Arizona Border Militia Spurred by Myth of Spillover Violence

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Fears in Arizona about Mexican cartel violence spilling into the US have led to a proposal for a new border militia, whose purpose and accountability are both highly questionable.

Last week, the Arizona Senate Appropriations Committee passed Bill 1083 by a vote of 7-6, bringing the creation of a volunteer border militia in Arizona one step closer. According to the text of the bill, the militia, named the Arizona Special Missions Unit, would be “established for the purpose of securing the safety and protection of the lives and property of the citizens of this state.” Their role would be to help local authorities to arrest individuals engaged in cross-border criminal activity.

The original proposal put the unit under the operations of the National Guard. However, the revised text that was recently approved had this element removed, instead putting the unit under a governor-appointed commander.

If signed into law, the unit would be comprised of 300 volunteers who will receive 40 hours of police training, learning how to pursue, detain and arrest suspects. In theory, each volunteer will have to go through a vetting process.

Two elements immediately stand out that would make the proposed unit unique. First, though there are currently 23 other states in the US with active guard units, the Arizona unit would be the only one with a primary focus on international crime, according to the Associated Press. Secondly, existing guard units in the US typically fall under the command of the National Guard; in Arizona, however, it appears as if the unit would be to some extent self-governing.

This move to disregard the norms of voluntary border patrol units raises a question — why do Arizona officials deem it necessary to arm a voluntary militia with seemingly unilateral powers?

The Republican governor of Arizona, Jan Brewer, has so far refrained from commenting on the bill. However, her fellow party members have come out as some of its biggest proponents, arguing that it is necessary in the face of incursions by Mexican cartels into Arizona. As Sylvia Allen, a Republican Senator from Snowflake, AZ, stated, “Something has to be done about the situation at the border — people are being terrorized.” In a separate commentary she added, “We are being invaded by criminals who have formed alliances with mid-eastern terrorists to use violence in the most evil of ways to intimidate, control and protect their drug, human smuggling, multi-billion dollar business.”

Arizona shares a 370-mile long border with Mexico, thus making it an inevitable transit point for drugs and other illicit activity stemming mainly from Mexico. Last year, US authorities dismantled a smuggling operation allegedly run by the Sinaloa Cartel that trafficked roughly $2 billion worth of drugs through the Arizona desert over a five-year period.

However, the claim from Arizona state officials that their populations are being terrorized by these trafficking operations comes up short when looking at the data. Like Senator Allen now, Brewer declared in 2010, “We cannot sacrifice our safety to the murderous greed of cartels. We cannot stand idly by as drop houses, kidnappings and violence compromise our quality of life.”

As the New York Times reported, Brewer was wildly off the mark. Arizona’s population has indeed swelled as a result of illegal immigration, but the incidence of violent crime in the state in fact declined over the last decade, from 532 incidents per 100,000 inhabitants in 2000 to 408 in 2010.

Given these facts, the arguments for the creation of an Arizona militia rest on a shaky premise. The US Department of Justice’s 2011 National Drug Threat Assessment also calls the proposed unit into question. Though Mexican gangs traffic large quantities of drugs — over 90 percent of which is marijuana — through remote points of entry (POE) in Arizona, they are increasingly turning their operations to ultralight aircraft in order to avoid border security, with smuggling operations by air on the rise since 2008.

The unit also has the potential to set a dangerous precedent in US border security. Arizona already has a checkered history of border control thanks in part to the famed Minutemen vigilante organization that sprung up in the state in 2005 to tackle illegal immigration. One of the organization’s members, Shawna Forde, was convicted last year for the murder of a Latino man, Raul Junior Flores, and his 9-year-old daughter in 2009. Forde reportedly believed Flores to be a drug trafficker.

Some, including Senator Steve Gallardo (D-Phoenix), warn that the Arizona Special Missions Unit could follow the same lawless path of the Minutemen. Though this may be unfair, there are risks in arming a few hundred volunteers with only minimal training in issues of border control. For example, in comparison to the required 40 hours for service in the militia, normal police officers must undergo 500 hours of training. As Arizona’s adjutant general of the National Guard stated, “I do have concerns about weapons … There’s a lot of things that have to occur before I feel comfortable putting a weapon in a volunteer’s hand.”

Furthermore, questions are beginning to be asked over the funding for the unit. Coming in at a relatively low, $1.4 million per year, the finances would be taken from Arizona’s Gang and Immigration Intelligence Team Enforcement Mission (GIITEM). GIITEM currently uses the funds to purchase weapons in Arizona’s fight against crime, and it does not seem clear that the state would be more secure if it was spent on a border militia. As the Arizona Daily Star argues, “This kind of legislation makes for good political sound bites … but it does nothing to address the complex challenges of securing the US-Mexico border.”

SB 1083 is still in the early stages and needs to meet the approval of the Arizona State House and the Senate before Governor Brewer can sign it into law. With so many issues around the bill and its potential consequences, it seems better to leave the battle against any “terror” coming from Mexico to the professionals.

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