A group of heavily armed militiamen confronted a team of scientists who had been studying bats in a cave near Sonoita last week, apparently mistaking them for illegal border-crossers or drug-smugglers.
No one was hurt during the late-night encounter in the Gardner Canyon area, but the incident highlights the potential for trouble when citizens take up arms in hopes of defending the U.S.-Mexico border.
U.S. Customs and Border Protection “does not endorse or support any private group or organization to take border security matters into their own hands as it could have disastrous personal and public safety consequences” the agency said in a statement.
The confrontation near Sonoita began at approximately 11 p.m. on Aug. 23, according to a report given by one of the scientists to a Santa Cruz County Sheriff’s deputy. The team of three researchers had been counting bats in Onyx Cave, and as they began walking back to their campsite near Gardner Canyon Road, they were flashed with a spotlight by a group of men.
The men reportedly began shouting at the scientists in Spanish, and identified themselves as a militia group protecting the U.S.-Mexico border. The scientists identified themselves and continued to walk to their campsite “while seeking cover,” according to the deputy’s report.
When they arrived at their campsite, they were again approached by the militiamen, who pulled up on an ATV while carrying a shotgun and wearing camouflage clothing. This time the militiamen were apologetic, but the reporting scientist told the deputy he still cursed them out and let them know how they had made him and his colleagues feel.
The researchers said they weren’t directly threatened by the militiamen and did not see any weapons pointed at them. Still, the reporting person described the encounter as “aggressive” and said he was concerned for the safety of other people who were camping in the area. He said he saw three militia members, but suspected there were more.
The report was made the afternoon after the encounter, and the deputy took no additional action on the matter. “Border Patrol had already dealt with the situation,” said Sheriff’s Lt. Raoul Rodriguez.
Border Patrol agents from the Sonoita Station had arrived at the scientists’ campsite during the incident after having been contacted by the militia group. An agent contacted later by the investigating deputy reportedly described the militiamen as “heavily armed,” even more so than the agent.
Neither the Border Patrol nor Sheriff’s Office could provide details about the militiamen, other than that they claimed to be from Colorado.
In a brief statement from the Border Patrol’s Tucson Sector, the agency said it received a phone call from a member of a militia group reporting suspicious activity near Sonoita at about 10 p.m. on Aug. 23.
“Sonoita station agents responded and encountered a small group of biologists studying bats,” it said.
The incident at Gardner Canyon comes amid a recent surge in militia activity along the U.S.-Mexico border in response to the recent influx of undocumented Central American migrants, many of them minors. And while much of the militia activity has focused on Texas, some groups have come to Arizona.
One militia group led by former Gilberton, Pa. Police Chief Mark Kessler arrived in Santa Cruz County earlier this summer, Rodriguez said.
Kessler was fired by the Gilberton borough council last September after posting expletive-filled YouTube videos of himself firing automatic weapons while railing against “libtards” and perceived enemies of gun rights, including Secretary of State John Kerry. He then announced he was forming a militia, III Percent Pennsylvania, and began drawing up plans earlier this summer to patrol the Arizona-Mexico border.
“Bring your gear, armor, helmets, first aid kits, MRE’s or canned food along with a lot of bottled water, but most important your ‘rifle, side arm’ & ammo!” Kessler wrote in a June 28 Facebook post to potential participants.
In a subsequent post on July 7, Kessler announced plans to depart July 19 “with a few friends” who were “going to patrol cartel mule paths that lead into Arizona, leading a small team to recon the area and set up.” The group was “expecting to make contact and be engaged by heavily armed cartel escorts trucking dope into Arizona,” he wrote.
Kessler and his team of 10-15 people later gathered at a hotel in Sierra Vista and ventured into Santa Cruz County, Rodriguez said, where they did not cause any documented trouble.
“I think they stayed a day or two, and then they left,” Rodriguez said, adding that the group was last seen heading for Texas.
For Kessler, the trip to the border was “absolutely a life changing exsperiance! (sic)” he wrote in a July 25 Facebook post.
“Learned a lot about how our border patrol protects our southern borders and that not everyone on the other side wants to jump the fence! They are perfectly happy living in their country! And not everyone is working for cartels! Not even the Mexican military,” he wrote, adding: “I’m sure their (sic) are small pockets of military units assisting/working with cartels but not every single unit as it was portrayed to me and the crew with me!
“I can say we were expecting to be attacked by heavily armed cartels and we drove 2500 miles to respond for assistance, willing to risk life and limb, not knowing what we were walking into, armed for an all out battle with drug smugglers,” Kessler wrote, adding: “thank god that didn’t happen.”
Apart from the recent appearances by Kessler’s militia and the Colorado group, Rodriguez said Santa Cruz County has seen little of that type of activity. Even when militias and border-watch groups like the Minuteman Civil Defense Corps began popping up in Arizona during the last decade, they focused their efforts elsewhere.
“The Minutemen, the militias, when they started off years ago, they were trying to organize but nothing really took off here, they never really established any type of stronghold,” he said. “It was usually in Cochise County.”
Referring to the incident near Gardner Canyon, Rodriguez noted the Border Patrol’s “strong presence” in the Sonoita area.
“I don’t know what these militia groups want to try to accomplish that they don’t think Border Patrol is trying to do,” Rodriguez said.
“Border Patrol does an outstanding job” with these types of groups, he said. “They go out there to be sure they’re not violating anybody’s civil rights.”
In its statement provided to the NI for this story, CBP noted that “Securing our nation’s borders can be dangerous.”
“Interdicting narcotics and deterring and apprehending individuals illegally entering the United States requires highly trained, law enforcement personnel,” it said. “In all cases, individuals should not attempt to detain, provide transportation or any other assistance to migrants that may be viewed as furtherance of illegal entry. Detaining or assisting an undocumented migrant could result in prosecution.”