MARCH 19, 2010.
Fence Frustrates Minutemen, Too

East of San Diego, Conservatives Rig Up Cameras and Sensors—and Encounter Same Snafus as the Feds.


Comments (32)By ANA CAMPOY
CAMPO, Calif.—Jim Wood doesn't think the U.S. government is adequately guarding the border with Mexico here. So he has taken on the job himself.

While the federal government fumbles with mishaps and delays in the so-called virtual fence—a network of cameras, sensors and radar that has cost more than $600 million—Mr. Wood is installing his own surveillance system with equipment from Fry's Electronics and eBay.

On the Fence
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Brian L. Frank for The Wall Street Journal

Minuteman Jim "Woody" Wood and his dog Molly stood at the U.S./Mexico border in Campo, Calif.
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..The decision by the Department of Homeland Security to freeze funding for the federal project this week only intensified his sense of mission. "As a nonprofit, we're far more efficient than them," he said.

The 45-year-old Web developer has set up 20 cameras at a private ranch here, 50 miles east of San Diego. He wants to eventually over the roughly 2,000 miles from Texas to California.

But if the goal is to show up the government, it isn't working as Mr. Wood planned, thanks to the border's tough weather and vast wilderness.

On a recent rainy afternoon, 16 of Mr. Wood's cameras, which run on solar power, were down; the water had disabled two of the remaining four. The motion detector was off because it was mostly triggered by wind-stirred vegetation, not illegal crossers.

Similar snags prompted Homeland Security Secretary Janet Napolitano on Tuesday to divert some of the federal project's funding towards more practical tools, such as mobile radios and laptops. With the exception of a small section in Arizona currently being tested, spending on the ambitious border-long system is on hold until a review she ordered in January is completed.

Known as the Secure Border Initiative Network, the federal project was supposed to be working along most of the Southwest border by 2009.

Cyber Minutemen On Patrol
Plans by the U.S. government to build a virtual surveillance fence along the border with Mexico may be on hold, but that's not stopping Jim Wood. The founder of the Border Fence Project is building his own.
.Federal agents in Campo are still waiting. Rich Gordon, the second in command at the local border patrol station, says he welcomes citizens' help in monitoring the rugged ranch land, a passageway for immigrants and drug traffickers. But he warns the public not to confront any suspicious passersby. Last year, a Campo border patrol agent was killed on duty.

Mr. Wood says he would detain illegal aliens if he had permission from Campo ranchers. For now, though, he is focused on expanding his surveillance system at the pace his two herniated discs and Parkinson's disease allow.

."A lot of this heavy labor is not something that I'm really capable of," he says.

As part of the conservative nonprofit Declaration Alliance, he raised money for the project through his Web site, He and a small crew of volunteers have spent $40,000 to fortify ranch fences with chicken wire and set up cameras. The captured images are transmitted on the Internet.

The operation's command center is in a trailer near the border where Howard "Ridgerunner" Smith keeps tabs on the cameras amid gutted computers and recycled metal cans, including one filled with cigarette butts.

"It's tough to keep all the units up and running," says Mr. Smith, a 59-year-old retired mechanic.

At first, the system got too saturated with images and crashed, until Mr. Wood and his fellows figured out how to reboot it every four hours with digital timers. Their latest idea is to add a $200 power-generating windmill to keep the cameras running 24 hours a day.

Mr. Wood says that about 1,000 people have passed a test on his Web site to gain access to the camera signals. Among the questions: Why is it good to note if migrants are carrying big backpacks? Correct answer: C) Big backpacks are normally used to carry drugs.

The cyber-Minutemen call the border patrol when they spot suspicious crossers, because many of them, like Mr. Wood, live hours away from the border.

On a recent afternoon, those who logged on would have seen a border patrol truck, and perhaps Mr. Wood, who was on one of his regular visits from his home in Mission Viejo, Calif., about two hours north.

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Brian L. Frank for The Wall Street Journal

Jim Wood, a Web developer, often travels 2 hours to the Mexican border from his Mission Viejo, Calif., home.
.Back at headquarters, the only trace of immigrants was the plastic identification card of a Mexican worker that Mr. Smith found and hung from a nail next to a fly swatter.

He admits that being a Minuteman, a volunteer border watcher, is less exciting now that the weak economy has scared off many immigrants.

Still, he and Mr. Wood say their presence forced the government to install a hefty fence nearby. Mr. Gordon, from the Campo border patrol, said the fence was in the works for a long time.

Mr. Wood's main worry these days is raising funds to finish the project, which he calculates will cost at least $20 million. He will donate some of the proceeds from an animated film he is working on, which he describes as a cross between "Beavis and Butt-Head" and "Jackass," television shows known for their crude humor. He has yet to find a distributor.

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