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Day 6: Douglas

Hunting the hunters

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Hunting the hunters

"WHEN AGUA Prieta sneezes, Douglas catches pneumonia," goes the saying. Douglas, population 15,000, is dwarfed by its southern neighbor Agua Prieta, population 150,000.

It wasn't always this way, explains Ray Ybarra's mother as we sat on her father's porch, literally a stone's throw away from the border wall.

Some 30 years ago, Douglas and Agua Prieta were about the same size, she explains. But the growth of the maquila zone and the U.S. squeeze on border crossers in urban areas has created a huge bulge in Agua Prieta. People come, looking for work and looking to cross--and they end up staying.

Ray spent his early childhood in Douglas, and even after he moved elsewhere in Arizona with his parents, he returned frequently to visit his grandfather. For the last two years, Ray has been taking time off from Stanford Law School.

He has returned to his native Southwest to hunt the hunters.

Standing on International Avenue in Douglas, he recounts his youth for the camera. He shot a documentary, Rights on the Line, about tracking the Minutemen and other vigilante groups--tailing them as a legal observer when they do their desert patrols, and then following the trails of their victims to Michoacan, in order to help them file a lawsuit against their vigilante abusers.

"If you just look at the gigantic steel fence, you can see a huge difference from what it was like when we were growing up here," Ray says in Rights on the Line. "There actually used to be a lot more foliage around, but it's been stripped bare so people can't hide as well.

"Nowadays, it's really hard to have that same kind of experience of just being in a backyard. Instead, now, it feels more like you're in a war zone."

As we sit on his porch, it's easy to see what he means. Border Patrol vehicles gun their noisy diesel engines, speeding up and down his street, in response to a tripped electronic sensor or a radio call: "Echo-Charlie-one-three, check sector two! Check sector two!" "Nothing's here," comes the reply. "It's just a lost armadillo."

Border Patrol agents are so ubiquitous--and new faces so unusual--in small-town Douglas that when Justin goes to a local bar, someone asks him whether he's Border Patrol or a prison guard. According to a realtor, 60 to 90 percent of new home sales are to Border Patrol agents.

All along the wall on the U.S. side sit dozens upon dozens of 12-foot-tall light towers, each with their own diesel generator, powering four stadium lights each. "Nightbuster 4000" proclaims each unit proudly They cost the federal government somewhere between $2,000 and $3,000 a piece.

We're stunned to realize that we're looking at half a million dollars worth of lights--not to mention the diesel, manpower and other maintenance needed to keep the running 24/7.

Ray takes us to a ranch on the edge of Douglas. In March 2003, Casey Nethercott, a member of Ranch Rescue, had gone on a desert patrol to "hunt" for migrants. Nethercott illegally detained and physically abused two migrants from El Salvador. Following a successful lawsuit, Fatima del Socorro Leiva Medina and Edwin Alfredo Mancia Gonzales are now the legal owners of the ranch.

Ray points out the lookout towers and walls with slits cut out for surveying the land with binoculars or gun sights.

The idea for the lawsuit came from Ray himself, who helped file a similar suit against Roger Barnett, the grandfather of today's border vigilante groups--after discovering through an open records request that Barnett also "detained" a group of migrants crossing his ranch. After abusing them for some amount of time, Barnett handed over his "prey" to the Border Patrol.

Ray decided that Barnett's crime couldn't go unpunished. So he went to Mexico in search of Barnett's victims. He made the trip on his own dime; found, with the help of a Catholic priest in Michoacan, one of Barnett's victims who was willing to file suit; and made four more trips (with financial help from other attorneys, the ACLU and the Mexican American Legal Defense and Education Fund) to meet 17 others willing to sign on to the suit.

While this suit is still awaiting final disposition, Ray's success has so far kept Barnett from detaining any more migrants--at least as far as he knows. "Either that, or they're more in cahoots with law enforcement, and law enforcement officials are not reporting it anymore," he says.

We ask Ray his opinion about the ongoing debates among activists about whether to confront the Minutemen and other vigilante groups, whether they show up in the desert or in the parking lots of Home Depot.

"When I started my work, the general sentiment in Arizona was to not confront the Minutemen or other vigilantes, and just let them do their thing, because anything we do against them will just get them more media attention, which is what they want," says Ray. "That was the attitude in the late 1990s with Roger Barnett--just ignore him, let him do his thing, and he'll go away.

"Well, the opposite happened. Glen Spencer moved down here with the American Border Patrol. Ranch Rescue moved down here. Because there was no confrontation, there was nobody getting out there and saying, 'No, you can't come to the border and hunt human beings.' There was just a free for all, so they felt welcomed in the community.

"Historically, when they're ignored by activists, they grow, and they become more mainstream because nobody is challenging them. They can say whatever the hell they want to whoever the hell they want to, and the media is going to print it because they just want to print their story."

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