The decor in the Canyon Trails Cowboy Church meeting hall evokes the rugged self-reliance of the American West, with a half-dozen saddles on display and a longhorn steer horn stretching across a wall.
So does the man standing in front of it.
Jim Arroyo is a former U.S. Army Ranger, past member of an Iranian hostage rescue group, gunsmith, survival instructor, Taekwondo black belt and, until very recently, leader of one Arizona effort to stand guard at ballot drop boxes.
“There is a global network apparently well organized to pick up fake ballots from phony non-profits and deliver them to ballot boxes,” he wrote in a document describing Operation Drop Box 2022. It outlines plans for teams to conduct around-the-clock surveillance at every ballot drop box location in central Arizona’s Yavapai County. The objective, the document says, is to gather photographic and other evidence of such wrongdoing and turn it over to law enforcement.
Such surveillance has become a matter of national concern since Arizona voters reported that members of another group, not connected with Mr. Arroyo, had intimidated them by standing guard at ballot drop boxes with visible weapons and body armour. Other states have reported similar problems. An Arizona court has since ordered ballot drop box vigilantes to maintain a greater distance from voters and refrain from photographing them as they deposit their ballots. Mr. Arroyo issued a stand-down order, telling members not to conduct surveillance.
But that has done nothing to alter the wary worldview that brought Mr. Arroyo, who runs an organization with informal ties to the Oath Keepers, onto the election frontlines – and to an audience eagerly seeking his counsel for navigating future calamities.
Eighty or so people have gathered at the church to hear from Mr. Arroyo, who says his name now sits in a file on the desk of U.S. Attorney-General Merrick Garland.
He speaks from behind a table stacked with white five-gallon jugs. They are homemade water purification devices, customized with drills and saws to accommodate various filters to remove rocks, sand, viruses and worse.
“We are facing a potential nuclear conflict. This is not just sabre-rattling. The Russians are pulling the blade out. They can launch on us at any time,” he says.
He pulls out a special filter the size of a small Thermos. It is, he says, unlike anything he has seen before, “designed to filter radiation out of water,” including Cesium-134 and 137 and strontium. Someone in the audience responds with an audible “wow.”
“When they spray overhead … this filter system will take all of that out,” Mr. Arroyo adds, an apparent reference to the chemtrails conspiracy theory that governments are releasing toxic chemicals into the atmosphere.
Another wow comes from the audience, as some people spoon their way through cups of ice cream.
Mr. Arroyo acknowledges that he has been booted from YouTube. “I say things they don’t like.”
But he is here to help people prepare for whatever catastrophe may come, he says. He urges keeping enough supplies on hand for emergencies, including for pets. “If animals start to get hungry, they’re going to look at you a whole different way,” he says with a grin, drawing laughter.
A different kind of stockpile, he says, is needed for the political emergency he envisions if Democrats win in upcoming elections. He is building a war chest for legal fees. “The ammunition required to fight this war is money.”
The audience, much of it retirement age, has been gathered by Citizens for America, a political social group organized by Andrea and Dwight Kadar. The former executives – she was in malpractice insurance, he managed US$2.5-billion in corporate funds – created the group in 2011, when Barack Obama was president. Ms. Kadar helped write the Republican border wall platform and delivered an opening prayer for a Donald Trump rally in 2016.
In the years since, the couple have sensed growing unease among group members.
“People are beginning to realize that the Biden administration is weaponizing the government against the people,” Mr. Kadar says, a claim any Democrat would dispute. “And they fundamentally have said enough.”
That’s the political ferment in which Mr. Arroyo designed Operation Drop Box. It was an effort, he says, to watch out for the kind of chicanery on display in 2000 Mules, a popular right-wing film whose claims of ballot stuffing have been widely discredited, including by William Barr, the former attorney-general under Mr. Trump.
“It’s the guy that’s showing up with a backpack with 50, 60 ballots, and then the next night he comes back and does the same thing,” Mr. Arroyo says.
The watchers saw no such thing before they were shut down. Mr. Arroyo was among those brought to appear before a federal judge in Arizona and agreed to stop the ballot drop box surveillance.
The incident brought Arizona to the national fore, as a divisive wave of populist politics yields new vigilance, including among progressives looking for signs of election intimidation. One such group, Protect Democracy, is a non-partisan non-profit dedicated to fighting efforts to undermine elections.
Mr. Arroyo has a different read. “Any time you hear anybody with the word ‘democracy’ in the title, that’s radical left-wing communist – period,” he says. “There isn’t anybody in this room that doesn’t believe there wasn’t a coup against Donald Trump.” The audience offers its affirmation.
Those fighting ballot drop box surveillance have said they want to shield voters from intimidation. To Mr. Arroyo, “they want this shut down because they want to cheat.” He promises a new effort to rid Yavapai County of ballot drop boxes altogether.
As he speaks, a small group of women are meeting in the worship hall next door for Bible study. Mr. Arroyo was himself introduced by Ms. Kadar, who opened the evening with a prayer urging God-fearing people to direct their religious fervour into politics.
Jesus, she said as the room stood with heads bowed and eyes closed, “would flip the tables in the synagogues and drive out the money-changers with a whip. May we be that brave.”