They Touted themselves as fearless patriots standing up for the defense of the homeland. Their enemies painted them as dangerous vigilantes who threatened to create a bloodbath on the US-Mexican border. In the end, the so-called Minuteman Project a private, month-long initiative to patrol the southern Arizona border and fend off illegal immigrants has turned out to be little more than an April Fool's joke.
For weeks, the US media has been intrigued by the possibility of a major stand-off in the Sonoran desert, envisioning armies of white supremacists armed with Uzis and Kalashnikovs, gunning down Mexican immigrants trying to make the dash across the sand and brush to a brighter economic future.
Calling herself a 'Legal Observer,' Kristen Dillon uses the roof of her group's van as a perch to monitor the activity of Minuteman Project volunteers along the U.S./Mexico border west of Douglass, Arizona April 3, 2005. Minuteman volunteers are manning observation posts around the clock for the month of April along the border in the eastern part of Arizona to bring attention to the number of illegal immigrants coming north from Mexico. The Legal Observers, who are affiliated with the American Civil Liberties Union, are concerned that Minuteman Project volunteers, some of whom are armed, could harm illegal immigrants. REUTERS/Fred Greaves
The American Civil Liberties Union sent in its own army of legal observers. Local politicians and residents alternately bristled at the prospect of these uninvited out-of-town enforcers, or else welcomed them as a much-needed counterweight to the heavily Latino local establishment.
As the call to arms began over the weekend, satellite trucks and television equipment vans lined the streets of Tombstone, the tourist town made famous by Wyatt Earp and his shoot-out at the OK Corral. Anticipation was at fever pitch. But the supposedly redoubtable army of right-minded citizens, stepping in where the federal government fears to tread, turned out to be no more than a couple of hundred pot-bellied retirees.
Some, it is true, were armed with 9mm semi-automatic pistols, but most turned up with nothing more threatening than lawn-chairs.
The 1,000 people promised by the Minuteman Project's organizers
ended up at just 480, the organization said. Reporters who attended their inaugural rallies outside two Border Patrol stations in Cochise County, south of Tucson, said there were 150.
A few groups of volunteers "patrol" would be too grand a word for it eventually fanned out along the border on Saturday and Sunday, and one alerted the Border Patrol to suspected illegals. But mostly, media crews were left staring at each other, wondering what the fuss was about. When news of the Pope's death hit the South-west at lunchtime on Saturday, several journalists were called home, as the airwaves were bombarded instead with a non-stop diet of mourning and remembrance. As Ray Borne, the mayor of the border town of Douglas, told reporters: "This is a monster created by the media. But by Tuesday it's going to fizzle out."
Cochise County has been the scene of clashes over immigration before, with a rash of shootings of Mexicans causing outrage three years ago.
The Minuteman Project was the brainchild of a retired accountant from southern California, teaming up with a local anti-immigration activist called Chris Simcox.
Mr Simcox has a record of talking more loudly than his actions would warrant. In 2002, he founded a group called Civil Homeland Defense in Tombstone and told the media he was training 600 volunteers to patrol the border. Only a handful showed up.
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