This weekend saw the arrest of the leader of the “United Constitutional Patriots,” one of several right-wing militia groups that patrols the U.S.-Mexico border, intercepting those who try to cross without papers.
Larry Mitchell Hopkins — who also goes by the names “Johnny Horton Jr.” and “Striker” — was taken into custody in New Mexico on Saturday by a team of FBI agents and local police. The arrest comes days after his group shared videos on social media of its members detaining dozens Central American families attempting to enter the country.
The footage, first flagged by the ACLU of New Mexico, shows armed men ordering frightened groups of families, some of whom were traveling with toddlers, to the ground. They then appeared to call Border Patrol to come retrieve the migrants.
Here’s what we know about the UCP’s activities and Hopkins’ arrest:
Hopkins was arrested on a gun charge
Though some of the videos, which have been posted on Facebook for weeks without much fanfare, show militia members falsely identifying themselves as federal agents and detaining people at gunpoint, Hopkins’ charge was unrelated.
The militia leader was arrested for possessing a firearm despite having a felony record, which is a fourth degree felony in New Mexico. As New Mexico Attorney General Hector Balderas put it: “This is a dangerous felon who should not have weapons around children and families.”
Hopkins’ rap sheet includes a 1986 conviction of felony fraud and a 2006 conviction for impersonating a police officer and possessing a firearm as a felon, according to court records obtained by the Southern Poverty Law Center.
“We’re not satisfied with felon gun possession charges being the end of the matter,” ACLU of New Mexico executive director Peter Simonson told TPM in a Monday phone interview. “We think there is much more here for them to plumb.”
“We are anxiously awaiting yet more charges to come down, and we’re just, at this point, hopefully assuming that this first charge was just a way for them to open up the investigation and begin to collect more information before they pursue more aggressive charges,” he added.
New Mexico lawmakers, ACLU request an investigation into militia activity at the border
New Mexico state lawmakers, the state’s governor, and New Mexico’s two U.S. senators have called for investigations into border militia activity in the past few days. So has the ACLU.
Balderas, the state’s attorney general, did not respond to TPM’s request for comment, but said on Twitter that his office had “deployed investigative resources and are actively working alongside law enforcement authorities.”
PayPal and GoFundMe cut off the group’s fundraising efforts as well.
“Detaining dozens of families in the dead of night in a remote part of the desert at gunpoint is pretty concerning, and obviously raises the prospect of someone getting seriously injured or killed,” the ACLU-NM’s Simonson said.
The UCP vigilantes, he said, appear to see the migrants and asylum seekers they apprehend “as chattel, as nothing much different than animals.”
The federal agents who actually have jurisdiction on the border have displayed less concern. In response to the outcry over the footage, Border Patrol’s parent agency, Customs and Border Protection, issued a mild rebuke.
If a member of the community witnesses or suspects illegal activity, please call 911, or if related to illegal cross-border activity, call the Border Patrol tip line at 1-877-872-7435 or 1-800-BE-ALERT.
— CBP (@CBP) April 19, 2019
The UCP says they’ll stick it out until Trump’s wall is built
UCP has maintained an armed presence on the border for at least two months. On April 1, Heavy noted, Hopkins claimed on Facebook that “in the last month our group of patriots have stopped over 3500, mostly kids being trafficked by adults , plus alot of young men that are wanted criminals.”
Their primary motivation, they say, is guarding against what Trump has described as the “crisis” of undocumented immigration. They say they plan to conduct their armed patrols until a border wall is built.
In early April, Hopkins told Agence France-Presse, as quoted by Newsweek: “We’re here to assist the border patrol because they are so short handed. We have a good work rapport with them. Our goal was to be here until we’re not needed. And when we’re not needed is when that wall is up.”
He’s separately claimed to know the President personally and provide him intelligence, the Southern Poverty Law Center noted in a November profile.
Armed border militias, including a KKK-affiliated militia started by David Duke in the 1970s, have been around for decades. Occasionally, they include white nationalist extremists. In 2012, neo-Nazi Jason Todd Ready, leader of a small group of armed border vigilantes, went on a murderous rampage, killing his girlfriend, his girlfriend’s daughter and her boyfriend, and that couple’s 16-month-old toddler. He then killed himself.
Mother Jones’ Shane Bauer’s undercover reporting on the Three Percent United Patriots examined the group’s close working relationship with federal agents.
The ACLU-NM’s Simonson distinguished UCP’s recent activities from other militias he’s encountered. While “we saw a surge in this kind of vigilante activity on our southern border in the early 2000s,” he said, “we never saw anything so extreme, so aggressive as what these vigilantes are doing.”
The group’s ties with the Border Patrol are unclear
Border Patrol has stressed that it doesn’t work in concert with the border militias, but it also hasn’t rejected the groups’ help, either. An unnamed official told CNN: “We have contact with them, but they do not work with us. They do not work alongside us.”
“By law, they cannot conduct an arrest,” the official told CNN. “If they do, then somebody needs to do something about it.” New Mexico Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham (D) said the same in response to the recent videos. “It should go without saying that regular citizens have no authority to arrest or detain anyone,” she asserted.
And yet, militias do detain migrants and asylum seekers, a practice some call kidnapping.
Jim Benvie, UCP’s spokesperson, described the group’s actions to The New York Times as “a verbal citizen’s arrest.” And several videos show UCP “arresting” migrants and then calling CBP, holding their detainees until federal officials arrive.
In March, a UCP member using a pseudonym told KVIA that they’d set up camp in Sunland Park, New Mexico, just outside of El Paso, because “the Border Patrol asked us to come here.”
“So we decided this is where we’re going to build our base camp and we’ll run it from here,” the member continued. (A Border Patrol spokesperson responded: “I don’t believe it to be accurate at this time.”)
UCP “commander” Mark Cheney recently told BuzzFeed: “If the Border Patrol says, ‘We don’t need you,’ we’ll leave.”
Trump’s presidency has animated border militia groups
Since the Trump presidency began—and especially since he stirred public alarm about so-called “caravans” of migrants and asylum seekers trying to enter the U.S.—border vigilantes have reportedly seen their numbers swell.
In November, just before the 2018 midterms, the President of the Texas Minutemen told the Post that the group expected 100 volunteers to arrive at the Rio Grande following the President’s heightened rhetoric about “an invasion.”
Michael Vickers, who leads the “300-strong” Texas Border Volunteers, told the Post he could “have 100 volunteers in a hot area in four to eight hours.”
Around the same time, Newsweek published a document from Defense Department officials referencing an “estimated 200 unregulated armed militia members currently operating along the [Southwest Border].”
“Reported incidents of unregulated militias stealing National Guard equipment during deployments,” the analysis said. “They operate under the guise of citizens patriots supporting CBP primarily between [ports of entry].”
Spokespeople for CBP declined TPM’s interview request, instead sending over the statement they posted to Twitter about not condoning “private groups or organizations taking enforcement matters into their own hands.”
“Border Patrol welcomes assistance from the community,” the statement noted.