NACO, Ariz. – Clusters of citizens who volunteered to watch for illegal immigrants and smugglers dotted a swath of the Mexican border as their monthlong effort to bolster authorized patrols got under way in earnest.
Volunteers for the Minuteman Project (search) had a limited presence on the border during the weekend but spent Monday expanding their line southeast of this border community. They gathered in groups of three or four spaced out about every quarter mile. Some sat in lawn chairs, others stood scanning the desert with binoculars.
Dave Carpinello, a Denver investment banker who had a pistol on his hip and wore a T-shirt reading "I defended the border," said he was here out of concern that potential terrorists could penetrate the porous border.
"For me, it's not so much concern for the illegal immigration," said Carpinello, who spent part of the weekend in the desert. "Anyone and their mother could fly to Mexico and walk right over here. That's a scary thought."
Border patrol officials said the volunteers have been peaceful but have still been disrupting U.S. Border Patrol (search) operations by unwittingly tripping sensors that alert agents to possible intruders. Agents have to respond to the false alarms, which pulls them off their normal patrols, said Andy Adame, a patrol spokesman.
When the volunteers aren't deployed, an alarm from a sensor — some of which are as close as 25 feet from the border — probably means there are illegal immigrants or drug smugglers in the area, Adame said.
"Now we not only have to look out for aliens and drug smugglers, now we have to look out for these untrained civilians who are unfamiliar with the landscape," he said.
The volunteers, many of whom were recruited over the Internet, plan to watch the border in shifts 24 hours a day during April and report any illegal activity to federal agents. It's an exercise some law enforcement officials fear could lead to vigilante violence or an accidental confrontation between armed volunteers and authorities.
Organizers said they would have 200 volunteers out Monday. There was no way to verify the count independently since authorities aren't keeping track of the numbers.
The idea, according to project organizers, is partly to draw attention to problems on the Arizona-Mexico border, considered the most vulnerable stretch of the 2,000-mile southern border. Of the 1.1 million illegal immigrants caught by the Border Patrol last year, 51 percent crossed into the country at Arizona.
But things were quiet in the area where Carpinello and a companion, Sean Donahue, a Denver mortgage banker, have been stationed. They had seen a few people across the border some 300 yards to the south, but no one came up to where they were Monday, said Donahue.
"No one's crossing and that was the goal, to show the government that if we have people out here no one's going to cross," said Chris Simcox, Minuteman field operations director.
Adame said apprehension numbers have gone down since the volunteers arrived, an indication that fewer people might be trying to cross. But he also noted that the Mexican military and police have been conducting some kind of operation south of the Naco area, which tends to drive down crossings.