May 11, 1997

Border Vigilantes

The California-Mexico border has never been a safe place. Illegal immigrants to the United States face the perennial gantlet of harsh desert, Border Patrol and unreliable “coyotes,” whom they pay for help in crossing. Those whose homes are near the line on the U.S. side must deal with constant incursions by strangers who may simply be looking for work–but who may intend to rob, burglarize or something worse.

The situation is approaching a crisis in rural eastern San Diego County. Sixty miles away from the city of San Diego, it’s an area where until recently ranchers didn’t really mind the kind of trespassing that took place–small groups of Mexican workers who would close gates behind themselves and take only a drink of water as they passed through. But politics suddenly changed that. Operation Gatekeeper, a Clinton Administration initiative announced in 1994 to choke the high-visibility stream of aliens across the border near San Diego, has indeed been successful–but mainly in moving the problem. Traffic is down near the city, but up 3,000 percent at places like the Border Patrol station at Campo, Calif., where arrests of illegal immigrants rose from 2,300 in 1994 to more than 78,000 in 1996.

Lorna House, who lives alone on 20 acres a mile and a half from the border, says the Mexicans she knew 20 years ago would arrive “two or three at a time–they would work awhile around here on the ranch. They taught us marvelous things, like how to heat yucca cactus and make baskets from it.” Now, though, she says her property is strewn with garbage, clothes and human waste. “They’ve gotten belligerent,” she says of the illegals crossing her land. “I had 18 of them walk by my little fenced-in yard yesterday, and they gave me this sneer and look and kind of grin, like, ‘You can’t do anything.’ ” She won’t leave the house without a sidearm. “Part of our regular getting dressed is putting a gun on, which to me, in the United States of America, should not be.”

Not everyone seems upset about having to bear arms. House’s neighbor Bob Maupin, who maintains that he was arrested on his own land by Mexican soldiers protecting a “meth lab,” says smugglers have tried to run him down in their trucks. Other vehicles have destroyed his fences. “We have cattle,” he says. “They don’t care. These people are so blatantly contemptuous of us and our civil rights.”

In response, Maupin and several friends have started a campaign of citizen’s arrests. Dressed in camouflage fatigues, they carry semiautomatic rifles, their own Vietnam-era seismic sensors and zip ties for handcuffing. “We get together at night and make a game out of it, who can catch the most,” he says. “If you dress properly, they don’t know who you are, so we get really, really good cooperation.” Always? “We live in an earthquake zone, and the last guy who got in my face, the ground shook so hard it knocked him on his back, if you see what I mean.”

The arrests are legal, according to Deputy Sheriff Robert Novak. Once Maupin and his friends–Maupin says the Border Patrol agents call them “Bob’s boys”–have detained a group for trespassing, they call the Border Patrol. The male migrants lie on their stomachs until the Border Patrol arrives; if they cause trouble, Maupin says, they’re handcuffed. Maupin says he never handcuffs women or children.

The label of vigilante does not upset Maupin. “A vigilante is, by definition, a citizen upholding the law in the absence of law enforcement. That’s the way we out here look at it,” he says. Vigilantism has often had an ugly face along the border, though. Near Douglas, Ariz., in the mid-70’s, a man and his two sons were charged with the gruesome torture-kidnapping of two Mexican immigrants; one son was convicted. In 1995, in eastern San Diego County, according to six immigrants, two men with rifles shot at, detained and beat them, though the charges were never substantiated.

As I spoke on the phone to Lynn Shockey, who lives near House and Maupin, a train whistle sounded in the background. An old track that runs across her land may someday be refurbished and carry freight between the United States and Mexico on a proposed route that winds back and forth across the border. The train would have to slow at a paved road near her house, and Shockey predicts that illegals will use the opportunity to climb aboard and hitch a ride into the States, further increasing traffic. It’s a project of Railtex Inc., a company based in San Antonio. But Shockey and her neighbors call it, with more than a hint of bitterness, “the NAFTA train.”