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Toy Soldiers

Ralph Cantillo, AKA Fuzzy (center), and  fellow Fuego crew members scan for enemy combatants during "The Fight for Freedom."
Amy Guthrie

The men crouch behind a pine log bunker in the middle of a large wooded lot. Ready to roll. They're in camouflage fatigues, ammunition vests, and goggles. Some have Glock handguns strapped to their thighs. Battlefield helmets on their heads give them a menacing, robotic appearance.

They're carrying what looks like serious firepower — Russian AK-47 assault rifles, American M16s — loaded and ready to shoot.

It's a humid August Sunday in South Florida, and the men drip sweat. It's eerily quiet. And tense. At any moment, the enemy might come bursting through the trees. The group's task is to defend the bunker at any cost. Other members of their division are out there somewhere, hunting for a nuclear warhead.

The soldiers scan the woods.

"Keep an eye on the trails," their commander whispers.

Enough time has ticked by, though, for the young combatants to get overconfident.

"It looks like our strike force is holding them," a baby-faced soldier says.

Not exactly.

Zip-zeep-zing! The shots sound tinny, electronic even, like the irksome whine of a car's ignition when the vehicle's battery is dead. The men drop to the ground and crawl into position. It's about to get hot, real hot. A branch cracks. Dry leaves crumple underfoot. The enemy is approaching.

Mosquitoes buzz in the men's ears. Bugs fly into facemasks, bouncing across the soldiers' eyes like pinballs scoring bonus points inside an arcade machine. The men keep perfectly still. Real soldiers don't swat at bugs in the middle of a firefight.


But these aren't real soldiers. Nor are they guerrillas training to invade Cuba, militiamen preparing for an attack on a federal facility, drug smugglers taking aim at DEA agents, or street-corner thugs battling for turf. They are weekend warriors — kids and adults who, in dead-serious fashion, act out simulated battles with toy machine guns. The real-scale weapons shoot round, six-millimeter plastic pellets capable of taking out an eye, cracking a tooth, or breaking skin. When fired from a distance, though, the BBs typically leave just welts.

This is the sport of airsoft, which has inspired military buffs and patriots and, because of the hyperrealism of the game's weaponry, freaked out law enforcement authorities. On this Sunday in a remote patch of woods on the southwest fringe of Broward County, the players have a name for the scenario they're acting out. It's called "The Fight for Freedom." Sounds like a Tom Clancy novel.

Airsofters like to think of themselves as a secret society, a brotherhood of warriors. Their forays are clandestine. The "soldiers" have code names. Some even go through initiation rites. They play for the camaraderie, for the love of guns, to spice up lives dulled by long hours in office cubicles. A few young men consider the game to be hands-on training for eventual real-life combat, be it with the military or a SWAT team.

Airsoft aficionados realize that key aspects that attract them to the sport — weapons that look, feel, and even shoot like genuine combat arms and military role-play that peaceniks might say glorifies violence — frighten a big segment of the general population.

"There's always going to be people who won't understand it, and that's OK," says Ian Goodman, who calls himself Magsz when he's gaming, a 24-year-old who helped organize "The Fight for Freedom." "There's going to be some people that hate it, but that's just the way life is."

That's why they try to keep their covert operations on the down-low.

On this particular day, Goodman is wearing a bright orange safety vest over his high-tech camouflage fatigues. The vest signals to the combatants that he's unarmed, that he should not be shot. He's a game administrator, weaving about the trails with a walkie-talkie in hand. Right now, he's about to call in a fake assault, or, in his own words, "the mother of all aerial bombs."

It should be all fun and games. But as airsoft weapons gain popularity with the under-18 set, civilians around the country have mistaken the toys for authentic firearms. Sometimes, anxious citizens take matters into their own hands, threatening the toy toter with a spray of genuine steel ammo. Frantic phone calls have summoned SWAT teams.

Law enforcement officials can panic too. When a cop sees a teenager walking down the street with what looks like a German MP5 submachine gun over his shoulder, the officer is going to react. If the kid is uncooperative...well, the cop has seconds to decide whether to take him down. The North Miami Beach Police Department has had two such officer-involved shootings in recent years. One teenager survived; the other didn't.

Criminals are getting wise to the game too. Federal regulations state that fake guns must be sold with orange tips. But there's nothing in the books to prevent airsoft owners from painting those tips black or, for that matter, from painting orange tips onto real guns. When a robber holds up the corner liquor store with a toy gun and gets caught, Florida's mandatory ten-year jail sentence for armed robbery does not apply.

 

Several state legislators have suggested modifying legal statutes so that, come sentencing time, violent crimes committed with toy guns can be treated just like offenses using real firearms, but the bills have never gotten past committee discussions. Some proponents blame the gun lobby; others say it's simply difficult to ask more of law enforcement officials when budgets are tight.

State Sen. Frederica Wilson of Miami Gardens has proposed banning toy guns altogether. Wilson was provoked into action by the 2003 death of 16-year-old Denzel Smith-Graham, who was shot in the chest by a police officer while carrying a toy gun. "There are some toy guns that look so real. They give children the wrong impression — even though they are playing, they might as well have a real gun in the eyes of the public and the police," Wilson says. Her efforts collapsed, she says, because of federal gun laws that protect toy guns as well as real ones.

"It is scary to think that a child, or anyone, is using a replica gun that could be mistaken for a real gun," says Amy Mercer, executive director of the Florida Police Chiefs Association.


The air-propelled BB gun has been a staple of American youth since the late-1800s. The oldest and perhaps most recognizable manufacturer of BB guns is a company called Daisy Outdoor Products, which has its headquarters in Rogers, Arkansas.

Daisy produced the Red Ryder BB gun that little Ralphie famously begged for in the 1983 movie A Christmas Story. One of the most memorable lines in this nostalgic tale about growing up in the 1940s is: "You'll shoot your eye out." Nine-year-old Ralphie hears the phrase repeatedly — in a taunting tone from kids at school, from a grumpy department-store Santa. Sure enough, when he pulls the trigger of his new Christmas toy for the first time, the gun kicks back, and he breaks his eyeglasses.

Daisy says it has sold more than 9 million Red Ryder BB guns since introducing the toy in 1939. The company proudly proclaims on its website that many hunters and professional marksmen have "fired their first shots with an air rifle" like the ones Daisy manufactures. These days, though, the company's product line of Winchester BB rifles, with their wood trim and long thin barrels, looks quaint compared with the automatic assault weapons popular among the airsoft set.

Airsoft aficionados say their modern, more sophisticated incarnation of "capture the flag" began in 1980s Japan, where ownership of real guns is restricted. Japanese toy manufacturer Western Arms has licensing deals to make airsoft versions of famous guns by Fabbrica d'Armi Pietro Beretta S.P.A., Colt, and Smith & Wesson; the replicas even bear the prestigious gun makers' logos.

Responsible airsoft players treat their faux weapons like the real thing. When traveling to and from a game, they seal them inside protective carrying cases to hide the firepower from public view. They handle every gun as if it were loaded and never point them at people outside of skirmish time. When the guns aren't in use, they empty the chambers and remove the ammunition magazines.

Parents who take an active interest in their kids' hobbies join them at the games, either sticking to the sidelines or entering combat themselves. Once home, parents might also confiscate the weapons and store them under lock and key.

Jorge Ubieta, a trim 48-year-old land surveyor from West Miami, hangs out in thick running shoes and jeans at a base camp while his 15-year-old son, Markos, does airsoft battle. When asked what he thinks of his son's new pastime, Ubieta tilts his head thoughtfully.

"It sure beats him staying inside and playing videogames," he says, flicking his thumbs rapidly as if tapping out moves on a videogame controller.

Ubieta says he might someday suit up and go shoulder-to-shoulder with his son in one of the airsoft games. Maybe when the temperature cools. "My son keeps trying to get me into it. He says, 'C'mon! There's old guys out there! You can do it!' "

During role-play, players usually wear protective gear to cushion the impact of the plastic projectiles. It's burdensome to lug all of those layers in the muggy Florida heat. But all it takes is one shot to the eye or mouth area to serve as a grim reminder of why it's important to cover up.

Most clubs have a ten-foot "bang-out" rule, which means that a player confronting another person at a short distance should shout bang instead of shooting his human target at close range. It's easier said than done. A player might get startled when he hears the word bang and squeeze the trigger anyway, spraying his opponent's face with hard plastic pellets.

 

Players trade tales of bad hits — say, to the groin or lips — like war stories. Some have the scars to prove it. They point to false teeth. Or the spot where a pellet, traveling about 350 feet per second, got lodged so deep that they had to squeeze the skin around it to pop out the little plastic bit.

There are plenty of uncomfortable toy gun moments off the field too. Like when a neighbor calls the cops on a kid brandishing an airsoft gun in his front yard.

"I've had many run-ins with the police," says Carlos Fonseca, a 15-year-old from West Miami who says that both of his toy guns have black tips. "When you're playing, the orange tip gives you away in the forest or whatever."

Likewise, plenty of adult players can recount tense exchanges with police — all for the love of a war game. Routine traffic stops can turn into extended conversations about why an airsofter is carrying what looks like an arsenal in his trunk. If the cop is familiar with the game, maybe he'll wave the suspect off with a knowing smile and nod. But more than one player told New Times that he has been ordered to "Step out of the car!" and then cuffed while officers verified that the weapons couldn't shoot real ammo and that their owners have no outstanding warrants. There's nothing like spending an hour of your Saturday afternoon sweating it out in the back of a patrol car.


If Soviet and Cuban forces invaded Central Florida, the way they swarmed a small Colorado town in the 1984 film Red Dawn, then Sgt. Dan would be Patrick Swayze's character, Jed Eckert. In this version, though, Eckert would be a Latino with bushy eyebrows and toffee-colored skin. Dan says he was once a member of an elite U.S. Marine task force that took down pirates in Thailand and disarmed a nuclear submarine in the Chesapeake Bay. Now he lives the civilian life in St. Petersburg. He declines to offer his last name because, he says, his years in the military made him paranoid.

The 29-year-old Colombia native is leading a pack of young men pretending to be the Wolverines (high school kids who launch guerrilla attacks against Communist invaders in the cult classic movie). They're acting out Red Dawn on a field in Lake Wales that's dotted with plywood forts and other random objects that might offer protection from a sharpshooter's bullet.

Apart from huntin' or fishin' or kickin' back brewskies at the Y'all Come Back Saloon, there isn't much happening in this old Florida town. But there are plenty of bored young folks in nearby sprawling suburbias like Orlando and Naples to wrassle up a weekend BB-gun fight.

So here's the deal: On the other end of the field, there's an oil pipeline. The Russians need the fuel to advance. And the Wolverines, well, they just want their town back. Dan is one of the only players who can't die today. See, there's a story line going here, and he's one of two people who knows what comes next. "If this were to happen for real," Dan boasts, "I guarantee you 90 percent of airsofters could hold their own."

Dan assembles his squad for a briefing below a cypress tree draped in Spanish moss. The game will start with gunshots, he says, and the "sheriff" will get mowed down after confronting the attackers, just like in Red Dawn. The Wolverines will begin with semi-automatic and spring-powered guns — cock, fire, cock, fire — and then earn the privilege of upgrading to automatic weapons. "Going after the national army with pea shooters is not a good idea," Dan warns with a low chuckle.

Then he launches into pep-talk mode. "We're looking at the very way our founding fathers established our country: guerrilla tactics." His tone is so patriotic, your ears grope for an uplifting instrumental score playing in the background.

He flashes a can of red spray paint that the guerrilla patriots can use to scrawl the word Wolverines on structures they take over. When a player goes down, he could be out of the game for 20 minutes. If too many of the Wolverines get shot, their leader promises to attempt a rescue. But the Communists have an endless supply of troops. So when one of the Reds gets killed, he'll be out for only five minutes. "It pretty much comes down to tactics and wearing them down," Dan instructs. "Trust me, they will have a routine — they're the Russian military."

 

A fresh-faced teen raises his hand with a question: What about dinner? They'll eat snails and whatever else they can find out there in the wilderness, growls the crusty sergeant.

Actually, though, there will be hamburgers, hot dogs, soda, and potato chips for all.

The game is open strictly to those 18 and over, no ifs, ands, or buts about it. Player after player says this is a good thing. Underaged airsofters, they argue, don't always call their hits. This is an honor game. Unlike paintball, which employs ammunition balls filled with brightly hued liquid, there's no paint to indicate a successful hit.

Some young players, older airsofters say, are also trigger-happy. They'll lie in wait and then light up anyone who crosses their paths; there's little technique in this sort of shoot-'em-up strategy. Then there's the stigma of inflicting violence on minors. "I realize that in Africa, there might be 10-year-olds fighting a war, but I don't want to shoot a 10-year-old!" says Matt Farmer, a barrel-chested 25-year-old from Brandon who, in full combat gear, bears a striking resemblance to a G.I. Joe doll. "A 15-year-old, maybe."


The Red Dawn simulation kicks off as planned. The Wolverines run from the gunfire shouting "We're under attack!" Subsequent scenes don't play out so smoothly, though. After each fumble, Sgt. Dan reassembles the squad to map out an alternative game plan, using the toe of his combat boot to trace anticipated routes in the dirt. Sometimes he informs the group that he has "good intel." This is one of those times: A bunch of civilians are about to face a Commie firing squad for alleged guerrilla tactics. The Wolverines must save them.

The Wolverines arrive in time to hear Col. Strelnikov, played by portly 35-year-old Lakeland resident Matt Espina, giving a spiel in a feigned Eastern-bloc accent about how the civilians are going to "feel the wrath of Mother Russia." The rebel kids shout "Wolverines!" and spray the invaders with pellets. They free the civilians in the nick of time.

A subsequent Wolverine maneuver, however, flops completely. The young men are poised to ambush the Russian troops, whom they expect to come at them down a trail flanked by spiny plants and cacti. But the Russians don't take the easy route. They plunge straight through the prickly vegetation and catch the civilian fighters from behind.

"We're surrounded!" a Wolverine shouts. Zip-zeep-zing! The vegetation is dense, and now the troops are mixed. There's mass confusion. Zip-zeep-zing! Who is friendly? Who is the enemy? The players ask "Wolverine?" or "American?" before opening fire. The Russians mow down the rebels.


"I get no rush from videogames anymore," says Jarret Mock, a 20-year-old from Fort Myers. "We're not shooting aliens out here — these are real people who can think."

Mock says he once got so carried away playing on this field in Lake Wales that he crossed the hillside boundary and ended up standing next to State Road 60 with his machine gun in the air; drivers passing by had looks of horror on their faces.

As the sun sets, the Wolverines "execute" a Russian soldier and then take potshots at him as he lies on the ground. The all-American guys eventually win back their town because, hey, that's the way it should be in patriot games, right? Actually, about a dozen of the Communist troops had left early, taking their skills and topnotch firearms with them.

What, exactly, is inspiring all these young men to pour so much effort into intricate fake battles? Harvey Mansfield, a professor of government at Harvard and author of the 2006 book Manliness, ventures a guess. "This looks to me like another instance of unemployed manliness," he says in an email to New Times. "These young men ought to be in the military, where they can tote real guns in public for a purpose. Instead they play like kids pretending to be men."

At least a half-dozen young men on the Lake Wales field are military-bound, either through direct enlistment or Reserve Officers' Training Corps programs that funnel them through college before thrusting them into the armed forces. Eighteen-year-old Ryan Barr of Port St. Lucie is one of them. Today, he is a Russian soldier; come March, he expects to be in Iraq with the U.S. Army.

When asked whether he wants to go to Iraq, Barr seems uncertain. Pressed about his decision to join the military, though, he offers a convincing reason: He has longed to be in the Army ever since he played with his first G.I. Joe doll. A boyhood fondness for these toy figurines seems to be a common thread among many airsoft fans.

For some, the action figures were like father figures.

 


Friends and acquaintances of Christopher Penley say that he was a quiet kid who kept to himself and that his loner ways drew ridicule. They witnessed other students tease and push him around in the hallways. He seemed depressed. He talked of blowing up his school and of ending his own life.

At 15, Penley should have been in high school. Instead, he was a student at Milwee Middle School in Longwood, a town of 14,000 inhabitants 15 miles north of Orlando. He had a round face, short strawberry-blond hair, and lots of freckles.

One Friday in early 2006, Penley brought what looked like a 9-millimeter Beretta to school. He waved it in class. Another student tussled with him for control of the weapon. Teachers say they saw Penley aim the weapon at his own neck as he fled to a bathroom.

A police negotiator tried to cajole him into putting the weapon down; outside the bathroom, a police sharpshooter took aim at the 15-year-old's forehead. Beyond the marksman were classrooms full of students. After 20 minutes facing off with the police, Penley raised the handgun with both hands and pointed it in the direction of the marksman; the marksman fired a single, lethal bullet just above Penley's left eye.

The "Beretta" in Christopher Penley's hands was an airsoft pistol.

"When a law enforcement officer has a gun pointed at them, they're trained to respond in a certain manner," says the Florida Police Chiefs Association's Mercer.

"That could be devastating not only to the victim's family but to the officer as well. They're out there to serve and protect our citizens, and their life is going to be devastated at the thought of, in the aftermath, finding out it was a hoax gun. But how would they ever know that? Because some of these guns require close inspection to determine if they're hoax or not."

On January 30, 2007, the North Miami Beach Police Department got a report that a young man was pacing NE 154th Street, threatening to kill himself. Cops didn't know that 18-year-old Ricardo Vazquez was off his depression meds and that the chrome-colored handgun he was fiddling with was a toy replica. Police cars rushed to the scene. The three officers closest to Vazquez pleaded with him to put the gun down.

"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.'

"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."

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.

"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.

"Big-for-nothing!" Cantillo yells.

"Moron!" Jolly Green shouts.

Cantillo has been butting heads with Jolly Green for ages. He's fed-up. He wants to duke it out, for real. No sucker punches, he promises. Nada de eso. His boys try to diffuse the situation. Be the better man, they insist. Jolly Green stomps through thick underbrush to avoid Cantillo on his way to the cars. Cantillo falls back with a parting shot: "You ain't nothing but a bitch, anyways. God's gift to airsoft!"

"I'm done playing with this guy," Cantillo announces. "This idiot doesn't come to have fun. This sport works mainly on honor, and he has no honor. I'm tired of him chasing people away. He's the one that should be pushed off this field."


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