At the Ready

The Minutemen have come to Texas

Sal Zamora, a spokesman for U.S. Customs and Border Protection, says his agency's ultimate concern is the safety of anyone who chooses to hang out near the Rio Grande. "The border is a very dangerous area," he says. "Not too long ago, there were two [U.S. border patrol agents] who in essence engaged in gunfire with a group of what we presume to be illegal aliens who were trafficking in drugs. There was an extensive exchange of gunfire in broad daylight… Incidents like that could occur at any given time, at any given place along the border."

"We know how to protect ourselves," says McGauley, "and we will be able to protect ourselves."

U.S. Customs and Border Protection might be tepid in its response to the Minutemen, but not so the Texas chapter of the League of United Latin American Citizens. "The Minutemen are not needed and they're not wanted in Texas," says state LULAC president Roger Rocha. Should someone get shot, be it a migrant, a Minuteman or an innocent bystander, Rocha worries about the potential for a backlash against the Hispanic community. The Minutemen "can claim all they want that they're here just to observe, but you and I know that's not the case," he says. "These people are coming in armed."

A border patrol agent wrestles a suspect to the 
Daniel Kramer
A border patrol agent wrestles a suspect to the ground.
At a checkpoint north of Laredo, a trucker is caught 
with three undocumented migrants in his cab.
Daniel Kramer
At a checkpoint north of Laredo, a trucker is caught with three undocumented migrants in his cab.

Rocha says ranchers can and will be held responsible for any violence towards immigrants: "If they're willing to take on the financial responsibility, that is their decision, but since the Minutemen are already being considered racists, such an action would probably be looked at as a hate crime."

Arturo Sandoval is cruising through a poor neighborhood in Laredo, a few hundred feet from the Rio Grande, when he see three guys walking briskly against traffic on a one-lane road. He makes the block in his white Chevy Tahoe, rolls the wrong way down the street and creeps up behind the three men, who turn and bolt the minute they see he's wearing the green uniform of the U.S. Border Patrol.

The game of cat and mouse has begun, although border patrol agents prefer you not call it that.

Sandoval calls for backup and hits the gas, shooting past the neighborhood's one-story brick and adobe houses, each butted right up to the next. He turns a corner and hops the curb to avoid a police car slowly coming his way. The cop stares and rolls on.

Violence is erupting across the river in Nuevo Laredo, with gangs battling for smuggling routes and city officials getting killed. These three suspects could be drug mules, although they're more likely just economic migrants coming across in search of work. Either way, it's Sandoval's job to track them down.

One suspect splits off from the group and Sandoval goes after the other two, revving his engine while relaying his position on the radio. The two fugitives quickly disappear around a corner, only to pop up a minute later leaning against a wall with a group of people. They sprint at the sight of the Tahoe and turn yet another corner, running smack dab into another border agent, who grabs one of them and wrestles him to the ground for resisting arrest. "Sometimes you don't know who you're encountering when guys don't want to listen to your commands," says Sandoval. "You don't know, first of all, what he has on him."

Sandoval, a Laredo native, says captives sometimes accuse him of selling out his Hispanic heritage; he simply says he has a job to do. He gets on the radio and describes the suspect who split from the group, but that fellow won't be found. He either headed back across the river to try again another day, or to a safe house somewhere in the neighborhood, where he'll save up his energy for the journey north.

Any border patrol agent will tell you more help is needed; there just aren't enough agents to respond to every situation. But few will tell you they want a bunch of civilians running around the river. Underground sensors are placed along the border to detect abnormal vibrations and these sensors can't distinguish between the footsteps of a smuggler, an economic migrant or a Minuteman. And then there's the common refrain, "What exactly do the Minutemen expect to do?"

Inside the sector command station at Laredo is a vast network of computers and monitors tracking tripped sensors and motion detectors. Cameras are perched along the Rio Grande and monitored by support staff here. Sandoval says border patrol agents are often alerted to two groups of migrants at once, and they have to choose which ones to pursue.

Which once again raises the question, "What exactly do the Minutemen expect to do?" The U.S. Border Patrol is already understaffed and incapable of responding to every call, so it doesn't make a lot of sense, except for the sake of publicizing the immigration issue, to have a bunch of people down there pointing out undocumented migrants.

U.S. Rep. John Culberson of Houston, perhaps wishing to grant the Minutemen the right to detain migrants, introduced a bill three weeks ago to let Texas and other states establish armed militias for border protection. These militia members would be able to "use any means and any force established by state law."

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