TOMBSTONE - Retired Scottsdale actor Richard Blake stood tall on the corner of Fourth and Allen streets, looking every bit like a U.S. marshal from the Wild West of the 1880s with a tin star on his chest and a six-shooter loaded on his hip.
Blake used his best routine Thursday as he cajoled tourists about seeing the next "comedy gun fight" just a block away. But most were more interested in the dozen or so television news cameras stationed up and down the main street, ignoring the stiff breeze as they filmed the people walking by.
Like other Tombstone merchants, Blake has become an unwitting source of information about the Minuteman Project, an unauthorized effort by civilian volunteers to spot and report illegal migration from Mexico.
"I just hope they don’t disrupt the shows," Blake said. "Maybe I should bring some real ammunition with me (today)."
Uneasy anticipation has fallen on Tombstone and the rest of Cochise County as residents, law enforcement officials and a growing number of observers tried to guess what will happen today when the Minuteman Project officially gets under way.
During the next month, project organizers are expecting up to 1,300 volunteers to sign in here and head to assigned locations along the Arizona-Mexico border.
Members say they are coming to peacefully aid federal authorities in deterring illegal immigration, and to protest a general unwillingness by the U.S. to supply enough border guards and military troops.
"This protest already has worked because of all the national attention we are receiving," said Chris Simcox, a project organizer and owner/publisher of the Tombstone Tumbleweed, one of three weekly newspapers here. "Now is the time to challenge our government to protect us by securing the border."
But many others fear the Minuteman Project is attracting armed racists who want to hunt down border crossers, not watch from a distance.
President Bush and Mexican President Vicente Fox have condemned the volunteers as "vigilantes." The American Civil Liberties Union has been training its own volunteers to monitor project members, and law enforcement agencies are expected to have a large presence on both sides of the border.
"This is possibly the biggest threat to public safety here in the last 15 years," said Paul Newman, a member of the Cochise County Board of Supervisors. "We don’t know how, when or where the (group) might be demonstrating. That adds to the potential anarchy that could occur."
However, the fierce criticism and unprecedented attention appears to have dramatically boosted an effort that dates back at least five years. The number of volunteers pledging to appear is more than double the original estimate from organizers. The group has stopped taking online registrations and started a waiting list to maintain some control.
But Simcox, speaking Thursday to reporters outside his newspaper office, insisted no troublemakers will be among the project volunteers, even if some carry firearms into the field.
"I’m completely confident," Simcox said. "I know the people I have screened."
Meanwhile, human rights groups from Tucson, Los Angeles and several Mexican border towns are preparing counterprotests during the next five weeks. A group of Democratic state lawmakers plans to show up at the project registration site to question the need for the effort.
Isabelle Garcia of Tucson’s Derechos Hermanos said the protesting groups were trying to learn more about Minuteman Project activities so they could schedule their events for other locations.
"We don’t want a confrontation," Garcia said. "Local folks and local organizations are really trying to avoid all of this."
Still, Tombstone visitors got a taste Thursday of what could be coming.
Midafternoon, a man popped up Allen Street dressed satirically in a camouflage poncho and "beer helmet," carrying binoculars and a toy shotgun. He spoke in an exaggerated drawl, calling himself "Harold the Hero."
"I’m here to save America from those bloodthirsty killers," the man shouted.
Most people stared quietly until the man moved on.
But one watcher shouted back, "You’re here to show us you’re a moron."