While state Republicans have just launched a website in an attempt to raise millions of dollars to construct a fence along the Arizona-Mexico border, a Thunderbird Farms resident believes in a more hands-on approach to stymie the flow of illegal drugs and immigrants crossing the border — armed citizens patrolling the desert.
Harry Hughes III, a Pennsylvania native who has lived in Pinal County for 20 years, remembers when it was safe for people to hike in the nearby areas of the wild desert, like Vekol Valley in the Sonoran Desert National Monument.
Now, there is so much activity from drug runners and illegal immigrants in the Sonoran Desert that the federal Bureau of Land Management has put up signs to warn visitors.
Hughes believes carrying a firearm — or two — is the only way for a law-abiding citizen to be safe in the desert.
“Because it is so remote out here, response times (by law enforcement) are high,” he said. “9-1-1 is not an option.”
Asked why he needs to carry more than one gun, Hughes said the drug smugglers have guns, too, so the more firepower you have, the better.
Hughes was one of the organizers of a three-day operation July 15 to 17 to track down drug runners and illegal aliens.
Hughes and other militiamen from across the country gathered on a Friday at a camp site on Vekol Road two miles south of Interstate 8. It was the second year in a row for their armed citizen patrol, called “Operation Line in the Sand II.”
At around noon Saturday, a pickup truck drove by the camp, heading toward I-8, on the dusty gravel road. The driver honked as he drove by just as the militia had finished a military-style briefing.
Several militia members were heard shouting “It’s loaded! It’s loaded!” as they jumped into their vehicles and began chasing the truck.
The pickup truck was loaded with bails of marijuana, according to U.S. Border Patrol agents who seized it minutes after it was seen by the militia.
“People say marijuana is a victimless crime, but it’s not victimless if this truck was stolen from a hard-working American,” Hughes said before the truck was towed away.
Hughes credits his group with spotting the vehicle and tipping off authorities. A press release from Border Patrol confirmed the vehicle was stolen and the agency was informed by a citizen. The report, however, did not mention what had happened to the driver.
Hughes said the militia does not take the law into its own hands, as they have no authority to arrest or detain people. He said they have good relationships with Border Patrol officers and other law enforcement personnel working on the ground, and they will give aid to the bad guys when they catch them.
“On Sunday (July 17), one of our patrols came across three smugglers on foot,” he said. “One of them wasn’t probably going to make it (in the heat) so we they gave them water.”
Hughes believes the group’s actions are based on a strong sense of patriotism. “Some of these guys are the most patriotic people you will ever meet,” he said.
Though he is a member of the Nationalist Socialist Movement Party, a political organization that promotes white separatism on its website, Hughes said he is not a hateful person. “The color of someone’s skin is the least of my concerns.”
If Hughes is a far-right extremist, as some of the posts from readers on Facebook indicate, he seems more like the Garrison Keillor of far-right extremists than a hard-boiled neo-Nazi type.
He is witty and intelligent, and seems as knowledgeable about the drug war and the politics behind it as a U.S. park ranger giving tourists a presentation about the Grand Canyon.
Hughes described the drug war as “cut-throat capitalism,” and for drugs to come into the country, he believes people are making money illegally on both sides of the border. “The street value of drugs has gone down instead of going up,” he said. “So that indicates the volume of drugs crossing the border has gone up.”
Unlike some members of the militia, who were standoffish and tight-lipped around the media during the operation, Hughes enjoyed sharing stories with the reporters from InMaricopa and ABC News about how drug smugglers hide their tracks with giant, handmade slippers he called “footies,” or how empty, burlap sacks found along a barbed-wire fence were likely used by smugglers to carry bails of marijuana on their backs.
“These bails can weigh anywhere from 40 to 60 pounds,” he said. “Most of these guys are young and will get between $200 to $300 for a five- or six-day hike through the desert.”
Despite his dedication to ridding the desert of drug smugglers, Hughes knows his political beliefs aren’t winning him many new friends.
Hughes said he has been attacked by people throwing rocks and bottles.
Asked if he is on any FBI lists, Hughes said he doesn’t know but is aware the FBI, CIA and U.S. Department of Homeland Security all read his blog. “I must have all the right key words,” he said.