Heavily armed border militia in Arizona mistook a group of conservationists who were counting bats for illegal immigrants in a confrontation authorities say could have gone very wrong.
A group of militia members spotted the conservationists in the middle of the night in the Gardner Canyon area on Aug. 23.
Researchers had to work at night because they were conducting a population survey on bats in the area.
The militiamen, reportedly from Colorado, were on ATVs, wearing camouflage and carrying weapons.
"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."
Estrada says self-appointed border militia groups are not welcome in Santa Cruz County.
“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."
The conservationists filed a report with the sheriff’s office and the militia has since apologized. The incident occurred near Sonoita where many families camp, hike, and hunt.
"Of course, they weren't very receptive about the apology,” Estrada says of the conservationists. “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.”
"These people that are completely out of their environment,” he says of militia groups. “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. We really don't want them here."
U.S. Customs and Border Protection doesn’t endorse private groups and organizations taking border security into their own hands.
Image credit: Flickr Creative Commons / The U.S. Army