Toy Soldiers

Be all that you can be — in war games with almost-real assault weapons

"I don't want to live anymore," Vazquez reportedly answered. Then the young man pulled the handgun from his pants and aimed it in the direction of the officers. Fearing for their lives, they fired off a dozen rounds.

Here's an account from one of the officers on the scene, Evens Janvier:

"I opened fire. I'm not sure if I was the first one who shot. But I know I discharged my weapon in his direction... he was laying on his stomach bleeding... I remember holstering my weapon, and I walked towards him to get the weapon away from his reach... When I got there, I utilized my right foot and I pushed the pistol away from his reach... He looked me in my eyes, and he said to me, 'It's not a real gun. It's fake.'

Ralph Cantillo, AKA Fuzzy (center), and  fellow Fuego crew members scan for enemy combatants during "The Fight for Freedom."
Amy Guthrie
Ralph Cantillo, AKA Fuzzy (center), and  fellow Fuego crew members scan for enemy combatants during "The Fight for Freedom."
Hurry, soldier; somewhere down this creepy passageway is a hostage who needs to be rescued!
The Crimson Shadows
Hurry, soldier; somewhere down this creepy passageway is a hostage who needs to be rescued!

"It looked real. I looked at it a little bit more, and I looked at the magazine, where the magazine should be going in, and it appeared fake. And at that time, I lost it. Tears started coming out of my eyes. And I started walking away. And I'm trying to tell the other officers that, look what he made me do. And words couldn't come out. I couldn't talk. Tears were just coming out of my eyes. All I remember, Officer Bagwell walked up to me and says — I'm not sure if they knew it was a fake gun or not — but he looked at me and said, 'It will be okay. It will be okay. Let's get out of here.' "

Vazquez survived the shooting, but the potential for deadly mishaps worries the airsoft community. Veteran players fear that negative interactions between airsoft gun owners and law enforcement officials, or members of the general public, could inspire a movement to ban imitation assault weapons.

Meanwhile, a kid can walk into a Sports Authority store, plunk down $40 in cash, and continue out the front door as the proud owner of a real-scale firearm. When New Times sent an 11-year-old girl into one of the chain's Broward County locations recently, the only question she got while purchasing a replica of the French military's standard-issue assault rifle was: Do you know how to use it?

Kids could be firing these things without their parents even knowing it, critics say. Some are. Mike Coleman, a 39-year-old airsoft player, finds this exasperating. "When I hear kids saying, 'Well, my parents don't know about this, and if they did, they'd be really upset.' I say, 'Then why are you playing? Wait until you're 18, like everyone else.' And they're like, 'Well, I can't wait.' It's the me generation. I need it now. Give it to me now."


A bit more than a year has passed since Jermayne Rios and a few of his friends played airsoft at Wolf Lake Park in Davie. The 50-acre open space boasts a lake surrounded by tall Australian pines. The trees, the young men figured, would provide the perfect cover for their newfound sport.

Rios is a lanky 24-year-old from Puerto Rico who works as a roofer. When they simulate gunfights, Rios and his boys sport a roughneck look — tank tops, baggy shorts, beards shaved thin like chin straps. That day, their game got an unexpected twist. They were ambushed by police officers.

"We were practically surrounded by five patrol cars," Rios remembers. "They were all hysterical, pointing real weapons at us. It was a bad experience because we were having fun, and suddenly our friend was on the ground. They put us against the cars, spread our legs. They said to never do that again in public — gave us a warning. Once is enough. I don't want to get shot!"

But open space is a luxury in South Florida these days, leaving airsofters with few options. They can organize games at commercial paintball fields like Extreme Rage in Hollywood and Hot Shots in Loxahatchee. They can trespass in rare, overlooked wooded areas and pray that no police officers show up. Or they can beg a favor from a private landowner on the edge of the suburban sprawl — that is, if they can even find somebody who owns a large tract of undeveloped land.

Word of a sweet playing spot spreads like wildfire. "There's actually more and more fields springing up," says Ralph Cantillo, a 32-year-old concert promoter and hardcore airsoft player from Miami. "I know about another one in Carol City, there's one in Miramar, I've got some boys up in Hollywood that just found a location to go play."

"It's like the movie Fight Club — once you get into it, you start hearing about all the different locations."

Animosity from the field rarely spills over into real life. The sore players just say, I'll light his ass up next time. But when Cantillo offers a New Times reporter directions to one of the "secret" airsoft locations, life begins to imitate art. Harsh words are exchanged. Fists are almost thrown. A serious beef is born.

Underneath that fuzzy coat of chest hair and stoner laugh, Cantillo says he's a hot-blooded Latino with close-quarters combat experience. "I grew up in a trailer park where, basically, the way we settled any argument was a fistfight. You know, it was normal for two guys to fight and ten minutes later we're sitting there drinking a beer laughing at each other all banged up. That was normal."

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