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President Donald Trump recently signed an executive order to build a wall along the U.S.-Mexico border as the first step to fulfill a campaign promise. Saying the U.S. government has failed to secure it, a group of armed citizens are patrolling a nearly 400-mile stretch of desert land that separates Arizona from Mexico. NewsHour Special Correspondent Nick Schifrin reports.
Tim Foley likes to describe himself and his men as a kind of neighborhood watch. And these 600 square miles along the Arizona-Mexico border are their backyard.
For the last 7 years, the 57-year-old former Army soldier, firefighter, and construction worker has led the Arizona Border Recon. Foley describes it as a surveillance group, but members are armed with military style rifles that are legal in Arizona. They're prepared to intercept or capture anyone crossing the border illegally.
When friends come to your house, they come to the front door and ring the bell and announce themselves. They don't wait 'til you're not home, and then climb through your back window, and make themselves at home.
This desert land is a well-worn route for Mexican cartels. Border Recon members want to try and secure the border because they say the government has failed to do so.
Basically what we're trying to do is just hurt the cartels' pocket book. This area is pretty much theirs. And we're coming back in and going, it's not yours. It's ours.
To try and catch the cartels, Foley hides motion-activated cameras.
I can see what times of day they come by, what days of the week, and start to see if there's any type of pattern.
Late last year, Foley's cameras recorded these men dressed in desert camouflage walking from Mexico into Arizona. Smugglers bring in marijuana, heroin, cocaine, methamphetamines and, sometimes, people. The last man carried a broom to sweep up their footprints.
Some wear these booties with carpet soles to avoid leaving tracks.
So if I'm wearing this.
Can't see anything.
There's nothing there. They're actually very good. It's very ingenious.
Foley says this fight is personal. At an early age he started abusing alcohol and drugs, everything from heroin to sniffing glue.
For 30 years I was higher than a kite. And then I came down here, I was going, I know what this stuff does. And I want to keep as many people as possible away from it.
Foley has no interest in being a U.S. Customs and Border Protection agent, but he told us he works with them. At one point during our visit, he said this call was from an agent.
You missed the group by about an hour-and-a-half.
BORDER PATROL AGENT:
You guys have a good one, and let us know if you see anything.
Roger that, will do.
They know that I have so much intel.
C.B.P declined our request for an interview, but said in a written statement it "does not endorse or support any private group or organization from taking matters into their own hands, as it could have disastrous personal and public safety consequences."
In Arizona, there are more than a dozen self-described militia groups. None of which were created or sanctioned by the state.
The Arizona State Militia posts YouTube videos of its training to become quote, "the last line of defense" against everything from illegal immigration to an outbreak of disease.
I prepare for things such as a pandemic or something of that nature. In a medical situation, we may be required to secure a hospital, so there's not a run on supplies there, so people can get proper treatment.
30-year-old Cody Salazar-Betzer joined eight months ago. He trains on radios, handguns, and military-style rifles.
There's a lot of situations you can dream up in your head that may be possible, where you may be called to defend in a situation where just simple hands, hand-to-hand won't do.
Cody's our corporal. That was his promotion after his 90 days for all the work he does on our website.
The Arizona State Militia is led by this 42-year-old named Bryan, who wouldn't give his last name. He says he served in the military, but we couldn't verify that.
He and many people here make the unproven assertion that illegal immigration has increased crime and taken away American jobs.
When you got possibly in the hundreds a day coming across. That's eventually going to have an impact. It spiked.
Mark Potok of the Southern Poverty Law Center is one of the country's leading authorities on militia groups. He calls them out-of-control vigilantes.
These people are incredibly dangerous. They're running around like a bunch of GI Joe's, darting from cactus plant to cactus plant, armed to the teeth, and essentially playing war.
He cites the example of Shawna Forde, the leader of the Minuteman American Defense militia that took it upon itself to patrol the border. In 2009, Ford planned and helped rob and kill a Latino man, Raul Flores, and his 9-year-old daughter Brisenia. Mistakenly thinking he was a drug dealer whose money she could steal to fund her movement. A jury sentenced Forde to death.
This is a movement that tends to attract people who are quite unhinged. This is a barrel with a whole lot of bad apples in it.
Foley's heard this critique.
It's politically correct to call us racists and everything else. That's all right. I prefer the term domestic extremist. Because if getting off the couch and doing something is extreme, then yeah. I'm an extremist.
In in Arizona. Today, some kind of barrier covers most of the states 370-mile southern border. The policy is meant to secure: To protect the border, in 2006, the Bush and then Obama Administrations started building new, taller fences like this one.
This border fence was built about four years ago. It goes all the way into the town of Nogales and beyond it. It runs for about four miles until this point. Everything beyond here is just a vehicle barrier. The idea is to force anything illegal, whether people or drugs that are coming across, into these remote, rural areas. But even here, the local sheriff says that those militia groups aren't welcome.
We have no way of vetting these people. We don't know who they are.
Tony Estrada has been the elected sheriff of this county for 24 years. He's a Democrat. He says Mexican smugglers try and avoid people, and that keeps violent incidents low. He believes aggressive militias increase the potential of violence.
They may mean well, but it's not going to work. They're going to put themselves in danger, and it's going to create more problems than it's going to solve.
80 miles to the east, Mark Dannels, a Republican, is the elected sheriff of the neighboring county, with six thousand square miles of land and 80 miles of border.
His office also has video of camouflaged drug mules bringing bundles from Mexico into the U.S.
His new surveillance cameras can peer into the Mexican hills two miles away. He says that little black structure on the top of the hill is full of cartel scouts. Dannels says militias don't have enough technology or legitimacy.
When you entrust a law enforcement agency, they've been vetted through a community. A process. Militias are not vetted. If they want to be eyes and ears like we talk about community policing, let it be. But it always goes to the next level where they're armed better than my deputies are.
Just down the road, U.S. Customs and Border Protection is completing a four-year-old upgrade of the border fence. There's a ranch that runs up to the border… and it's owned by John Ladd. His family has lived here continuously for 120 years. He says despite the fence, drug smugglers cross his property freely.
Their backpack is 50-pound pack in the back and 20-pounds in front. They'll take their dope to the highway, go back and get another load. They'll do three loads a day. The dope will be picked up by a vehicle on the highway.
He would like to see more Federal border agents, not militia groups.
If you're gonna be on the border, it's gonna be a legitimate agency that is gonna take care of the problem.
There's one more layer of criticism. Some local residents told me they're scared of Foley and the weapons he keeps in his house.
There are members of the community in general who are kind of scared of you, I think. I mean, should they be scared of you?
They shouldn't be. Because we are protecting them. And I told myself when I came down here, I wouldn't leave until it was secure.
In his first week in office, President Trump announced his proposals to secure the border: building a wall, hiring 5-thousand more border agents, and increasing prosecution of illegal immigrants.
"Beginning today, the United States of America gets back control of its borders, gets back its borders."
But Congress still needs to authorize the money and no one knows how much of the wall will be built, how many agents will actually be hired, or how effective the plan might be.
Foley isn't waiting. He vows to continue patrolling, no matter the critics.
I'm not doing this for myself. I'm not doing it for fame. I'm not doing it for fortune, because I'm broke as hell. I'm doing it for everybody. Because we do not know what is coming through that border.
Watch the Full Episode
Nick Schifrin is the foreign affairs and defense correspondent for PBS NewsHour, based in Washington, D.C. He leads NewsHour's foreign reporting and has created week-long, in-depth series for NewsHour from China, Russia, Ukraine, Nigeria, Egypt, Kenya, Cuba, Mexico, and the Baltics. The PBS NewsHour series "Inside Putin's Russia" won a 2018 Peabody Award and the National Press Club's Edwin M. Hood Award for Diplomatic Correspondence. In November 2020, Schifrin received the American Academy of Diplomacy’s Arthur Ross Media Award for Distinguished Reporting and Analysis of Foreign Affairs.
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