A Vigilante Militia Defends an Imaginary Border

On the border near El Paso, hapless grifters attracted to Trump’s immigration rhetoric terrorize migrant families and mistake tourists for invaders.

Trump supporters head toward the U.S.-México border on the outskirts of Sunland Park, New Mexico, Saturday, May 11, 2019. (Joel Angel Juárez for The Intercept)
Trump supporters walk toward the U.S.-Mexico border on the outskirts of Sunland Park, N.M., on May 11, 2019. Photo: Joel Angel Juárez for The Intercept

“Is that what we think it is?” gasped a woman on the Patriot Caravan. The MAGA- and Trump-hatted group of about 25 people were on a walking tour of the U.S.-Mexico border in the desert near El Paso, Texas. It was led by a large, garrulous man named Jim Benvie, a member of the Guardian Patriots, which used to be the United Constitutional Patriots, or UCP.

“Oh sh … It might be the coyotes bringing them in!” said another woman.

“It is what you think it is,” said Benvie. As he lectured about immigrants invading America to the caravan members and the livestream audience on his phone, Benvie gazed south, past parched hills and rocky outcrops, past an invisible line dividing the U.S. from Mexico.

Just on the other side of the line, several men, women, and children were gazing north into the U.S. at Benvie and the MAGA hats.

Terrorizing Women and Children

Until last month, Benvie was the spokesperson for the now-notorious UCP. The group consisted of about nine people who set up camp on land in southern New Mexico that borders Mexico, as well as Texas near El Paso. The UCP arrived in late February. For weeks, local media uncritically reported the group’s claim that members were on the border merely to “observe” migrant crossings and notify the Border Patrol. In late April, however, the American Civil Liberties Union of New Mexico discovered one of the group’s online videos of their activities, which showed that they were involved in detaining migrants while carrying weapons. The ACLU issued a press release denouncing the UCP as armed, fascist vigilantes.

By then, the UCP had published some three dozen videos in addition to the one the ACLU had gotten a hold of; the videos are on Facebook and other sites. They typically show migrant men, women, and children looking terrified and humiliated as UCPers chase them, bark loud commands, order them to sit in dirt, and then stand menacingly over the migrants, wearing military camouflage clothing with their faces covered and some of them packing handguns, rifles, and AK-47s. Posted at least daily on social media, the videos were something new for border militias. They were like post-modern Breughel paintings, depicted darkness and chaos, with a demonic focus on migrants. Their images were often livestreamed, with viewers posting running tirades such as “Those children are not Vassanated [sic],” “Send them all back,” and “This makes me SICK!”

Following the media uproar about the UCP,  the group was evicted from its camp — it turned out that the land members were staying on belonged to a railroad company that hadn’t known the vigilantes were there. The eviction came a few days after the arrest of a man who had claimed to be the vigilantes’ “commander,” Larry Mitchell Hopkins, who was jailed on federal weapons charges that predated the group’s border activities. Then PayPal and GoFundMe shut down the UCP’s accounts for violating policies banning promotion of hate and violence. In response to the ban and the bad publicity, the UCP rebranded itself as the Guardian Patriots.

They still hang out on the border near El Paso, and they pull out their phones and record videos. But most Guardian Patriots no longer wear camouflage or carry weapons. Nor do they habitually chase after immigrants. Instead, they generally focus on people the Border Patrol has already apprehended. Benvie, who narrates most of the videos, continues to livestream images of tired, frightened people squatting in desert sand as a backdrop for his running patter about how America is being invaded and the country needs Donald Trump’s wall.

A man who said his name was Juan Zamora and his dog Spud attend a tour of the U.S.-Mexico border with Trump supporters, at Monument One on the outskirts of Sunland Park, New Mexico, Saturday, May 11, 2019. (Joel Angel Juárez for The Intercept)

A man who said his name was Juan Zamora and his dog Spud attend a tour of the U.S.-Mexico border with Trump supporters on May 11, 2019.

Photo: Joel Angel Juárez for The Intercept

Benvie came to border militia activity with a checkered past. In 2018, he did hurricane relief work in areas including Texas and floated down flooded streets in small boats to people trapped in homes. But his history as a heroic volunteer is sullied by civil and criminal charges of fraud and theft. In 2012, the Minneapolis Star-Tribune reported that Benvie was involved in coin-selling schemes that involved stealing and selling customer lists to unscrupulous telemarketers. (Benvie acknowledged to The Intercept that he was “absolutely” involved). Last year, he was charged in Oklahoma with felony possession of a stolen vehicle (he said the charge was due to a clerical mistake at a truck rental office). Disposition of that case is pending, but according to records, Benvie got a court-appointed attorney after declaring that he was a pauper.

Since then, when making and broadcasting videos about the crisis on the border, Benvie asks viewers to send money to the Guardian Patriots, ostensibly so that he and his activists can help to secure the border. The address the group provides for donations has been used by a disbarred Oklahoma attorney, Lewis B. Moon, who has a long list of charges, including disturbing the peace, impersonating a federal law enforcement agent while shooting guns, and making terroristic threats (Moon allegedly told a man he didn’t like that “I’ll put you through a shredder” and “Nobody will ever find anything of you except for your tooth.” He also allegedly said to the man, “You’ve got pretty daughters, don’t you? … I’ll have five niggers rape your daughters. … They’ll rape your daughter and they’ll murder her.”

The vigilantes’ numbers have dwindled since they were the UCP. The nine activists with that earlier group mostly were white and lived in northern New Mexico and Arizona, far from El Paso. Many of those out-of-towners have apparently returned home. The Guardian Patriots now have only three active participants on the border besides Benvie. All are Latinx and two of the three are from El Paso. Although Benvie has told reporters that he’s staying in a camp, Moon has taken a hotel room near a racetrack close to the border, which he apparently shares with Benvie. I recently called the room early in the morning, and a man answered who said he was Moon. He declined to talk, so I asked if Benvie was present. After a silence, a voice that sounded exactly like Benvie’s said that Benvie wasn’t there. When asked if he in fact was Benvie, he replied, “It’s not me,” and hung up.

With his militia chastened and shrunken, Benvie seems to have pinned hopes for expansion on people who actually live on the border. So far, the most active among them is a man who seethes with anger and has a criminal history of violence. Unlike Benvie, he is Latino and local.

Jim Benvie, spokesman for the newly-named Guardian Patriots, left, and Anthony Agüero walk along the banks of the Rio Grande nearby the U.S.-México border on the outskirts of Sunland Park, New Mexico, Saturday, May 11, 2019. (Joel Angel Juárez for The Intercept)

Jim Benvie, spokesperson for the newly named Guardian Patriots, left, and Anthony Aguero walk along the banks of the Rio Grande, just outside El Paso, Texas, on the outskirts of Sunland Park, N.M., on May 11, 2019.

Photo: Joel Angel Juárez for The Intercept

His last name is Aguero. He goes by the first name Anthony, but legally he is Pedro Antonio Aguero. He speaks border-accented English and rolling Spanish. He is ensconced in El Paso’s Republican Party establishment as a precinct captain and has worked on local Republican political campaigns. Even so, he said he has not voted in years because he has been too busy.

Aguero, who nicknames himself “Conservative Anthony,” wears vests and T-shirts branded as Border Network News. He calls himself a journalist. But in practice, he is a videographer for the militia who has made a practice of hunting migrants with Benvie. He livestreams by hooking up his smartphone to a small steady cam, and his videos are high quality. He also regularly excoriates El Paso’s Democratic representative to Congress, Veronica Escobar, as a traitor to her country, and he has screamed at her at public events — also via livestream.

Many of Aguero’s videos are startlingly creepy, even by militia standards, and sadistic. Some show him stalking asylum-seeking migrants and the humanitarian aid workers who assist them.

He has recorded these videos outside of hotels and shelters where migrants stay after their release from Border Patrol custody, the locations of which the aid workers try to keep confidential. He has also videoed the bus lot of El Paso’s Greyhound station, apparently intending to film migrants preparing to travel to their sponsors. It is as though Aguero is attempting to dox the immigrants rights movement in El Paso.

It is as though Aguero is attempting to dox the immigrants rights movement in El Paso.

Most disturbingly, he has livestreamed himself chasing migrants in the desert, screaming and bellowing at them to stop and sit down. After Border Patrol agents arrive, his videos show him castigating the migrants as “roaches” and “motherfuckers,” and continuing to yell orders — as the agents look on and do nothing.

The El Paso Republican Party has also done nothing about Aguero’s activities. Local party chair Adolpho Telles sits on prestigious nonprofit boards in the community and co-owns Rosa’s Cantina, the iconic bar made famous by the Marty Robbins song. Telles said that he has known for months that Aguero has been working with militias. But he said that Aguero’s work is independent of what he does for the Republican Party. (Telles also said it is not the party’s business that Aguero doesn’t vote, notwithstanding that he is a precinct chair). Telles said he hopes that in the future, Aguero will behave “in a professional manner instead of a thug.”

Aguero, 34, has a thuggish past to match his present actions. In 2008, according to a sworn police affidavit, a woman was at a bar in El Paso with friends when she saw Aguero and recognized him as someone she used to date. She noticed that he was drunk and offered to drive him home. On the highway, Aguero tried to kiss her and she refused. He punched her so hard that she blacked out. She managed to pull the car over near an exit, and then Aguero punched her again, kicked her, and fled the scene. The woman ended up at a hospital and Aguero was charged with assault.

He pleaded guilty and was put on probation (he said he pleaded because he got tired of fighting the case). A few months later, he was accused of assaulting another woman. (“Anybody could just make up anything about you, without there ever being any kind of evidence,” Aguero told The Intercept.)  His probation was rescinded. But after contesting the charge for almost two years, he was sentenced to only three days in jail.

He served the jail term in 2012. Later that year, he was driving drunk on the highway, going in the opposite direction of traffic, when he caused a collision that seriously injured three people.

He was convicted in 2015 of vehicular assault while intoxicated, a felony, and sentenced to two years in prison.

Aguero says that he has since maintained a clean record. But his videos, with their talk about immigrants as insects and a woman politician guilty of treason against her country, smolder with a rage that sounds as though it could ignite. Even so, Aguero is out and about in El Paso — a community that is so overwhelmingly Latinx that outsiders, including national media, imagine it as impenetrably Democrat. They are mostly right, but that image hides some real numbers. It also hides the fact that the current war on immigrants is also a war on traditional border life, which has always been known for its easy boundary-hopping and affection for neighbors to the south. Now, though, life on the border under Trump free-floats with anguish and fear — including among the U.S. Latinx community.

In 2016, El Paso County was about 82 percent “Hispanic” and, according to the Latino Decisions polling organization, 14 percent of El Paso Latinx voters voted for Trump.

He got even more support in Latinx-dominant communities in other Texas border counties. In Starr, for instance, deep in South Texas, 98 percent of the residents are Hispanic and less than half a percent are white. Trump got almost a fifth of Starr’s vote. Across the country, according to a random poll of Latinx registered voters interviewed in April by the National Association of Latino Elected and Appointed Officials, or NALEO, over a quarter “strongly” or “somewhat” agreed with Trump that there is a national emergency on the border, and that a border wall should be built. A roughly equal proportion said they thought migrants were a security threat. And a fifth said they would vote for Trump in 2020, or that they were leaning toward voting for him.

Sam Esquivel, left, Nancy Esquivel and Jacqueline Torres gather near Monument One at the U.S.-México border on the outskirts of Sunland Park, New Mexico, Saturday, May 11, 2019. (Joel Angel Juárez for The Intercept)

Sam Esquivel, far left, gathers with other supporters of the “Patriot Caravan” near Monument One at the U.S.-Mexico border on May 11, 2019.

Photo: Joel Angel Juárez for The Intercept

Among that fifth are two El Pasoans: Nancy Esquivel, 59, and her husband, Sam, 60. I met them at a bustling El Paso restaurant where the Patriot Caravan was holding a meet-and-greet for people who planned to attend the caravan’s big event the next day. The Esquivels were going. They’d been watching Benvie’s and Aguero’s videos on rightwing social media, and they were eager to meet up with “Jim” and “Anthony,” as they affectionately called the two.

The restaurant was crowded and very loud. The Esquivels sat by themselves in a booth because a table with a big group of Patriots was too full to accommodate them. But it was hard to imagine the couple sitting with a bunch of shouting people: They seemed reserved, introverted. I had to sit close in the booth in order to hear them. Nancy said her family was Mexican and she grew up in a little farm town just north of El Paso. “When we were little, my cousins had to pick,” she said, referring to agricultural work in the fields. Sam is half Latino and spent his boyhood in rural New Mexico. He said he had family who came to the U.S. undocumented.

Nancy talked about Sam’s chronic health problems and the couple’s difficulties paying his doctor bills because of unaffordable insurance in Texas. They’d moved back to the El Paso area after spending years in southern California, where Sam had been laid off from a well-paid job he’d held for a long time. Then he got sick, and Nancy worked for a while in a warehouse to try to keep the two of them afloat.

Nancy’s main preoccupation besides Sam’s illness and difficult medical bills, she said, were the changes she’d seen on the border in the past several years, particularly with immigration. She’d worked at the warehouse with Guatemalan women who were undocumented. She had tried to talk to them about their lives, but she did not speak Spanish and couldn’t really communicate. She said she suspected that the immigrant women’s conversations with each other were about scamming the American welfare system.

Nancy believed that we simply could not afford to support the incoming migrants, to allow them and their children to freeload off America.

Lately, she said, she’d been watching UCP videos on social media, showing large groups of migrants crossing the border and then sitting in the dirt, waiting to be processed by the Border Patrol. “There used to just be a few people coming over,” Nancy said. “But now there are so many!” She believed that we simply could not afford to support them, to allow them and their children to freeload off America. She had never in her life been involved in anything political. But now she and Sam had decided to get out of the house and get involved.

A chatty, middle-aged white woman from the packed table came over. She was also from El Paso and was meeting Patriots tonight for the first time. She offered us some of the homemade pecan pie she’d brought to the meet and greet. It was delicious. I left the restaurant at 8 p.m. As it turned out, I missed the first impromptu Patriot Caravan event.

According to videos later posted on social media, at about 10 p.m., a white male Trump supporter who rides horses with a group called the Patriotic American Cowboys started talking with two women who wore little or no makeup. The man called the women “dudes in dresses.” Furious, they loudly denounced him as a homophobe and a racist. A heated exchange ensued, and management asked the cowboy and the other Caravan Patriots to relocate to another area of the restaurant.

The Patriots were indignant. In their videos, Benvie and Aguero accused the two women of being operatives of Rep. Veronica Escobar. (At the meet and greet, some Patriots were holding up signs calling Escobar “Veronicaca” — “caca” being Spanish for “shit.”)

The Patriots livestreamed themselves relocating in the restaurant. Sam Esquivel appeared in one video, but off to the side of the fray, again looking reserved.

Trump supporters gather on land owned by the American Eagle Brick Company along U.S.-México border on the outskirts of Sunland Park, New Mexico, Saturday, May 11, 2019. (Joel Angel Juárez for The Intercept)

Trump supporters gather on land owned by the American Eagle Brick Company, along the U.S.-Mexico border between El Paso, Texas, and Sunland Park, N.M., on May 11, 2019.

Photo: Joel Angel Juárez for The Intercept

Facing Down the Tourist Threat

The Patriot Caravan kicked off with a disruption, led by Aguero, of Escobar’s monthly town hall meeting in a high school auditorium. The Patriot Caravan, dressed mostly in MAGA hats and American flag-themed clothing, sat clumped together. Sam and Nancy sat with them, but Sam’s brows were knitted. He wore a T-shirt with the letters L, G, B, T — and graphics depicting the Statue of Liberty for “L,” a gun for “G,” and Trump for “T.” The “B” was a bottle of beer.

Escobar knew in advance that the Patriot Caravan was coming. Many other people also showed up, and the congresswoman’s staff instructed all the attendees that if they wanted to be called to the mic to ask a question, they would have to be among the first five people to sign the question sheet. When time ran out for questions, Escobar explained, the meeting would end, but within a week, her staff would personally contact everyone who signed up and answer their questions.

Aguero was No. 16 on the sign-in sheet, according to Escobar’s office. Toward the end of the meeting, he walked up near the podium and raised his hand. Escobar asked him to stop. He raised his hand again. A security guard pulled him out of the meeting hall. As he was led out, Aguero yelled about how something called the “U.N. Open Migration Pact” was causing chaos and ruination. The other Patriots rose up behind him, yelling, “Trump! Trump! Trump!” and they marched out of the auditorium.

Aguero was quickly freed, and then he and his group got into cars, drove off, and minutes later were flush with the border, staring at a family on the other side, with Benvie excitedly warning that what they were seeing there “is what you think it is.”

Trump supporters sign up to ask questions during a town hall meeting with Congresswoman Veronica Escobar at Canutillo High School in El Paso, Texas, Saturday, May 11, 2019. (Joel Angel Juárez for The Intercept)
Anthony Aguero is escorted out of a town hall meeting with Congresswoman Veronica Escobar after raising his hand and not being selected to ask a question at Canutillo High School in El Paso, Texas, Saturday, May 11, 2019. (Joel Angel Juárez for The Intercept)

Left/Top: Trump supporters sign up to ask questions during a town hall with Rep. Veronica Escobar at Canutillo High School in El Paso. Right/Bottom: Anthony Aguero is escorted out of the town hall by El Paso County police. Photos: Joel Angel Juárez for The Intercept

The Patriot Caravan had gone to an area on the U.S. side of the border that included a century-old brickyard with whole and broken bricks strewn helter-skelter on the hills — hills over which the UCP used to film itself chasing people, including, in one production, a terrified woman dragging a suitcase, running, stumbling, and falling onto bricks. The Mexican side of the tour site lay just feet away and featured a museum: compact and homemade-looking, called La Casa de Adobe.

True to its name, it’s made of adobe, and during the Mexican Revolution, it housed Francisco Madero, a hero of the revolution whom Mexico holds in a place of esteem similar to that ascribed to Thomas Jefferson and Abraham Lincoln in America. The Casa is a Mexican version of the log cabin in Springfield, Illinois. Or Monticello in Virginia.

Also on the site, but spanning both sides of the border, is Monument One. It’s a dazzlingly white little obelisk — only five or six feet tall — ringed by leafy flora native to the nearby Rio Grande. Monument One is so named because it is the first marker in the area that delineates the international boundary. A plaque communicates to visitors that if they stand on one side, they are in Mexico, and on the other, the United States. There’s something magical about the little obelisk. It feels like a binational, miniature version of the Washington Monument.

As Benvie continued talking on the U.S. side about immigrant invaders, the group of men, women, and kids on the Mexican side wandered around La Casa de Adobe and over to Monument One. Children romped and parents pulled out their phones. Smiling, they began photographing Benvie and the Americans who stood a few feet away, shouting incomprehensibly in English.

Benvie told his tour attendees and livestream viewers that the Casa was a “fake museum,” a shill prop for people whose true motive for getting near it is to illegally enter America. He also claimed that Monument One was just a set piece for false narratives. Immigrants, Benvie said, “are coached very well” to lie about their motives for approaching and crossing the border. “They have American attorneys on the other side.”

Benvie appeared to know only a few words of Spanish. One is “alto,” in English “stop,” which he yelled at migrants when he was chasing them for his UCP videos. The other word is “siento,” which he also used to yell. He thought it meant “sit down,” but he was mistaken. He didn’t realize that he was actually telling the migrants, “Sorry!”

The white people on the Patriot Caravan tour, mostly non-Spanish speakers, seemed titillated by Benvie’s talk of the fake museum, the perverse boundary marker, and aspiring illegal aliens whom they could videotape, just a few feet away, preparing to dash into America. Border Patrol helicopters buzzed overhead, adding to the sense of apocalypse.

But the El Paso Latinos reacted differently — even Anthony Aguero. They might believe in Trump and his dark myths about the border, but they also knew about the border’s bright realities. How could they not? They had friends and family just on the other side, in El Paso’s sister Mexican city, Juárez, and had crossed back and forth countless times. They’d been crossing since childhood — some even at Monument One.

Anthony Agüero glances back at Jennifer Phelps, left, and Nancy Esquivel of El Paso, right, as he heads over to speak to Mexican nationals at Monument One along the U.S.-México border on the outskirts of Sunland Park, New Mexico, Saturday, May 11, 2019. (Joel Angel Juárez for The Intercept)

Anthony Aguero, center, glances back at Jennifer Phelps, left, and Nancy Esquivel as he moves to speak to Mexican tourists at Monument One.

Photo: Joel Angel Juárez for The Intercept

Aguero immediately knew that the smiling people by the Casa and the Monument were not destitute refugees from Central America, but middle-class tourists from Mexico. They were well-dressed, they had no backpacks or suitcases, one of the kids said, “How are you?” in English, and the adults said they were visiting relatives in Juárez, from the interior city of León, in Guanajuato (“The shoe manufacturing capital of Mexico,” a woman bragged). They’d driven to the Casa de Adobe and the Monument because they had the same desire that the Caravan tourists, standing a few feet north, had — to get right up to the border.

In English, Aguero told the non-Spanish-speaking Patriot Caravan that the people facing them were just tourists. Some Caravan participants smiled and tried to angle their phones at Monument One for binational photo and video ops with the Mexicans.

In Spanish, meanwhile, Aguero lectured the Mexicans about how their country’s lax immigration policies toward Central Americans were severely hurting Mexico, and didn’t these folks agree? They nodded politely and blankly. He shook their hands.

Benvie stood off to the side, continuing to insist that “those people are not tourists.”

“If we walked across, we’d be arrested?” asked a Caravan member, a young, blond woman.

“Yes,” Benvie assured her.

But Nancy and Sam Esquivel were having none of it.

“Hey, hey, hey, hey!” Benvie yelled to the couple as they walked dreamily into Mexico. “Come back!” A cacophony of desperate advice followed from the U.S. side: “Come back!” “You need to be on this side! Seriously!”

Sam returned to the United States immediately, but Nancy lingered, walking up to Monument One and hanging out with the Mexicans a bit, then drifting back to America. The Mexican police did not question or arrest her.

Nancy Esquivel and her husband Sam, both of El Paso, walk nearby the U.S.-México border on the outskirts of Sunland Park, New Mexico, Saturday, May 11, 2019. Both had crossed into México and back without being apprehended by officials on either side. (Joel Angel Juárez for The Intercept)

Nancy Esquivel, left, and her husband, Sam, walk along the U.S.-Mexico border after both crossed into Mexico and back.

Photo: Joel Angel Juárez for The Intercept

When I asked what she had been thinking when she walked into Mexico, Nancy spoke about her childhood. “As a kid, my cousins would bring us,” she reminisced. “We went all over. Why can’t we just cross? What’s out there? What did I have to fear? I’m not used to this border.”

Minutes after the Esquivel incident, Benvie got into a protracted shouting match with a reporter from Mother Jones, who grilled him about the rash of civil suits and other complaints against him for fraud and unpaid debt. Benvie denied everything and the reporter persisted. Benvie livestreamed the exchange as his Facebook followers posted hostile comments about the reporter including, “Get his stupid liberal ass,” “Punch his lights out,” and “THAT IS WHAT THE DEMONS DO.”

The argument lasted so long that the Patriot Caravan, including the Esquivels, got bored or embarrassed, and most walked back to their cars and horse trailers. Anthony Aguero went with them. He suggested that the group go for lunch to a hamburger place — or better yet, Tacos Don Cuco. “The Patriot Caravan’s going to be a thing now,” he said to the camera. “Always, your country first.”

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