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COLUMN ONE

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

The titular head of the Campo Minutemen is Britt "Kingfish" Craig, 58, a one-eyed Vietnam vet from Orange County who continues to support Gilchrist, which made Kennedy quit his group in disgust and declare himself an "independent." For his part, Kingfish accuses Kennedy of "panhandling" to finance his border work, and says, "There's a tension with him, because he can't really afford to do it."

Another fixture is Howard "Ridgerunner" Smith, a 56-year-old retired plumber from Simi Valley, a shaggy-haired former peacenik who doesn't talk much and keeps a Confederate flag in his camper's cracked, duct-taped window.

There's also a guy who calls himself CzechStan, a portly 63-year-old widower and retired electrician who sleeps in a camper in Minuteman Village. Kennedy likes him but bickers with him constantly.

And there's Little Dog, a mysterious loner who lives on a solitary hill, a man others describe -- even by the border's generous standards -- as ornery, possibly crazy and best avoided.

Once in a while Kennedy sees Gadget, a boisterous 64-year-old former fireman who has camouflaged his perfectly nice Toyota Echo by spray-gluing on leafy branches and sand. Gadget, who goes home to San Diego after patrols, says, "I try to get my family out here, and they say, 'Tiger Woods tees off at 11,' 'The Chargers kick off at 12.' "

Most of the time, Kennedy says, he's alone out here. Apart from a zeal for tighter borders, he shares little philosophically with his confederates. A lot of Minutemen lean toward Republicanism and Christianity. Kennedy leans toward Buddhism and socialism, and still keeps Mao's Little Red Book in his dashboard.

"I'm the most isolated guy," Kennedy says.

--

TONIGHT, the moon is brilliant and nearly full. He can exploit the extra visibility. Proud of his prowess, he bows to no Minuteman on the border.

"I'm the best, brother," he says. "I won't deny it. You know why? I've got the wounds, inside and out. I been hit by bottles, rocks. I got calluses. I got sand in my lungs."

Covered with big granite boulders and a thick carpet of sage and cactus, with peaks that rise to 4,500 feet, the harsh and isolated terrain around Campo is easy to get lost in, easy to hide in. For maximum stealth, he's disconnected his brake lights.

A high school dropout from a poor Brooklyn neighborhood, Kennedy is a fount of fierce opinion who calls himself "the ghetto Mensa." His patter drifts from the greatness of Alexander Hamilton to the sexual practices of the ancient Egyptians to the appalling apathy of a society obsessed with "American Idol" -- all those millions "sitting there on their couches, burping out low-fat KFC" while guys like him defend the border.

He never married, and although he has two kids, he knows little about them, which he calls "one of the biggest heartbreaks I have," a loneliness especially sharp around the holidays. He believes he might have made a mark on the world, had affirmative action not thwarted his chances.

At 9:40 p.m., Kennedy is bumping through the dark mountains in his four-wheel-drive, navigating a network of steep, unlit dirt roads. Ahead, he spots an empty water bottle lying on its side at the edge of the road. He rolls to a stop and climbs out to inspect it. The bottle, which glows in the moonlight, is labeled Ciel Purificada. Coyotes fill these bottles with sand to pour over their clients' footprints.

But he thinks this one serves a different purpose: a directional arrow, a makeshift reflector. Kennedy has found many such ingenious markers -- strings of cassette tape tied between bushes to catch the moonlight, bits of glass scattered like fairy-tale breadcrumbs.

The bottle, he notices, has been arranged diagonally, pointing across the road to a spot where the brush slopes into a valley. He follows the pointer, crouches before a low bush with his flashlight and finds a small piece of white tape knotted around a branch: another marker. With it, he finds a footprint and a broken twig.

"That's his foot. The first guy has come through here. He's marked all this." Examining the print, he says, "That's a perfect fit, if I was a little short guy tying that tape."

A big pack of migrants is moving through tonight, he believes. He figures they will cross right here, dip into the gulley and climb out to safety on the roads beyond. If he positions himself on a nearby hill, he can catch them passing right beneath him.

--

AND if he does? What then? He has come to doubt the Minuteman movement's practical relevance. Here he is with a bickering, ragtag cadre of men, patrolling a puny, 9-mile stretch of America's 2,000-mile southern border. Of every 10 migrants he manages to spot, he says, eight will get away before the Border Patrol can reach the spot. The two who are captured just cross again.

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