People in the El Paso area were stunned to learn on Memorial Day that a new segment of border wall had just sprung up in their midst, seemingly out of nowhere. Though it is already hundreds of feet long and snakes up a high mountain, it was initiated secretly, in just a few days, on private property that for long has been so off-limits to the public that even reporters have feared going near.
The massive, imposing barrier is planned to be about a half-mile long. It’s being erected by We Build the Wall Inc., a crowdfunded effort spearheaded by ultra-right military veteran Brian Kolfage. In December, Kolfage called for people to donate for a privately funded border wall to be built on private land. He said his plan would bypass problems created by Congress, the courts, and legal opponents such as the American Civil Liberties Union.
Anti-immigrant hard-liners closely associated with Trump, including Steve Bannon, Kris Kobach, and Tom Tancredo, joined the effort as advisers. Jared Kushner also got on board. Kolfage started searching for private property on the border, and he found a piece near El Paso. But he didn’t find it by himself.
We Build the Wall’s search for land got help from the United Constitutional Patriots, or UCP, the armed vigilantes who made the news in April after videos revealed that they were capturing and terrorizing migrants near El Paso. Subsequently, the FBI announced that the group was implicated in a plot to assassinate George Soros, Barack Obama, and Hilary Clinton. The Southern Poverty Law Center lists the UCP as a hate group.
What went unreported was that the UCP near El Paso wasn’t just chasing migrants and making videos. The vigilantes were also currying connections with a local property owner, Jeff Allen. Simultaneously, they were raising funds for We Build the Wall. The relationship between the vigilantes, who rebranded themselves as the Guardian Patriots, and property owner Allen was apparently so cozy that the UCP published a video calling Allen a member of its group.
Allen denies that he is a member, but his warm relationships with We Build the Wall and the vigilantes set a shadowy stage that enabled We Build the Wall to enter the El Paso area with heavy equipment while avoiding public scrutiny and to erect a huge wall in mere days, right under the community’s nose.
Allen, 56, is a large man with frayed blue jeans, a big stomach, and fading red hair. He told The Intercept that he keeps Border Patrol agents’ numbers in his cellphone. He needs them, he said, because the land he co-owns is flush with the U.S.-Mexico border and overrun with people doing illegal things. Allen is from the Midwest. He said he came to the border years ago. He married a Latina woman in 2005 in El Paso, but he is estranged from her and lives by himself on parched, rocky, and barren land at the international line. The American Eagle Brick Company is located on that land.
Allen owns only a small share of the property. The company’s majority owner, and Allen’s boss, is a far more elegant man, George Cudahy. He lives in a part of New Mexico that is just a few miles from Texas, and he donates to the El Paso Opera. In recent years, he has also sent money to the New Mexico Republican Party and the Republican National Committee. He has also given $18,000 to the political campaigns of Steve Pearce. Off and on, from 2003 to earlier this year, Pearce was the congressional representative from his New Mexico district — the same district that Cudahy lives in. In 2010, at a public forum, Pearce encouraged the idea that Obama was not a native-born American. In 2014, he published a memoir recommending that “the wife is to voluntarily submit, just as the husband is to lovingly lead … as a matter of obedience to the Lord.” He has called the theory of global warming “crap.” He is now the chair of New Mexico’s Republican Party.
A generation ago, Cudahy was often touted in El Paso’s morning newspaper for his benevolent deeds. He supported the Rescue Mission. He mentored poor children. His American Eagle bricks were slated for use in El Paso’s beautiful new courthouse. But Cudahy seldom makes the news now, and American Eagle no longer makes bricks. Instead, Allen said, Cudahy is quietly doing research on the property to develop a biofuel enterprise. (Cudahy did not respond to questions.)
Cudahy, now 85, is said to be afraid to walk on his property without a gun. Allen carries an air rifle and is accompanied by his large, lumbering dog, Athena. He said he uses the weapon and the animal to protect himself against violence by drug smugglers and migrants who become aggressive after he orders them to stop and sit down while he calls the Border Patrol to come pick them up.
Allen has been issuing these orders for years, and by 2017, he was also ordering tourists off the land — visitors who were trying to use a road through his property to see Monument 1, a famous international boundary marker that is beloved by people on both sides of the border. “The fewer people we allow down here, which is our right, the safer we are,” Allen told a local TV station. He said that people in Mexico had thrown rocks at him, and someone had chased and hit Athena.
In February of this year, the UCP set up camp on the west side of Mount Cristo Rey, a mountain with a statue of Jesus Christ on top that abuts the American Eagle property. Allen told The Intercept that he learned about the UCP from Border Patrol agents. They told him that he should meet the group since its members were all doing the same thing with migrants — ordering them to halt and calling the Border Patrol.
Soon, the UCP was using Allen’s brickyard to chase and catch migrants — while videotaping the chases. One video shows a man wearing camouflage armed with an object that looks like a knife or billy club. Along with UCP member Jim Benvie, the man and two others harass a migrant man and woman they have just detained. They suspect that another person is hiding and joke about how to find him. “If we shot on the hill, it would be an international crisis,” Benvie says. “It would save us some time, though, wouldn’t it?”
In another video, a camouflaged militia member stands next to Benvie as he admires Allen’s dog, Athena. “She can smell the illegals,” Benvie says, as Allen stands by.
Meanwhile, the UCP was supplying We Build the Wall with videos, which it used to help fundraise. In one video medley, posted by We Build the Wall on its Facebook page on April 19, Benvie shines a flashlight onto the faces of dozens of Central American men, women, and children sitting, frightened and humiliated, in the sand. “It’s a crisis,” Benvie says. We Build the Wall says that Benvie’s video was made by “private citizens.” There is no mention that he is a militia member or that he has a long history of being sued for fraud and is facing a felony charge in Oklahoma for stealing a rental vehicle.
The UCP also assisted with a site visit to the American Eagle Brick Company property, made by We Build the Wall founder Kolfage in April. Kolfage lost his limbs while in military service, and he gets around in a wheelchair. A video made by Benvie (apparently taken down, but archived by The Intercept) shows him and another vigilante, the latter wearing camouflage with his face covered, balaclava style. The masked man helps push Kolfage’s wheelchair after he crosses into Mexico and then laughingly returns, illegally, to the U.S. side of the border. We Build the Wall used a snippet of that video in one of its own promotional videos.
“We’re out here surveying the land,” Kolfage says. “This is exactly where we’re going to build that wall.”
“Get over to his page — We Build the Wall!” says Benvie. “Hopefully, at the end of the day, we can put together a deal to take this little area … and build it with a nice, fat wall.” In the same video, Allen speaks with Kris Kobach. And Benvie introduces Allen as a member of the UCP.
In late April, the UCP and its videos became internationally notorious. The group’s founder, Larry Hopkins, was arrested and jailed on a federal weapons charge, and the UCP was evicted from its camp. We Build the Wall said it had no connection to the UCP.
Still, vigilantes continued to hang out on American Eagle land. Benvie came and went. So did another UCP activist, El Pasoan Anthony Aguero, who has a history of criminal violence and has made some of the most vicious videos of migrant chases. He is an El Paso Republican Party precinct chair, though the party’s chair has said that Aguero acts like “a thug.”
Allen, too, has been thuggish, chasing people off his land, including reporters, whom he has accused of wrongdoing even when they have not been on the property but only in view of it. His blustering and threats have intimidated the press and the public, creating a black hole that enabled a wall to be built in mere days, in secret.
On Memorial Day, when the wall was unveiled to the media, Aguero livestreamed a friendly ride-along with Kobach. Aguero said he’d already been filming for days but had been instructed to hold off on publishing his videos.
(I left a phone message and sent two emails asking majority landowner Cudahy if he is aware that Allen for many weeks has been hosting militia activities on Cudahy’s land. Cudahy did not respond. Allen did answer, telling me by phone to “Go fuck yourself.”)
Also on Memorial Day, Steve Bannon told the media that We Build the Wall had worked quickly and quietly on the brickyard land because the group expected that the locals were “gonna freak out.” “We had to catch them by surprise,” Bannon said.
The new wall was built by Fisher Industries of North Dakota, a construction company that Trump is pressuring the Army Corps of Engineers to use for wall construction financed by the government.
Indeed, some people have been freaked out by what Fisher and We Built the Wall put up. Maria Hernandez, who now lives in Dallas but grew up in Juárez, near the brickyard, had come to the property on Memorial Day to show her Texan-born kids the Monument 1 area. She was so shocked by the wall that her arms had goose bumps. “I don’t know how to explain this to my children,” she said.
But two Juárez police officers were more matter of fact. One, Margarita Perez, noted that U.S. Border Patrol agents had just reminded her and her partner that the section of the wall that they patrol is set several feet north of the international boundary line. “They told us that migrants who cross will be in the U.S. before they reach the wall, and they can apply for asylum,” Perez said.
The day after Memorial Day, the mayor of Sunland Park, New Mexico, where the brickyard is located, announced that the landowner had failed to file a timely site plan or apply for permits to build the wall. Sunland Park issued a cease and desist order, but We Build the Wall mounted a massive social media campaign, which resulted in death threats against the mayor and his family. Shortly afterward, the town lifted the cease and desist order.
On Thursday We Build the Wall held an on site press conference and ribbon cutting ceremony, complete with canned music including Bruce Springsteen’s “Born in the USA.” Allen and Cudahy attended and were thanked for providing their property for what the organization is now calling “The People’s Wall.”
Kolfage described meeting the two landowners and getting to know them. He said that one thing that convinced him the brickyard would be a perfect site for the wall was “the videos … with hundreds and hundreds of people.” They were migrants and smugglers, he said, and the videos had been shot “on the other side of this hill.” Kolfage never used the terms “militia” or “vigilantes” or “United Constitutional Patriots” to describe the videographers. Instead, he called them “members.” At least one of those members, who had captured and terrorized migrants under the name Viper, was out of camouflage on Thursday but was providing security for the celebration. Kolfage told celebrants and the press that We Build the Wall is ready to raise more southern border walls on 10 additional private properties. On those sites, secrecy may also be needed, along with armed and angry landowners, big dogs, and militias.