How Disinformation Powers VigilantismHistorians in the News
tags: far right, immigration, Arizona, political violence, vigilantism, militia movement, Nativism, border
It was a normal, quiet night in 2009 in the tiny town of Arivaca, an unincorporated community in Pima County, Arizona, nestled among the mountains just 10 miles from the U.S.-Mexico border. The Flores family—father Raul Flores, Jr., mother Gina Gonzalez, and their daughter, Brisenia Flores—were all asleep. The two parents were in bed, and Brisenia was on the couch in the front room to be near her new dog.
Just before 1 a.m., Flores woke his wife. There appeared to be law enforcement hammering at the door, claiming they were looking for a fugitive. Immigration raids are a constant threat in border communities, as so many live in a legal gray zone of documentation in which they can work but are not permitted to be American citizens. Millions of people are at risk of deportation without notice while waiting for citizenship hearings and green cards. While the Flores family were American citizens, in 2009 in Arizona, many people of Latino descent, documented or not, lived in fear of these surprise raids and the state’s cutthroat immigration policies.
The two parents, alarmed, opened the door where they were confronted by Shawna Forde, Jason Bush, and Albert Gaxiola, armed and dressed in camouflage fatigues. “Don’t take this personal, but this bullet has your name on it,” Bush, a suspected serial killer with white supremacist ties who that night was in blackface, told Flores.
Forde was an involved and enthusiastic member of the national Minuteman Civil Defense Corps, a civilian “border watch” group already rife with extremists and nativists. But after a series of grifts, she was thrown out of the organization, only to create her own splinter group, the Minutemen American Defense, or MAD for short. Bush and Gaxiola were some of her recent recruits, and when she heard of a “drug house” in Arivaca, the vigilantes headed there ready to execute justice by any means necessary.
As Gonzalez later testified when her husband questioned whether they were actually law enforcement, the trio burst into the house and started shooting, killing Raul and badly wounding her. As she played dead, she heard them reloading and their daughter Brisenia pleading for her life. “Why did you shoot my dad?” she sobbed. “Why did you shoot my mom?”
Then Gonzalez heard the shots. Then she heard nothing at all.
Currently, disinformation campaigns and violent narratives are stirring vigilante threats in key strategic regions. North America is currently aflame with threats from anti-vaccine truck drivers in Ottawa to the murders of Mexican border reporters, and Americans have one unwelcome realization after another about Oath Keepers, Three Percenters, and other militias and vigilante groups that appear to have had so much to do with the attempted coup of January 6, 2021.
That escalation is to be expected, explains historian Carly Goodman, who researches contemporary immigration restrictionist movements and the people behind them. “Reinforcing this concept of the border as the site of race war, which I think the United States has done through its policies, has exacerbated the problem and emboldened the groups that would take advantage of these moments,” she says. “The constant way that the federal government has responded to these nativist cries— by institutionalizing nativism—doesn’t make those cries go away. It makes them grow louder. And so these spectacles at the border have been effective in bringing greater shows of federal force to the border.”