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NACO, Ariz. — Members of a violent Central America-based gang have been sent to Arizona to target Minuteman Project volunteers, who will begin a monthlong border vigil this weekend to find and report foreigner sneaking into the United States, project officials say.
James Gilchrist, a Vietnam veteran who helped organize the vigil to protest the federal government’s failure to control illegal immigration, said he has been told that California and Texas leaders of Mara Salvatrucha, or MS-13, have issued orders to teach “a lesson” to the Minuteman volunteers.
“We’re not worried because half of our recruits are retired trained combat soldiers,” Mr. Gilchrist said. “And those guys are just a bunch of punks.”
More than 1,000 volunteers are expected to take part in the Minuteman vigil, which will include civilian patrols along a 20-mile section of the San Pedro River Valley, which has become a frequent entry point to the United States for foreigner headed north.
About 40 percent of the 1.15 million foreign nationals caught last year by the U.S. Border Patrol trying to gain illegal entry to the United States were apprehended along a 260-mile stretch of the Arizona border here known as the Tucson sector.
Many of the Minuteman volunteers are expected to be armed, although organizers of the border vigil have prohibited them from carrying rifles. Only those people with a license to carry a handgun will be allowed to do so, Mr. Gilchrist said.
An operational plan calls for teams of four to eight volunteers to be deployed along the targeted 20-mile stretch of border at intervals of 200 to 300 yards, along with observation posts and a command center.
Mr. Gilchrist said some of the patrols and posts will be right on the U.S.-Mexico border, while others will be located farther north. The volunteers also have been told to “make lots of noise and burn campfires at night to be very visible.”
According to guidelines issued to the volunteers earlier this month, organizers said they expect that they will be targeted by various protest groups and others and that some protesters would try to provoke confrontations.
“If we are to send the message loud and clear to President Bush and Congress, it is imperative we stay within the law,” Mr. Gilchrist said.
“If one single person steps over the line for their personal gratification, we are all stained with that irresponsible behavior and labeled forever as a fringe element that embarrasses all who are counting on us to make this historic statement,” he said.
The MS-13 gang has established major smuggling operations in several areas along the U.S.-Mexico border and have transported hundreds of Central and South Americans — including gang members — into the United States in the past two years. The gang also is involved in drug and weapons smuggling.
Gang members in America have been tied to numerous killings, robberies, burglaries, carjackings, extortion, rapes and aggravated assaults. Authorities said that the gang has earned a reputation from the other street gangs as being particularly ruthless and that it will retaliate violently when challenged.
The MS-13 gang, with 20,000 members nationwide, has risen in recent months to such prominence that U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE), the investigative arm of the Department of Homeland Security, has begun a nationwide crackdown on gang members in this country — as part of a sweeping law-enforcement initiative known as Operation Community Shield.
ICE agents arrested more than 100 members of the gang during limited raids that began in January in just six cities, including 35 who were taken into custody in Virginia and Maryland. The authorities said MS-13 gang members originally moved into the Los Angeles area in the 1980s.
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