NACO, Ariz. – It was a nasty night to be standing in the middle of the desert — moonless and cold, with gusting wind driving stinging sand and dust.
Yet civilian volunteers in the Minuteman Project (search) were spread out in groups of two to four to watch for illegal immigrants and drug smugglers along a remote stretch of the U.S.-Mexico border east of Naco (search), in southeastern Arizona.
They could have been mistaken for campers, if not for the absence of tents and campfires.
Buddy Watson, a 60-year-old retired prison guard from Springdale, Ark., said he was here because he hadn't done anything for his country since he left the service. He hoped to "kind of stem the tide a little bit," he said.
The volunteers, on the easternmost part of a line they said stretched along 20 miles of border, sat in the darkness for hours on canvas recliners or chairs or jumped in the backs of pickups to get a better view through binoculars or night scope.
They saw no one on their first night, Monday, but elsewhere in the Naco area that night the Border Patrol (search) apprehended 145 people.
Organizers say they want the patrols to call attention to what they say is the federal government's failure to secure the border against illegal immigrants, smugglers and potential terrorists.
Arizona is 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, more than half crossed the border into Arizona.
Law enforcement officials have said they fear the project will lead to vigilante violence, an accidental confrontation between armed volunteers and authorities, or a dangerous encounter with the violent smugglers who use the area.
The volunteers may alert authorities when they see someone cross the border, but are not allowed to detain anyone.
The first problems arose Wednesday, when a Mexican man complained that he was detained by three volunteers before being turned over to federal agents.
Authorities said no charges would be filed against the Minuteman Project members involved, but one of the three volunteers was dropped from the project Friday. Organizers said Bryan Barton violated the group's rules by giving the man food and $20 and posing for a picture with him and a T-shirt that read: "Bryan Barton caught an illegal alien and all I got was this lousy T-shirt."
Anita Randall, a second-grade teacher from Norco, Calif., said it had crossed her mind that she and her husband could be shot at along the border.
"But I believe in this," she said. "This is important. And it's important to take a stand."
Watson had some advice for other volunteers with similar fears.
"The best thing to do is just take cover," he said. "Then, defend your life."
Volunteer Darrel Wood of Price, Utah, spelled out a less confrontational policy.
"If anybody crosses that (border) fence, we're on the phone. That's all we do," Wood said. "They can break our windshields, it's not life-threatening. If they pull the gun out, it's life-threatening.
"If they're armed, we're out of here."