– Sept. 26
Outdoor enthusiasts for years have been drawn to the Sonoran Desert National Monument to explore its wildlife and arid beauty.
These days, however, posted signs warn that visiting the area may come at a cost: “Travel caution – smuggling and illegal immigration may be encountered in this area.”
That doesn’t sit well with Harry Hughes.
“People should be out here having fun and not be afraid to come out here because of that,” Hughes said, pointing to one of the signs on a recent trek to western Pinal County. “We’re 70 miles away from Mexico. That’s pretty far away from the border to be having border problems.”
Authorities seem to agree with Hughes on that point.
What concerns them is what Hughes and his counterparts are doing about it.
Hughes, a member of the White supremacist National Socialist Movement, regularly leads a heavily armed militia on desert patrols in the national monument about 50 miles south of Phoenix. So, too, does the U.S. Border Guard, a group steered by former Marine and reputed neo-Nazi Jason “J.T.” Ready.
Critics say these men are not simply neighborhood groups or avid outdoorsmen: They are members of extremist organizations with agendas that go well beyond helping Border Patrol do its job.
“These are explicit Nazis,” Mark Potok of the Southern Poverty Law Center’s Intelligence Project told the Associated Press. “These are people who wear swastikas on their sleeves.”
Law-enforcement officials concede the groups add eyes and ears out in the field but remain apprehensive about their presence in known smuggling corridors.
Mario Escalante, spokesman for the U.S. Border Patrol’s Tucson sector, said these groups are “taking the law into their own hands” and should be cautious.
“There’s certain groups of individuals that are trained to do the job,” Escalante said. “We ask people to allow those trained individuals to do that job . . . We’re the ones who are the experts.”
On a recent evening, Hughes walked beyond a water tank once used to sate thirsty cattle. An M-4 semiautomatic rifle was slung over his shoulder. He’d found nearly a dozen people – two of them passed out – huddling in the tank’s shadow while on patrol south of Interstate 8 weeks earlier. Hughes said he had given them water while waiting for the Border Patrol to arrive.
Downslope, he stopped on the banks of a wash strewn with backpacks, clothing, Mexican pill bottles and toiletries.
“I’ve been coming up to these mountains for nearly two decades for recreation,” said Hughes, 47. “Late last summer, we started going up through here and we started seeing the garbage, bottles and people running away from us. We found out this is a major drug corridor. There were no law enforcement doing anything about it.”
Despite additional Border Patrol agents, Minutemen and the arrival of hundreds of National Guard troops to the border, Hughes said he and others like him are attempting to fill a void. The Minutemen, another anti-illegal-immigrant group, have conducted desert patrols since 2005.
“When (Pinal County Sheriff Paul) Babeu got up on the TV and said the cartels control this area, that he didn’t, that really struck a nerve with me,” Hughes said. “No, this is the United States – no Mexican cartel, no foreign national is going to control this land.”
Babeu made that claim after one of his deputies was injured in a gunbattle with what authorities say were drug-cartel members in April, one week after Gov. Jan Brewer signed Arizona’s strict new law designed to curb illegal immigration. Parts of that law are now on hold while being challenged in federal court.
Deputy Louie Puroll’s account was questioned last week after a Phoenix tabloid reported that ballistic and forensic experts opined the evidence didn’t support his claims. Babeu said an investigation corroborated Puroll’s statements.
The sheriff has called for federal assistance to secure the border and address escalating violence from drug and human traffickers in Pinal County. But Babeu has said that he does not want help from untrained groups that could cause “extreme problems” and put themselves and others in danger. He is particularly leery of groups with extremist agendas.
The National Socialist Movement, a neo-Nazi group based in Detroit, espouses White supremacist theories and believes that “all non-White immigration must be prevented,” according to its website. “We demand that all non-Whites currently residing in America be required to leave the nation forthwith and return to their land of origin: peacefully or by force.”
Ready, 38, left the NSM earlier this year. The U.S. Border Guard, he said, welcomes members of all races and religions. However, Ready has been quoted as saying he wanted to lay a minefield along the border to combat illegal immigration.
That sort of talk makes Babeu nervous.
“I’m not inviting them,” Babeu said. “And in fact, I’d rather they not come, especially those who espouse hatred or bigotry such as (Ready).”
Rebuff aside, Ready said his group is making an impact. Just how much of an effect is difficult to assess because law enforcement is hesitant to discuss the efforts of these groups. Even questions posed to them have been difficult to get answers to.
“Had it not been for me and other people out in the desert this summer, dozens of people would have died,” Ready said. “I mean, literally, life was poured into them with water and medical equipment and getting Border Patrol to them and rescue operations.”
Hughes keeps extra water in his truck in case he encounters a group of people in the desert. In one instance, he was too late. He found a woman’s remains in a wash beneath a paloverde in early August and called the Sheriff’s Office. Weeks later, the ground where her body lay was oily from decomposition.
“I don’t really want to find dead people,” Hughes said. “I don’t want to find live people. I want to deny smugglers the access to this area just by being out here. A deterrent above all, that’s the primary objective.”
Hughes said his group’s presence in the area has tripped up cartel activities, forcing traffickers to change routes and pushing them farther east. He’s heard transmissions in Spanish emanating from a scanner on his tactical vest. He said his group once encountered three men carrying drug loads shortly after hearing activity on the scanner. Surprised, the men fled on foot. Hughes said he wasn’t going to chase them.
Sgt. Brian Messing, a supervisor of the Search and Rescue Posse of the Sheriff’s Office, said militia groups are “helpful to an extent.”
“They’ve got their cameras out there, and eyes out there reporting bodies,” Messing said. “At what risk is it? It helps, but I’m just really concerned we’re going to have an engagement of either us with them or them with a group of smugglers.”
Ready and Hughes try to steer clear of such a scenario by letting law enforcement know where they’ll be ahead of time. Still, they say, all this could be avoided if the government would do one thing: stop the flow of people and drugs across America’s southern border.
“If they don’t like the way I’m doing it, if they don’t like me as a person doing it, if they don’t like the groups that are coming out, good,” Ready said. “Then let’s change it. Let’s secure the border, and I’ll go home.”