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Story on NPR’s site today tells the tale of the increasing violence along the US/Mexico border as drug cartels battle for control of the border region. Sad, but as much press as this has been getting, the drug AND migrant smuggling problem has been going on for decades. True, cartel related killings are at unprecedented levels, but nevertheless I photographed the fear and vigilante patrols over ten years ago in border towns stretching from Texas to California.
One day while shooting a story for the NY Times Sunday Magazine in Eagle Pass, Texas, I photographed a border rancher patrolling his property that sits along the Rio Grande river, the dividing line for Mexico and the US. As we bumped our way down a dusty road in his old pickup truck, rifle and pistol in the cab, he stopped as he came along a bag in the middle of the road. He had just finished telling me of a recent encounter with drug smugglers who shot at him from across the river as he stood with binoculars in hand. Ambling from his truck, Bud Natus stretched his foot out and gingerly nudged the bag open with his boot. Inside was a dead puppy. Bud took it, flung it back toward Mexico and got back in his truck. He took it as a sign from smugglers that they weren’t playing games.
On another occasion, I was in the Arizona border town of Douglas shooting a story for TIME magazine about a rancher named Roger Barnett who was known to patrol his property with an assault rifle on the lookout for anyone coming north from the Mexican town of Agua Prieta. Roger would stand atop a knoll and peer through binoculars, track fresh footprints and essentially do the job of sworn federal officers in the US Border Patrol. Barnett figured he was on his own property, so any detention must be legal. He was tired of the drugs and human trafficking making it’s way across his property and was determined to help put an end to it.
Not far from where Barnett began to make national headlines, another figure in the increasing vigilante movement emerged. Chris Simcox, a Los Angeles transplant, took his patriotic fervor and issued a “Call to Arms” for local citizens in the local paper. Shooting for a couple days for Newsweek magazine, I spent time with Simcox and a hodgepodge of citizens as they roamed the isolated desert between Tombstone, Arizona and the border. With sidearms on the hip and radios in the pockets, the group spread out under a full moon and soon encountered a group of undocumented migrants. Surrounding them and using high powered flashlights, the vigilantes held the migrants until the Border Patrol arrived.
Everyone knows San Diego as a hot spot for illegal border crossings. But the eastern region, nearly a hundred miles from the one time wide open border in San Ysidro, was home to a highly organized and effective vigilante patrol. Initiated by a border rancher whose family has lived smack on the border for generations, this patrol was heavily armed and used technology such as Night Vision Goggles, Vietnam error ground sensors and sophisticated weapons while on patrol. Bob Maupin, as he often told me, never had a problem with migrants coming through years ago. A friendly and independent man, Bob explains that in the old days the migrants would simple take a drink of water from a hose and close the gates as they went north. But all that changed as a flood of traffic began coming through his property while trying to avoid the government sanctioned Operation Gatekeeper to the west. With thread bare support from the Border Patrol, Bob and a handful of residents took up arms and began patrolling his property. Anyone caught was promptly turned over to the Border Patrol. Drugs continue to make their way through Bob’s remote ranch and he is never unarmed as a result.