We Build The Wall, whose founder Brian Kolfage was indicted by a federal grand jury Thursday alongside Steve Bannon and two others, is in the hot seat for its leaders’ various alleged financial crimes. But for a year and a half, TPM has covered another side of the group as well: Its extensive and well-documented ties to right-wing border vigilantes.
Much of the initial documentation of the ties surfaced on video. That’s thanks to Jim Benvie, a member and videographer of a since-defunct border vigilante group called the United Constitutional Patriots, later renamed to the Guardian Patriots. UCP members would dress up in fatigues and carry rifles, making themselves resemble Border Patrol officers, and apprehend migrants as they attempted to cross the U.S.-Mexico border.
We first covered UCP in April last year, after one of Benvie’s live broadcasts showed the vigilantes stopping dozens of migrants and turning them over to the feds. But Benvie made tons of videos, most of them showing smaller arrests, where the vigilantes would call in federal agents after seeing and apprehending people at the border.
Benvie was ultimately charged and found guilty of impersonating a Border Patrol agent, but not before he had plenty of behind-the-scenes access to We Build The Wall’s first construction site outside El Paso, Texas — including interviews with Kolfage and general counsel Kris Kobach.
UCP members were with Kolfage when, as a stunt, he illegally crossed the southern border into Mexico, in his wheelchair, and then crossed back into the U.S.
In fact, We Build The Wall’s first construction site wasn’t far from the spot at the border where UCP camped out at night, keeping watch and stopping people who attempted to cross.
State and local law enforcement officials in New Mexico, including State Police Chief Tim Johnson and senior officials in Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham’s (D) administration, were concerned about the legality of the activity, emails obtained by TPM showed. In addition to Benvie, another UCP member, Larry Mitchell Hopkins, was subsequently charged with a federal gun violation, pleading guilty in January.
Though We Build The Wall’s official stance was that it was not connected to the border vigilantes, the group’s actions said otherwise.
At an event celebrating the completion of the first construction project — where Benvie was filming a livestream for his Facebook fans — We Build The Wall co-founder Dustin Stockton turned to him and expressed his gratitude.
“You guys have shown, Jim, you and your crew have shown how high-traffic this area was,” Stockton said, pointing to the strip of previously un-walled border.
“Your videos turned us on to just how serious this crisis is,” he added. “And when we saw those, the proof is there. We had the absolute proof of what was happening right here. And to be able to shut that off with the people’s money so quickly, it’s moving.”
Another UCP member, Steve “Viper” Brant, sometimes acted as the construction site’s unofficial security.
The border vigilantes weren’t all: Various fringe right-wing figures got special access to the border wall construction site, including Oath Keepers founder Stewart Rhodes.
Absurd claims about immigrants became a part of the project’s pitch. In campaigning for a border wall, Kolfage often blurred the line between violent gang members and people attempting to come to America for safety and opportunity.
In one of a few conversations I’ve had with Kolfage over the past year, I pressed him on his views of immigrants.
It was in December, after he’d posted a video of a man who said he was fleeing Honduras for the United States because the gang MS-13 was threatening him over money he owed. Kolfage asserted to me that asylum-seekers are coached, and that “owing money doesn’t qualify you for asylum.”
I pushed: So everyone threatened by gang violence in Central America chose to be involved with gangs?
“Women probably not,” he said. “Men have a choice.”