Friday, December 26, 2003

Border trouble brewing

I've been warning for some time now that the ugly extremism around so-called "border patrol" vigilante groups was likely to eventually lead to violence. Now the storm clouds along the border -- particularly in Cochise County, in the southeastern corner of Arizona -- are darkening.

The problem revolves around a group calling itself "Ranch Rescue," which, as the SPLC explains, is "a group of vigilantes dedicated to patrolling the U.S.-Mexico border region in an effort to deter and repel border crossers and trespassers. They conduct paramilitary operations and equip themselves with high-powered assault rifles, handguns, night-vision devices, two-way radios, observation posts, flares, machetes, all-terrain vehicles, and trained attack dogs."

As you can see from the SPLC legal report, one of the members of the Arizona chapter of Ranch Rescue, Casey Nethercott, was arrested earlier this year for assaulting two illegal immigrants in Texas.

Now it turns out that while Nethercott awaits trial, his property in Arizona is being converted to a heavily armed compound -- one, perhaps, designed both for "hunting" illegal aliens and for repelling federal authorities. In the meantime, the local sheriff is minimizing the potential threat.

All of this is revealed in a seemingly nondescript story in the local weekly paper, the Sierra Vista Herald:
E-mails reveal discussions on group; sheriff says concerns about Ranch Rescue unwarranted

The correspondence shows deputies met with FBI, U.S. Customs and Border Patrol agents in November to discuss Ranch Rescue and varying reports that the group had constructed an armory with "'a million' rounds of ammunition" on the property, as well as previous reports of gun-mounted dune buggies and .50-caliber sniper rifles with a range of up to two miles.

... At the heart of the county's interest in Ranch Rescue are two zoning complaints, both filed in November regarding a flurry of construction on the 70-acre property believed to be owned by Casey Nethercott.

Ranch Rescue President Jack Foote has said that the group was invited by Nethercott in September to help Nethercott, a Ranch Rescue member himself, guard his border property against trespassing by illegal immigrants and the Border Patrol.

... The complaints allege the Ranch Rescue compound has constructed observation and guard towers from the remnants of a water tower and windmills, and workers are in the process of completing bunkers, barracks, a helicopter landing pad and indoor weapons range.

Zoning inspector Rick Corley said that while the complaints have yet to be investigated, such construction is likely a violation of the property's residential zoning restrictions.

A complaint filed Nov. 3 by the Sheriff's Department has since been withdrawn, with Rothrock citing FBI contact regarding the situation on Nov. 13 as the reason. In his explanation for the removal of the zoning complaint he writes, "The situation is more serious than we were aware of. We will be setting up a meeting (with) the FBI in the near future."

It is understandable why the sheriff would want to calm the public by emphasizing that Ranch Rescue is likely to prove to be a bunch of blowhards whose self-aggrandizing moment in the sun is about to set. Nonetheless, one has to hope that he also privately recognizes that the situation at the Nethercott place is extremely volatile at this point.

If indeed the group falters financially, as authorities appear to think will happen, they should not feel assured that that will be the end of it. Just ask the folks up in Jordan, Montana.

In the meantime, Ranch Rescue's continued presence -- especially behind their bristling fortress walls -- is not a healthy thing. As the Herald story notes:
According to an e-mail from Rothrock, "(Border Patrol) says that the (Ranch Rescue) people openly state that they are 'hunting' undocumented aliens."

According to Ranch Rescue's Web site, volunteers from the Missouri Militia and other groups based out of Texas and California are at work in Douglas on a mission known as Operation Thunderbird. With continuous armed patrols of the U.S.-Mexico border region around Douglas, as well as the construction of physical obstacles on the private property to deter Mexican traffic, their goal, the site says, is to protect private ranchers' properties and apprehend illegal immigrants before they can ravage the land.

Ranch Rescue, of course, claims it is nonviolent. I'm sure the Salvadoran couple who met Casey Nethercott would differ. And why, exactly, does it need a sniper rifle that can kill from two miles away?

No comments: