(Updated version, Wednesday, March 24 at 2:45 p.m.)
The Minuteman Civil Defense Corps is no longer.
The Arizona-based border watch group that burst onto the national scene in 2005 sent an email to its members this week announcing the corporation has dissolved.
The group’s president, Carmen Mercer of Tombstone, said she and the board’s two other directors voted to end the group’s five-year run because they were worried her recent “call to action” would attract the wrong people to the border.
On March 16, Mercer sent out an e-mail urging members to come to the border “locked, loaded and ready” and urged people to bring “long arms.” She proposed changing the group’s rules to allow members to track illegal immigrants and drug smugglers instead of just reporting the activity to the Border Patrol.
“We will forcefully engage, detain, and defend our lives and country from the criminals who trample over our culture and laws,” she wrote in the March 16 e-mail.
Mercer said she received a more feverish response than she expected — 350 personal e-mails she said — and decided the Minuteman Civil Defense Corps couldn’t shoulder the responsibility and liability of what could occur, she said.
“People are ready to come lock and loaded and that’s not what we are all about,” Mercer said. “It only takes one bad apple to destroy everything we’ve done for the last eight years.”
The group formed as Civil Homeland Defense in 2002 and later became the Minuteman Project in April 2005. The named changed again to Minuteman Civil Defense Corps.
Others familiar with the group say poor leadership, money mismanagement and a lack of interest led to the group’s demise — not the recent call to arms.
Minuteman Richard Humphries said he’d been unhappy in the group for the past two years and that fewer people were attending the group’s border watch events. The “musters” as they called them were successful in deterring illegal entries but short on action.
“Many people didn’t want to continue to do the musters because they were so damn boring,” he said.
Mercer and former leader Chris Simcox said interest was as high as ever, with 12,000 active members of the Minuteman Civil Defense Corps. But Glenn Spencer, president of another Arizona-based border security group called the American Border Patrol, doubts the numbers.
“I understand they have no money,” Spencer said. “How could they have 12,000 active members and be broke?”
Mercer admitted in the email that one of the reasons the group is disbanding is because it can no longer raise money effectively.
Spencer credits the group with bringing attention to border issues but called the group’s border watches “silly.”After receiving national media coverage in 2005-2006, the Minuteman had become largely irrelevant in recent years, he said.
Questions about how Simcox was using donated money surfaced in 2006-2007, creating distrust that sent the group on a downward spiral, said Humphries and Spencer. Humphries said he and others lost trust in Simcox after he used donations to build a barb-wired border fence, and not a more stout barrier as he had promised.
“He wasted all those people’s money,” Humphries said.
Simcox disputes the claims, calling them unfounded, unsubstantiated and “just ridiculous.” He says Minuteman members with military backgrounds tried to pull a coup in 2006 under the guise of money mismanagement because they wanted to take a more aggressive approach.
“They wanted to turn the Minuteman into a military operation,” said Simcox, who stepped down from the group in 2009 to make a run for the Republican nomination for U.S. Senate. “That didn’t fit well with the American people and we said no.”
Former Minuteman leader Al Garza split from the group last year and blamed the decline in part on Mercer herself.
“I didn’t see Carmen as a strong leader,” he said.
Simcox backs Mercers leadership and backs her story that the liability issues were the sole reason behind dissolving the national organization. Minuteman members have been shot at and come face-to-face with armed drug runners recently, he said. Local Minuteman chapters will continue, but shoulder their own liability.
“I don’t feel its a worthwhile endeavor anymore to get somebody killed,” Simcox said. “You wouldn’t catch me near the border.”
Subhead: Call to arms
During its tumultuous five-year run, the group experienced several leadership changes, questions about finances and most recently, had its image blemished to some when a woman with ties to the group was charged with first-degree murder.
The final week was no different, with disagreement among members about Mercer’s call to arms.
Mercer said her anger with the federal government about health care reform and Homeland Security secretary Janet Napolitano’s claims that the border is secure led her to send out the March 16 email.
“You are strongly encouraged to exercise your rights and duty as an American citizen to carry a long arm and if challenged use it to defend the United States of America,” she wrote.
Humphries said he and many other members of the group strongly disagreed with Mercer’s message and refused to support the change in rules.
“That’s against the law,” said Humphries, who lives 30 miles north of the border near Elfrida in Cochise County.
Mercer admitted in her email this week that most of the supervisory team didn’t support the proposed new rules.
Others question the timing of sending out a call to arms a week before dissolving the group.
The call to arms was a desperate move aimed at trying to bring attention to an organization that had disappeared from the spotlight, said Spencer
“She didn’t know what to do, so let’s have a call to arms,” Spencer said.
Mercer, however, said hundreds of people were ready to come to the border after her call to arms. She cancelled the event scheduled for this weekend because neither she or Simcox could oversee the events to make sure nobody broke the law. Mercer works seven days a week running her Tombstone restaurant and Simcox declined to return to supervise the event because he’s committed to J.D. Hayworth’s campaign for U.S. Senate, she said.
“Without a leader and a full time staff of sector chiefs to supervise, I cannot take the liability and will not put landowners in that position,” Mercer wrote in the email announcing the end of the corporation.
Mercer said people will continue to conduct border watches, even with the group dissolving. In her email announcing the end of the group, Mercer encouraged group members to continue in the cause.
“It is up to each individual now. You will do what you personally feel is right. You may still go to the border but you are either on your own or you can try to find another group to associate with — you do so at your own risk,” Mercer wrote. “I hope you continue as independent Minutemen, you are needed; we are needed to save this country.”
Tumultuous Five Years:
The Minuteman Civil Defense Corps went through plenty of changes and turmoil during its five-year existence:
• After the first nationally-covered border watch in April 2005, Chris Simcox and fellow coordinator Jim Gilchrist split and formed their own groups.
• In May 2006, a major blow-up among leaders occurred, and some of them formed a group called Patriots' Border Alliance.
• In 2006, some members accused Simcox of mismanaging donations, the Arizona Republic reports.
• In April 2009, Simcox stepped down from the group to make a run for the Republican nomination for U.S. Senate. He left Carmen Mercer of Tombstone in charge as president, and Al Garza of Huachuca City as vice president.
• In July 2009, Garza, who has helped lead the group from the beginning, resigned to focus on his own new border-watch and rescue group, called the Patriots Coalition.
• On Aug. 13, 2009, 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.
• The June 12, 2009 arrest of Shawna Forde (who is later charged with first-degree murder in the May 30, 2009 slayings of a 9-year-old Arivaca girl and her father) blemished the group in the eyes of some because Forde ran a small group called Minutemen American Defense before her arrest.
Contact reporter Brady McCombs at 573-4213 or firstname.lastname@example.org. Tim Steller contributed to this story.