How Caravan Paranoia Tore the Border Militia Movement Apart
They wound themselves up to believe all kinds of rumors about the migrant caravan that made its way north through Mexico.
Rumors that it was filled not just with Central Americans seeking asylum but with people from Venezuela, Nigeria and Syria — even Islamic militants. Rumors that caravan members were secretly trained by the United Nations. Rumors that it was funded by Jewish billionaire George Soros. Rumors that MS-13 was involved. Rumors of cartels. Rumors of violence. Rumors of death.
Johnny Horton Jr. is a self-proclaimed border militia leader who believed the rumors were true. Except he didn’t call them rumors. He called them facts. And like several other militia leaders, he said he’d fielded a team of “patriots” to travel to the southern border to stop the caravan from coming into the U.S.
“Our information comes from the very top,” Horton said in an interview with the Intelligence Report. “I’m not telling you where, but it comes out of very high agencies.”
Militia leaders like Horton were hyping up the threat of the caravan in late October, weeks before it arrived at the U.S. border, and vowing online to take action. They said they were putting “boots on the ground” from Texas to California to support the active-duty troops that were ordered to the border in response to the caravan.
In the process, the militias gorged on an array of hoaxes and conspiracy theories floated by conservative media, anti-immigrant groups and President Donald Trump himself, who released an ad about the caravan before the midterms that was deemed so racist that Fox News and other news channels pulled it off the air. The fantasies the militias embraced smeared the caravan as an invading army rather than a group of a few thousand desperate people fleeing poverty and violence. The militias saw themselves as duty-bound to stop the caravan, even if that meant a shooting war broke out.
At the same time, however, the militia movement was afflicted by infighting and backstabbing over the caravan and their response to it. In their frenzy, they told reporters that they were prepared to bring hundreds, even thousands, of armed men and women to the border to form a united front. But behind the scenes, these irregular armies are made up of unreliable individuals. Leaders insulted other leaders. Groups broke alliances with other groups. And self-described commanders resigned their positions in the militias they ran.
It all might be a bit comical if the groups weren’t armed and didn’t believe war was approaching. According to Newsweek, the Pentagon assessed the possibility that civilian militias could have posed a threat to the 5,000 troops deployed to the border. Beyond that, the broader antigovernment movement has a history of breeding lone wolves who become so gripped by paranoia that they take matters into their own hands. That was the case with Jerad and Amanda Miller, who shot and killed two police officers in North Las Vegas in 2014 after attending the Bundy Ranch standoff. It was also the case with Shawna Forde, a former member of the border vigilante group Minuteman Civil Defense Corps, who murdered a man and his 9-year-old daughter in 2009 during another outbreak of hysteria about the Southern border.
Photo by John Gastaldo/Alamy/Zuma Wire
The Ballad of Larry Hopkins
It’s a little hard to know what to make of Johnny Horton Jr., who calls himself the national commander of the United Constitutional Patriots (UCP).
For one, that’s not his real name. It is Larry Mitchell Hopkins.
“Horton” is the stage name used by the 69-year-old, who describes himself as an “artist, entertainer.” On YouTube, there are videos of Hopkins performing under the Horton name, singing covers of old country songs, including some by the original Johnny Horton, who died in a car crash in 1960.
Hopkins also uses the alias in the militia movement.
His group, UCP, is headquartered in Flora Vista, New Mexico, a small town in the northern part of the state. It’s unclear how many people are part of his group, and he declined to cite any figures when asked by the Intelligence Report.
“I cannot give you numbers,” he said. “That would be the worst thing I could do.”
The main online presence for UCP, its Facebook page, is sparse. It contains a few reposts of videos, some of which are conspiracy-driven. The page also includes at least two links to videos of Hopkins performing the “Ballad of the Green Berets.”
Hopkins said his group had a presence along the Mexico border and is working with other militia groups throughout the Southwest in response to the caravan. He was unwilling to provide proof to support these claims. However, UCP’s Facebook page published links to two fundraising sites — PayPal and GoFundMe — soliciting donations for the border-watch efforts. Both campaigns show they were started by a man using the name Mark Cheney, whose own Facebook page describes him as a “former disabled vet” and “currently on Social Security disability.” The page says he also lives in Flora Vista.
The GoFundMe pitch, which uses similar language to the one on PayPal, is simple:
“We are raising money to help finance the various Patriot groups who have volunteered to go to the U.S. Border to help the Border Patrol in securing the Border before the invasion happens. We are doing this by assisting in fuel cards, food and water and various other supplies that are needed. Please give what you can, no amount is too small or too large.”
As of early January, the GoFundMe campaign had raised $710 with a goal of $1,000. The PayPal campaign had netted $2,025 toward a goal of $2,500.
As for Hopkins, he’s all-in on conspiracy theories about the caravan. His rhetoric, at times, has been dire. On his personal Facebook page, he posted a message in late October speculating about his death:
“im 69 years old and i am going to the border when i know the enemy is close to the border, i am going to fight and i may give my life but at least i will be there and stand by my oath, they didnt get me when i was in the army and i will stand for our country, if they get me now at least i will die for our country and what keeping america free is all about, GOD WILL GUIDE AND PROTECT ME.”
During his interview with the Intelligence Report, Hopkins explained that he expects his group to be shot at. He said he’d been “prewarned” by “very high level” law enforcement sources. “Armed groups are already here,” he said. “They’re planning on flanking us … to shoot us.”
“If we’re fired on,” he added, “we will fire back.”
When the Intelligence Report pressed Hopkins about his claim that he was getting information from high up in the government — or, as he put it elsewhere in the conversation, “from the very top” — he remained vague.
“I am not giving any information where my information comes from,” he said. But, he added, “I’m not implying the president.”
However, several days later, in a video interview posted on a Facebook page called The Renegade Network, Hopkins did more than just imply he was in touch with President Trump — he claimed the president was relying on him for border intelligence.
The claim came during an interview with someone going by the alias “Mr. X,” who appears to administer The Renegade Network page. The page itself is steeped in militia propaganda and traffics in plenty of conspiracy theories, but Mr. X was skeptical of many of the claims Hopkins had been making recently, particularly when it comes to border watch operations.
Mr. X — dressed in a gas mask and black hoodie, his voice distorted — grilled Hopkins on his claims. About midway through the interview, Hopkins defended himself by making grand statements about knowing Trump personally. He said their relationship began because of his own career in music.
“When I was doing music, I met Trump and his first wife when he had the casino in Las Vegas, and I played there numerous times. OK?” Hopkins said. “That’s how I knew him. And Trump and I have kept in touch ever since.”
He went on to say that Trump was a listener of an internet radio show he broadcasts on YouTube and that the president wanted intel from him, not about the Southern border, but about the Northern border. Because, Hopkins said, that’s where “all of the Muslims are coming in.”
Trouble in New Mexico
Hopkins also claimed to be working closely with another militia, Patriots of the Constitution, which is based out of Alabama but had traveled to New Mexico in response to the caravan.
When the Intelligence Report spoke to Jim Peyton, who calls himself the militia’s general, in late October, he said that he and the group’s other general, Terry Kelley, had recently arrived in Columbus, New Mexico, just a few miles north of the Mexico border. They’d driven straight through, without sleep, for two days to get there, he said.
Like Hopkins, Peyton wouldn’t say exactly how many people besides Kelley were taking part in his militia activities, but claimed it was “over 100 people.” Peyton also claimed that he was in charge of all the militia activities along the border.
“All the other militias have been contacted. We’re all acting as one,” Peyton told the Intelligence Project. “When they come here, I’ll be commanding officer. And they’ll follow my ord — the orders that we have.”
He said that everyone in his group had served in the military in the past.
“We’re not a bunch of hillbillies running around with muskets,” he said. “People know what the rules are, what the rules of engagement are, what the rules of the border patrol are. And that’s how we’re operating.”
Peyton’s belief in a number of conspiracy theories prompted him to head to the border. Nigerians in the caravan? Check. Militants with the Islamic State? Check. Soros financing it? Check. His information, he said, came “from good sources, reliable sources, government-type sources.” What were those sources? He wouldn’t say. But he said he believed the caravan and other recent events were attempts to distract from what he saw as crimes committed by “the left.”
“Obama, Hillary, Schumer, Soros need to go in front of a military tribunal,” Peyton said. Asked what he meant by that, he replied: “Arrested. Tried by the military for treason.”
Despite Peyton’s claims of commanding a major joint militia operation at the border, problems with his plan were already clear.
His group, Patriots of the Constitution, previously advertised Hopkins’ militia as part of its coordinated effort. But when speaking with the Intelligence Report, Peyton said that was no longer the case.
“We have split ties and affiliation with United Constitutional Patriots, OK?” Peyton said. “We don’t deal with them any longer. That’s, like I said, a recent thing. And we have our own reasons for doing so. And I just can’t get into that with you.”
(Hopkins later denied the groups had split. “He hasn’t severed no ties with us,” he said, adding that he would call Peyton to find out what was going on.)
Less than a week later, Peyton posted a message on Facebook announcing another departure from Patriots of the Constitution — himself.
“I, General James F, (sic) Peyton, do hereby submit this letter of resignation to General Terry Kelley of the Patriots of The Constitution,” he wrote. “I will still retain the rank of General that was given to me by (sic) former Commander, prior to General Kelley, and will be willing to assist any Patriot group in need of assistance.”
Alone at Patriot Point
Before his departure, Peyton said that the Patriots of the Constitution had been sending donations and manpower to a longtime border militia leader: Robert Crooks.
Crooks leads the Mountain Minutemen, a group founded more than a decade ago to conduct civilian border-watch operations. He lives in the Las Vegas area but makes regular trips to Southern California for armed patrols at a spot near the Mexico border called Patriot Point.
When he spoke to the Intelligence Project in late October, he was alone at Patriot Point. He was posting messages on Facebook asking for volunteers and financial donations, but he was working solo. His regular volunteers — his “base group,” he called them — had day jobs and were unavailable.
“So, you know, I gotta stand the line by myself until the cavalry shows up,” Crooks said.
He complained about the state of the border militia movement. The way he sees it, he said, people will talk a big game on the internet, but it’s all for show. They’ll promise to come to the border, and they might even donate to him, but they rarely show up.
“I’m alone right now. I don’t have anybody,” Crooks said. “It’s all lip service, you know? These keyboard commandos, these Walmart warriors, they go down to Cabela’s and buy all these shitty looking goods — stuff to make ‘em look good in the mirror.”
The Intelligence Report asked Crooks about Peyton’s group, Patriots of the Constitution, and how messages posted on the group’s Facebook page said it was working with Crooks.
“They sucked me into that without my knowledge, them people — what are they called? Um, Uniform Construction or Constitutional Patriots or some bullshit. I don’t know. I told them to take that off and they haven’t done it yet,” Crooks said. “I’m not affiliated with them. Don’t tie me to them. They did that on their own volition, and I’ve told them to pull me off that. I guess they haven’t, have they? Is it still up?”
Later in the interview, Crooks laughed about militia leaders who call themselves “generals.”
“Oh, this weekend I’m gonna be a general. All right!” he said. “They know they’re mindless midges, you know what I mean?”
When Peyton was asked later about Crooks’ comments, he was in disbelief.
“Really? Really? OK. It cost me over a thousand dollars out of my own pocket just to get down here. So what kind of a keyboard warrior is that?” Peyton said. “I don’t know why he would say that when we just sent him money!”
A Neo-Nazi, Not a Rocket Scientist
Crooks was the most explicit of the bunch in his assessment of the caravan. He used the slurs “cockroaches” and “ditch crickets” to describe immigrants who crossed the border illegally. And he talked up the anti-immigrant fantasy that the caravan was part of a secret plot by Mexico to take over the Southwestern U.S. — a conspiracy theory known as “la reconquista.” The eventual goal, he said, was a “New World Order.”
“These entities, these diabolical manifestations in this plane of consciousness, they’re trying to destroy the sovereignty of this nation, and have been from the onset,” Crooks said. “It’s pushing for the New World Order, pushing for the elitist takeover and the domination of and the destruction of America. And that’s exactly what it is. It has been all along.”
“One world government,” he added. “Total domination of the human species.”
Those types of comments are nothing new for Crooks, of course. In the past, he patrolled the Arizona desert south of Phoenix with longtime neo-Nazi Harry Hughes, who also uses the term “cockroaches” to describe migrants and rails against “globalists” and the “New World Order.” Hughes is entrenched in the border militia movement in Arizona and is friendly on Facebook with a number of its leaders. But he also plays a role as the communications director for the National Socialist Movement (NSM), a violent neo-Nazi group headquartered in Detroit.
Hughes’ role in the swastika-carrying, Hitler-worshipping group is no secret. One of his own blogs shows a mix of selfies of him dressed in either desert fatigues for border operations or the black uniform and swastika armband that was formerly the dress code of the NSM. He was also a longtime friend and confidant of J.T. Ready, another NSM member who lived in Arizona and patrolled the desert with Hughes. Ready killed himself in 2012 after murdering four people, including an 18-month-old girl, inside a house in the Phoenix suburbs.
Crooks didn’t skip a beat when the Intelligence Report asked him about his relationship with Hughes. “Harry’s a good friend of mine!” he said, adding that Hughes’ views, which he described as “political,” didn’t really matter to him.
“Am I a neo-Nazi?” Crooks said. “No, I am not. And if he is in fact a neo-Nazi and part of the Aryan — that’s his life, and I have no problem with that. I don’t care.” Crooks said his own patriotism didn’t deter him from being friends with a man who holds a leadership role in a group that celebrates Adolf Hitler.
“Nobody ever called him a rocket scientist, you know what I mean?” Crooks said of Hughes. “But he does go out in the desert and he patrols the desert for illegal aliens. I’ve gotta commend him for that. And if he’s gonna continue doing that with me, I’ll run with him.”
All of this, and the caravan had yet to arrive. In the days after the Intelligence Project talked to the militia leaders, Trump mobilized thousands of active-duty troops to the border, and photos surfaced showing them placing concertina wire along stretches of it. Earlier in the year, when another caravan of migrants crossed Mexico to seek asylum in the U.S., 93 percent were granted entry, according to BuzzFeed News. In other words, they immigrated legally.
By mid-November, the first wave of the new caravan began arriving in Tijuana, Mexico, just across the border from San Diego. In Texas, VICE News reported that Trump’s border troops had nothing to do. The caravan was nowhere near them.
As for the border militias, their confrontation with the caravan was over before it ever began.
The President Fanned the Flames of Caravan Paranoia
In the final weeks before midterm elections, President Donald Trump whipped up paranoia about the migrant caravan as it slowly made its way north through Mexico toward the U.S. border. Having successfully campaigned in the 2016 election on the specter of immigrant rapists and repeated promises to build an “impenetrable” wall along the border, Trump returned to the anti-immigrant well as the 2018 election approached.
In ads, speeches and, of course, tweets, the president claimed the caravan of a few thousand asylum seekers from Honduras amounted to a “National Emergy,” in his Twitter parlance, and an “invasion.” None of it, however, mentioned that 93 percent of the migrants from a similar caravan earlier in the year had been granted legal entry once they reached the border.
Here’s how the president described and spread fear about the migrant caravan:
@realDonaldTrump tweet, Oct. 16
“The United States has strongly informed the President of Honduras that if the large Caravan of people heading to the U.S. is not stopped and brought back to Honduras, no more money or aid will be given to Honduras, effective immediately!”
@realDonaldTrump tweet, Oct. 22
“Sadly, it looks like Mexico’s Police and Military are unable to stop the Caravan heading to the Southern Border of the United States. Criminals and unknown Middle Easterners are mixed in. I have alerted Border Patrol and Military that this is a National Emergy. Must change laws!”
@realDonaldTrump tweet, Oct. 22
“Every time you see a Caravan, or people illegally coming, or attempting to come, into our Country illegally, think of and blame the Democrats for not giving us the votes to change our pathetic Immigration Laws! Remember the Midterms! So unfair to those who come in legally.”
Campaign rally in Houston, Oct. 22
“I think the Democrats had something to do with it. And now they’re saying, ‘I think we made a big mistake.’ Because people are seeing how bad it is, how pathetic it is, how bad our laws are. They made a big mistake. So as the caravan — and look, that is an assault on our country. That’s an assault. And in that caravan, you have some very bad people. You have some very bad people. And we can’t let that happen to our country.”
@realDonaldTrump tweet, Oct. 25
“To those in the Caravan, turnaround, we are not letting people into the United States illegally. Go back to your Country and if you want, apply for citizenship like millions of others are doing!”
@realDonaldTrump tweet, Oct. 29
“Many Gang Members and some very bad people are mixed into the Caravan heading to our Southern Border. Please go back, you will not be admitted into the United States unless you go through the legal process. This is an invasion of our Country and our Military is waiting for you!”
TV ad released Oct. 31
President Trump released a campaign ad ahead of the Nov. 6 midterm election that showed images of the migrant caravan juxtaposed with video of an undocumented immigrant bragging about killing two police officers. The text on screen at the end of the ad read: “Stop the caravan. Vote Republican.”
@realDonaldTrump tweet, Oct. 31
“The Caravans are made up of some very tough fighters and people. Fought back hard and viciously against Mexico at Northern Border before breaking through. Mexican soldiers hurt, were unable, or unwilling to stop Caravan. Should stop them before they reach our Border, but won’t!”
Remarks delivered at the White House, Nov. 1
“At this very moment, large, well-organized caravans of migrants are marching towards our southern border. Some people call it an ‘invasion.’ It’s like an invasion. They have violently overrun the Mexican border. You saw that two days ago. These are tough people, in many cases. A lot of young men, strong men. And a lot of men that maybe we don’t want in our country.”
@realDonaldTrump tweets, Nov. 16
“Isn’t it ironic that large Caravans of people are marching to our border wanting U.S.A. asylum because they are fearful of being in their country - yet they are proudly waving their country’s flag. Can this be possible? Yes, because it is all a BIG CON, and the American taxpayer is paying for it!”