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New Mexico Town Worked to Oust Vigilantes Who Partnered With Border Patrol

Just days after a New Mexico town helped evict militia members who held migrants against their will, guests on an antigovernment radio show suggested another militia group establish a camp in Texas.

Officials in Sunland Park, New Mexico, investigated members of the United Constitutional Patriots (UCP), after receiving tips that the group was holding captive immigrants at gunpoint seemingly with the approval of U.S. Customs and Border Protection (CBP). After discovering the group was trespassing on land owned by Union Pacific railroad, Union Pacific evicted them for good.

The actions of CBP have so outraged New Mexico’s officials that they believe the Border Patrol, a federal government agency, is “complicit” in illegal activities and wants the Federal Bureau of Investigations to start a probe.

“It’s our position, and the governor’s, that such detention is not allowed and is in fact illegal,” Sunland Park City Manager Julia Brown said. “The governor has gone so far as to say CBP is complicit in this illegal activity because they allowed and/or encouraged the militia to detain people then call them.”

All along the U.S. border with Mexico, right-wing extremists have for years organized militias to try to stop immigration into the U.S. The movement has had lethal consequences, including the 2009 murder of Raul Flores and his nine-year-old daughter Brisenia, who were shot to death in their home in Arizona during a robbery by three people, including Shawna Forde, a member of a border vigilante group called Minutemen American Defense. Because of fatal incidents like that, and others, communities don’t want civilians playing cops and cowboys on their turf. But the militias contend they support law enforcement as protectors of a porous border.

During the last few weeks, the issue drew international attention as United Constitutional Patriots broadcast its border vigilante operations hidden at the base of a mountain in Sunland Park, New Mexico. The detentions of about 200 migrants held at gunpoint outraged the local government and citizens.

“This is immoral,” said Robert Ardovino, whose restaurant sits 500 yards from where UCP camped. Militias “shouldn’t be acting as law enforcement. That’s the bottom line.”

Beyond the anger, it raised troubling, and still unanswered, questions about the conduct of Border Patrol agents who repeatedly accepted migrants from the hands of UCP.

Specifically, did the border agents report UCP’s illegal detention of migrants to the FBI? When did the border agents become aware of UCP’s camp, and how many migrants have they taken into custody from UCP?

Customs and Border Patrol hasn't answered those questions. But what’s clear is that UCP’s illegal activities come straight from the extremist playbook. The groups leverage influence and attention by exploiting a legitimate debate – in this case, immigration – and manipulate it to fabricate a crisis. Then they tout their activities – in this case, stalking and holding people in the desert – as a necessary solution.

While the Border Patrol agents might have tolerated UCP’s illegal activity, Sunland Park’s city manager said her town’s police department would not.

Not in their backyard

Uninvited, unwanted, unwarranted, UCP crept into Sunland Park’s backyard to lie in wait for migrants. But residents said no one in the town of about 16,000 wanted armed vigilantes patrolling the foothills of Mount Cristo Rey.

The United Constitutional Patriots have gained a following in the last few days after members uploaded videos of their border runs on social media. The videos, which have gone viral, show members claiming to be U.S. Border Patrol and questioning migrants before calling for the real Border Patrol to process the individuals. Jim Benvie, spokesman for the United Constitutional Patriots, can be heard yelling in the background of these clips as he attempts to stop migrant families from crossing over, in some instances even standing in their way. Other members have also uploaded videos that show UCP members in full camo gear, fully armed and standing guard over large groups in the late hours of the night as they wait for Border Patrol to arrive.

Late Thursday night, Jim Benvie made an appearance on the Patriot Nation Radio Network program, where the host introduced Benvie to Shannon McGauley, the leader of the Texas Minutemen. McGauley’s group has been conducting border runs these last few months. Given the similarities between the two armed vigilante groups, the host went on to suggest the men get in contact with “Rusty,” a reference to Rusty Monsees. In 2014 Monsees was responsible for Camp Lone Star, a failed militia camp along the Texas border that eventually shut down after its commander, Kevin Lyndel “KC” Massey III, was convicted of firearm violations for being a felon in possession of a firearm.

On April 13, while Sunland Park authorities were in the middle of their investigation against UCP, Border Patrol in Arizona was taking members of the anti-immigrant group AZ Patriots and the antigovernment extremist group Riders USA on a ride-along, the Phoenix New Times reported. AZ Patriots, a spin-off of hate group Patriot Movement AZ, has been patrolling the border and streaming its exploits on Facebook since March.

UCP camped in a remote, unpopulated area that isn’t visible from any well-traveled thoroughfares, Brown, Sunland Park’s city manager, said, adding that no one in the community would have tolerated UCP’s presence had they known. The area’s relationship with Mexico is 400 years in the making, with her city’s residents traveling to Mexico to work and vice versa. In fact, Sunland Park wants to build border crossing into Mexico to attract economic development, which the city could use.

The numbers tell the tale of an economy that is not flourishing. The median household income of just over $28,000 is 64 percent less than the state median income of $46,748, according to the U.S Census Bureau. The population is 91 percent Hispanic, and more than one in five people lack health insurance. About 40 percent of Sunland Park residents live in poverty, making the city one of the poorest in the state. But it’s also the second safest, Brown proudly states.

“We’re not concerned at all about who’s on the other side of the fence,” said Brown, who has lived in Sunland Park for seven years. “Maybe some of the newer residents or people who have moved here from the East Coast or … don’t know the history of the borderland might be [scared], or people who are uninformed or listening to inaccurate reports on the national media might be concerned. But we aren’t.”

Within 24 hours of receiving a video of UCP holding migrants captive, the Sunland Park Police Chief went to the camp, got a statement from UCP members that suggested they broke the law and contacted the FBI. It was the Sunland Park Police Department that delivered the militia’s leader, Larry Hopkins, to the feds, Brown said.

“The police chief asked them, ‘When you say you detained people, what do you mean? How did you do that?’ And he said, ‘Well we conducted citizen’s arrests, and we ordered them to sit on the ground and not to try to leave the area until CBP got here.’” Brown said. “Well, New Mexico does not allow citizen’s arrest. So at that point, our police came back and contacted the FBI.”

Hatewatch contacted the Sunland Park Police Department, which did not return a phone call seeking comment.

The instant Sunland Park’s police chief learned about the vigilantism, he took action, Brown said. And that creates more questions about Border Patrol’s conduct.

Border Patrol and border vigilantes

U.S. Border Patrol knew about the activities of United Constitutional Patriots. The agency had been taking people into custody for weeks who’d been illegally apprehended by UCP. It’s unclear whether, like Sunland Park officials, they reported UCP’s unlawful activity to the FBI.

In a phone call to U.S. Customs and Border Protection, a representative declined to answer specific questions about how many people UCP handed over to the Border Patrol after illegally detaining them, or for how long they had been doing so. The agency provided, in response to emailed questions, a boilerplate statement that said:

U.S. Customs and Border Protection does not endorse private groups or organizations taking enforcement matters into their own hands. Interference by civilians in law enforcement matters could have public safety and legal consequences for all parties involved.

Border Security operations are complex and require highly trained professionals with adequate resources to protect the country.

Border Patrol welcomes assistance from the community and encourages anyone who witnesses or suspects illegal activity to call 911, or the U.S. Border Patrol tip line 1-877-872-7435.

Despite the statement, photos from UCP’s Facebook account show militia members posing with Border Patrol agents on horseback, and one photo shows a UCP member helping agents put a detainee in the back of a Border Patrol truck. In a March interview with Spanish-language TV station Telemundo 48 El Paso, a Border Patrol spokesman said that the agency does, in fact, work with militias.

“¿Que si hay un tipo de coordinación con ellos con la mayoría de estos grupos por medio de la patrulla fronteriza? Sí lo hay,” he said.

Translated to English, that means, “Is there a kind of coordination with them, with most of these groups by means of the Border Patrol? Yes, there is.”

Emails sent to the agency requesting more detail on how the Border Patrol interacted with the United Constitutional Patriots and the City of Sunland Park were passed to the agency’s office of intergovernmental affairs. Questions were unanswered by press time. Representatives of the sheriff’s office in Dona Ana County, the county in which Sunland Park lies, also did not return phone calls.

The lack of official reaction does not change the facts. The Border Patrol is cooperating with a militia conducting what the U.S. government and state of New Mexico say are illegal detentions.

UCP may be out of Sunland Park, but they have no intention of ceasing their activities. In posts on social media, UCP spokesman Jim Benvie said the group plans to continue stopping people at the border. On a right-wing podcast called “The Patriot Nation,” Benvie said UCP intends to forge partnerships with other vigilante groups.

And he’s got plenty of groups to pick from. UCP isn’t the only militia flouting the law on the border and stopping people by force. And the Border Patrol’s tacit approval of these extra-legal operations – on full display on social media – raises the question: Why are agents on the ground, seen in photos with militia members, flouting the orders of the federal and state governments?

Photo credit: Robert Ardovino

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