What if you threw a border patrol operation and nobody came?

The town is in ruins.

Buildings that aren't abandoned have been reduced to rubble. Mangy dogs patrol the small grid of dirt roads. The town square consists of a dusty corral harboring emaciated cattle. The few remaining human residents are weary and wary of faceless operatives maneuvering in their midst under the cover of darkness.

But liberation is at hand. The men in camouflage are making sure of that. They stand sentry on the outskirts of town with semiautomatic weapons on their hips and smoldering cigarettes between their lips, scanning the horizon for hostile forces.

This isn't Basra. It's not near Fallujah.

The closest Green Zone is 45 miles away at Pancho Villa State Park and it ain't all that green. But this is still occupied territory.

This is Hachita.

It's nothing more than a skid mark in the southern New Mexico desert. A cluster of buildings on a highway to nowhere you want to go. The remnants of an old mining camp historically divided into two parts: New Hachita and Old Hachita. The latter is a ghost town but the distinction is negligible. In 1916, this was a base where the forces of General John "Blackjack" Pershing mobilized before launching a punitive expedition against Pancho Villa and his Mexican marauders.

Now it's the base for another punitive expedition, though exactly who is being punished is uncertain. For the duration of October the town is headquarters of the New Mexico chapter of the Minuteman Civil Defense Corps, an organization whose ranks are comprised of industrious patriots or xenophobic vigilantes, depending on whose press release you received that day.

Ostensibly they are here to defend the American border from what one of the organization's founders has called the "invading illegal aliens who are devouring and plundering our nation." In reality they are here to suckle every sweet drop of newsprint they can squeeze from the udder of controversy (in a state where border violence over the summer made headlines).

The world is a stage and we are all but players. But lurking behind this curtain is an array of puppeteers, politicians and publicity hounds pulling the strings on an elaborate marionette show that extends far beyond the fleeting novelty of the MCDC.

Nonetheless, they are here.


Gary Cole wants a damn cigarette.

"I miss it after meals the most," Cole says, yawning in front of the Hachita Community Center. "You know, after a biiiiiiig breakfast. Oh, man. There's nothing better."

Cole was a chimney in another life. He used to

smoke three to five

packs

a day before he kicked the habit. Now he has another fix. He is a Minuteman. Technically he resides in the tiny mountain town of Index, Wash. but he's spent the last six months living out of a camper on the back of his old Toyota pickup with the "Want my vote? Secure the borders" bumper sticker on the back.

Cole was the operations manager for the original Minuteman Project operation in April that focused international attention on a merry band of rednecks gathered in Tombstone, Ariz. Hundreds of flag-waving, gun-toting volunteers camped in RVs, sat in lawn chairs and looked through binoculars. Kind of like a NASCAR race without the cars.

It was a rousing success for an organization trying to shove the issue of illegal immigration into the floodlights. It hardly mattered that there were as many journalists, protestors and gawking spectators on hand as there were actual Minutemen.

The Arizona incursion also

tapped a powder keg by mobilizing enough armchair conservatives to allow the MCDC to expand its operations into at least seven states on the Mexican and Canadian borders for the duration of October.

That's why Cole is in Hachita overseeing the administration of New Mexico operations at base headquarters inside the community center. Accommodations inside the squat, rectangular building are Spartan at best. Signs on the windows read "Propriedad Privada: No Pase Sin Permiso." Not that there is any danger of anyone trespassing. Inside there are more flies than people.

At first glance, Hachita hardly seems an ideal outpost. But the Minutemen have a good reason for being here. Illegal traffic is reportedly being funneled into the Hachita Valley by heightened border security courtesy of an emergency declaration by Gov. Bill Richardson in the east and the Arizona Minutemen to the west. But the location has as much to do with geography as it does politics. According to MCDC intelligence, immigrants are filtering through the valleys formed by the Apache, Hatchet and Sierra Rica Mountains.

"Topography is the defining characteristic of how people move," Cole says. "People don't walk over mountains, they walk around them. If I was a cow or a relatively lazy human being how would I get from point A to point B? I'd follow the path of least resistance."

Bob Wright is the path of most resistance.

The stocky president of MCDC-New Mexico manages a Chevron plant in the civilian world, but out here he moves with the seasoned swagger of a field general. His head is shaved. His mustache is neatly trimmed. He wears a black military cap and a khaki field vest. His snug jeans are accessorized with a pair of hunting knives. He looks, in short, like a

GI Joe

Sgt. Slaughter action figure come to life.

He could kill you with his bare hands. Luckily he carries a

remarkably sunny disposition for a former Marine. Besides, he's too busy preparing his troops for the trenches to bother.

"We will deploy them tonight and let them get their feet wet," Wright says. "We will have a static line that will ebb and flow depending on what our intelligence tells us. That line will extend as far as our manpower will allow."

Which isn't far. There are about two dozen volunteers at base camp right now. Wright says the low turnout is understandable considering the effects of hurricanes, gas prices and the ambition of a multi-state MCDC defensive. Besides, Hachita is no Dollywood.

"This New Mexico operation is tough," Wright says. "In other projects there were towns with hotels, restaurants and gas stations close by. Here there's nothing. It's a logistical problem, sure, but if it means [eating] 'beenie weenies' and having our headquarters in a vehicle we'll get it done."

Presently, the mobile headquarters-Wright's black Ram Charger-is parked in front of base headquarters. Clothes hang on hooks in the back seat. Rosary beads hang from the rearview. A holstered pistol sits on the passenger seat.

Wright is here to escort a small contingent of journalists to base camp, located on a private ranch 16 miles south of Hachita. He hops in the Charger and heads south toward Mexico on Highway 81. This lonely ribbon of scorched asphalt serves as the proverbial line in the sand dividing the Minutemen from their quarry crossing the border 15 miles to the east.

The caravan speeds through a desolate landscape of whirling dust devils, rusty barbed wire and squat strands of Yucca trees. The smokestack towering over an old Phelps Dodge smelting factory comes into view. These days it serves primarily as a navigational beacon for smugglers, universally known as

coyotes

. Wright turns off the highway and skids to a stop in front of a large green gate.

A bearded man in a boonie hat stops each vehicle to

crosscheck occupants with names on a clipboard before waving them through. He carries a pistol to dissuade anyone from circumventing the perimeter without his permission.

Base camp is located in an abandoned homestead transformed to host a small fleet of pickups, motor homes and tents pitched on the barren flood plain in the foothills of the Hatchet Mountains. The vehicles bear license plates from California, New York and a half-dozen states in between.

"You don't have to live on the border to be concerned with what's happening to this country," says Charles Lindberg. "There are a lot of people back home who are concerned about this issue."

Lindberg drove for three days from Poplar Bluff, Mo., and will live in his Chevy S-10 pickup for the next week. The retiree sports a white cowboy hat adorned with an American flag pin. His arms bear faded tattoos from two decades in the Marine Corps. That experience will serve him well here.

"We're on a postage stamp in the middle of nowhere," Lindberg says. "There aren't many people who could leave their homes and live out here for a week, but I spent 20 years in the service. To me this looks like Camp Pendleton, Korea or Vietnam without the trees. It all looks the same. It's the people you're with that makes the difference."

As Lindberg talks, the steady

ting-ting-ting

of a sledgehammer meeting a metal spike rings out across camp as volunteers erect the field command center beneath a large Army surplus tent. Lindberg isn't a Minuteman yet. He won't be until he's survived the rigorous training regimen, which consists of a tutorial on how to operate a walkie talkie and a dramatic reading of the

Official Minuteman Volunteer Manual.

This is the MCDC bible and includes the Standard Operating Procedure that dictates volunteers act courteously, obey the law, pick up trash, start no fires, make no contact-verbal or otherwise-with immigrants and offer no response to the taunts of antagonists, which the manual says, "come in many forms."

Lindberg is cautioned about the dangers of rattlesnakes, reporters and other venomous critters. He is informed that there is zero tolerance for Ninja Turtles, the MCDC phrase for overzealous volunteers eager to turn Hachita into Korea circa 1951. A few shout-outs to Chapstick and a couple Alpha, Bravo, Foxtrots later, Lindberg is officially a Minuteman.

Nearby, Jim Kahrs-a former Marine from Pagosa Springs, Colo.-wears his minty fresh Minuteman badge proudly. "This is not a Democrat or Republican issue," Kahrs says. "It's an American issue.

Everyone deserves a chance, but until our country is brought under control we can't allow any more people to come here illegally. We need to clean up the mess we already have."

According to Kahrs, a devout Christian, the mess has been created by moral decay manifested in issues like abortion, same-sex marriage and illegal immigration.

"Will this make a difference? I hope so," Kahrs says. "Will I be disappointed if it doesn't? No. It's just like being in the service. You can't worry about stuff like that. All you can do is say that you did your job and walk away with your head held high."

Or ride away. The MCDC has an official cavalry division called the Rough Riders which, at the moment, consists of two men on horseback trotting out of the New Mexico desert into base camp. MCDC also has a small "air force" of private pilots and a "navy" of

Bass Masters

fanatics. For now, the Rough Riders will do.

Robert Been-the cavalry commander-informs Wright that his recon mission turned up a stash of plastic water bottles and burned clothing, most likely incinerated to combat the biting nighttime cold. Been knows this is the detritus of an illegal migration. He has lived in the Hachita Valley for 42 years and dealt with immigrants for just as long.

"When I was a kid, there would be 50, 60 people in a bunch come up to the house," Been says. "We'd feed as many as we could but the next day there would be another 50, 60. They weren't breaking in or anything but, goddamn, how many can you feed on cowboy wages?"

Instead his family gave migrants work on the family ranch. But that was then. This is now.

"Basically those were good people, just hungry," Been says. "But they're not the same anymore. Now these guys don't care about anybody or anything."

Been bears witness to the ravages of the new illegal immigrant. People breaking into houses, stealing clothes, food and cars. Tearing down fences, cutting livestock water lines,

knocking on the

door at

3 am to offer $1,500 for a ride to Phoenix. Drug runners stashing bales of marijuana in the mountains.

"All the ranches from here to Columbus have had problems," Been says. "When [the Minuteman Project] started in Arizona all the traffic started heading this way. Now that they're here, they've been going around us. Word gets around."

Which partially explains how this motley band of crusaders from across the country has assembled in the Middle of Nowhere, New Mexico.

"We are very isolated out here," Don Wooley, the national MCDC-New Mexico recruiter, says, estimating that the Arizona operation had 10 times as many people. "If you're not used to extreme elements you're going to have a tough time. But most of these folks are used to camping in adverse conditions. It's more of a severe nuisance for us."

Wooley's measure of isolation is based in part on how far away the nearest Wal-Mart is. In this case, 70 miles away in Deming. So, very isolated. But Wooley will make do, spending his October vacation among comrades in his 24-foot motor home.

"Out here it's a palace," Wooley says. "I don't envy the poor bastards in the tents. But they're dedicated. They're good people. They're patriots."


Charlie Cox has drawn first blood.

He used a stick to stun his prey with a vicious blow to the back. Then he stomped its head into the dust with his cowboy boots before cutting off a souvenir and heaving the dead carcass into the bushes. Now he's sitting in a lawn chair in the shade of his black Chevy Scottsdale, savoring his victory as vultures circle in to feast on his victim.

"Look at them buzzards," Cox says, pointing to the sky. "They're prolly gonna eat that rattler I killed over by the corral."

Killing rattlesnakes is part of the daily routine when you've lived in this unforgiving environment for 15 years.

But reptiles aren't the only things Charlie and his wife Laura routinely find hiding in the bushes on their horse ranch east of Deming.

"Ah hell, they're coming up through our place like freight trains," Charlie Cox says. "We see it all the time. There'll be a car on the road flashing its headlights

click-click-click

, then we see 'em jump out of the bushes and jump in the car."

So many illegal aliens cross their property, wash socks in their horse troughs and hide out in their stables with the Appaloosas that the couple rarely ventures away from home together. Usually one of them stays behind to look after the horses. But this is a special occasion.

"There are so many foreign people coming through here," Cox says. "Hell, it ain't just Mexicans neither. You look through the binoculars and they're some who look damn near black. It's the strangest thing. I don't know where they're coming from. Could be Cuba."

Could be. Unless it's those damn Jamaicans. But wherever the immigrants are coming from, the Coxes say authorities simply shrug their shoulders when they show up at all.

"We've called the Border Patrol many times and nothing ever happens," Laura Cox says. "We joined the Minutemen with the hope that we could make a difference."

The Coxes are Rough Riders, though they're sitting this one out. Instead they

sit in lawn chairs, sip coffee and

speculate on the causes and effects of illegal

immigration.

"It's like this, if you want to come here to work you ain't gonna have a damn bit of trouble getting a work permit with a legit contractor," Cox says. "I don't want 'em coming through and messing my country up anyway, but Mexico has so many minerals-gold, silver, coal-why don't they produce 'em and get that country on its feet? But oh no, old Foxy [Mexican President Vicente Fox] is gonna take care of himself."

As Cox continues talking, Wooley-whose informal title is Regional Damage Control Expert-quickly intervenes. The Minutemen want publicity, but they also are wary of their public image.

"We could care less if we don't spot anyone," Wooley says. "This isn't about immigration. This isn't about illegals. It's all about getting you down here to ask us questions. I wish there were 100 reporters down here. But you're not going to get 100 reporters to cover a 40-man show."

To help stir interest, the MCDC, before launching its October campaign, paid for an advertisement to run on New Mexico radio stations. It said, in part:

Each week thousands of illegal aliens-including drug and arms runners, sex traffickers, even potential terrorists-are flooding over our borders and the federal government refuses to act…[but] because of a focused effort led by two Minutemen-Jim Gilchrist and Chris Simcox-60,000 illegal aliens were recently stopped from entering the US.

The ad implores conscientious citizens to pledge their support-and their donations-before ending with the ominous

message: "the safety and security of your children is at stake."

In reality, the various Minuteman operations have led to the apprehension of a few hundred illegal aliens. But when fear is the new national currency, it's best to err on the side of bravado.

In order to maintain cost-effective day-to-day operations, the MCDC relies heavily on volunteers who are either retired or able to use vacation time. But logistics and publicity are largely paid for with donations and registration fees that don't always add up.

For example, MCDC volunteers pay $50 each for an Internet criminal background check, although Web services such as web-detective.com charge a one-time fee of $29.95 for an unlimited use lifetime membership. In a recent MCDC e-mail newsletter, the organization asked for donations to help purchase four night-vision scopes at a cost of $11,000 each, although most top-of-the-line, better-than-the-military-uses Generation 4 night-vision scopes can be purchased for less than $6,000.

Despite such inconsistencies, Wright insists the MCDC is the victim of a massive smear campaign rife with misperceptions and lies. The biggest is that the MCDC is a racist organization.

As it happens, Wooley arrives too late to stop Cox from referring to Asians as "Kung Fu Dongs," but when "wetbacks" slips out, Wooley pounces. He loudly notes that "wetbacks" is a racist term-the proper word is "illegals"-and while he understands Cox meant no offense, Wooley lets everyone within earshot know that such remarks will not be tolerated. At least in front of the press.

Allegations of racism against the

MCDC is, nonetheless, a charge regularly lobbed by critics like Ray Ybarra, who took a sabbatical from Stanford Law School to join the ACLU frontlines during the Minuteman Project in Arizona. Ybarra has since become active in New Mexico protests, earning him status as an unofficial thorn in Wright's side.

"It gets tiresome dealing with professional race pimps like Ray Ybarra," Wright says. "This is how he makes his living, figuring that if he tells a lie often enough people will eventually accept it as truth."

The truth is protestors follow the MCDC wherever it goes. The ACLU held protest rallies in four cities across the country on Oct. 8, but they are not alone. Several groups-like the Angels of the Desert and the Brown Berets-have reportedly taken to wearing ski masks, spotlighting Minuteman positions with high-powered lights and verbally assailing MCDC volunteers.

At least according to Gayle Nyberg-a California resident and the primary

contributor to the MCDC newsletter-who ran into a particularly confrontational group of protestors during an abbreviated operation in Campo, Calif. this past July.

"They were vile," Nyberg says. "They called us racists. They shined lights in our eyes. They were yelling in bullhorns a few inches from our faces. They want us to react so they can get us on tape doing something stupid. But we don't react. We don't do anything even when they give us grounds."

The MCDC and the ACLU actually have a lot more in common than either probably cares to realize or admit (both are critical of the president, for example, albeit for different reasons).

Cole in fact paraphrases an ACLU position when

he bemoans the treatment of illegal immigrants who are exploited by American companies profiting from cheap, undocumented labor. And he is particularly wary of

coyotes

manipulating the impoverished, desperate and ill-equipped masses they help spirit across the border. During the Arizona operation, Cole found a young woman who had collapsed and died in the desert, 250 yards short of a water barrel.

"That just breaks my heart," Cole says. "There must have been 25 sets of footprints heading to the water barrel but there were no prints coming back to that woman. There were no knee prints in the dust where they knelt down to give her water. They just left her to die. These people are ruthless."


Robert "Doc" Kohlbecker has earned his stripes. He served in

Arizona as a volunteer, Afghanistan as a defense contractor and in the 82nd Airborne. But before Kohlbecker can impart his knowledge on the assembled forces, a volunteer bursts in and announces there is trouble at the gate in the form of three carloads of people wearing "Legal Observer" T-shirts.

Wright grimaces. The ACLU. He hoped this remote location would dissuade

such antagonists. Instead he sighs, defers to Kohlbecker and trudges out to greet the visitors.

"How many people have radios?" Kohlbecker asks.

Almost everyone raises a hand.

"How many people have night vision?"

Six.

"How many people are armed?"

Hands, meet sky.

"Everyone knows the SOP," Kohlbecker says. "You do not pull it, you do not reach for it until you or someone next to you is in immediate danger. But that said, it's better to be judged by 12 of your peers than carried by six of your friends."

He cautions people to use discretion

around the ACLU. They could be hostile. Yell into bullhorns. Shine lights in your eyes. Douse you with patchouli oil. If anything gets out of hand, radio HQ to notify the State Police.

"Just remember, we're the good guys," Kohlbecker says. "Make them be the bad guys."

The volunteers scurry to their vehicles. Wooley hops in an extra-duty pickup with a "Charlton Heston is my President" bumper sticker. Wright pokes his head inside the passenger window.

"Those ACLU pukes are at the gate," Wright says. "Eight of 'em."

"Well, are we going or not?" Wooley asks.

"Lead, follow or get out of the way," Wright smirks.

The caravan rolls out the gate and past the pukes before turning north on Highway 81. Wooley isn't scared of the ACLU; he saves his concern for more radical groups like the Brown Berets.

Daylight is fading fast. There is no discernible movement on the horizon. By the time Wooley reaches the end of the line, the radio crackles to life. Station One has a target.

"I can't believe they already have a sighting," Wooley gushes. "That's amazing."

Not so fast. Turns out an over-zealous observer merely happened upon two suspicious-looking Yuccas. But there has been a credible discovery at Station Eight. Kohlbecker has found a duffle bag and two bottles of water in a culvert beneath the road.

Coyotes

typically set water bottles and loose

pieces of clothing beside the highway

to signal their compatriots on the American side that their cargo is ready to be picked up. It's common practice for Minutemen to run these "laundry lines," picking up the clothing, cutting holes in water bottles and "whistling in" hiding immigrants until Border Patrol arrives. Kohlbecker slashes the water bottles, rendering them useless.

Ray Thompson, a retiree from Columbus, sits in a lawn chair in the bed of his pickup at Station Eight. He wears a panama hat and sucks on a steady chain of Benson & Hedges, which he buys cheap across the border in Palomas.

At his feet is an overnight kit. It includes two radios, a deluxe night vision scope and a pistol. He's not eager to advertise the fact that he's armed but he is more than happy to show off his $2,500 scope.

As darkness descends, the world fades to black. With the cloud cover, it's hard to see the Glock in your hand, let alone someone trying to steal across the desert. The only light comes from the faint glow of Palomas to the east and the blinking lights atop the Phelps Dodge smokestack to the west.

Oh, and the ACLU. Their position is clearly identified by the spotlight they have trained toward the border and the radio blaring Latin music, alerting any unsuspecting immigrants of the Minuteman presence. Five people sitting in a semi-circle of lawn chairs jump to their feet when approached.

Turns out the man shining a flashlight is none

other than Ybarra. The five sit back down and resume their conversations. Soon enough, a tarantula creeps out of the desert and interrupts the proceedings.

"Talk about sneaking up on you," Ybarra says. "First it's a reporter, then it's a tarantula."

The conversation evolves into a dichotomy of the MCDC and the KKK, the low Minuteman turnout for this operation, the foolishness of current border policy and the cost in dollars and lives lost needlessly each year. When someone broaches border security and its relation to terrorism-a favorite MCDC trump card-the assembled ACLU antagonists calmly squash it.

"Terrorism has become the greatest excuse for anything and everything," says Albuquerque attorney Charles Knoblauch. "The Minutemen are just treating these immigrants as a variation on an amusement park ride. They're using this for cheap thrills."


Palomas is the place to go for cheap thrills.

All that stands between Columbus, New Mexico and Palomas, Old Mexico is three miles and one international port of entry open around the clock. But geography is all they have in common.

Columbus is a small, sleepy town. Hachita times 10, minus the fact it has functioning businesses, most of which bear the name of the town's most famous-if most fleeting-resident. It's a curious arrangement, considering Pancho Villa and his army pillaged Columbus nearly 90 years ago, but when you have any status in this part of the state you gotta roll with it.

Palomas is a dingy sea of bootleg shops, street peddlers and Carta Blanca beer signs catering to Americans looking to get soused and buy cheap prescription meds, Fauxkley sunglasses and cartons of Benson & Hedges. It's the most vibrant Mexican town on the New Mexican border, but hardly the most important to Bill Richardson.

That designation falls on Josefa Ortiz de Dominguez, better known as Las Chepas, the embattled

coyote

village 16 miles west of Palomas. Richardson in August called for the demolition of Las Chepas just days after two bullets whizzed past Columbus Police Chief Clare May's head while he was inspecting a suspicious vehicle in a Family Dollar parking lot a stone's throw from Palomas. Executive Order 2005-040 quickly became a substantive coup for the MCDC. During the same time period, Richardson declared states of emergency for the counties of Luna,

Hidalgo, Grant and Doña Ana, freeing $1.75 million in emergency funds to bolster law enforcement along the Mexican border.

"I pay all honor and homage to my governor," Wright says. "He is the first politician of national stature to say that the emperor has no clothes."

Mexico was less pleased. Newspapers from Tijuana to Cancun blasted Richardson's audacity.  Mexican diplomats were more, well, diplomatic but New Mexicans like Ray Thompson just shrugged when the state of emergency was declared.

"I don't know what that does really," Thompson says. "There are a lot of highway patrol cars passing by, which we don't usually see. But even if it doesn't do anything I think it was a good move on [Richardson's] part. It gives him a step up on the Republicans."

A significant chunk of the money was allocated to local law enforcement, primarily in Columbus and Deming. The Border Patrol assigned an additional 105 agents to monitor the New Mexico border and Chihuahua Gov. José Reyes Baeza Terrazas compromised with Richardson's demand to level Las Chepas on Sept. 20, when 31 abandoned buildings in the village were bulldozed.

"That ain't gonna help a bit," Charlie Cox says. "I think it's a joke. That isn't going to stop anybody from crossing over. All they're doing is making those people mad."

But if Richardson's call for razing Las Chepas was mere political posturing, Mexican authorities answered in kind. Little has changed. According to Wright, even if it was a symbolic gesture, the cursory demolition of Las Chepas does not negate that the Mexican government offers wink-wink, nudge-nudge assistance to illegal immigrants crossing the border.

Ybarra acknowledges reports that the Mexican army frequently alerts immigrants to Minuteman positions. The desperate and impoverished Mexican government isn't exactly tripping over itself to stop its most desperate and impoverished citizens from seeking a better life up north, particularly when billions of dollars in remittances sent by immigrants working in the United States are pumped into the Mexican economy every year.

"What's happening south of the border is a human tragedy of biblical proportions," Wright says. "We have to put pressure on Mexico and Vicente Fox to take responsibility for what they're doing to their own people. They are encouraging people to come out here and die. Buddy, that's evil no matter how you slice it. If Dubya is looking to do another regime change, I've got a target for him."

Not that Fox could stop his constituents from crossing the border if he tried. There are no watchtowers on the New Mexico border. No machine gun nests. No roving packs of German Shepherds. No wall. No anything, really. At its best, the border is marked by a meager black steel fence apparently welded by the Columbus High School shop class. At its worst, there's nothing but two strands of rusty barbed wire defending against those damn freedom-hating terrorists.

According to Border Patrol statistics, nearly 95,000 people were apprehended trying to cross the Southwest border during July alone. It's safe to say just as many-if not more-were undetected.

Las Chepas still bustles with activity. The village's meager permanent population swells by hundreds each day as school buses continuously shuttle people from Palomas.

Most buildings that haven't been demolished by bulldozers are a loose brick away from

falling down under their own power. Chickens roam the middle of the muddy streets. Dozens of people sit in clusters in front of three buildings denoted by Coca Cola signs. Agriculture is not the main commerce in this agricultural community. Residents sell water and supplies to those about to be led-or make a break on their own-across the border.

Most wait for

coyotes

-who consistently stay a step ahead of the outmanned Border Patrol-to escort them over the meager fence that marks the border. They typically pay

coyotes

between $300 and $500 to get to Deming and upwards of $2,000 to get to Albuquerque and Santa Fe. Some make a break for it on their own. But the tantalizing view across the border is deceptive.

The Border Patrol isn't quite as helpless as it appears. Motion sensors are embedded in American soil. There are high-resolution infrared cameras mounted on poles. Agents in SUVS with night-vision scopes and GPS systems. Helicopters equipped with spotlights occasionally whirl overhead. But even though around 1 million people are caught crossing the border every year, the line is far too porous to stop the monumental population shift. Most detained immigrants are released into Mexico to try again tomorrow.

Ask the MCDC what they think should be done and some-like Wooley-advocate the kind of high-tech security wall trumpeted in recent television ads by an organization called Let Freedom Ring. But most Minutemen-like Wright-advocate a simpler solution: sending in the troops.

"The infrastructure already exists," Wright says. "All it takes is a stroke of the pen. What's the National Guard for if it's not for defending the country?"

They aren't here yet. As the Minutemen navigate the gravel road back to Palomas, yet another school bus carrying another set of people, another set of dreams, bumps and jostles its way toward Las Chepas. Some 20 miles to the west, the Minutemen catch some rack time after a long, uneventful night of defending Lady Liberty. In the sky about Columbus, the clouds begin to part and a shaft of sunlight breaks through, shining down on the Land of Enchantment. It's going to be a beautiful day.