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A watcher sees across the divide

Max Kennedy patrols the U.S.-Mexico frontier as a volunteer. But this alienated man may be the most ambivalent of border warriors.

June 23, 2007|Christopher Goffard | Times Staff Writer

Campo, Calif. — HE senses them out there in the dark, making their moves, trying to outsmart him. He's planted on a hill in the cab of his mud-splattered, jacked-up truck, a greenish 1976 Silverado with roof-mounted motion sensors, holes in the floorboard and a "Don't Tread on Me" sticker in the window. From the cab, he studies the valley below with night-vision goggles, Ruger revolver strapped to his ribs.

"I own the night, brother," says Max Kennedy, a lanky, sunburned man with a scraggly goatee and a voice like a fistful of desert gravel. In his 53 years, he says, he has driven a cab in Miami and ferried fur coats in New York, peddled marijuana and jewelry, played bass in a punk bank and marched with 1960s radicals. He has been a Gingrich Republican and a pagan, a seeker of meaning in the Kaballah and the sayings of Chairman Mao.

In his latest incarnation, he's a Minuteman staking out a small stretch of the U.S.-Mexico border in the beautiful, inhospitable mountains of southeast San Diego County. Untethered to job or family, he's one of three or four hard-core members who camp out here full time, trying to catch illegal immigrants as they cross.

But after 14 months living "in exile from the United States," he might be the most ambivalent of border warriors. His relations with other Minutemen are uneasy, his faith in the mission fraying, his sense of the migrants' desperation increasingly keen. Plus, the desert has its privations. He misses women and chicken cutlets and good conversation.

"Emotionally, I'm burnt," he says. "My human side is beaten down."

Tonight, the desert is still and quiet. Scanning with goggles, he finds no sign of migrants hunkered in the cold, hilly brush, nor of the coyotes who smuggle them ingeniously through the thickets. But it's just 8:30 p.m., and Kennedy can wait all night. He has cigarettes to keep him calm, Coke to keep him alert and a full belly. Earlier, he heated a dinner of chicken, mashed potatoes and canned peas on his propane stove, eating alone in the truck's back seat, his plate on his lap.

He worked in the 1970s and '80s as an electronics technician, he says, but his job got sent overseas. That infuriated him. A couple of years ago he lost his job at a gas station in Cape Cod, Mass., when the company changed hands, and he got angrier still. A lot of his friends were out of work too. He did not know what to do with his fury at President Bush, who struck him as the man to blame. Illegal immigrants were taking jobs from America's poor, he felt, and Bush was letting it happen -- just as, he believed, the president let Hurricane Katrina wipe out the poor of New Orleans.

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HE soon found an idol in Jim Gilchrist, the retired Orange County accountant who co-founded the Minuteman Project citizen patrol. So he gave up his apartment in Cape Cod, crossed the country in a Greyhound and in March 2006 joined the volunteer border watchers Bush has derided as "vigilantes."

The Minutemen gave him the old truck, which became both his bed and patrol vehicle. The job was simple -- spot illegal crossers and let the Border Patrol sweep them up -- but the terrain was hard. He learned how to navigate the network of steep, nameless, unpaved roads in the hills above Campo, to use the radio towers as lookout points and location markers.

The work combined a sandlot war game with angry idealism -- an action-movie fantasy for a man who says he was kept out of the Army by phlebitis, a vein condition. He strapped on the gun for snakes and drug dealers, though he says he has never used it.

"I'm like the Rambo guy," explains Kennedy, who wears cotton work gloves with the fingers cut off. "I been livin' for this my whole life, looking forward to that Mad Max experience, and I found it."

For a while, he felt he'd discovered a sense of brotherhood and purpose, even if it meant sleeping in a cold truck and showering from a rubber bag. For a while, he felt history swirling out here amid the border dust.

Now, Kennedy can barely mention Gilchrist's name without wanting to scream. This year, Gilchrist's board of directors rebelled, alleging that thousands of dollars in Minuteman funds were missing. Gilchrist denied wrongdoing, but Kennedy now believes him a greedy, glory-hungry "poseur," more a politician than a man willing to log hard hours at the border.

The Minuteman Project, which split in two soon after it won national attention in 2005, fractured further. There are now hundreds of loosely affiliated cells nationwide, and the men who haunt the Campo border are a quarrelsome group. Unlike Kennedy, who scrabbles by on a few hundred dollars in donations a month, most others live on pensions, Social Security or military benefits.

Home base is a patch of private land called Minuteman Village, just a dusty clearing with a few campers and old vehicles scattered around a big oak.

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