"Hey, we got a fresh pair of prints here," said Gilchrist, wearing a bright flowered shirt, a canteen and a hat with a feather poking out. "I think they lay up here during the day and walk at night."

The patrol meandered around scrub oak, up and down hills, and over barbed wire. Sighting an immigrant began to take on the element of spotting a rare butterfly or obscure bird species. Plans to set up an outpost fizzled when Gilchrist got a call on the radio.

His face tightened.

"According to our Minutemen intelligence network, which has been flawless, there is credible evidence that two dozen Mexican nationals have assembled for the sole purpose of causing an incident that would make us look bad," Gilchrist said gravely. "They want us to open fire or assault them. The threat is very real but I can't give you my sources, which are in Mexico."

The volunteers looked around, some with puzzled expressions, others betraying a certain skepticism. Gilchrist quietly smoked.

A few miles away on a road along the border, trucks and cars flew state flags as severe dust storms sent hats and lawn chairs spinning across the desert. Men, women and the occasional child examined the vast expanse of Mexico with binoculars for any sign of movement.

Chris, a 45-year-old engineer from Fountain Valley, Calif., had tied a white handkerchief onto his glasses to deflect the stinging sand. He brought his wife, twin daughters and 15-year-old son here for spring break.

"The way we have been portrayed as a bunch of yahoos and rednecks, no wonder people want to kill us," he said, declining to give his full name. "I came with my family because I thought it would be great for them to see the border situation up close."

His son Alex, retreating inside his hooded sweatshirt to escape the driving sand, nodded weakly.

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