At 3:23 a.m., July 5, code ``radiator hose'' came across the command radio, meaning ``need help, engaged in fire fight.'' Twenty armed members of the Civilian Materiel Assistance group (CMA), a paramilitary organization patrolling the Arizona-Mexican border, swung into action, touching off controversy in this part of the country and drawing sharp criticism from law-enforcement officials.
At that moment, ``Operation High Visibility,'' a mission to document the number of illegal aliens crossing the border, metamorphosed into ``Operation Intercept.'' After three days of camping out 30 miles east of the town of Nogales, Ariz., CMA members, described by one member as ``longing for action,'' captured 16 mahados (the Spanish word for ``wetbacks''), including women and children, 1 miles inside the United States border.
CMA members held their captives for 90 minutes until officers of the US Border Patrol arrived, according to Immigration and Naturalization Service (INS) officials. The mahados stood with their hands in the air and feet spread apart under high-intensity lights while CMA members with automatic weapons guarded them, according CMA sources.
There was no ``fire fight.'' The only shots fired, said CMA members critical of the action, were two rounds from the guns of the unofficial patrol.
Civilian Materiel Assistance, which recently changed its name from the Civilian Military Assistance, is based in Decatur, Ala. It is an anticommunist group founded by Thomas Vincent Posey two years ago to provide military and material aid for the ``contras' fighting the Sandinista government in Nicaragua. It claims an estimated 7,000 members nationwide, including 100 in Arizona. The volunteer group consists largely of veterans and at least one law officer, who was off duty and with the CMA patrol that detained the aliens.
The border operation, which took place on federal land in a remote Arizona area, was the first operation of its type that the CMA has engaged in within the US.
``We need to help the Border Patrol stop the flow of drugs across the border,'' said CMA Arizona chapter leader J.R. Hagan, who promises regular and even permanent patrols along the border in the future.
Saturday's action has come under fire from the INS. ``We do not approve of groups operating independently on the border,'' said William Duckham, deputy chief Border Patrol agent in Tucson. ``They should let the Border Patrol do its job.''
No charges were filed against CMA members, since there was no evidence that they exceeded their right to make a citizen's arrest, he said. But Chief Deputy US Attorney Daniel Knauss said he would contact the Justice Department to see if the CMA committed a federal offense.
Mr. Hagan of CMA stressed that no laws were broken and that the group's mission was only to ``observe, document, and report illegal activities'' in order to provide information to the INS and deter drug smuggling. He likened the group to a neighborhood watch program.
Patrol members, Hagan said, stumbled ``accidentally'' on the illegal aliens. ``We approached what we thought were two abandoned cars to see if there were any drugs in them, and the illegals froze under our spotlight.'' He added that the two vehicles had apparently experienced mechanical problems. But some angry group members, who wished not to be identified because of fear of reprisal, claimed patrol members fired the two shots and that CMA members crossed the border and penetrated 4 kilometers (2.8 miles) into Mexico with automatic weapons and sophisticated surveillance equipment.
They also said that the CMA set booby traps and hammered upright nails into wooden planks, causing four vehicles to have flat tires. (Two people escaped back across the border.) One member said he felt he was misled as to the mission's intent: ``I'm against illegal aliens taking jobs from Americans, but I'm not going to terrorize innocent people.''
Local residents also expressed anger at the CMA operation. ``If it is a neighborhood watch, why don't they tell the neighbors?'' asked C.R. Barbier, ranch manager at Lone Mountain Ranch, two miles from where the aliens were detained.