Part I: Masked Men in the Night
The dark handheld camera footage shows a large group of people, mostly families clutching small children, blinded by the flashlights trained on their faces. Heavily armed men wearing fake law enforcement badges, ski masks, and camouflage uniforms bark orders to the frightened families in mangled Spanish, identifying themselves as “Policia!” or “Border Patrol!” The families kneel in the sand and wait.
“Don’t aim the gun at them,” admonishes a woman named Debbie to an unseen gunman as she documents their illegal detention of more than a hundred migrants on her Facebook livestream.
For many of them, it was a journey that began with a thug’s gun pointed in their face. Here, just a few feet inside the “land of the free and the home of the brave,” their journey ends the same way.
The migrants, mostly asylum seekers fleeing horrific gang violence and climate catastrophes in their home countries in Central America, sit huddled and scared at the end of a dangerous and grueling journey that took them across half a continent. For many of them, it was a journey that began with a thug’s gun pointed in their face. Here, just a few feet inside the “land of the free and the home of the brave,” their journey ends the same way. After nearly an hour, flashing lights of Border Patrol vehicles illuminate the sea of faces, and federal agents finally take custody of the group. They herd the families into vans and drive off into the night.
The men and women detaining asylum seekers in the video belong to a group called the United Constitutional Patriots (UCP), a band of heavily armed men and women styling themselves as a volunteer “militia.” The paramilitary group, whipped into a paranoid frenzy by the darker backwaters of the internet and emboldened by Trump’s relentless demonization of migrants, set up camp near Sunland Park, New Mexico in March and began conducting armed patrols of a nearby stretch of the border, seeking to intercept and detain migrant families as they crossed from Mexico into the United States to request asylum.
They obsessively live-streamed their “operations,” providing a running commentary comprised of equal parts racism and conspiracy while they trained the camera on each new group of desperate people they detained.
“Look at them, they’re like cockroaches,” says one UCP member as the camera pans over a huddled group of parents with small children.
“I don’t think these kids are even theirs, look at the way they’re gripping their arms,” says another, referencing a conspiracy theory that migrants “fake” their families by renting children from Mexican drug cartels in order to strengthen their asylum cases.
“If we shot on the hill, it would be an international crisis,” says the group’s spokesperson Jim Benvie, as he records two migrants sleeping on the ground as they wait for border patrol to arrive. “It would save us some time, though, wouldn’t it?”
Photo-Below: UCP spokesperson Jim Benvie with fellow vigilantes on the border.
Part II: The Wild West
"Here were groups of armed civilians with no authority whatsoever to enforce federal immigration law holding parents with toddlers at gunpoint. It was almost surreal in its ugliness."
“When we first saw the videos, we were dumbstruck,” said Legal Director Leon Howard. “I mean, here were groups of armed civilians with no authority whatsoever to enforce federal immigration law holding parents with toddlers at gunpoint. It was almost surreal in its ugliness.”
Shocking as the images were, they were nothing new. We were simply witnessing a flare up of an endemic cultural virus that has an especially pernicious hold on the American West: vigilantism.
The European-American expansion westward was at its core violent and racist in nature, forcibly displacing and slaughtering native peoples who had called the lands home for centuries. As colonization accelerated, massacres of native peoples by informal bands of settlers became commonplace. Thousands of native men, women, and children were murdered in horrific fashion across the American west in the 19th and early part of the 20th century.
Racist mob violence was hardly limited to native peoples however. The century long campaign of terror against African-Americans that involved more than 4,000 lynchings is relatively well known, but less known are the paroxysms of mob violence against Chinese immigrants that seized the American West in the latter part of the 19th century and the estimated thousands of Latinos and Hispanics that were lynched, nearly 100 in New Mexico alone.
"...the appearance of hundreds of racist vigilantes in the borderlands set off alarm bells for the ACLU."
In reaction to a spike in undocumented migration from Mexico in the early 2000s, a modern incarnation of the same vigilantist impulse cropped up in the form of anti-immigrant border militias. One of the first and most famous was the Minutemen Project, which made headlines by organizing more than 1,000 armed civilians to conduct independent armed patrols along the border, seeking groups of migrants to report to the immigration authorities. While the Minutemen largely avoided direct contact with migrants, the appearance of hundreds of racist vigilantes in the borderlands set off alarm bells for the ACLU. In 2005, the ACLU of New Mexico, along with border affiliates in Texas, Arizona, and California, began training and deploying legal observers to monitor the group’s activities.
After a period of decline through the late aughts, paramilitary groups and militias experienced a resurgence following the election of Barack Obama to the presidency in 2008. The coinciding rise of social media allowed pockets of extremists and hate groups to network, organize, and recruit in ways never before possible. With the election of Donald Trump, a man who embodied and legitimized all of the toxic ideas at the core of the militia movement, this highly combustible cocktail of racial resentment, xenophobia, and paranoid conspiracy was set to explode.
Part III: Fighting Back
"We weren’t about to allow the United Constitutional Patriots to terrorize and illegally detain families seeking asylum at New Mexico’s border."
Just as the ACLU of New Mexico refused to allow the first wave of border militias to run roughshod over our communities in the early 2000s, we weren’t about to allow the United Constitutional Patriots to terrorize and illegally detain families seeking asylum at New Mexico’s border.
“Leaving aside the blatant illegality of it all, it was a humanitarian disaster waiting to happen,” said Howard. “Vigilantes rounding up hundreds of people at gunpoint in the middle of the night, it was only a matter of time before somebody—maybe a lot of somebodies—got hurt or killed.”
Governor Lujan Grisham swiftly spoke out in condemnation of the group’s activities, releasing a statement saying, “It should go without saying that regular citizens have no authority to arrest or detain anyone. My office and our state police are coordinating with the Attorney General’s Office and local police to determine what has gone on and what can be done.”
To ratchet up pressure on the authorities to curb the group’s illegal activities, the ACLU of New Mexico released the information widely to the media, generating a firestorm of national news coverage. The companies PayPal and GoFundMe promptly suspended UCP’s accounts, cutting off the main source of the militia’s income. The following day, the FBI arrested the UCP’s leader, Larry Hopkins, on federal weapons charges. The day after Hopkin’s arrest, Sunland Park Police and Doña Ana County Sheriff’s Deputies arrived at the UCP’s camp and evicted the vigilantes from the Union Pacific Railroad land where they were illegally trespassing.
“I think there’s no doubt that the advocacy and the pressure the ACLU of New Mexico was able to bring to bear was instrumental in dismantling the vigilantes’ racist and dangerous activities in our border communities,” said Howard. “Less than a week after we first viewed the video of them detaining migrants, we had essentially put them out of business.”
"...there’s no doubt that the advocacy and the pressure the ACLU of New Mexico was able to bring to bear was instrumental in dismantling the vigilantes’ racist and dangerous activities in our border communities,"
As the media attention intensified, the U.S. Customs and Border Protection (CBP) agency released a statement via Twitter claiming that the Border Patrol “does not endorse or condone private groups or organizations taking enforcement matters into their own hands.” The ample footage taken by UCP vigilantes tells a different story. UCP members were clearly in close contact with CBP agents, calling them directly each time they “apprehended” a new group of migrants. At times their relations appear downright chummy, with one masked vigilante posing for a photo between two CBP agents on horseback. In May, the ACLU of New Mexico filed a public information request with CBP demanding information on all communications and collaborations between CBP and UCP to determine the government’s full and true entanglement with extremist militias at the border.
Photo-Below: ACLU of New Mexico staff inspect the privately build border wall in Sunland, Park NM. Monument One is visible in the background.
Part IV: The Wall
By mid-May, it was beginning to appear that our work disrupting racist militia activity on our southern border was winding down. But what had already been a bizarre and disturbing series of events was about to get stranger. On Memorial Day Weekend, border residents woke to a jarring sight. Seemingly out of nowhere, a large construction crew with heavy machinery had descended on Sunland Park and begun constructing a 20ft high steel border fence.
Under the cover of darkness, a nonprofit called We Build the Wall (WBTW) had begun the construction of the first ever non-governmental border barrier on private land. After President Trump found it impossible to convince congress to fund one of his favorite xenophobic hobby horses, the construction of a multi-billion dollar wall along the entirety of the southern border, one of the president’s more enterprising supporters sensed an opportunity. Brian Kolfage, an Iraq veteran known for shady business ventures that peddled fake news and ultra-right clickbait on social media, conceived a viral campaign on the crowdfunding platform GoFundMe called “We Fund the Wall” with the purported mission of bypassing congressional purse strings to fund Trump’s border wall. In less than a month, the campaign raised more than 20 million dollars from individual donors across the country.
Armed with a large war chest, Kolfage channeled the funds into his newly formed 501(c)4 non-profit and recruited former White House Chief Strategist and notorious white nationalist Steve Bannon to chair an advisory board that included other prominent anti-immigration activists such as former Kansas Secretary of State Kris Kobach and former Colorado congressman Tom Tancredo. In searching for prospective wall construction sites during spring 2019, Kolfage and WBTW cultivated a relationship with UCP vigilantes who were then still operating on private land along the border in Sunland Park. The vigilantes began coordinating with WBTW, facilitating negotiations between the landowners and providing fundraising fodder with their recordings of migrant detentions. By April, UCP and WBTW were cozy to the point that Kolfage began referring to the vigilantes as “our guys on the ground” in fundraising pitches.
"After the ACLU of New Mexico began advocating against UCP’s illegal and dangerous activities, the group largely disintegrated under the increased scrutiny and legal pressure."
After the ACLU of New Mexico began advocating against UCP’s illegal and dangerous activities, the group largely disintegrated under the increased scrutiny and legal pressure. However, a few individuals, including the group’s spokesperson Jim Benvie, remained and served as informal security and propagandists for WBTW as they broke ground. With the vigilantes’ help, WBTW and the landowners blocked journalists and concerned community members from accessing a public road to the site where more than half a mile of steel wall was under construction.
Obsessed with secrecy and speed in order to avoid legal challenges and red tape, WBTW pushed construction forward at breakneck speed without performing an environmental impact study or obtaining proper building permits from the City of Sunland Park. Continuing their build-first-get-permission-later strategy, WBTW extended their border barrier beyond the private property, blocking a public road leading to Monument One, a historic landmark at the boundary between New Mexico, Texas, and the Mexican State of Chihuahua that has served as a symbol of binational unity and cultural identity for area border residents since 1855.
"This outside extremist group was essentially locking border communities out of their own culture and history for the sake of a racist PR stunt."
“This outside extremist group was essentially locking border communities out of their own culture and history for the sake of a racist PR stunt,” said Nia Rucker, Policy Counsel for the ACLU of New Mexico Regional Center for Border Rights in Las Cruces, NM. “They thought they could just bully and intimidate their way past rules and regulations intended to protect the health, safety, and cultural integrity of the community.”
Our communications team immediately mobilized hundreds of ACLU supporters to call the International Boundary and Water Commission (IBWC), the federal agency responsible for administering the area around Monument One, to demand that they force WBTW to remove the unauthorized gate from public land. At the same time, the ACLU of New Mexico legal team collaborated with the ACLU of Texas Border Rights Center in El Paso to reach out to IBWC attorneys. Shortly afterwards, the IBWC ordered WBTW to leave the gate open during daylight hours, restoring access to the public.
“We’re pleased the area is once again open to the public, but ultimately we believe that any unauthorized private border barriers on public lands must be completely removed and the land remediated to its original state,” said Rucker.
Part V. Epilogue
On June 25th, the FBI arrested Jim Benvie, one of the last remaining vigilantes active in the area, on charges of impersonating a border patrol agent. In early August, the State of Florida, where We Build the Wall is registered as a nonprofit, confirmed that the organization is currently under criminal investigation, and the City of Sunland Park has filed a legal complaint against the owner of the property where the wall was built without proper permits. New Mexicans fought back, and the forces of vigilantism, hate, and xenophobia are on their heels.
"Taken all together, the events of this spring and summer were an unprecedented assault on New Mexican communities and the shared values that bind them together."
Taken all together, the events of this spring and summer were an unprecedented assault on New Mexican communities and the shared values that bind them together. For hundreds of years, our state has built its strength on its multi-cultural identity, with immigrants playing a valued and respected role in our communities. Our borderlands are culturally, economically, and ecologically vibrant, with a rich history shared across international lines. Our character is fundamentally incompatible with Trump’s vision of a country defined by fear, division, and cruelty.
In New Mexico, we do not meet children and families seeking safety from violence and oppression with guns and walls. We do not bully the poor and the desperate, nor do we permit others to do so on our watch. Instead, we open our hearts and our doors and treat those seeking our help with dignity and compassion, exactly like Deming, New Mexico did. When the U.S. Border Patrol began dumping busloads of migrants in the small city in southern New Mexico this spring, the whole community mobilized to provide shelter, food, and medical care for more than 10,000 migrants. This is the New Mexico we believe in. This is the New Mexico we fight for.