By JENNIFER STEINHAUER
Published: May 13, 2009 a
version of this article appeared in print on May 14, 2009 on page A1 of the New
Calif. — Ten minutes into arrant mayhem in this town near the Mexican border,
and the gunman, a disgruntled Iraq war veteran, has already taken out two
people, one slumped in his desk, the other covered in blood on the floor.
officers — eight
teenage boys and girls, the youngest 14 — face tripwire, a thin cloud of
poisonous gas and loud shots — BAM! BAM! — fired from behind a flimsy wall.
They move quickly, pellet guns drawn and masks affixed.
States Border Patrol! Put your
hands up!” screams one in a voice cracking with adolescent determination as the
suspect is subdued.
It is all quite
a step up from the
coeducational affiliate of the Boy Scouts of America that began 60 years ago, is training thousands
of young people in skills used to confront terrorism, illegal immigration and escalating border violence — an intense
ratcheting up of one of the group’s longtime missions to prepare youths for
more traditional jobs as police officers and firefighters.
is about being a true-blooded
American guy and girl,” said A. J. Lowenthal, a sheriff’s deputy here in Imperial
County, whose life clock, he says, is set around the Explorers events he helps
run. “It fits right in with the honor and bravery of the Boy Scouts.”
which leaders say is
not intended to be applied outside the simulated Explorer setting, can involve
chasing down illegal border crossers as well as more dangerous situations that
include facing down terrorists and taking out “active shooters,” like those who
bring gunfire and death to college campuses. In a simulation here of a raid on
a marijuana field, several Explorers were instructed on how
to quiet an obstreperous lookout.
on his face and put a knee
in his back,” a Border Patrol agent explained. “I guarantee that he’ll shut
Felix Arce, 16,
said he liked “the discipline of the program,” which was something he said his
life was lacking. “I want to be a lawyer, and this teaches you about how crimes
are committed,” he said.
also 16, said she was
attracted by the guns. The group uses compressed-air guns — known as airsoft
guns, which fire tiny plastic pellets — in the training exercises, and sometimes
they shoot real guns on a closed range.
shooting them,” Cathy said.
“I like the sound they make. It gets me excited.”
If there are
critics of the content
or purpose of the law enforcement training, they have not made themselves known
to the Explorers’ national organization in Irving, Tex., or to the volunteers
here on the ground, national officials and local leaders said. That said, the
Explorers have faced problems over the years. There have been numerous cases
over the last three decades in which police officers supervising Explorers have
been charged, in civil and criminal cases, with sexually abusing them.
Several years ago, two University of Nebraska criminal
justice professors published a study that found at least a dozen cases of
sexual abuse involving police officers over the last decade. Adult Explorer
leaders are now required to take an online training program on sexual
Many law enforcement officials,
particularly those who work for the rapidly growingBorder Patrol, part of the Homeland Security Department, have helped shape the program’s focus and see it as
preparing the Explorers as potential employees. The Explorer posts are attached
to various agencies, including the Federal Bureau of Investigation and local police and fire departments, that sponsor
them much the way churches sponsor Boy Scout troops.
“Our end goal is to create more
agents,” said April McKee, a senior Border Patrol agent and mentor at the
Membership in the Explorers has been
overseen since 1998 by an affiliate of the Boy Scouts called Learning for Life,
which offers 12 career-related programs, including those focused on aviation,
medicine and the sciences.
But the more than 2,000 law
enforcement posts across the country are the Explorers’ most popular,
accounting for 35,000 of the group’s 145,000 members, said John Anthony,
national director of Learning for Life. Since the attacks of Sept. 11, 2001,
and the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, many posts have taken on an emphasis of
fighting terrorism and other less conventional threats.
“Before it was more about the
basics,” said Johnny Longoria, a Border Patrol agent here. “But now our
emphasis is on terrorism, illegal entry, drugs and human smuggling.”
The law enforcement posts are
restricted to those ages 14 to 21 who have a C average, but there seems to be
some wiggle room. “I will take them at 13 and a half,” Deputy Lowenthal said.
“I would rather take a kid than possibly lose a kid.”
The law enforcement programs are
highly decentralized, and each post is run in a way that reflects the culture
of its sponsoring agency and region. Most have weekly meetings in which the
children work on their law-enforcement techniques in preparing for
competitions. Weekends are often spent on service projects.
Just as there are soccer moms, there
are Explorers dads, who attend the competitions, man the hamburger grill and
donate their land for the simulated marijuana field raids. In their training,
the would-be law-enforcement officers do not mess around, as revealed at a
recent competition on the state fairgrounds here, where a Ferris wheel sat next
to the police cars set up for a felony investigation.
Their hearts pounding, Explorers
moved down alleys where there were hidden paper targets of people pointing
guns, and made split-second decisions about when to shoot. In rescuing hostages
from a bus taken over by terrorists, a baby-faced young girl screamed,
“Separate your feet!” as she moved to handcuff her suspect.
In a competition in Arizona that he
did not oversee, Deputy Lowenthal said, one role-player wore traditional Arab
dress. “If we’re looking at 9/11 and what a Middle Eastern terrorist would be
like,” he said, “then maybe your role-player would look like that. I don’t
know, would you call that politically incorrect?”
Authenticity seems to be the goal.
Imperial County, in Southern California, is the poorest in the state, and the
local economy revolves largely around the criminal justice system. In addition
to the sheriff and local police departments, there are two state prisons and a
large Border Patrol and immigration enforcement presence.
“My uncle was a sheriff’s deputy,”
said Alexandra Sanchez, 17, who joined the Explorers when she was 13.
Alexandra’s police uniform was baggy on her lithe frame, her airsoft gun slung
carefully to the side. She wants to be a coroner.
“I like the idea of having law
enforcement work with medicine,” she said. “This is a great program for me.”
And then she was off to another bus
This article has been revised to
reflect the following correction:
Correction: May 18, 2009
An article on Thursday about Explorer scouts who train to confront terrorism
and illegalimmigration, and a picture caption with the continuation of the
article, misspelled the surname of a scout who said she was attracted to the
program because of the use of pellet guns. She is Cathy Noriega, not Noriego.
Articles in US »A version of this
article appeared in print on May 14, 2009, on page A1 of the New York edition.