New America Media (YO! Youth Outlook), Published June 15, 2008
Words: Russell Morse // Photos: Ryan Furtado // Video: Josue Rojas and Cliff Parker
Editor’s Note: Since 9.11, loosely structured volunteer associations calling themselves “Minute Men” have patrolled the Southern U.S. border, have been vilified as racist vigilantes for their armed actions against undocumented immigrants. After camping out with the Minutemen of Campo, California, Russell Morse discovers the unexpected, even conflicting, reasons these men spend their lives in the desert. Morse, Furtado and Rojas are editors at YO! Youth Outlook Multimedia a Project of New America Media. Parker is a video producer for New America Media
I’m waking up to gunshots. It’s six in the morning, the sun is just peeking over the border fence 100 yards away and someone is shooting. I grunt and roll out of the tent, peeking my head out far enough to see Ryan, our photographer, with a rifle to his shoulder, letting off rounds with our new friend Jawbone. Before I can stretch or crawl out of my sleeping bag, a border patrol helicopter zips over our camp, blasting my eyes with sand and setting a small team of California minute men into action.
Bandit, who hasn’t slept all night, yells into his radio, leaps into his battered camouflage Suburban truck (known lovingly as Gonzo) and speeds after the chopper, his tires spitting desert rocks in every direction. Josue, our wheelman and linguist, wakes up at the helm of his Honda jeep and instinctively fishtails into Gonzo’s dust cloud as Ryan and I climb in, tying shoelaces and rubbing eyes . . .
This is Campo, California—Borderland—an hour east of San Diego, where a handful of volunteers is anchoring a border watch operation. The stretch of rocky desert they patrol is a busy thoroughfare for people coming into the US from Mexico illegally. Breaks in the border fence, a network of hidden trails and a series of canyons make the area a safer point of entry for immigrants. However, mountain lions, helicopters and Bandit on your ass keep it far from leisurely.
Beyond the guns and trucks and high speed chases, though, are idle hours and a group of men who believe they’re protecting America, giving their lives to the work, they say, their government refuses to do. Most of them are ex-military, Vietnam Veterans, retirees, unmarried, from rural corners of California who were looking for something to belong to and found it in the desert.
* * *
The day before, we left San Diego for Campo with a phone number. I dialed as we drove and when the call went through, I was connected to a minute man phone tree. Seconds into the recording, a soft voice said “press 4 to join us on the border”. I was transferred to T.S. McMullen (Bandit), who was in the field on his cell phone. I explained rather frankly that we wanted to talk to them about what they were doing out there and he said “sure” and asked if it was okay if he asked me some personal questions.
“How do you feel about this country?”
“Do you believe in the constitution of the United States?”
I was honest and brief.
He gave us simple directions (“If you blink, you’ll miss it”) and we wound through black desert hills for an hour, took a right onto what quickly became a dirt road and drove until we saw headlights flashing at us. Standing at the driver door of his red F-150 was an enormous gray haired man in sweatpants who finished his cigarette in one drag and roared when he asked us, “Y’all the fellas that called a little bit ago?”
The only light out there was the reflection from the Marine Corps sticker on the back of Big Bob Shuff’s truck as we followed him, tracing the border a mile or so until we pulled into position 141, where the team was assembled to welcome us.
Five of them were gathered around the hood of a car with a pizza box and two rifles laid across it. We meet Bandit, who introduces himself by saying, “I’m a Christian and a marine, so I guess I got the best of both worlds.” He looked like what you would imagine “Bandit” to look like—eyes fixed in a distant, piercing gaze, a scarred and weathered face, tall and muscular frame and pistols and knives strapped all over his body.
Bandit grew up in Central Coast California, near Pismo, and found work early, at 13, picking strawberries. He joined the marines when he was still a teenager, and though he’s since retired, he doesn’t consider himself “ex-military”. He explains this by saying, “To me, a citizen is somebody who just doesn’t do nothin’, somebody who doesn’t care about what’s going on.”
He heard about the minutemen on the news last year and checked out their website. He liked what he saw, so he joined their massive operation in Arizona (1000 people) soon after. He’d been living in his truck, on patrol in Campo, for three months when we met him.
His boss at his last job stopped giving him time off, so he quit and decided to “do the minute man thing 24/7”, living off of donations.
“This minute man stuff started mainly because the border is not secure. Terrorists can come across with a Russian nuclear artillery shell. You can pack that in a backpack, one or two guys. They can take a left, go to San Diego, take a right, go to El Centro, go downtown, some busy place, rush hour or whatever, pop that sucker off, kill 5, 10, 15, 25,000 people. You’ll have another 9 damn 11 again.”
He explained that he’s also out there to combat the drug trade and any one else coming through illegally. “Then there’s just the poor guys coming here to work because they’re not doing anything in their country to improve their lives. You know, I don’t blame those guys for coming here, but they should do it legally. Pay taxes like us. Sneaking across is just gonna make it worse.”
Al Gutierrez—Jawbone—is a Vietnam veteran and he drives three hours each way from Palm Springs to spend days at a time in Campo. He is second generation Mexican and is not at all conflicted by his heritage and the work he’s doing to aid in the detainment and deportation of Mexican immigrants.
“(My grandparents) came here, yeah, to seek that better life, but by the same token, they also did it right. And I’m proud of that. Yes, I’m a Mexican, but you know what? Or Hispanic or latino, whatever you wanna call me, but I have that right to say, if they’re gonnna come over here, do it right. I have no prejudices. I have no racism. I just have one thing to say that I’m proud that I’m a Mexican.”
Jawbone is retired and is able to volunteer his time largely due to checks he receives from the VA. He has prostate cancer, which he says is from exposure to Agent Orange in Vietnam.
When we were done talking, Jawbone poured some food into a bowl for his dog Bubba and sat in his lawn chair (with cup holders), which is patterned with the American flag.
The pizza disappeared and we put up our tent. Big Bob went to sleep in the bed of his truck, Jawbone reclined the seat in his Toyota and Bandit drove off to a distant position to “hide behind a rock”. As I walked to our tent, Jawbone said good night and yelled after me, “Watch out for mountain lions!”
* * *
We reach La Gloria Canyon, floating on a dust cloud, and the helicopter is gone. Bandit is perched on the edge of a cliff, with binoculars and his radio, still yelling. He tells us that Border Patrol spotted thirteen people who crossed just before sunrise and is in the process of boxing them in. Bandit’s job now is to organize his team to seal the southern perimeter so none of the thirteen can cross back in to Mexico.
The helicopter jumps back into our line of sight and then dips again down into the canyon. Once we’re all back in the Honda, a Border Patrol officer approaches us, wondering what we’re doing out here. “Oh, you’re with the minute men? All righty. You might have heard, but MS 13 has put a $25,000 bounty on our heads.”
We’ve been hearing about Mara Salvatrucha since we got here. Bandit told us the same thing, even saying that the bounty was extended to Minute Men. The officer sends us on our way after assuring us, “It’s the most credible threat I’ve ever heard.”
The thirteen immigrants are apprehended and we all head back to camp. Bandit has agreed to take us on a ride-along in Gonzo, but first he has to do his morning routine—shave, prepare breakfast (sardines, applesauce and peanut butter) and change his socks, which have been drying out over night.
While we’re waiting, we meet Kingfish, who doesn’t want to talk to us, but argues Army vs Marines with Big Bob for a while. “I can’t for the life of me understand the Marine’s obsession with jumpin’ on live hand grenades. This is America. We invented baseball. In the army, we just pick that sucker up and throw her back.” Kingfish is missing his left eye and wears an eyepatch. He lives in his van with two cats, one of which is also missing its left eye.
Finally, Ryan and I climb into Gonzo and Josue is set to follow behind in the Honda. We’re going to a more volatile stretch of the border, controlled by drug smugglers, so Bandit issues a warning to Josue over the radio.
“Driver Seven, do you read me? Over.”
“Uhhh . . . yeah.”
“Listen, if we get shot at, you just get out of there. Don’t worry about us, just get the hell outta there. Over.”
“ . . . Right.”
Bandit then turns to me and asks if I can help out with money for gas. “I spent all my savings and I’m a few thousand dollars in the hole myself now . . . I’ve been living on donations and shit and doing odd things for locals—odd jobs and all that. But this thing’s a gas hog, believe me. It gets like, 6 to 8 miles to a damn gallon.”
I tell him it’s no problem.
Once we’re on the road, it becomes obvious right away that Gonzo does not have shocks. We are bounding along the edge of a canyon on a rock path and Bandit is drinking a cup of coffee and smoking a cigarette, signaling with his hands and insisting that he make eye contact with me while he speaks. I can’t remember, actually, the last time he looked at the road. And he is definitely chatty.
“I don’t know where you live at, but that’s your house, right? Now if it was open house all the time, would it be your house?” He’s yelling now, still maintaining eye contact. “Not no more, huh? Anybody could come in 24/7. Sit down and party, drink your beer and watch your TV. It ain’t your house. Same thing, country wise, you know?”
I’m curious about exactly how long he’s been living out here in the desert, so I ask him. He clicks his teeth and says, “Today’s . . . what? The eleventh . . . October?”
I know that it’s January, but I don’t know how to say it.
Before that’s resolved, he looks out the window at a gorge and mumbles, “I wouldn’t be surprised if there was a couple bodies out here they aint found yet.”
He starts to tell us about a group of activists that were in Campo a few months ago to protest the Minute Men’s presence on the border. He dismisses most of them as misguided college kids, too eager to believe what their professors tell them. And this turns into a run down of political groups that he considers “the enemies”. He addresses socialists, communists and La Raza, which he compares to white supremacist groups. He then shifts his attention to anarchists.
“Then you got the anarchies, people that want no law, no government or anything like that. They don’t understand that if they got their wish, they’d probably be the first victims. You got really mean, evil people out there. They don’t think twice about rapin’ and killin’ and murderin’. If they got no laws, they’re not gonna get punished, the bad guys are gonna run amok. You know, like the Mad Max movies.”
It occurs to me that the same man who is driving around in the desert in an enormous camouflage jeep, armed to the teeth and who not ten minutes ago asked me for money for gas just made a Mad Max analogy.
Bandit takes us past Tierra Del Sol, a makeshift town set up on the Mexican side for smugglers and border surveillance. Nearby, there are tiny red scraps of paper all over the road. He explains that the Border Patrol just found a tunnel there and the scraps of paper are markers for where they test the soil.
The road dead ends, the tour is over and we ask for directions back to the interstate. Bandit is a gracious host, as he takes us out of Borderland and close to civilization. He draws us a map, we thank him for taking the time and we all say our good byes.
As Gonzo hums back down the hill, I realize that Bandit only took us as far as the dirt road runs. His tires never touched asphalt.