On The U.S.-Mexico Border, Civility Is Tested Out-of-state militias have arrived to patrol the U.S.-Mexico border, raising tensions and fear in tiny Arivaca, Ariz.

Militias Test The Civility Of An Arizona Border Town

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Arivaca, Ariz., population about 700, is a small town with an outsized problem. It's about 11 miles from Mexico, and it's become a magnet for self-styled militia groups. They say they've come to patrol the border and stop migrants. Arivacans have long prided themselves on their live-and-let-live, cooperative spirit. As part of our series on civility, NPR's Melissa Block reports the militias are putting that spirit to the test.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #1: I got two pair.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #2: Damn, I had a set of sevens.

MELISSA BLOCK, BYLINE: It's poker night at Joe Farrington's double-wide. Some of these guys have been playing together for nearly 40 years.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #2: You made me come off a set of sevens.


BLOCK: Between hands, I ask, how would you describe Arivaca?

JOE FARRINGTON: A nice oasis for people that don't like conventional life.

BRAD KNAUB: So many different types of people - cowboys, hippies, you know, miners.

BLOCK: That's Brad Knaub and Joe Farrington, who says with the camo-clad militias coming to town, things have changed.

FARRINGTON: Everybody used to be pretty open out here. But now you've got to kind of wonder, if you meet a stranger, is he just a nice hunter? Or is he some crazed guy that thinks everybody that lives in town is a criminal?

BLOCK: He's talking about what happened last year, when militias came and spread wild conspiracy theories that the townspeople were in cahoots with Mexican drug cartels and sex traffickers. One group, the Utah Gun Exchange, rolled into Arivaca in a black armored vehicle emblazoned with the slogan, take your country back - and with a replica machine gun mounted on top.

KEN BUCHANAN: Most everybody recognizes that, yeah, we don't want them here. We are not friendly to them.

BLOCK: This is Ken Buchanan, a retired cement mason who sports an impressive white beard.

BUCHANAN: We're not blatantly unfriendly to them. Did I mention they are heavily armed and crazy?

BLOCK: Arivaca is a one-street, blink-and-you-miss-it town set among the rolling hills of the Sonoran Desert. There's a mercantile, some adobe buildings that date to the late 1800s, also a humanitarian group's office with tables full of posters and bumper stickers that say, no human being is illegal. Arivaca has no local government, no police force. Look for civility in Arivaca, and you'll find it in the town's shared institutions, the community garden artist co-op and community center. Even the Internet is run as a co-op.

There is one bar and restaurant in town, La Gitana Cantina. These days, the owners have grown so fed up with the militias, they've posted a sign on the front door. It says, unwanted - members of any vigilante border militia group, do not enter our establishment.

MAGGIE MILINOVITCH: We've had confrontations with them about bringing their guns in here or harassing the people that work here. And so we just put the sign up. You cannot come in.

BLOCK: Maggie Milinovitch is one of the owners.

MILINOVITCH: It's the only way I have of putting my two cents in, saying that I don't think traveling across the country with your little guns and your Rambo attitude and going out and hunting human beings is acceptable behavior. It's not.

BLOCK: Among those specifically not welcome at La Gitana...

TIM FOLEY: My name is Tim Foley. I am the founder and field operations director for Arizona Border Recon.

BLOCK: Foley is lean and weathered, with piercing, pale blue eyes. He's new to Arivaca, moved here two years ago, and says Arizona Border Recon is not a militia. He organizes armed patrols to the borderlands.

FOLEY: When we do ops, I'll bring my guys in because a lot of places, Border Patrol won't go to. And then we'll plug up that section of the border.


FOLEY: Basically you occupy it. We sit out in the mountains for seven to 10 days at a time.

BLOCK: As for how he's viewed in town...

FOLEY: I've been called a racist. I've been called a Nazi and everything else. I just ignore them and let them flap their gums and - you know. I don't bother them, and they don't bother me. Well, I mean, they do. But I've gotten accustomed to it.

BLOCK: Many in town worry that more militias will come. They remember all too well the brutal crime that happened here 10 years ago, when members of a militia group murdered a local man and his 9-year-old daughter. Arivacans' worst fear is that something like that could happen again. We take a drive from Arivaca to the U.S.-Mexico border, a slow, bumpy ride through the Coronado National Forest.

JIM CHILTON: See these roads over there, all coming down this way? Those are in Mexico.

BLOCK: We're riding with ranchers Jim and Sue Chilton through rugged grassland and up mountains dotted with mesquite trees and saguaro cactus. The Chiltons raise cattle on this forest land, right up to the Mexico border.

SUE CHILTON: That's the international boundary.

BLOCK: We walk up to that border line. It's marked by four strands of barbed wire, waist-high, easy to crawl under or through. The Chiltons say the Mexican cartels run drugs through this land constantly. They're gung-ho about President Trump, think the Border Patrol is ineffective and really want to see a wall built here. These are contentious views in town. And civil discourse - well, that can seem elusive.

J CHILTON: Civility is the ability to speak one's mind without being threatened or without having to worry about being politically correct.

BLOCK: Does it still feel to you that Arivaca is a civil town?

S CHILTON: You keep going back to the word civil. And the answer is yes. It's entirely civil because we all know the situation. You just don't broach certain subjects with certain people.

BLOCK: Subjects like immigration or the militias. And as if on cue, as we're driving back we come upon a pickup truck carrying four guys in camo and shades.

J CHILTON: They're militia-types.

Hi there, guys.

BLOCK: The Chiltons don't recognize them but say if militias want to come and try to secure the border. They're all for it. Back in town, we meet Kristen Randall, who publishes the local monthly newspaper. She's among the Arivacans is deeply troubled by the militias.

KRISTEN RANDALL: You get further and further away from somebody who feels ownership of this community. They're from out of town. They don't care. And so as you get this more and more unstable element coming into town, that's what I'm concerned about.

BLOCK: And Randall has seen just how ugly it can get. For several years now she and others in Arivaca have been targeted by a local man who's harassed and threatened them with venomous letters, Facebook posts and emails. Mostly, he's incensed about immigration and what he calls liberal trash. It got so bad, the targets of his abuse went to court and got restraining orders against him. And Randall has taken other steps, things she never thought she'd do.

RANDALL: I started installing cameras in the house, and I bought a few guns too. We were scared. My life was turned upside down.

BLOCK: Still, Randall takes pride in her small monthly newspaper as a forum for civil discussion, a way to stitch this town together.

RANDALL: Even in a time where it feels that it can be so polarized, there's still this place where we can come together and talk about these things and listen. That's what civility looks like to me. And it's important. And I hope it doesn't go away.

BLOCK: The newspaper's name, Connection. Melissa Block, NPR News, Arivaca, Ariz.

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