Armed border militia confronts conservationists counting bats

Published: Sep. 2, 2014 at 9:28 PM MST|Updated: Sep. 16, 2014 at 9:31 PM MST
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TUCSON, AZ (Tucson News Now) - It was a case of mistaken identity that, authorities say, could have gone very wrong.

Authorities say, apparently, a group of heavily-armed border militia members mistook conservationists researching bats for illegal immigrants or smugglers.

It happened Aug. 23 in the Gardner Canyon area near Sonoita where the small group of conservationists was out in the middle of the night conducting a wildlife population survey, in this case, counting bats.

Nobody was hurt during the confrontation, but the incident has law enforcement taking notice.

Santa Cruz County Sheriff Tony Estrada say the militiamen were on ATVs. They were carrying weapons and were wearing camouflage.

"Obviously, they mistook them for smugglers or illegal entrants," says Santa Cruz County Sheriff Tony Estrada. "They were armed. They put a spotlight on them."

The conservationists filed a report with the Santa Cruz County Sheriff's Department.

The encounter with the militia group, apparently from Colorado, happened near Sonoita where people camp and hike and hunt.

Estrada says one of the militiamen apologized to the group of conservationists, who apparently did not want to hear it.

"Of course, they weren't very receptive about the apology. They actually told them that's something you should not be doing. There's danger out there.There's other groups of people in campsites," Estrada says.

Sheriff Estrada says Santa Cruz County does not welcome border militia groups.

"These people that are completely out of their environment. They really don't know the area. They don't know the terrain. They have little knowledge of the dynamics of the border. So it can be a real problem," Estrada says. "We really don't want them here."

"It can be a problem for them. It can be a problem for the people, just like in this particular case. Things could have gone terribly wrong," Estrada says. "They really don't accomplish anything. They really don't. With about 1,000 Border Patrol Agents here in Santa Cruz County, a little group of any militiamen are not going to make any difference at all. As a matter of fact, they're going to get in the way and they could get hurt. Or they could hurt somebody else."

It seems, before the militiamen realized what was going on, they had called Border Patrol agents who then traveled across the area, merely to encounter people studying bats.

In response to our request for comment, U.S. Customs and Border Protection sent us a written statement regarding the incident: 

"On August 23, at approximately 10 p.m., Tucson Sector agents received a phone call from a member of a militia group reporting suspicious activity in the area of Sonoita, Arizona. Sonoita station agents responded and encountered a small group of biologists studying bats.

CBP does not endorse or support any private group or organization to take border security matters into their own hands as it could have disastrous personal and public safety consequences. CBP strongly encourages concerned citizens to call the U.S. Border Patrol and/or local law enforcement authorities if they witness or suspect illegal activity.

Securing our nation's borders can be dangerous. Interdicting narcotics and deterring and apprehending individuals illegally entering the United States requires highly-trained, law enforcement personnel. In all cases, individuals should not attempt to detain, provide transportation or any other assistance to migrants that may be viewed as furtherance of illegal entry. Detaining or assisting an undocumented migrant could result in prosecution."

Sheriff Estrada says anyone who is confronted by border militiamen should call local authorities and report it.

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