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Do-it-yourself border patrol: one man's vigil with a gun and spotlight

Lynn Kartchner heads to the border at nightfall with a spotlight to help the border patrol catch drug smugglers. It's a sign of the prevailing sense of urgency along the US-Mexican border.

By Lourdes MedranoCorrespondent / November 30, 2010

Cochise County resident Lynn Kartchner, who wears a sidearm, tests a modified military searchlight that he uses to look for illegal activity at night in Arizona.

Lourdes Medrano

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Douglas, ARIZ.

If night and the high mountains that enclose the San Bernardino Valley are the greatest allies of drug smugglers trying to cross the US-Mexican border, then Lynn Kartchner intends to become one of the smugglers' worst enemies.

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A shop owner who has sold guns to alarmed ranchers and seen one of them die – perhaps at the hands of a smuggler – Mr. Kartchner is setting up on random nights on the property of six local ranchers along the border. With him is a military searchlight fitted with night-vision scopes and a siren. The idea is simple: Find smugglers and call the border patrol – and if trouble starts, be ready.

"If they shoot at me, I will shoot back," Kartchner says of intruders. "And if I see them bringing up a weapon I'll shoot them before they shoot me."

Kartchner's effort echoes far beyond Arizona's Cochise County, which one expert calls "ground zero of the American vigilante movement."

From the alleged murder of a tourist on Texas' Falcon Lake by Mexican pirates to the killing of Kartchner's rancher friend, Robert Krentz, in March, there is a growing perception along America's southern border – sometimes at odds with statistics – that the US government is powerless to stop drug violence from crossing the border.

To some, the idea of armed civilians is a bad answer. "I'm not saying this guy would murder someone, but he might get confronted in a way that guns are pulled and people are shot," says Mark Potok of Alabama's Southern Poverty Law Center, which documents border vigilantism.

Cochise County Sheriff Larry Dever, however, says the border patrol needs help: "I'm grateful that we have citizens that are willing to step up to the plate."

What is clear is that Kartchner's plan, like Arizona's controversial immigration law, is a signal of the desperation that many Americans along the border feel.

"We've seen this time and time again over the last 10 years, whether it's people putting up their own little drones in the sky, or marching along the border with guns," says Mr. Potok.

This has been particularly true in Cochise County since the mid-1990s, when tightened border enforcement began shifting illegal activities from urban areas into far-flung desert terrain. In 2005, for example, the county spawned the Minuteman Project, a controversial attempt to have neighborhood-watch-like citizen patrols on the border.

Cochise County is part of the busy, 262-mile Tucson sector, which boasts the most manpower along the 2,000-mile Southwest border and yields 40 to 50 percent of marijuana seizures, according to the border patrol.

But statistics present a mixed portrait of the region today. Border apprehensions in the Tucson sector dropped from 616,000 in fiscal 2000 to 241,000 in fiscal 2009. The violent crime rate in Arizona as a whole is falling, and homicides in Cochise are steady.

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