Lost in Detention

Reporter’s Notebook: On the border with the Minutemen

Monday, October 17th, 2011 

The trials and sentences of one of the Arizona border’s most violent double murders are finally over after more than two years. Shawna Forde, Jason Bush and Albert Gaxiola were convicted of first-degree murder this year in the deaths of 29-year-old Raul Flores and his 9-year-old daughter. Forde and Bush were sentenced to death. Gaxiola received a life sentence in August. The trial was one of the most expensive in the history of Pima County, costing nearly $1 million for just the defense, according to the Arizona Daily Star.

The murders took place on May 30, 2009, in a violent home invasion in Arizona near the Mexican border. Bush, Forde and Gaxiola, dressed in camouflage and pretending to be law-enforcement officers,  stormed the victim’s home, shooting Flores, his wife and daughter.

When I heard about the murders, I wasn’t surprised to learn that the suspects had ties to the Minutemen and other anti-immigrant vigilante groups. Shawna Forde was the head of a border-security group called Minutemen American Defense. Police say she was trying to raise money for anti-illegal immigration operations and expected to find a large amount of cash in the Flores home. Forde had previously been associated with the larger, more mainstream group, the Minutemen Civil Defense Corps.

I have spent several years following and researching the Minutemen, exploring the immigration debate and reporting and researching on the border. I have gone on patrol with the Minutemen and have gone out on ride-alongs with the Border Patrol.

I first became aware of the Minutemen while I was working at Fox News Channel in New York in 2005. I was fascinated and intrigued; while militia groups like the Minutemen were new to me, I understood that they were not unique to the United States. The Minutemen and similar populist movements are part of our culture and always have been. The Minutemen Civil Defense Corps was founded in April 2005 by Chris Simcox as an offshoot of the Minutemen Project in California. The Minutemen Civil Defense Corps had nearly 40,000 members and 76 chapters during its peak, according to the Center for New Community.

After the Sept. 11 terror attacks, the focus on immigration reform has become enforcement and border security. Anti-immigrant groups such as the Minutemen started resurging. The Minutemen Civil Defense Corps and similar organizations were manifestations of the anti-government, patriot militia movement of the 1990s. The national Minutemen Civil Defense Corps disbanded last year but has since renamed itself and reorganized under its new name.

The militia resurgence was especially booming in the Southwest. After some research I realized if I was interested in producing a documentary about the immigration debate, I needed to be in Arizona. So that’s exactly where I went when I quit my job as a news producer in New York and sold my apartment. I was convinced that I would tell the story of the anti-immigration movement, straight, as I’d been trained. It wouldn’t be personal, and there would be no conflict. What I didn’t know at the time was that was impossible. This was personal. My experience as a Latino woman and the daughter of an immigrant would influence my perspective as a journalist. I identified with the migrants. The anti-immigrant movement affected me more deeply than other stories I’d covered as a producer in the previous 10 years. My documentary, On the Line, would eventually become not only a portrait of the Minutemen but also an account of my struggle with my own identity as a Latino American.

To understand the Arizona border area, I decided to request a ride-along with the department of Homeland Security border patrol, which has about 3,700 border agents in the Tucson Sector alone. (Arizona has two sectors: Tucson and Yuma.)

It took several months, but I was finally cleared to go out with the border patrol for a day with my cameraman, Rick McDonald. I met agent Sean King, who would be taking us out to the Tucson border area. From headquarters, he first took us to a convenience store to pick up water, a reminder that we need to always have it in the desert. This is something I hadn’t really thought about since we were only going out for a day and would be in a border patrol SUV.

The border itself was just a string of barbed wire. In other areas, the border was a 20-foot or taller wall, sometimes porous, with surveillance cameras. Against the wall we found trash, old shoes, water bottles, and even used children’s toys.

What struck me most was the vastness of the Arizona border area. I grew up outside San Francisco and was familiar with the San Diego Mexico/California border area — a more urban area than the endless stretches of desert I was seeing here in Arizona.

The militarization of the California and Texas borders starting in the mid-1990s has caused a deadly shift in migration patterns to the desert of Arizona. Historically, migrants crossed into populated, urban centers like San Diego because transportation was available and they could quickly blend into crowds to avoid apprehension. That trend changed dramatically in 1994 with the implementation of Operation Gatekeeper in California. Operation Gatekeeper closed off migration routes through urban centers and militarized the border.

Estimates on how many people cross the border illegally every year vary from 500,000 to as many as 1 million. For most, the journey from the border to the city of Tucson, which can take from 2 days to 5 days, is brutal and life-threatening. Driving around the desert with the border patrol, I understood how dangerous crossing in this type of terrain would be. I also started to understand the data I had been reading about. With the shift in migration pattern to Arizona, the numbers of border deaths has doubled. The Tucson sector, an area covering 262 miles of the linear border from the Yuma County to the Arizona/New Mexico state line, is now by far the busiest for border crossing in the United States.

King took us inside one of the short-term detention processing centers. The outside of the building was new and modern. Inside, it looked like a regular office building in some parts. In other areas it was all cement, cold and vast. What looked like chain fence cages held immigrants in areas that were boxed in. It seemed similar to the way animals are held at a shelter, only worse. What struck me most were the children and women, a few dozen being held in the chain fence boxes, on the day we visited.

Finding Maria

A few months before my ride-along with the border patrol, I met a young woman in the desert who was hard to forget. She reminded me of my family.

My mother’s name was Isabel Maria. She immigrated to the United States when she was 17 from South America. She retained the heavy accent that defined her as a Latino immigrant until last year when she died. She felt the sting of racism her entire life that I’ve felt through her.

The 24-year-old woman we saw in the desert was also named Maria. She shaped my perspective, as my mother always has.

The Minutemen Civil Defense Corps had found Maria. The Minutemen told me she had walked out of the desert and approached a few Minutemen who were on “patrol”. The Minutemen gave her water and food and called the border patrol. When I met Maria, whose last name I will not use, she was sitting in the dirt, sobbing and scared. The Minutemen were standing over her taking pictures. I was surprised what a young woman she was. I sat in the dirt with her to talk. Border patrol told me that she was going to be sent to a processing center immediately, and then put on a bus back to Mexico, possibly that same night.

I asked her what she was doing in the desert. “I fell. I was running. There were rocks,” she said. She was with about 10 others who were crossing the border. She had been walking in the desert for three days; she was alone and desperate.

Maria told me she was from the Mexican state of Veracruz. I’ve been to Mexico on vacation, like many Californians, but was unfamiliar with Veracruz, a state in eastern Mexico. She told me her Mom was sick and couldn’t work so she was coming into the United States to find a job to help her Mom.

Maria said her mother didn’t know where she was. I wanted to help but felt helpless. As I sat with her in the desert I felt a connection to Maria that was unexpected. I realized that no matter our differences, our struggles are often the same. Like Maria’s mother, my mother, Isabel Maria, had been sick since I was 16. I realized Maria is not just an “immigrant,” an “illegal” or an “alien,” as the Minutemen and the border patrol agent called her. These terms are too simple. There is more to Maria than these categories allow.

My mother, also, was more than an “immigrant.” In Maria I saw my family, those who have emigrated here from Peru for a better life, some who have come legally and others who are here undocumented.

In Maria, I also saw myself, and wondered how my life was so different, yet she really looked like she could be a sister or family member of mine. I thought of how I’ve always struggled with my identity, like many Latino Americans. For many Latinos, like myself, race and ethnicity are complex, fluid, and a matter perception. How others see me is not always how I identify myself. As documented by the changing categories on the census, Latino Americans often do not fit neatly into defined categories. I have always had trouble defining me. All of these feelings came to the surface in an intense way during my time with the Minutemen.

While Maria was the person I connected with most during my reporting, she wasn’t the only immigrant I encountered out in the desert of Arizona. I also met 44-year-old Antonio. He spoke English and had been back and forth from Mexico to work. He told me there wasn’t work for a man his age in Mexico, and he needed to support his family.

I also discovered a man whose name I don’t know, while I was out on patrol with the Minutemen. He, too, was trying to support a wife and children back in Mexico. He’d lived in Atlanta for years, doing drywall and construction, and was crossing back into the United States after going home to Mexico to visit his family. He told me he had crossed the border many times before, but didn’t give me any details about how he did it.

This man was in especially bad condition when I met him. His feet were covered in blisters, so he couldn’t walk, and he had been drinking his own urine to stay alive.

His physical condition was shocking to me. I don’t think I’ll ever forget what his feet, covered in open, oozing blisters looked like. It’s a reminder of how unforgiving and dangerous the desert really is. The border patrol was called to take him in. I’m not sure if he ever received any medical care.

I went into this project wondering what inspired the Minutemen. What I found was that they were inspired by a misperception of patriotism, a need to blame others for social and economic problems, a perceived loss of control and power, and by a fear of the “Mexicanization” of American culture.

To the Minutemen I spoke with, undocumented immigrants were taking jobs and draining precious social services. This was the primary argument against immigration I heard from 90% of the Minutemen I interviewed. The Minutemen also cited “diseases such as TB and leprosy and job loss” as reasons they were against illegal immigration. The idea that immigrants take jobs and “carry diseases” is not uncommon. Historically, every new wave of immigrants has been perceived in this same way.

Michelle Dallacroce, founder of the organization Mothers Against Illegal Aliens, and a Minuteman, told me the “Mexican illegals,” along with bringing threatening diseases to this country, are compromising her children’s education. Arizona Sen. Russell Pearce, a self-proclaimed Minuteman, told me, “You and I pay the cost, billions in social services, uncompensated health care, education costs, the criminal justice system is overran [sic]…”

Power also seemed to play a part in what motivated the Minutemen. They clearly felt powerless. The Minutemen dehumanized undocumented immigrants, calling them aliens at all times. By doing this, they create the existence of a perceived “lower class,” which in turn gives them a sense of power — and a group of people to blame.

Interestingly, once I got into longer, more personal interviews, concerns over “socio-cultural” issues were also brought to my attention. What surfaced in most all of my conversations was an underlying racism, and fear of the “Mexicanization” of America. Revealing what he really thought, Ross Labadie, a member of the Minutemen search and rescue operation told me, “It’s amazing how much Middle Easterners look like Hispanics and maybe I don’t want them here either.”