In May 2009, a woman from Everett named Shawna Forde led an armed group dressed in camouflage into a modest home in Arivaca, a small Arizona town near the Mexican border. Forde’s stated objective was to steal $2 million or $3 million in proceeds from marijuana smuggling, with which she planned to finance the activities of anti-immigrant vigilante groups. Forde and her invaders murdered a smalltime smuggler and his 9-year-old daughter and left the mother of the family for dead. They found no money or drugs.
In “And Hell Followed With Her,” author David Neiwert describes in detail the process by which, due to the determination of the survivor, Gina Gonzalez, three of the four assailants were identified, caught, tried and convicted. (A fourth was never identified.) Neiwert also uses the incident as the context for an extensive and detailed examination of the groups who act as “border-watch vigilantes, people calling themselves Minutemen, angry American citizens who see the immigrants as invading enemies and whose activities are intended to send a message to the federal government demanding ‘border security.’” Neiwart describes a toxic mix of right-wing politics, egomania, paranoid exaggeration and, at least in Forde’s case, psychopathy.
The forces driving unauthorized immigration in the past 20 years are complex. The North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA), which took effect in 1994, permitted capital — but not labor — to cross borders freely. The resulting export of U.S. manufacturing was only a temporary benefit to Mexico, as companies later relocated to cheaper labor markets in Asia. At the same time cheap corn from the U.S. put a million Mexican farmers out of business, the U.S. economy was expanding and creating half a million unskilled jobs a year. The result was to push poor Mexican workers to travel north to cross the border without permission.
In response, the U.S. government stepped up efforts to stem the flow of people. The Clinton administration put additional resources into border enforcement at large population centers (El Paso, San Diego), which, in turn, diverted immigrants to less populated, desert routes.
One such route ran through Arivaca, where residents were used to immigrants crossing their land. Because the local economy provided few options, some locals participated in smuggling, of both people and marijuana. Arivaca murder victim Junior Flores worked for one of the two smugglers in town; one of the assailants worked for the other. But no one in town was getting rich from weed, much less to the tune of millions of dollars.
A dictionary definition of “nativism” is “the policy of protecting the interests of native-born or established inhabitants against those of immigrants.” People have held nativist ideas since U.S. independence, but the first border watch intended to stop illegal immigration was organized in 1977 by the infamous David Duke of the KKK.
During the 1980s, much of the radical right’s energy was diverted from the question of immigration. Eventually, the crackdown on the violent Aryan Nation and The Order gave rise to leaderless resistance and the formation of citizen militias.
By the 1990s, white supremacists had rebranded themselves as Christian Patriots, frequently more focused on regional complaints. In the Southwest this meant opposing the flow of Hispanic immigrants across the border. At the same time, some local people were also taking matters into their own hands by starting their own border patrols.
Numerous organizations, frequently with “Minuteman” as part of their name, formed and disbanded. They coordinated only loosely with each other and were marked by erratic leadership, boastfulness, exaggerated claims, financial irregularities, outright scams and grossly inflated statements of their size. Many of those involved, although not all, had strongly felt racist views and tended to blame the most vulnerable people for the nation’s problems. Armed patrols and threats of violence were common.
The leaders consistently sought to maximize exposure by the media, most of which did not question the organizers’ completely unsubstantiated and outlandish claims. These included assertions that immigrants carried the Ebola virus, Chinese troops were massing on the Mexican border, a group planned to retake the area ceded by Mexico after the Mexican-American War and smugglers carried weapons-grade uranium inside backpacks of marijuana.
Shawna Forde, who is now on Death Row, meets the textbook definition of a psychopath — and fit right in to the Minuteman movement. Convicted of numerous felonies, starting in her teens, she had a dramatically overblown sense of her own abilities and a gift of gab. She bullied her way through four husbands, one of whom hired someone to murder her, almost successfully. She faked her own sexual assault, ran for city council in Everett and created her own nativist organization, Minuteman American Defense. She ingratiated herself with leaders of several of the more prominent nativist organizations, despite the fact that she lied to them, stole their money and shamelessly played one against the other.
Niewart substantiates in detail his conclusion that Forde’s actions are logically explained by the personalities and the political views that gave rise to and characterized anti-immigrant border-watching organizations: “Shawna Forde’s symbiotic embrace of the Minutemen was not accidental nor even the random result of circumstances, as is often the case with psychopaths and the means they employ to their often criminal and sometimes violent ends. It was a virtual inevitability, given the nature of their politics, agenda and rhetorical fuel.”
The impact of the Arivaca murders on right-wing border watchers was profound: “They don’t call themselves Minutemen anymore, because of Shawna Forde — or more precisely, thanks to Gina Gonzalez and her will to fight. There are still border watchers out there, and the shells of the national Minuteman organization linger on in a zombielike half-life. But the Minutemen and their nativist supporters have gone on to greener, Tea Partying pastures now.”
But that’s another story.