Arivaca, Ariz., is a tiny village, population about 700, with an outsize problem.
It sits just 11 miles from the U.S.-Mexico border and has become a magnet for self-styled militia groups from out of state that say they want to patrol the border and stop migrants. Their presence has strained a town that has long prided itself on its live-and-let-live, cooperative spirit.
When the women of Arivaca gather for Monday afternoon gentle yoga, there are certain topics they know to avoid.
“We just don’t talk politics,” says Sue Soucy, a staunch supporter of President Trump. Then she adds: “Will I vote for Trump again? Absolutely!”
“And I would die before I would!” chimes in Marjorie Leon, to gales of laughter.
Avoiding politics helps keep the peace, says Mary Kasulaitis: “You have to choose not to rile up people.”
“Or, you just look for the commonalities: How are we more alike than different?” adds Wendy Dresang, a retired elementary school teacher who raised her three children in Arivaca. “When I think of why I’m so proud to be an Arivacan,” she says, “it’s because of that community of people caring about each other, helping each other. … People want to be for things, rather than against things.”
Eileen Jaffe agrees. “Because of the strong divisiveness that exists right now, it would be very easy to start arguing and getting upset,” she says. “We choose not to do that. We choose to be friends no matter what.”
Jaffe first came to Arivaca in 1971, part of a group of hippies who set up tepees and established a community off the grid, riding horseback and hauling their own wood and water. That community-minded spirit persists, these women say, and the militias are not welcome.
“It’s puzzling why they would be attracted to a place like this,” says Dresang.
“The problem with the militias is you don’t know who they are and you don’t know what they want,” says Kasulaitis, a local historian whose roots in Arivaca go way back. She grew up on ranchland that has been in her family since 1879. “I put ‘No Trespassing’ signs on my fence, not because of the border crossers, but because of the militia. They’re a worry to me.”
Tuesday night in Arivaca means it’s poker night at Joe Farrington’s double-wide. Some of the men gathered around the table have been playing poker together for nearly 40 years.
Farrington, a lifelong Arivacan, describes the town as “a nice oasis for people that don’t like conventional life.”
“A total eclectic village, is what I’d call it,” says his poker buddy Brad Knaub, who runs the local coffee roaster, Gadsden Coffee Co. “So many different types of people that somehow manage to get along. Cowboys, hippies, miners … No matter what, or where you come from, if you’re in need and need some help, people will step [up] to help you.”
Now, the militia groups’ presence is putting that harmonious spirit to the test.
“It’s made some of the locals more standoffish, a little more defensive,” says Farrington. “Everybody used to be pretty open out here, but now you gotta kinda wonder, if you meet a stranger, is he just a nice hunter? Or is he some crazed guy that thinks everybody that lives in town is a criminal?”
He’s referring to what happened last year, when militia groups came and spread wild conspiracy theories that the townspeople were in cahoots with Mexican drug cartels and sex traffickers.
One group — the Utah Gun Exchange — rolled into Arivaca in a black armored vehicle, emblazoned with the slogan “TAKE YOUR COUNTRY BACK” and with a replica machine gun mounted on top.
At the local hangout, tensions are up close
Many locals gather each morning at the local hangout, Caffe Aribac, which offers organic coffee blends like Kaldi’s Dancing Goats on the menu and tie-dyed T-shirts for sale up front.
On the “Thank You for Not Smoking” sign, someone has taken a black marker and scrawled the letter “P” over the “N” in “Not.”
Heidi Richter works behind the counter and sees tensions over immigration up close. Her customers include longtime locals, militia members, Border Patrol agents, and volunteers for the humanitarian groups that leave food and water for border-crossers out in the desert.
“When you get both sides in here,” Richter says, “there is a palpable, tense silence, and they won’t speak to each other. They kind of stare each other down. It’s almost like both sides just think the other side is evil. And therein lies one of the biggest problems.”
We find Ken Buchanan holding court under a shade tree outside the cafe.
He’s the unofficial “mayor” of Arivaca, which actually has no local government or police force. When Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump were running for president, Buchanan says, “it was so contentious that I decided to run for mayor as a joke, just something to laugh at.” Thanks to a vigorous ballot-box-stuffing effort at the cafe and local bar, he won.
As for the militias, Buchanan says: “Most everybody recognizes that we don’t want them here. We are not friendly to them. We’re not blatantly unfriendly to them.” With a sly grin, he adds, “Did I mention they’re heavily armed and crazy?”
In Arivaca, shared institutions and tensions
Arivaca is a one-street, blink-and-you-miss-it town, set among the rolling hills of the Sonoran desert, 60 miles south of Tucson.
There’s a mercantile, some adobe buildings that date to the late 1800s, and a humanitarian group’s office, with tables full of posters and bumper stickers that say “no human being is illegal.”
Look for civility in Arivaca and you’ll find it in the town’s shared institutions: a community garden, artist co-op and community center. Even the Internet is run as a co-op.
Look for a sign of the tensions, and you’ll find it on the front door of the one bar and restaurant in town, La Gitana Cantina. The owners have grown so fed up with the militias that they’ve posted a sign saying “UNWANTED: Members of any vigilante border militia group, including, but not limited to AZ Border Recon. Do Not Enter our establishment.”
“We’ve had confrontations with them about bringing their guns in here, or harassing people that work here,” says co-owner Maggie Milinovitch. “And so, we just put the sign up. You cannot come in. It’s the only way I have of putting my 2 cents in, saying that I don’t think traveling across the country with your little guns and your Rambo attitude, and going out and hunting human beings, is acceptable behavior. It’s not.”
One of those not welcome at La Gitana is Tim Foley, the founder of a group called Arizona Border Recon.
Foley lives in Arivaca. He moved here two years ago. He is lean and sun-weathered, with piercing, pale blue eyes.
Foley prefers to call Arizona Border Recon an “intelligence gathering company,” rather than a militia. Either way, he organizes armed patrols to the borderlands.
“When we do ops,” he says, “I’ll bring my guys in, because a lot of places Border Patrol won’t go to. And we’ll plug up that section of the border.”
How? “Basically we’ll occupy it,” he says. “We sit out in the mountains for seven to 10 days at a time.”
As for how he’s viewed in town, Foley shrugs. “I’ve been called a racist. I’ve been called a Nazi, and everything else,” he says. “I just ignore ’em and let ’em flap their gums. I don’t bother them and they don’t bother me.”
“Well,” he pauses. “They do. But I’ve gotten accustomed to it.”
Many in town worry that Foley’s presence in Arivaca will draw more militias to town.
They remember all too well the brutal crime that happened here 10 years ago, when members of a militia group shot and killed a local man, Raul Flores, and his 9-year-old daughter, Brisenia, in a home invasion. Arivacans’ worst fear is that something like that could happen again.
Along the border, support for Trump and the wall
The drive from Arivaca to the Mexico border is a slow, bumpy ride through rugged grassland and up mountains dotted with mesquite trees and saguaro cactus.
Ranchers Jim and Sue Chilton raise cattle on this land, part of the Coronado National Forest, right up to the Mexico border.
The international boundary is marked by four strands of barbed wire, waist high, easy to crawl under or through.
The Chiltons say the Mexican cartels run drugs through this land constantly.
Standing by the wire fence, Jim Chilton says: “I saw a group right over there, a year ago or more. Most of the people coming across our ranch drop their drugs, and they go back to Mexico for another return trip. They know the area. They know every trail.”
The Chiltons are gung-ho about President Trump, think the Border Patrol is ineffective, and really want to see a wall built here.
These are contentious views in town. And civil discourse? That can seem elusive.
As Jim Chilton sees it, “Civility is the ability to speak one’s mind without being threatened or without having to worry about being politically correct.”
When I ask Sue Chilton if it still seems like Arivaca is a civil town, she says, emphatically, “You keep going back to the word civil, and the answer is yes! It’s entirely civil because we all know the situation. You just don’t broach certain subjects with certain people.”
Subjects like immigration, or the militias.
As if on cue, as we’re driving back from the border, we come upon a pickup truck carrying four guys in camo and shades.
“They’re militia types,” Jim Chilton says, as he rolls down the window to call out a friendly “Hi there, guys!”
The Chiltons don’t recognize the men, but they say if militias want to come and try to secure the border, they’re all for it.
Southern Arizona Connection
Back in town, we meet Kristen Randall, who publishes the local monthly newspaper, Connection. It’s an open forum, Randall says; the only rules for writers are that they have to identify themselves and maintain civility.
“Please,” the paper’s website says, “no profanity, libel, name-calling or other bully[ing] behavior!”
Randall is among the Arivacans who are deeply troubled by the militias.
“You get further and further away from somebody who feels ownership of this community,” she says. “They’re from out of town. They don’t care. And so, as you get this more and more unstable element coming into town, that’s what I’m concerned about.”
Randall has seen just how ugly it can get.
For several years now, she and others in Arivaca have been targeted by a local man who has harassed and threatened them with venomous letters, Facebook posts and emails. Mostly, he’s incensed about immigration and what he calls “liberal trash.”
It all started, Randall says, when the man submitted a letter for publication that violated the paper’s rules of civility. She says his crusade of harassment began when she asked him to clean up the language.
Eventually, it got so bad that the targets of his abuse went to court and got restraining orders against him.
Randall has taken other steps, things she never thought she’d do. She installed security cameras in her house, and for the first time, she bought guns.
“We were scared,” she says. “My life was turned upside down.”
Randall has moved her family to Tucson but still comes back to Arivaca on weekends. She takes pride in her small, monthly newspaper, seeing it as a way to stitch this town together.
Randall says, “Even in a time where it feels … so polarized, there’s still this place where we can come together and talk about these things, and listen.”
“That’s what civility looks like to me. And it’s important. And I hope it doesn’t go away.”
Michel Marizco of KJZZ contributed research for this report.