Almost immediately after learning that a border militia known as the United Constitutional Patriots (UCP) was making mass armed “arrests” of migrants and asylum seekers at the southern border, state and local law enforcement in New Mexico expressed alarm.
State Attorney General Hector Balderas’ (D) office “want[s] to come out swinging … we’ll see,” Tripp Stelnicki, communications director for Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham (D), wrote to colleagues on April 18.
“In any other circumstance this could/or would likely be a crime,” newly-appointed New Mexico State Police Chief Tim Johnson wrote to others in the state’s Department of Public Safety (DPS) a few hours later. “Agg Assault with a deadly weapon.”
“I don’t know if the immigrants have indicated adverse thoughts/feelings, but the practice of using a rifle mounted light to ‘flag’ must cease,” he added, referring to the border militia’s reported use of rifle-mounted flashlights to spot people crossing the border.
“If this is happening in Doña Ana County, shouldn’t we be investigating these guys? They are committing a crime of Aggravated Battery with a Deadly Weapon,” a Doña Ana County Sheriff’s Department sergeant wrote separately to a superior a day later.
“I may not agree with these people coming across the Border this way, but the Law is what it is and things will not change until the Law Changes,” he added. “This Militia can’t take the Law into their own hands, someone is going to get hurt.”
So began a weeks-long chain of events ignited by a blistering April 18 letter from attorneys at the ACLU of New Mexico — warning of “an armed fascist militia organization” making arrests at the border without legal authority to do so — and which has so far resulted in the two most prominent UCP members facing federal charges.
The internal emails, obtained by the ACLU of New Mexico via a public records request and shared with TPM on Monday, reveal both that high-ranking officials were surprised by the border militia’s actions — “First we’ve heard of it,” Stelnicki wrote after receiving the ACLU’s letter — and that there was some initial confusion over how to address the situation.
“I also realize this is very political and could likely stir up more issues than we’re prepared for, but what’s right is right,” Johnson wrote to DPS officials.
Responding to news that the Sunland Park Police Department had learned that the militia was unlawfully detaining migrants, Johnson responded: “I’m assuming this group/militia aren’t temp sworn/commissioned by any LE agencies to protect the border?”
They weren’t. Though various UCP members have said they are military veterans, none are authorized to arrest asylum seekers.
Following the ACLU’s letter, officials began researching identified UCP members and digging through their criminal histories, according to one memo included in the records provided to the civil liberties group.
Within two days of the letter, the group’s leader was behind bars. A federal grand jury indicted Larry Mitchell Hopkins on a gun violation, 18 months after FBI agents searched Hopkins’ home and found the firearms that would form the basis of that charge
Then last week, a federal grand jury in New Mexico charged Jim Benvie, the public face and videographer of both UCP and its splinter group, Guardian Patriots, with two counts of impersonating a Border Patrol agent. The alleged crimes occurred on April 15 and 17.
Sergeant Wesley Cox noted in an April 19 email to Johnson “two possibly relevant federal statutes provided by the Las Cruces [Assistant United States Attorney’s] office:” 18 U.S.C. 912 and 913. Benvie violated 18 U.S.C. 912 twice, the United States alleged two months later.
Jurisdictional issues appeared to cause headaches early on for law enforcement looking to address alleged wrongdoing by the border vigilantes. Officials, including Johnson, expressed uncertainty over where the group was acting.
After Frietze noted on April 18 that the group’s encampment was “checkerboarded” between city, railroad, Catholic Diocese, and federal land, Johnson asked: “Do we have a specific (pin point) location where the flagging and detainment occurred? Meaning was it on federal land = federal jurisdiction[?]”
Frietze responded that he didn’t have a specific location.
So far, New Mexico has not pursued charges against militia members (though its neighbor, Oklahoma, has charged Benvie with fraud for allegedly pocketing money he’d collecting for a child cancer survivor, as the Daily Beast reported). But the documents released to the ACLU-NM indicated the police were concerned about the group’s actions.
In an inter-departmental correspondence a few days later — after Union Pacific Railroad evicted the group from their then-campsite, forcing them a few hundred feet away — Frietze wrote that if the militia set up another encampment, “a frequent patrol will be designated to occur in the area to establish the presence of law enforcement within the area.”
That protocol, he wrote, “is subject to evolve as necessary.” The state police officials did not respond to a request for comment.
The ACLU-NM’s executive director, Peter Simonson, told TPM Monday that “it’s important that people like Benvie are held accountable for their illegal actions, because if they’re not, this activity threatens to spread across the border.”
Indeed, Benvie’s outfit is not alone in calling for a vigilante response to asylum seekers and migrants. Anthony Aguero, a self-proclaimed political journalist who goes by “Conservative Anthony,” is another figure in this space, known for sharing videos of him running full-speed at night, barking orders at people he suspects of entering the country illegally.
And Stewart Rhodes, founder of the law-enforcement-oriented militia group Oath Keepers, said in a recent interview with a spokesperson for the GoFundMe-powered “We Build The Wall” group — Benvie, an unacknowledged affiliate of the private border wall effort, was filming — that he was “working on things like that.”
“We were considering an operation, we still are, in the Coronado National Forest up in the mountains,” he said. “That’s where the cartel has carte blanche.”