Eighty-five miles northwest of Tucson lies the Sonoran Desert National Monument, a lovely area designated as a national park by one of the last acts of Bill Clinton’s presidency.
Today, the road to get there is closed. Signs warn Americans not to cross into territory south of Interstate 8, land the former president called “a magnificent example of untrammeled Sonoran desert landscape.” An ironic choice of words — untrammeled is defined as “not deprived of freedom; not restricted.”
An American national monument has become a drug-smuggling corridor between Mexico and the southwest. Wars between Mexican drug cartels have grown so severe in the park that the U.S. Bureau of Land Management (BLM), who manages it, says it’s too dangerous to enter.
The park sits in the Vekol Valley, which falls under the jurisdiction of Pinal County Sheriff Paul Babeu. Unlike BLM, Babeu has law enforcement obligations to uphold. In April, one of Sheriff Babeu’s deputies, Deputy Louie Puroll, was ambushed in the park while chasing six drug smugglers. Despite the fact that Puroll fired 46 rounds of ammunition at his assailants, he was outgunned, overtaken, and shot.
In a press conference earlier this month, the desperate sheriff called for help from the federal government, asking for as many as 3,000 soldiers:
We are out gunned, we are outmanned, and we don’t have the resources here to locally fight this. … We need action. People are getting killed out there. We have drug cartels at war with each other. … It’s shameful that we, as the most powerful nation on Earth … can’t even secure our own border and protect our own families.
With the federal government ignoring his pleas, Babeu faces an uphill battle — one that got bigger the third week in June. A group of neo-Nazis decided it was time to take matters into their own hands.
Jason “J.T.” Ready is a member of the Nationalist Socialist Movement. At the New Saxon website, described as a “Community for Whites by Whites,” J.T. Ready posted a call to arms: an anti-invasion operation in the Vekol Valley called “Border Ops,” which Ready describes as “the Minuteman Project on steroids!”
Ready told Stephen Lemons, who blogs for the Phoenix New Times, that his group is ready to pick up where law enforcement cannot and is encouraging his white supremacist brethren to bring their “assault rifles [and] military equipment” down to the Vekol Valley, as well as “identity concealing items like bandanas, balaclavas,” and camouflage. Ready says his group has its own rules of engagement, which will be explained to anyone who joins their mission, provided they can show a valid ID. “Our statement to law enforcement is to support us with choppers … with SWAT teams and so forth. We’re telling them to come down,” he says.
Sheriff Babeu has declined help from the vigilantes. “Securing our international border and fighting these heavily armed smugglers is the responsibility of the federal government,” Babeu says, reiterating that he needs help. “Local law enforcement can’t handle this on our own,” he says, “yet it will only complicate our concerns to have untrained and armed citizens, who are not from Pinal County, patrolling our desert areas.”
According to my conversation with a white supremacist affiliated with “Border Ops” through his newsletter “White News Now,” the vigilante mission is moving forward with or without the endorsement of local law enforcement. “One way or another the invasion must stop,” I was told.
The sentiment is growing in Arizona. Earlier this week a second, seemingly less radical group launched a second vigilante operation called “Operation Line in the Sand.” This mission was run by a group calling themselves the “Vekol Valley Illegal Immigrant Patrol,” which spokesman Harry L. Hughes III says began keeping watch last weekend. “Although we were ‘armed for bear,’” Hughes says, “I would like to think the primary intention of this show of force was to raise public awareness when it comes to the drug trade and human smuggling.” Photos of the group posted online seem like they might be able to fight off a small army of bears while raising that public awareness. Interestingly, Hughes also wants the issue of destruction of public lands addressed.
With the current administration deaf to the pleas of local law enforcement, perhaps Hughes’ group should call on President Clinton?