Mili­tias ready to re­buff mi­grants

Though not sup­ported by the De­fense De­part­ment, groups see them­selves as a neigh­bor­hood watch.

South Florida Sun-Sentinel Palm Beach (Sunday) - - FRONT PAGE - By An­drea Castillo

CAMPO, Calif. — Robert Crooks is up be­fore sun­rise on a hill he calls “Pa­triot Point,” walkie-talkie in hand and loaded semi-au­to­matic hand­gun hol­stered on his right hip.

To pro­tect him­self, he wears a vest padded with Na­tional Geo­graphic mag­a­zines — in­clud­ing one cel­e­brat­ing great white sharks.

Di­rectly in front of him is a bor­der wall made of steel land­ing mats left over from the Viet­nam War. Just a few hun­dred feet from the Mex­i­can bor­der, Crooks scans the land­scape for any sign of an im­mi­grant try­ing to cross into the United States.

A Las Ve­gas res­i­dent, Crooks heads the Moun­tain Min­ute­men. Along with other mili­tia mem­bers in Texas, his group has been gear­ing up as thou­sands of mi­grants from Cen­tral Amer­ica steadily make their way to the U.S. bor­der to ask for asy­lum.

The pres­ence of the mili­tias is small, co­or­di­nated — and has a muse in Pres­i­dent Don­ald Trump.

Last month, Trump tweeted that “very bad thugs” and gang mem­bers were among the mi­grants. “This is an in­va­sion of our Coun­try and our Mil­i­tary is wait­ing for you!” the pres­i­dent pro­claimed.

Along the bor­der, al­most 6,000 troops have been de­ployed.

De­fense Sec­re­tary Jim Mat­tis said the troops will stay at the bor­der through early De­cem­ber un­less the De­part­ment of Home­land Se­cu­rity re­quests an ex­ten­sion.

Crooks, a 68-year-old re­tired com­mer­cial fish­er­man who wears a cam­ou­flage Trump hat, said the mil­i­tary pres­ence was not enough and that the en­tire bor­der should be shut down.

“This is a na­tional emer­gency,” he said.

Cen­tral Amer­i­can mi­grants have re­counted acts of kind­ness from Mex­i­cans through­out their jour­ney north. In Ti­juana, how­ever, they have en­coun­tered an at­ti­tude among some Mex­i­cans not un­like that ex­pressed by Crooks. They, too, speak in terms of an in­va­sion.

An­to­nio Ci­mota, 36, leads one of the groups protest­ing against the mi­grants in Ti­juana, de­spite hav­ing par­ents who de­fied bor­der of­fi­cials when they en­tered Mex­ico: He crossed il­le­gally into the U.S. as a child and lived here be­fore re­turn­ing to Mex­ico seven years ago.

He said he un­der­stands the cir­cum­stances that drive peo­ple to flee their coun­try, but says: “As the pres­i­dent of the United States, Trump has ev­ery right to pro­tect his bor­ders. Just as we should be pro­tect­ing ours.”

Crooks said he gets why some Ti­juana res­i­dents have re­acted with hos­til­ity to­ward the Cen­tral Amer­i­can mi­grants.

“That’s their town, their com­mu­nity,” he said. “I think you’re go­ing to see an up­ris­ing of a na­tion­al­ist move­ment in Mex­ico.”

Crooks doesn’t ex­pect many mi­grants to stay in Ti­juana long.

He thinks they’ll be forced to go east to es­cape fed­eral au­thor­i­ties. There are gaps in the bor­der wall near the small town of Campo, and he and other mem­bers of his mili­tia be­lieve mi­grants are likely to try to use them to cross.

So for the last cou­ple of weeks, he and a hand­ful of as­so­ci­ates have been camp­ing out of their ve­hi­cles. His white Ford F-250 pickup has “MINUTE MAN” em­bla­zoned on the doors in black let­ter­ing.

They con­sider them­selves a savvy neigh­bor­hood watch.

Farther east, Harry Hughes, 55, of the U.S. Bor­der Guard mili­tia in Ari­zona said he’s not an­tic­i­pat­ing car­a­van mi­grants will at­tempt cross­ing the bor­der 65 miles south of his home. Ter­rain in that ru­ral stretch of the desert is par­tic­u­larly rough, he said.

Shan­non McGauley, 54, leads the Texas Min­ute­men. The bail bond agent from the Dal­las sub­urbs said a dozen mem­bers of his group have been pa­trolling an area just east of McAllen, Texas.

McGauley be­lieves the at­ten­tion in Ti­juana is just a di­ver­sion and that mi­grants will soon be­gin at­tempt­ing to cross the bor­der in Texas.

The pres­ence of the mili­ti­a­men is not sup­ported by the De­fense De­part­ment, ac­cord­ing to plan­ning doc­u­ments ob­tained by Newsweek. In­tel­li­gence of­fi­cials es­ti­mated 200 “un­reg­u­lated armed mili­tia mem­bers” were op­er­at­ing along the south­west bor­der ear­lier this month. They also re­ported in­ci­dents of un­reg­u­lated mili­tias steal­ing Na- tional Guard equip­ment dur­ing de­ploy­ments.

An Amer­i­can flag flies atop a tall flag­pole on the hill Crooks stands on. Right un­der­neath it is the Gon­za­les flag, named for the first bat­tle of the Texas Rev­o­lu­tion against Mex­i­can rule. The flag is white, with a black star and a can­non with the words “Come and take it.”

The Min­ute­men have nick­names for each other and speak in code. Crooks is known as “Lit­tle Dog” for the way he keeps on the trail of mi­grants un­til bor­der agents ar­rive to de­tain them. His as­so­ci­ates didn’t want to be in­ter­viewed, say­ing they were afraid they could lose their reg­u­lar jobs.

Sev­eral men were po­si­tioned atop other hills along the one-mile ra­dius they pa­trol. They have dubbed the hills Donut Hole, Zon­ers and Couch Trail.

A call came in on Crooks’ walkie-talkie. “Lit­tle Dog, this is Weasel, do you copy?”

“Yo, Weasel, what’s hap­pen­ing?”

“You’ve got an Omaha com­ing your way. I can see him.”

A black Bor­der Pa­trol he­li­copter flew over­head. Crooks raised his hand to his tem­ple in a salute.

“The Bor­der Pa­trol does fan­tas­tic work,” he said. “There’s just not enough of them.”

A mem­ber of the Min­ute­men since 2005, Crooks in­sists he has been shot at, at­tacked and even poi­soned while guard­ing his coun­try from peo­ple he calls “cock­roaches.”

“That’s the pit of evil,” he said, look­ing just across the bor­der. “I’ve heard blood­cur­dling screams from over there. Heroin, co­caine, bod­ies, child slav­ery, hu­man traf­fick­ing. And it’s been like this for a long time.”

JOHN GASTALDO/FOR THE LOS AN­GE­LES TIMES

Robert “Lit­tle Dog” Crooks, of Las Ve­gas, is one of sev­eral min­ute­men pa­trolling the U.S.-Mex­ico bor­der near Campo, Calif.

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