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SPLC answers questions about antigovernment extremists who detain migrants along the U.S.-Mexico border

In recent days, media outlets have reported that armed militia groups, acting as border vigilantes, have been detaining migrants at gunpoint along the along the U.S.-Mexico border. 

On April 20, the FBI arrested Larry Mitchell Hopkins, 69, the leader of the United Constitutional Patriots (UCP), on charges of being a felon in possession of firearms and ammunition. The arrest came after the UCP posted a series of videos online showing camouflaged men surrounding hundreds of migrants in the New Mexico desert.

The New York Times reported that Hopkins, who also goes by the name Johnny Horton Jr., came under FBI scrutiny in 2017 after federal agents received information that his group was training to assassinate President Barack Obama, Hillary Clinton, and George Soros.

The SPLC’s Intelligence Project has been tracking the antigovernment extremist movement for nearly three decades and has been monitoring the activities of the UCP since late 2018.

Below are answers to frequent questions about the antigovernment “patriot” movement.

What is a militia?

Militias are paramilitary-style organizations that are animated by antigovernment ideology and conspiracy theories that portray the federal government as a nefarious entity. They are an armed subset of the antigovernment “patriot” movement, which comprises groups that generally believe a secret cabal of global elites is plotting to ban guns, take away individual freedoms, and install a global, totalitarian regime known as the “New World Order.” The SPLC identified 216 active militia groups during the 2018 calendar year.

The SPLC also lists dozens of other “patriot” groups that consider themselves to be militias or similar to militias. But if those groups do not participate in paramilitary activities, the SPLC does not list them as militia organizations.

What is a border militia and what does it do?

Border militias are paramilitary groups, often heavily armed, that patrol remote areas known as crossing points for migrants at the U.S.-Mexico border. Some are open about their intent to stop and detain anyone they see crossing the border, and most say they turn migrants over to U.S. Customs and Border Protection. There is very little information about where these groups are operating and what they’re doing.

While the SPLC’s definition of militias is rooted, in part, in a group’s adherence to antigovernment ideology, most of the paramilitary activity at the southern border is not driven by fear and hatred of the U.S. government but rather by nativist fears based on the race and ethnicity of migrants. In fact, most antigovernment group have been supportive of the Trump administration and his policies toward immigrants. The movement’s conspiracy theories are a factor, however, as some extremists believe immigration is being abetted or encouraged by global figures such as George Soros.

What actions do militias take?

As an arm of the antigovernment movement, many militias engage in paramilitary and survivalist training for what they believe may be a looming guerrilla war against the federal government or to defend themselves against efforts to impose martial law. In the 1990s, the movement was responsible for numerous terrorist plots aimed, primarily, at the government. The most notable was the April 19, 1995, bombing of the Alfred P. Murrah Federal Building in Oklahoma City by racist, antigovernment zealot Timothy McVeigh. The bombing, which killed 168 people, came six months after the SPLC warned then-Attorney General Janet Reno that the “mixture of armed groups and those who hate” was a “recipe for disaster.”

The militia movement waned following a crackdown by law enforcement and the election of George W. Bush as president in 2000, but it staged a dramatic resurgence after Barack Obama was elected in 2008 – and again produced numerous plots of terror and violence. In 2012, for example, the leader and several members of the Alaska Peacemakers Militia were convicted of various charges in a plot to kill or kidnap state troopers and a judge. More recently, in April 2018, three men who called their militia the “Crusaders” were convicted of plotting to blow up an apartment complex in Kansas that was home to Somali immigrants.

In recent years, militias have been involved in dangerous standoffs with federal agents. In 2014, hundreds of armed militiamen held off federal officials who were trying to confiscate Nevada rancher Cliven Bundy’s cattle because he refused to pay federal grazing fees and fines. In 2016, a small group of armed militiamen, led by Bundy’s son, seized control of the Malheur National Wildlife Refuge in Oregon and held it for 40 days. One of them was shot to death by law enforcement agents as they arrested leaders of the occupation.

Generally speaking, militias are animated by an extreme and uncompromising interpretation of gun rights. They often hold or attend gun rights rallies or protests.

Some, in particular one of the largest antigovernment organizations, the Oath Keepers, portray themselves as civic-minded groups that offer help to communities hit by natural disasters. While these activities may appear altruistic, extremist groups often use these events to find recruits, to normalize their ideas and place in society, and to test their logistics, equipment, and tactics. Such assistance can also be used to raise money and build rapport with first responders and law enforcement.

Militias may also seize an opportunity to put themselves in the spotlight by using highly publicized events (such as the social unrest in Ferguson, Missouri, and public lands protests in the West) to gain national attention, recruit new members, and advance their extreme ideology.

Who are the United Constitutional Patriots?

The UCP, headquartered in Flora Vista, New Mexico, does not call itself a militia but has a number of militia characteristics. The group vilifies immigrants and regularly espouses rhetoric and conspiracy theories about a supposed migrant “invasion” of the United States.

The SPLC did not list the UCP as an antigovernment group in 2018 but wrote about its leader, Larry Mitchell Hopkins, in February 2019. Hopkins, who uses the fictitious names “John Horton” and “Johnny Horton Jr,” has been convicted of multiple crimes, including impersonating a police officer. The courts have prohibited him from possessing, owning, or carrying any type of gun. Hopkins has claimed to have direct contact with President Trump, but he is unable to provide any evidence of that.

The group has stationed itself near the New Mexico-Texas border. Its members appear to go beyond simply reporting border-crossing migrants to U.S. Customs and Border Protection agents. Online videos show its members actively pursuing migrants in the desert and detaining them before government agents can get involved.

Don’t these groups’ actions violate the law? Is law enforcement aware of them?

There is significant legal debate over whether the act of detaining migrants at gunpoint amounts to the crime of kidnapping. Members of the UCP contend they are acting within the law – that they are making “verbal citizen’s arrests.”

In addition to possible criminal charges, border vigilantes could face significant civil liability. In 2003, the SPLC won nearly $1.5 million in court judgments in a case against members of a border group called Ranch Rescue on behalf of two Salvadoran immigrants who were assaulted, terrorized, and imprisoned in Texas.

Law enforcement is often aware of these groups and their actions. There are also watchdog groups like the SPLC that observe and report on their activities. The Institute for Constitutional Advocacy and Protection at Georgetown University Law Center, in the aftermath of the “Unite the Right” rally in Charlottesville, Virginia, published a resource that identifies laws that may apply to the activities of such groups. These laws were successfully used against a number of militias that were present in Charlottesville. 

How do militias form and recruit people?

Militia members attempt to recruit new members both online and in person. They have historically been active on MySpace, but today Facebook is the largest platform for militia communication, recruitment, organization, and dissemination of news. Militias are also active on internet forums and messaging applications such as Zello and have increasingly begun using end-to-end encrypted emails and messaging services. 

Offline, militias recruit at survival and “prepper” expos and gun rights rallies, and from their social networks. It’s important to recognize that radicalization is a social process, and entry into an extremist group often takes place after a new recruit already knows someone in the group.

Have militias gained strength under the Trump administration?

The UCP and similar groups have mobilized in response to Trump’s rhetoric about the border, and they often mirror his rhetoric to their supporters. Most of the more established militias are taking little or no part in border-related activities at this time.

Photo by Brendan Smialowski/AFP/Getty Images