Last week, American vigilantes captured hundreds of migrants — including women and small children — along a darkened stretch of the border in New Mexico. The group, calling itself the United Constitutional Patriots, or UCP, uploaded video of its score to Facebook. Illuminated by the fluorescent glow of flashlights, the shaky footage showed weary mothers, fathers, and toddlers kneeling in the dirt, heads bowed, as the armed men circled around them.
The migrants’ captors summoned the Border Patrol. The agents, once they arrived, offered no sign of concern at the masked men carrying AR-15s decorated with Punisher skulls. For others, however, the footage shot in Sunland Park was a chilling reflection of America in 2019. “We cannot allow racist and armed vigilantes to kidnap and detain people seeking asylum,” American Civil Liberties Union attorneys María Martínez Sánchez and Kristen Greer Love said in a letter. New Mexico Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham called the vigilante operations “unacceptable” and Democratic Sens. Tom Udall and Martin Heinrich said the UCP’s operations “cannot be tolerated.”
Customs and Border Protection, the agency that oversees the Border Patrol, provided The Intercept and several other news organizations with the same statement when asked about the militia’s operations:
U.S. Customs and Border Protection does not endorse private groups or organizations taking enforcement matters into their own hands. Interference by civilians in law enforcement matters could have public safety and legal consequences for all parties involved. Border Security operations are complex and require highly trained professionals with adequate resources to protect the country. Border Patrol welcomes assistance from the community and encourages anyone who witnesses or suspects illegal activity to call 911, or the U.S. Border Patrol tip line.
While the government might not “endorse” the activities of border militias, it’s no secret that the “assistance” the Border Patrol “welcomes” has long included those groups. That’s perhaps due to the fact that the very creation of the border, and the genesis of American border policing, is rooted in a deep and bloody tradition of vigilantism.
A History of Frontier Violence
In the summer of 1986, approximately 20 heavily armed men in military fatigues stepped into the darkness of the Arizona desert. It was July Fourth weekend outside the remote border town of Lochiel and the gunmen were on the hunt. They were the Arizona branch of Civilian Materiel Assistance, or CMA, a racist and anti-communist paramilitary outfit that provided mercenary services to the U.S. government and the death squads it backed in Central America. Carrying M-16s and AK-47s, with Israeli night-vision goggles strapped to their heads, the vigilantes soon found what they were looking for: two carloads of Mexican nationals.
J.R. Hagen, the crucifix-wearing Vietnam veteran who led the operation, would later say that the vehicles came to a stop on their own. Other members of his team disagreed, telling reporters that they boobytrapped the road, tearing the tires of one of the vehicles to shreds before opening fire. It was the latest in a series of escalating CMA actions, which had also included clandestine forays into Mexico. The militia members held 16 men, women, and children at gunpoint for an hour and a half before Border Patrol agents arrived to take them away.
At the time, the nation was in one of its periodic bouts of heightened immigration and border security obsession. The Reagan administration’s dirty wars in Nicaragua, Guatemala, and El Salvador were driving hundreds of thousands of refugees north. Arriving at the border, those refugees’ asylum claims were systematically — and illegally — denied by U.S. immigration officials. In response, a network of religious leaders in Tucson, the same town where Hagen and his CMA cronies were based, began smuggling asylum-seekers into the county by the hundreds and moving them to houses of worship. They called it the Sanctuary Movement and they provoked a far more aggressive response from U.S. law enforcement than the gun-toting extremists ever would.
The history of the West is full of stories of white Americans taking the law into their own hands to beat back nonwhite populations.
More than 30 years later, the country is again divided on the question of how to respond to those seeking refuge, and amid a new influx of Central American asylum-seekers, border militias have once more entered the national discussion.
But there were border militias long before the CMA or UCP stalked the deserts of the Southwest. In a line that undersells the extraordinary levels of racist violence that have followed these groups, a 2006 Congressional Research Service, or CRS, report noted that “civilian patrols along the international border have existed in a wide variety of forms for at least 150 years.” The history of the West, and particularly the Southwest, is full of stories of white Americans taking the law into their own hands to beat back nonwhite populations. Those efforts have been routinely accompanied by tacit or active law enforcement support. The fabled Texas Rangers are one example.
“The Texas Rangers shaped and protected Anglo-America settlement,” historian Kelly Lytle Hernández wrote in her 2010 book, “Migra!: A History of the U.S. Border Patrol.” “They battled indigenous groups for dominance in the region, chased down runaway slaves who struck for freedom deep within Mexico, and settled scores with anyone who challenged the Anglo-American project in Texas. The Rangers proved particularly useful in helping Anglo-American landholders win favorable settlements of land and labor disputes with Texas Mexicans. Whatever the task, however, raw physical violence was the Rangers’ principal strategy.”
While the Texas Rangers, at their birth, operated under the color of law, they did so in concert with a broader Anglo-American effort to win the West that was rich with vigilante violence. The early years of the 20th century, from 1910 to 1920, were particularly bloody, with hundreds of Mexicans murdered and lynched in the Texas borderlands. “The dead included women and men, the aged and the young, long-time residents and recent arrivals,” says the Refusing to Forget project, an initiative started by a collective of border-based historians and researchers. “They were killed by strangers, by neighbors, by vigilantes and at the hands of local law enforcement officers and the Texas Rangers. Some were summarily executed after being taken captive, or shot under the flimsy pretext of trying to escape. Some were left in the open to rot, others desecrated by being burnt, decapitated, or tortured by means such as having beer bottles rammed into their mouths.”
A “culture of impunity” allowed extralegal violence to flourish in South Texas.
Monica Muñoz Martinez, a historian at Brown University, author of “The Injustice Never Leaves You: Anti-Mexican Violence in Texas” and co-founder of Refusing to Forget, told The Intercept that a “culture of impunity” allowed extralegal violence to flourish in South Texas. “Regardless of whether you’re a vigilante acting outside of the law, or you’re a state police officer or a local law enforcement officer practicing extralegal violence, people were not prosecuted,” she explained. “A culture of impunity allowed state police officers and local law enforcement in many instances to collaborate with vigilantes, but they wouldn’t have called them vigilantes. They would have said they were pulling together a posse.”
In 1924, a coalition of nativists and white power activists succeeded in getting the government to severely limit the number of immigrants admitted into the country. They failed, however, in getting the government to impose quotas on Mexico. Big agribusiness won that fight. Cheap and exploitable Mexican labor was too valuable to lose. Still, there was a bright side for the racist right. The Border Patrol was created that same year, marking the beginning of an agency that would evolve into one of the most technologically advanced and well-armed border security forces in human history. The first generation of agents were drawn from communities responsible for the previous decade of racist border violence. Many were recruited from the Texas Rangers and the Indian Wars rolling through the region at the time.
The work of those early generations formed the basis of a nostalgia that persists among agents to this day. “I often heard romanticized stories of ‘the old patrol,’ a lament for the days when agents had free rein across the borderlands, lighting abandoned cars on fire and ‘tuning up’ smugglers and migrants at will,” Francisco Cantú, a Border Patrol agent turned author, wrote recently. “As young trainees, my colleagues and I were taken to storied places in the desert — a remote pass where earlier generations of agents were rumored to have pushed migrants from clifftops and hidden their corpses, a stretch of road where an agent had run over a Native American lying drunk and asleep on the road, an isolated patch of scrubland where agents had force-fed smugglers fistfuls of marijuana and turned them loose to walk through the wilderness barefoot and stripped to their underwear.”
Despite all of this, no amount of state violence and border policing has ever been sufficient to satisfy all Americans, especially the racist ones.
A Tradition of Impunity
In the late 1970s, Louis Beam, a devout white power activist who boasted of killing communists as an Army helicopter pilot in Vietnam, built a paramilitary training camp on 50 acres of Texas swampland. Among Beam’s core projects was the Klan Border Watch, a new spin on the country’s oldest domestic terrorism organization that used military special operations tactics and training to target undocumented immigrants. “The patrols functioned both as a publicity stunt and as a way to inculcate real anti-immigrant hostility and encourage acts of violence,” Kathleen Belew, a historian at the University of Chicago, wrote in her 2018 book, “Bring the War Home: The White Power Movement and Paramilitary America.” Beam, whose camp trained hundreds of white power foot soldiers across multiple years, told reporters that his teams captured migrants in South Texas.
“When our government officials refuse to enforce the laws of the country, we will enforce them ourselves,” he said, articulating a justification that is still common among border militia members today.
“When our government officials refuse to enforce the laws of the country, we will enforce them ourselves.”
In an interview on Monday with The Intercept, Belew said the history of vigilantism on the border is intimately entangled in the birth of U.S. border policing. “The blurry line between state and vigilante enforcement of the border goes back as long as there is a border,” she said. “In some ways, groups like the Border Patrol and the Texas Rangers come out of this tradition.” As for the militias’ oft-repeated claim that they are simply stepping in to help law enforcement do its job, Belew said those arguments ring hollow.
“Even as they are saying they are supporting the state, they are outfitting as paramilitary armies, carrying out violence against different kinds of people and doing a whole bunch of revolutionary actions that is fundamentally opposed to state sovereignty,” she explained. “That is not just neutrally carrying out the work of the state, even when they claim to be doing that.”
Though Beam’s Texas training camp was eventually shut down, paramilitary border militia operations continued to expand through the end of the 20th century. CMA took its operations even further. Not only did the organization’s Arizona chapter cross into Mexico, CMA mercenaries led by former Marine Tom Posey traveled to Nicaragua to provide weapons and support to the Contra forces waging war on the Sandinista government. “In Nicaragua, CMA acted covertly on behalf of the U.S. government — it was funded by the CIA and supplied by the U.S. military,” Belew noted. In 1984, a helicopter carrying CMA mercenaries was shot down over Nicaragua; two died, four escaped. “The helicopter crash was a precipitating event in the public’s discovery of the Iran-Contra scandal,” Belew wrote, exposing a scheme overseen by the Reagan administration and the CIA to circumvent Congress and the law by supplying the Contras with weapons and support, allowing the counterrevolutionaries to continue killing, torturing, and disappearing Nicaraguan men, women, and children by the thousands.
“There’s a climate of violence that’s being created by the presence of armed agents, infrared sensors, helicopters with night-vision scopes and guns.”
A decade after the scandal, the Border Patrol, under President Bill Clinton, embarked on a new strategy to secure the international divide with Mexico. Prevention Through Deterrence, as it was known, concentrated security infrastructure and personnel around key border cities, funneling migration flows into the Sonoran Desert. Virtually overnight, the number of migrants dying in the desert exploded. While the vast majority were killed by the elements, a handful of others died at the hands of border vigilantes and private citizens. “There’s a climate of violence that’s being created by the presence of armed agents, infrared sensors, helicopters with night-vision scopes and guns — a real sense from the U.S. government that there’s actually a war being waged,” Sasha Khokha of the National Network for Immigrant and Refugee Rights, told the Los Angeles Times in 2000, following the killing of Eusebio de Haro, a Mexican migrant, who was gunned down by Texas rancher Sam Blackwood after asking for water. Blackwood was later convicted of a misdemeanor and ordered to pay a $4,000 fine.
According to CRS researchers who investigated border militias, the migration patterns created by Prevention Through Deterrence influenced the geographic dispersion of vigilante groups. Their report noted that the groups ranged from ranchers patrolling their property with armed volunteers to more organized paramilitary units. In 2005, the efforts of one of the groups, the so-called Minuteman Project, exploded into the national press. With nearly 1,000 volunteers, the Minuteman Project coincided with the Abu Ghraib prison scandal, the spiraling of an illegal war in Iraq, and a plummeting in public support for the Bush administration’s “global war on terrorism.” This, says New York University historian Greg Grandin, marked a critical turning point in the story of the border and the vigilantes who shaped it.
In his new book, “The End of the Myth: From the Frontier to the Border Wall in the Mind of America,” Grandin argues that the notion of a limitless frontier into which the nation could forever channel its aspirations and unload its demons has met its demise. Vigilantism was “central” to that historical arc, Grandin told me. “The Mexican-American War was basically the beginning of a kind of institutionalization of vigilantism against Mexicans and then what became Mexican Americans, and there was very little distinction between fighting that war then what later becomes settlement of the West, and then what later becomes vigilantism,” he said. “It’s a very fine line that separates all of this.”
Grandin contends that the mid-2000s explosion in border militia activity was a reflection of the Bush administration’s failed effort to continue outward expansion of the frontier. What followed in the wake of that failure was a rebirth in nativism and white power activism, visible from the Minutemen to their tea party successors, that helps to explain how the current occupants of the White House came to power. Following his 2004 re-election, Grandin writes, Bush borrowed a move from the Reagan playbook, putting “forth legislation that would further militarize the border but also allow, for those undocumented residents who qualified, a one-time path to citizenship.”
“The opposition to George W. Bush’s immigration reform started with all of these militia extremists and nativists extremists,” Grandin explained, revitalizing what he describes as the “old nativist caucus that was always latent within the Republican Party.” Bonded in opposition, this was the anti-immigrant wave that President Donald Trump would later ride in on. As Grandin put it, “the nativists took over the Republican Party,” and much of it was thanks to the politics of the militias wandering the border with their guns.
Over the weekend, New Mexico Attorney General Hector Balderas announced the arrest of Larry Mitchell Hopkins, the 69-year-old leader of the United Constitutional Patriots. “This is a dangerous felon who should not have weapons around children and families,” Balderas said in a statement. “Today’s arrest by the FBI indicates clearly that the rule of law should be in the hands of trained law enforcement officials, not vigilantes.” Court documents unsealed on Monday revealed that Hopkins had been on law enforcement’s radar since at least 2017, when the FBI learned that his group was “training to assassinate George Soros, Hillary Clinton, and Barack Obama because of these individuals’ support of Antifa.”
According to the complaint against Hopkins, a pair of FBI agents following up on a tip paid a visit to the Lakeside Ranch trailer park in Flora Vista, New Mexico, in October 2017. There they met with Hopkins, who also goes by the alias “Johnny Horton Jr.” and calls himself the “commander” of the UCP. Hopkins invited the agents into his “office” (a room in a trailer), where they observed “approximately 10 firearms leaning against the wall in a closet in plain view.” Hopkins reportedly said that the weapons belonged to his “common law wife.” Agents later discovered that the militia commander allegedly planning the murder of several prominent public figures had previously been twice convicted of illegally possessing a firearm, as well as impersonating a peace officer. The complaint offered no indication of a deeper investigation into Hopkins or the UCP following these revelations.
Hopkins’s lawyer, Kelly O’Connell, disputed the allegations in the complaint Monday, asking why, if his client was such a threat to the public, he wasn’t arrested sooner. It was a fair question.
While Hopkins’s arrest was welcome news to many, he was not arrested for being a vigilante, kidnapping migrants, or plotting assassinations. Like J.R. Hagen, the man who led CMA’s Arizona chapter in the 1980s, Hopkins was taken into custody on weapons charges. This is common in the history of the white power movement, Belew said. She cites two reasons for the lack of prosecutions targeting extremist militia members for their actual contributions to the cause. First, she said, there’s been a persistent problem of local law enforcement or prosecutors feeling sympathetic to the motivations of the accused. Second, she said, is the fact that “because this occurs on the border, the people that they are attacking are uniquely vulnerable.”
“You see these events prosecuted through things like firearms charges because there are not protections for the people who should be able to find justice.”
“We’re talking about a mass kidnapping and holding of people at gunpoint, hundreds of people,” Belew explained. “This is a shocking event that should be very easy to prosecute, but over and over again, you see these events prosecuted through things like firearms charges because there are not protections for the people who should be able to find justice.”
On top of all that, there’s the historic problem of the cases the state does choose to pour resources into — and the ones it does not. In the mid-1980s, federal authorities in southern Arizona launched a sprawling undercover investigation. The target was not the armed vigilantes accosting migrants in the desert, but rather the priests, nuns, and parishioners involved in the Sanctuary Movement. Informants were dispatched into houses of worship. Hundreds of hours of tape involving private conversations and sermons were secretly recorded. Sixteen members of the movement were charged with 71 counts of conspiracy related to their smuggling operations, which the movement had been public about since day one. Eight members of the movement were found guilty, though, amid an enormous public outcry, their sentences were largely probationary.
When footage of the UCP’s operations went viral last week, reporters and immigrant rights advocates were once again quick to question how federal law enforcement was using its resources on the border. Since coming into office, the Trump administration has aggressively prosecuted border-based humanitarian aid volunteers. Scott Warren, a volunteer with the faith-based organization No More Deaths, is currently facing 20 years in prison for providing food, water, and shelter to two undocumented men over three days in 2018. In January, four other No More Deaths volunteers were convicted of federal misdemeanors for leaving jugs of water for migrants crossing a remote federal wildlife refuge. While authorities have cracked down on humanitarian aid providers in Arizona, an Intercept investigation in February revealed a sprawling Department of Homeland Security intelligence-gathering operation in the San Diego-Tijuana area targeting journalists, immigration attorneys, and advocates working in close proximity to the migrant caravans that have drawn Trump’s outrage.
“Surveillance resources have always been disproportionately targeted at the left,” Belew said. While groups on both the political right and left have been targeted with undercover investigations, she added, “there are way more agents per capita on the left than the right, way more money, way more prosecutions, and way more surveillance that ends in violence.”
Mentioning militias to veteran border journalists or immigration advocates in places like southern Arizona often elicits an eye roll. While it might be a tantalizing story for an out-of-town reporter, prominent militia activists and groups are typically viewed as self-aggrandizing kooks who rely on the press to inflate their mystique and influence. It’s a generally understandable and often reasonable approach. At the same time, however, the bloody legacy of border vigilantism cannot be dismissed nor can the very real threat they pose today.
It was not that long ago — May 2009 — that Shawna Forde, Jason Eugene Bush, and Albert Robert Gaxiola entered a trailer in Arivaca, Arizona, in search of drugs and money to fund their “Minutemen American Defense” militia. Instead of drugs, the vigilantes found a family. Raul Flores Jr., 29, and his 9-year-old daughter, Brisenia Ylianna Flores, were shot dead. Gina Gonzalez, Raul’s wife and Brisenia’s mother, was wounded but survived the attack. The impact of the killings reached deep into the tiny border community and lingers to this day. More recently still was the case of J.T. Ready, a former Marine and neo-Nazi leader of the “U.S. Border Guards,” who once boasted that his Arizona-based group was the “Minuteman Project on steroids,” armed with “assault weapons” and ready to “use lawful, deadly force when appropriate.” In May 2012, Ready killed himself, but not before murdering his girlfriend, her daughter, her 15-month-old granddaughter, and another man. Inside Ready’s home, investigators found two handguns, a shotgun, and six grenades. Following the murder-suicide, the FBI revealed that Ready was the subject of an ongoing domestic terrorism investigation, though no action had been taken against him.
Downplaying the dangers militias pose carries significant risk, Belew said — risk that will be borne by vulnerable migrants in remote places in the desert. “Since the 1990s, the prevailing understanding of militias is that they are somehow more neutral than a group like the Klan or neo-Nazis or even the Minutemen,” she explained. “That’s maybe partly because they look like police or they look like they are helping law enforcement in various moments, but militias are actually part of this very, very extremist social movement that includes a whole bunch of people who are not neutral.”