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By Sylvia Longmire
Columnist, In Homeland Security
For at least a decade, armed militia groups frequently comprised of retired military veterans and former law enforcement officers have patrolled the U.S.-Mexico border. They are volunteers, mostly operating in Arizona and Texas, and state that they are only there to augment the efforts of Border Patrol agents. However, a New Mexico militia group is raising tensions by reportedly detaining a large group of illegal immigrants at gunpoint.
The United Constitutional Patriots in New Mexico
According to the New York Times, members of the group, which calls itself the United Constitutional Patriots, filmed several of their actions in recent days, including the detention this week of a group of about 200 migrants who had recently crossed the border near Sunland Park with the intention of seeking asylum. The Albuquerque Journal reported that one video, taken at night, shows migrants seated on the ground with armed members standing over them; another one, taken in the daytime, shows team members handing out bottled water to seated migrants.
One of the United Constitutional Patriots, Larry Mitchell Hopkins, was arrested near Sunland Park, N.M., according to State Attorney General Hector Balderas. The FBI further stated that Hopkins, 69, was arrested on firearm and ammunition possession felony charges.
The ACLU of New Mexico is calling for the governor and attorney general to investigate this incident. Peter Simonson, executive director of the American Civil Liberties Union of New Mexico, said in a letter to Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham and Attorney General Hector Balderas, “Just from what I could glean from the video, it raises serious questions about multiple different kinds of crimes they may be committing….”
Border Vigilante Groups
The southwest border has a storied history of vigilante groups patrolling remote stretches in search of wayward migrants and armed drug smugglers. In 2005, Chris Simcox and Jim Gilchrist formed the short-lived Minuteman Project, and after the two men split over financial issues a few months later, Simcox formed the Minuteman Civil Defense Corps (MCDC). Despite Simcox’s attempts to emphasize the MCDC’s standard operating procedure of not engaging with immigrants and just reporting border crossings to the authorities, the group developed a reputation as racist, anti-immigrant, and violent.
‘Locked, Loaded and Ready’
In March 2010, then-MCDC president Carmen Mercer sent out a call to action via email to group members, telling them to come to the border “locked, loaded and ready” and urging people to “bring long arms.” Moving away from the group’s longstanding procedures, she proposed a rule change that would allow members to track illegal immigrants and drug smugglers instead of just reporting the activity to the Border Patrol. Specifically, she said, “We will forcefully engage, detain and defend our lives in country from the criminals who trample over our culture laws.” This proposal was so polarizing that the MCDC was dissolved one week later.
In November 2018, militia members in Texas reacted to what they felt was a call to arms by President Trump. Shannon McGauley, a bail bondsman in the Dallas suburbs who is president of the Texas Minutemen, told the Washington Post, “We’ll observe and report, and offer aid in any way we can.” Asked whether his group of supposedly over 100 people planned to deploy with weapons, McGauley laughed. “This is Texas, man,” he said.
National Guard at the Texas Border
One huge problem arising from that is the deployment of thousands of National Guard soldiers to the Texas border. In the middle of the night when soldiers, vigilantes and smugglers are all wearing black or camouflage (and likely armed), it’s hard to tell who’s who. Military planners even sent warnings to Army commanders, expressing concern about the arrival of “unregulated militia members self-deploying to the border in alleged support” of U.S. Customs and Border Protection.
Many Texas residents aren’t exactly fans of local militia groups. “They are a bunch of guys with a big mouth and no substance to them,” said Michael Vickers, a veterinarian and rancher who heads the 300-strong Texas Border Volunteers.
“I will not let militia on my land,” said 96-year-old Lucy Kruse. “They’re civilians stepping into a situation where the Border Patrol is supposed to be in control and make decisions,” she added.
“The militia just needs to stay where they are,” said Joe Metz, a Republican. “We don’t need fanatical people. We don’t need anybody here with guns.”
Citizens Have No Power To Arrest Anyone
Jim Benvie, a spokesman for the United Constitutional Patriots, said in a telephone interview with the Journal that his group had been camped near El Paso for the past two months. Mr. Benvie contended that his group’s actions were legal, comparing the detention of the migrants to “a verbal citizen’s arrest.” He added, “If these people follow our verbal commands, we hold them until Border Patrol comes.” Benvie did not say what his group would do if migrants did not follow their verbal commands. The governor of New Mexico, Michelle Lujan Grisham, said in a statement, “It should go without saying that regular citizens have no authority to arrest or detain anyone.”