Toy Soldiers

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

In the airsoft realm, Cantillo is one of the nice, nurturing guys who takes newbies (including kids as young as 12) under his wing. He'll fix their guns gratis. Watch their backs on the field. Lend them pellets and spare magazines. Let them drink from his huge water cooler.

Some men coach Little League. Others lead Boy Scout troops. Ralph Cantillo schools young airsoft players in the art of war.

He considers himself a recruiter for the Fuego team, which is a division of the Combined Arms Assault Team, better-known as CAAT. His role is part supervisory, part educational.

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!


Click here to view photo outtakes.

"Whenever we get a new kid," Cantillo explains, "we always encourage the parents to try it out. We'll give up one of our guns and offer them goggles just so they're more comfortable with it. One lady asked me one day, 'Are there any gangs out here?' I was looking around, and I was like, yeah, you've got DAWG team, CAAT, Fuego — you know?"

Aspiring Fuego crew members must participate in an initiation ceremony. It's essentially five against one — if they can take out two guys, they're in. "We don't do that as an abuse. Or to pick on you," Cantillo elaborates. "We want to see how you're going to handle yourself in a firefight, because that's basically the scenario we run into: multiple people shooting at you. Even if they don't get somebody, the kids are in. We just want to see how they react. We tell them we want them to play hard, follow the rules, and remember at the end of the day, it ain't about cheating: You represent Fuego as a whole."

On a recent Saturday morning, two tents are set up for shade next to a cluster of abandoned buildings near the Everglades. Airsofters share the spot with graffiti artists spraying fresh murals on walls and a small army of paintball players shooting greasy rounds at one another.

Many tales circulate about these buildings. Some say they housed an asylum. Others swear the site was an immigration detention center. The most commonly accepted theory is that it was once a radar communications and control facility from which the U.S. Army was poised to launch missiles during the Cuban Missile Crisis.

Thick undergrowth and scraggly trees surround the structures. Inside, crumbling cement, ceiling plaster, and slimy paintball shells mix with water to line the floors with a slippery, putrid-smelling muck. There are gaping holes where doors and windows once stood. Rusty spray-paint cans and shards of broken glass, remnants of decades-worth of teenaged high jinks, litter the property, while the occasional burnt patch of concrete and empty shotgun-shell casing hint at more-sinister acts.

The 20 or so airsoft players here that Saturday morning break into two teams. The factions seem to consist of kids in their early teens carrying chintzy plastic guns bought at Wal-Mart on one side and experienced, drinking-age players armed with special-order metal firepower on the other.

The players decide to mimic a hostage scenario. A 30-year-old female novice volunteers to be the hostage. This means she will be the only unarmed person out there. She'll stand out in a bright-orange construction vest.

The team that finds the hostage first will have to "extract" her from the main building and escort her unharmed to its base. If she gets shot anywhere from the chest down, she'll no longer be able to run. With each shot, her walk will become more labored, as if she were injured. If the hostage gets shot in the head — it's game over.

The players pull ski-mask balaclavas over their faces or wrap their heads and necks with Arabian shemagh scarves before proceeding to the largest of the deteriorated buildings. They position themselves for action at opposite ends of a long, dank hallway flanked by dozens of small rooms.

When the whistle sounds, they peel down the hallway at breakneck speed, firing rounds. Alex Radcliffe, a 19-year-old Florida International University student from Hollywood, is the first to find the hostage. "We've got the hostage!" he shouts, pulling her alongside him as he hurries toward the sunlight outside. His teammates converge around the hostage, protecting her from firepower on all sides. "Go, go, go! Move! Straight! Left! Go to the tree! Hostage at the tree! Guard the hostage!"

Joe Batista, a 25-year-old event promoter from Coral Gables, presses his body against the hostage's left flank, acting as a human shield. Promoter Cantillo guards the right side. "Joe, watch the tree line! They're coming at the trees!" Cantillo shouts. On impact — ting! — the BBs hitting the surrounding foliage sound like hail landing on a car windshield.

Sixty seconds tick by slowly until, finally, Time! Game won.

The next scenario unfolds just as quickly, the main difference being that the opposing team tugs the hostage to its base by her orange vest, at one point even using her as a human shield. "Now, to attack and defend!" a player shouts. "Come get us, bitches!"

But nobody arrives. A real spat is unfolding on the opposite end of the grounds, near the Fuego crew's "re-spawn" point. An awkwardly tall player who goes by the nickname "Jolly Green" is reportedly positioned outside the re-spawn area, tapping Fuego guys out as soon as they regenerate. This pisses off Cantillo. A long-simmering feud is out in the open.

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