Brandon Stockwell, a film student at SDSU, climbs to the top of the border fence south of Campo and examines the rolling desert ridges of rural Mexico. The day is bright, the winter air clean and mild. Stockwell considers how the scenery will translate to film. Would black and white or color be more effective? And what about the soundtrack? Stockwell is exploring the prospect of producing a documentary on border policy as a school project.
A motorbike appears in a plume of dust on the American side, and the helmeted driver yells, “What’s your citizenship?” Before Stockwell can answer, a Border Patrol truck that’s following behind skids to a stop, and the half-amused agent says, “Oh, never mind. You’re definitely a gringo.” The men vanish in a haze of dirt, and it occurs to Stockwell that he has just had his first encounter with a Minuteman.
The Campo Minutemen are a small group made up primarily of retired veterans who work in cooperation with the Border Patrol to prevent illegal immigrants and drug runners from entering the United States. With the aid of night-vision binoculars, electronic sensors, and off-road vehicles, the Minutemen act as an extra set of eyes and ears. Most of them carry or at least own firearms. However, the Minutemen exercise a rule of noninterference with border crossers. Their function is to inform the agents of sightings and to let them take care of the rest.
The fence is made from Vietnam-era corrugated-metal landing mat. It is easily overcome by a simple climb and a hop in a matter of seconds. Riddled with gaps and occasionally nonexistent, the fence is as porous as a cobweb, a veritable monument to futility.
The Minutemen camp sits near the fence a few miles down a dirt road off Highway 94. A handwritten sign reminds passersby to “WATCH BORDER” and “STOP illegal immigration.” A generator drones beneath an oak tree. Motion sensors leer from rusted fence posts. Several American flags, tattered and faded, flitter in the arid afternoon breeze. Once teeming with eager patriots answering a call to arms, the camp now appears desolate and run-down. Only four trailers remain, one of which is full of trash.
Stockwell gets in his silver sedan and follows the border road east. Rumor has it that a man lives out here somewhere, set away from the rest of the Minutemen in a truck on a hilltop. To the other Minutemen he is “Kingfish,” an archetype, one of the last remnants of the old guard who first arrived in the summer of 2005. The local Border Patrol agents refer to him as “the Pirate” on account of the patch he wears over his left eye. But to Stockwell, the man assumes a mythic personage — he is an Obi-Wan Kenobi of sorts, a backcountry sage who roves the desert highlands alone, weathering cold nights and dubious circumstance.
The road is slick and steep. Stockwell’s car groans as it inches over a dusty hill. Chaparral, granite boulders, and the occasional roadside cactus dominate the expansive scenery. Border Patrol agents watch his progress, occasionally returning his timid wave, often stopping him to ask what brings him out here. They are alternately interrogative and congenial. Small talk is exchanged, but any questions make the agents suspicious and aloof. If Kingfish is Obi-Wan, the Border Patrol agents are Imperial Stormtroopers. They are the ultimate authority in this no-man’s-land.
The new section of wall becomes visible, a towering, rusted monolith of vertical metal slats that extend at least 20 feet skyward and 6 underground. There is no climbing the new wall. Furthermore, the spaced slats allow the wall to be see-through while remaining impassable, a bitter slap to the jowls of potential crossers. But just a few hundred yards to the east, the new wall ends, giving way to a shoddy stretch of landing mat and old rebar.
A few miles out from the main camp, Stockwell spots him. Parked high up on a vantage point beneath a power pylon, the truck occupies the best real estate around. Stockwell pulls over to the side of the road and makes his way through a maze of scrub brush and boulders, contemplating his intentions. What should he say? Will he be welcomed? Should he have brought some beer as a peace offering? Spare batteries as a thoughtful gift?
Stockwell crests the hill, and there he is, Kingfish, smiling and waving as if he’d been expecting Stockwell all along. A black dog bounds through the brush, smelling Stockwell’s hands. “Come on up,” Kingfish says. He stands tall in a plaid long-sleeved shirt and tan slacks, a nine-millimeter pistol tucked in the belt. A sticker in his camper window counsels, “If you can read this, thank a teacher. If you can read this in English, thank a soldier.” Beneath a wool beanie, his good eye scrutinizes the guest with a mixture of warmth and curiosity. “What brings you out here?” Kingfish asks.
“Well,” replies Stockwell, “I suppose I’m here to ask you the same.”
Britt “Kingfish” Craig says he has long felt a deep-rooted sense of appreciation and respect for his country. As a young man, Craig went to Vietnam to defend the American way of life, the national dream forged and handed down to him by his predecessors. Craig was wounded and given a medical discharge, but his sense of duty remained strong. While living in St. Augustine, Florida, in 2002, Craig ran for a seat in the state’s House of Representatives on behalf of the Libertarian Party. He received 11 percent of the vote.
Encouraged by his success, Craig considered running again but found a more immediate means of defending the dream in April 2005 at a Minutemen gathering in Arizona. Over 600 vigilantes showed up for the meeting at the border south of Tombstone. In June, Craig and several others relocated to Campo, where for months they contended with student demonstrators who accused them of being racists and over-the-hill eccentrics. As time went by, the fervor of both protestors and fellow Minutemen fizzled out.