They’ve wound themselves up to believe all kinds of rumors about the migrant caravan that’s been making its way north through Mexico.
Rumors that it’s 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’s funded by Jewish billionaire George Soros. Rumors that MS-13 is involved. Rumors of cartels. Rumors of violence. Rumors of death.
Johnny Horton Jr. is a self-proclaimed border militia leader who believes the rumors are true. Except he doesn’t call them rumors. He calls them facts. And like several other militia leaders, he says he has 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 a recent interview with the Southern Poverty Law Center (SPLC). “I’m not telling you where, but it comes out of very high agencies.”
Militia leaders like Horton have been hyping up the threat of the caravan in recent weeks and vowing online to take action. They say they’re putting “boots on the ground” from Texas to California to support the active-duty troops that have been ordered to the border in response to the caravan.
In the process, the militias have 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 have embraced smear the caravan as an invading army rather than a group of a few thousand desperate people fleeing poverty and violence. The militias see themselves as duty bound to stop the caravan, even if that means a shooting war breaks out.
At the same time, however, the militia movement has been afflicted by infighting and backstabbing over the caravan and their response to it. In their frenzy, they’ve told reporters that they are 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 have insulted other leaders. Groups have broken alliances with other groups. And self-described commanders have resigned their positions in the militias they run.
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 has already assessed the possibility that civilian militias could pose a threat to the 5,000 troops that are being deployed to the border. Beyond that, the broader antigovernment movement also 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.
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. He’s 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 SPLC.
“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 has said his group has 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 Wednesday, Nov. 14, the GoFundMe campaign had raised $125 with a goal of $1,000. The PayPal campaign had netted $180 toward a goal of $1,500.
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 recently posted a message 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 SPLC on Oct. 26, 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 SPLC 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, on Saturday, Nov. 3, 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 gasmask 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 SPLC spoke to Jim Peyton, who calls himself the militia’s general, on Oct. 25, 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 SPLC. “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 SPLC, 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.”
Generals and Crooks
Before his departure, Peyton said 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 these days 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 SPLC 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 follow through.
“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 SPLC 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 alternately in either desert fatigues for border operations or else donning 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 SPLC 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 since the SPLC talked to the militia leaders, Trump had mobilized thousands of active-duty troops to the border, and photos surfaced showing them placing concertina wire along stretches of it. Earlier this year, when another caravan of migrants crossed Mexico to seek asylum in the U.S., 93 percent ended up getting it, according to BuzzFeed News. In other words, they immigrated legally.
This week, the first wave of the new caravan began arriving in Tijuana, Mexico, just across the border from San Diego. And VICE News reported that Trump’s border troops in Texas had nothing to do. The caravan was nowhere near them.
As for the border militia movement, its members are likely finding out they’re in the same boat.
Photo illustration by SPLC