Disputes splinter border watchers
TIM STELLER, ARIZONA DAILY STAR
Aug. 30, 2009
Leadership turmoil plagues original Minuteman effort
The largest national Minuteman organization is going through a leadership crisis that could cause more splits in the already fractured border-watch movement.
First, the Minuteman Civil Defense Corps' founder and figurehead, Chris Simcox, stepped down from the group in April to make a run for the Republican nomination for U.S. Senate. Simcox left Carmen Mercer of Tombstone in charge as president, and Al Garza of Huachuca City as vice president.
Then Garza, who has helped lead the group from the beginning, resigned in July to focus on his own new border-watch and rescue group, called the Patriots Coalition.
"A lot of people were discontent with the leadership. They pulled me to the side and asked me if I could lead another organization," Garza said.
Finally, on Aug. 13, the Arizona Attorney General's Office sued Mercer for opening a post office box it alleges was used in a consumer scam unrelated to the group. Authorities said Mercer has been cooperating, and Mercer has said she suspects she was targeted for political reasons.
She did not return a phone call or an e-mail for this story.
It's another image problem for the Minuteman movement, already blemished in the eyes of some by murder charges against Shawna Forde, who ran a small group called Minutemen American Defense before her June 12 arrest.
The accusation against Mercer "will, to some degree, taint MCDC," Garza said, referring to the group by its initials. "Not that it hasn't been tainted already. But it will taint it some more."
The problems apparently aren't limited to image. The Minuteman Civil Defense Corps has not filed its 2009 annual report, which was due in May, with the Arizona Corporation Commission, the commission's Web site says. The phone numbers listed for the group on its Web site have been disconnected.
A Minuteman leader in Colorado, Mike Zimmerle, said a phone line had been disconnected because it was being used primarily for prank calls against the group.
Garza's decision to form a new group continues a process of fragmentation that began almost with the inception of the Minuteman movement. Before the movement's official launch - a monthlong border-watch operation in Cochise County in April 2005 - at least one participant had already had a falling out with Simcox and formed her own hard-line group, Border Guardians.
After that operation, which brought the Minuteman movement to national attention, Simcox and fellow coordinator Jim Gilchrist split and formed their own groups. Many participants did the same, though Simcox and his allies also managed to forge what was probably the biggest border-watch group in the country.
A major blow-up among leaders of the Minuteman Civil Defense Corps occurred in May 2006, and some of them formed a group called Patriots' Border Alliance. Forde was ejected from the Minuteman Civil Defense Corps in 2007 and promptly formed her own group.
"It seems like every time that we had a major operation, there's always a difference of opinion, and keeping people in line was a major issue," Simcox said. "When we had internal power struggles, it was inevitable that every time someone split, they'd form another group."
But when fractures occurred over past years, Minuteman Civil Defense Corps had Simcox keeping it together. Now he's gone, running a longshot campaign against longtime U.S. Sen. John McCain.
"These groups all seem to implode when they build any sort of volume in membership or authority," said Michael Christie, who was an employee of Glenn Spencer's American Border Patrol for several years, until a disagreement with Spencer led him out of the Cochise County-based group in February.
"Leadership struggles seem to tear them apart," Christie said.
Before Simcox left the Minuteman Civil Defense Corps, he said, he had proposed disbanding the group's national structure, leaving the chapters, scattered around the country, to operate independently. Simcox said he argued that the group had largely achieved its mission of convincing the federal government to tighten border security.
Tony Dolz, who leads the Greater Los Angeles chapter of the Minuteman group, said he was privy to that discussion and opposed Simcox's idea.
"I didn't want him or the national organization to go away, because no single chapter could carry a voice for the whole nation," Dolz said.
Contact reporter Tim Steller at email@example.com or 807-8427.
DID YOU KNOW
The Minuteman movement that burst into being early this decade can be traced back at least to the late 1990s. That's when Cochise County resident Roger Barnett began patrolling ranch lands near Douglas, looking to stop illegal immigrants.
A group called Ranch Rescue sprang up in 2000 in Texas and came to Arizona to conduct patrols in 2001. Both Barnett and Ranch Rescue members have been hit with legal judgments related to their patrols.
Chris Simcox used the Tombstone Tumbleweed newspaper, which he owned, to announce the formation of a border-patrolling "militia" in 2002. Soon he formed a group called Civil Homeland Defense, and in April 2005 he and Jim Gilchrist led a monthlong border-watch operation in Cochise County.
Following the event, Gilchrist formed a group called the Minuteman Project, and Simcox's group was reborn as Minuteman Civil Defense Corps.