Friday, April 16, 2010
Written by Adam Lehrer/ArizonaNewsService.com
The Minuteman Civil Defense Corps was founded as a neighborhood watch program in 2002 in Tombstone by Carmen Mercer and Chris Simcox, but it disbanded in late March. Numerous issues, including leadership struggles, financial mismanagement and failed political campaigning were cited as possible reasons for the group's dissolution.
Mercer, 54, president of the recently disbanded MCDC, is a German immigrant who went through the process to gain her U.S. citizenship. She has lived in Tombstone for 14 years and owns the O.K. Café. She said she was unaware of the problems of illegal immigration until witnessing them first-hand.
"I would come home from Sierra Vista after doing my shopping at night and I would see hundreds of people walking along the San Pedro River, thinking they were tourists," she said. "I met Chris Simcox and told him what I had seen, and he said, 'You can't really think those are tourists. Those were illegal aliens that just broke into our country.'"
When she wasn't cooking buffalo burgers at her café, Mercer would meet with Simcox, a former schoolteacher, and frequently discussed the burgeoning illegal immigration problem. They started a neighborhood watch program in October 2002 and monitored the border. They alerted Border Patrol whenever they saw anything suspicious.
By 2005 they gained enough national attention to receive a federal grant. The Minuteman Civil Defense Corps was started shortly thereafter, and chapters were formed under the MCDC moniker to set up local militias in different areas along the borders.
The decision to disband was announced merely days after Mercer addressed Minuteman members to get to the border "locked and loaded."
In the press release, Mercer wrote, "Secretary of Homeland Defense Janet Napolitano thinks border security is a waste of time and a politically sensitive issue. The Minutemen are returning to the border — LOCKED AND LOADED — because we think Napolitano is an unqualified buffoon who risks the lives of American citizens every day she is the head of DHS."
The call-to-arms announcement created problems.
"There was a tone in her announcement that leads some in the National Minuteman organization to become alarmed," said Jennifer Allen, president of the Border Action Network, an Arizona human rights organization working along the U.S.-Mexican border, which has long been critical of the tactics used by MCDC.
Allen added in a press release, "There has been a growing disconnect from the local and national Minuteman chapters."
Mercer said there is no longer a need for a national group, but members of local chapters of MCDC can continue working to secure the border. "It was just the right time to (disband the national organization)," she said.
She said these local chapters are to follow the same guidelines as national members of MCDC, which solely consist of reporting suspicious border activity to law enforcement and never physically confronting illegal immigrants.
Mercer said Minuteman members, national and local, regularly report suspicious behavior to both Border Patrol and the sheriffs' departments.
MCDC has long been a target for criticism and controversy. Some have criticized its chapters for taking on difficult and potentially violent situations that they aren't qualified to handle. Tombstone Marshal Larry Talvy is one such critic.
"The Minutemen disbanding at this time is the best thing that could have happened," Talvy said. "I don't think they were properly trained, and especially now with the escalating violence at the border, it should be strictly law enforcement handling these problems. We don't need citizens taking things into their own hands."
Meanwhile, Colleen Agle, a Tucson Border Patrol official, said her agency appreciates citizens reporting suspicious border activity but disapproves of them acting as law enforcement.
"Every member of the community can greatly assist us in our border enforcement mission through observing and reporting suspicious behavior or individuals," Agle said. "However, we always remind people that they should not take matters into their own hands. Leave border enforcement to agents who are trained to handle the law enforcement circumstances that may arise."
The Minutemen have often been accused of utilizing violent and abusive tactics in their tracking of illegal immigrants.
Mercer said the Minutemen have never condoned aggressive tactics, though the press release ordering the Minutemen to head to the border "locked and loaded" might indicate otherwise.
"We are not using overly aggressive tactics," she added. "We operate within the law."
Mercer said she would continue her involvement with the Tombstone group and actively work to elect officials who want to fix the illegal immigration problem.
"The American public is not mellow ... the revolution will be in the next election," Mercer said.
"We need to un-elect people who blatantly ignore the needs of the American people."
Editor's Note: Another version of this story originally appeared in The Tombstone Epitaph.
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Adam Lehrer is a UA School of Journalism senior.