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Vigilante Men

New Mexico’s GOP establishment treats border militias as the good guys.

In late February, the self-proclaimed commander of a rightwing militia group based in northern New Mexico issued an urgent proclamation to listeners of the group’s YouTube radio show.

“We have 2,500 people getting ready to come across at [the] El Paso-New Mexico state line,” said Larry Mitchell Hopkins, speaking under the alias Johnny Horton Jr., of the United Constitutional Patriots. “They are from South America, and MS-13, a very large group. ... We are deploying men right now through the border, and we need more boots on the ground, we need all the help we can get, folks.”

In another radio broadcast days later, after Hopkins relocated to the state’s southern half, he bragged that the militia was working directly with Border Patrol agents: “We are working with the Border Patrol. They are working great with us. All their supervisors have been here. They check on us. They’ve given us a sector of work with them, and they’re really doing a good job.”

Around that time, a member of the militia started posting videos to Facebook of strange men in death squad uniforms running around the chaparral of southernmost Doña Ana County, New Mexico, which abuts the Texas city of El Paso. In one of the videos, the camera operator chases a young woman as she screams and scrambles up a hill to escape the terrorist at her heels, who shouts baseless commands for the group to stop. Some commenters on the live feed urged the men to open fire. 

In at least a few videos, militia members are shown speaking with Border Patrol agents, who allow the group to film their apprehensions of would-be immigrants. Hopkins told his radio listeners on March 1 that his group was working “hand-in-hand” with Border Patrol. The agency, in contrast, has issued a boilerplate response to media stating it “does not endorse or condone private groups or organizations taking enforcement matters into their own hands.” Yet it’s clear border agents are at least tolerating the presence of the militia.

This all bears mentioning, of course, because in April, Hopkins was arrested by the FBI for possessing firearms and ammunition as a felon—a charge stemming from 2017, unrelated to the militia’s current activities. He came under surveillance of federal agents that same year after the FBI learned Hopkins’s group was allegedly preparing to carry out a list of assassinations of liberal figures demonized by the white nationalist right, including Barack Obama, Hillary Clinton, and George Soros. The story continues to unfold: Hopkins was reportedly beaten up in a Las Cruces jail, and a bomb threat was called in to the courthouse where he faces charges. 

Hopkins’s arrest came about thanks to his subordinates’ eagerness to document and publicize their vigilante mission on social media; one especially disturbing clip posted April 16 depicted militia recruits kidnapping hundreds of migrants briefly. At one point, a woman operating the camera advises another militia member not to aim a gun. The national media picked up the footage, and Democratic lawmakers in New Mexico issued a series of statements denouncing Hopkins and the United Constitutional Patriots.

Despite Hopkins’s arrest and the flurry of attention surrounding the illegal conduct of the United Constitutional Patriots, the militia has not gone anywhere—and the Border Patrol still looks indulgently on. Even after they were evicted from their original outpost, members continue to upload videos of their activities from a parcel of private property where they’ve been camping with the owner’s permission. In one video posted May 1, the man behind the camera even briefly turns away from the scene as agents pat down and detain people, explaining to viewers, “I turn the camera away because I don’t want to get [the agents’] faces in it.” This moment marks another small way in which white nationalist vigilanteism has crept into mainstream discourse; by suddenly shifting into documentary mode, a paramilitary operation is made to seem like a just exercise of citizen power, operating hand-in-hand with the agents of federal border enforcement.

The next day, I called the cell phone of Hopkins. A woman who did not want to reveal her identity answered, and said she thought there were only six militia members left at the camp. She said she didn’t know how long they planned to stay there. Phone calls to two other members, including the man posting videos to Facebook, went unanswered.

The forces assembled at the militia outpost may be dwindling, but the nationalist rancor that gave rise to Hopkins’s vicious crusade continues to shape the politics of the southwestern border. The United Constitutional Patriots raised thousands of dollars in support from online fundraisers, and Hopkins’s new notoriety will likely bring many new followers to the group. Indeed, the fight over border control in southern New Mexico reflects the national right-wing attack on immigration in microcosm: A network of local humanitarian charities and volunteers in El Paso, Las Cruces, and Albuquerque are coordinating to welcome hundreds of asylum seekers passing through daily. And as these efforts go forward, the local right seethes with resentment, buoyed by a white nationalist president who legitimizes and indulges their worst impulses on a near-daily basis.

Larry Mitchell Hopkins, seen here in March, has spearheaded vigilante efforts to keep immigrants from crossing the border.

The half-dozen LARPers in Sunland Park might look like idiots—and of course, they are—but they represent a vision of white restorationist politics that’s been mainstreamed in the Trump era. The unrestrained vigilante campaign to keep the West white appears to have broader appeal within the local GOP. Local party leaders appear to recognize how much support the militia group has among the fascist rank-and-file. None have dared issue the kind of condemnation released by the state’s own attorney general, Democrat Hector Balderas, who argued that Hopkins’s arrest showed that the “rule of law” shouldn’t be in the hands of “armed vigilantes.”

This silence might be the most chilling response to the whole sick episode: It indicates a tacit approval of extralegal coercion and violence. The broader culture of impunity surrounding the exercise of white power along the border also encourages the actions in the videos, which were posted to solicit online support for the United Constitutional Patriots: There, the men on camera appear to blatantly commit several successive crimes—impersonating an officer, for one—and the seeming complicity of law enforcement agents in their midst feels very much of a piece with the deeper history of vigilante violence in the mobilization of the white nativist right throughout American history.

On March 1, Hopkins announced on his radio show that the group received their highest-profile inquiry yet: A former adviser to President Trump had called, requesting to visit their base camp on friendly terms.

To be sure, Dr. Gavin Clarkson—the person Hopkins was more than likely referring to—wasn’t exactly an official Trump adviser. For a few months in 2017, he was a deputy assistant secretary in the Department of Interior. Clarkson resigned in disgrace following an internal department report that questioned his involvement putting together a sour loan to a Native American tribe in 2009. The Interior division Clarkson briefly headed was still, in fact, on the hook for a $20 million liability payout as a result of that decade-old incident.

Clarkson claimed he left the Interior Department to run for Congress, and he fumed on Twitter at news outlets for reporting otherwise. When he failed to secure the state GOP’s nomination, he pivoted to running for secretary of state. Blasting the #FakeNews is just one way Clarkson mimics the Trumpian style; scapegoating immigrants is another. During his losing 2018 campaign, Clarkson accused his Democratic opponent of fattening voter roles with illegitimate entries, eventually landing on the bigoted refrain “zombies, aliens and canines” as shorthand for a conspiracy by Democrats to register dead people, dogs, and undocumented immigrants as voters. Here was another affinity with the Trumpian style of border demagogy: All of Clarkson’s claims were unhinged and bogus. 

But even though Hopkins exaggerated Clarkson’s White House bona fides, he was otherwise speaking the truth: On March 13, Clarkson, who is now running for an open U.S. Senate seat in New Mexico, visited the United Constitutional Patriots’ camp for a desert soirée. A Facebook Live broadcast from inside a tent shows Clarkson sporting a black cowboy hat and woven blue vest as he sits with at least three masked militiamen. The vigilantes are all clad head-to-toe in camouflage fatigues, some of them gripping long rifles. The low tent lighting and grainy production quality—and of course, the menacing presence of armed and anonymous thugs—give the video the look and feel of Al Qaeda broadcasts from the mid-2000s.

For half an hour, Clarkson and a man behind the camera discuss their shared resentments of undocumented immigrants. Their xenophobic conversation veers at times into the sort of frenzy that George Orwell famously called a “two-minutes hate.”

Within the first few minutes of the broadcast, Clarkson said his Naval career was cut short by a “drunk driving illegal alien”; that his best friend’s younger brother was killed by “an illegal alien who had been deported four times”; and that his own son was in a “hit and run accident” on his bicycle, presumably after still another undocumented immigrant drove recklessly into his path.

“They get their tickets first class, they come in all decked up and excited to come to America,” one of the militiamen later said.

Clarkson concurred, lamenting the privilege asylum seekers have in accessing hospital services over citizens—another lie—before falsely claiming that Hezbollah, the Islamist group based in Lebanon, “generate[s] a lot of their dollars to fund terrorist operations in the Middle East by doing drug smuggling and money laundering” along the U.S.-Mexico border. This was yet again an urban legend favored among hate merchants targeting immigrants from the south—one that, as it happens, was debunked by Fox News back in 2015. 

Lest there be any doubt about where Clarkson’s sympathies lie, he said it directly on camera.

“What I see here is honest, sincere patriots who want to protect the country,” Clarkson gushed. “Border Patrol is thanking these guys everyday for the help. They tell you in the airport, ‘If you see something, say something.’ Well, out here, there’s no one to see anything except these guys. ... If you’re interested, I encourage you to connect with the United Constitutional Patriots because they need help.”

A little over a month later, an anti-fascist Twitter account tweeted the video of Clarkson with militia members. On April 20, Clarkson did a head-spinning about-face, condemning the militia in a series of tweets.

“In addition to the tragic humanitarian conditions caused by our broken immigration system, another crisis has developed—armed vigilantes making an unsafe border zone even more dangerous for everyone involved,” Clarkson wrote. “I believe that the rule of law is the exclusive role of law enforcement authorities. Masked militiamen are the antithesis of what a free republic looks like. I absolutely condemn their lawless activities. Period.”

Clarkson wouldn’t answer my questions about his public change of heart, nor would he say whether he’d been contacted by state or federal police about his association with the group. These investigations have been urged by several U.S. Representatives in the region, including one of Clarkson’s Senate opponents, Ben Ray Luján.

Within the Republican political establishment of New Mexico, Clarkson isn’t some kind of fringe character. When he ran for secretary of state, the state’s newspapers only tepidly interrogated his most outlandish assertions. Even I was guilty of this last fall, when I lazily presented his claims of mass voter fraud as a matter of opinion or differing point of view, rather than as a fucking lie, as I should have done.

In 2018, New Mexico sent three Democrats to each of its congressional seats and elected a Democratic governor and state House majority. But the southern part of the state is still very much a Republican stronghold. Clarkson is on the local leadership team of the Republican Party in Doña Ana County; the state’s Republican governor from 2011 to 2019, Susana Martinez, was previously the district attorney based in the county’s largest city, Las Cruces. 

In an interview on Fox News broadcast April 19, Martinez criticized her successor, Democrat Michelle Lujan Grisham, for ordering the removal of most National Guard troops from the border back in February. And she offered some nuanced words on the situation in Sunland Park. 

“The people right now that live there, and the folks, the militia that have been created, it’s out of frustration, pure frustration that Congress won’t do their job,” the former governor said on air. “That’s what people are demanding, or they’re taking the matter into their own hands and that’s not good for anyone.” 

This response is typical from mainstream Republicans in New Mexico: a half-hearted rebuke that isn’t quite a condemnation of armed psychopaths who are terrorizing families and small children. Such mild swipes at the vigilante threat are also opportunistically, and monotonously, couched as criticism of congressional representatives that just keep letting the American people down. Another prominent Republican here, Doña Ana Republican Party Vice Chair David Tofsted, offered what amounts to a sympathetic excuse for the militia’s activities.

“There’s people on both sides of that issue,” Tofsted told me. “I think [the militia] gathered a lot of their support from outside the region. But there’s been ranchers concerned with [immigrants] showing up at their ranch at night—that’s not cool.” 

Tofsted didn’t condemn the group, instead explaining that its misguided members “viewed themselves as helping Border Patrol, because they were just there. ... But apparently, according to the police, it’s not a good thing, so they basically disbanded.” 

The Facebook page for the Doña Ana Republican Party regularly features the worst sort of MAGA sloganeering and hate-mongering—all egged on in various ways by the site’s administrators. In August 2017, the group’s chairman resigned after publishing a screed on the page blaming “violent, leftist protesters” for white supremacists’ murder and mayhem in Charlottesville. And this April, when the page featured a link to a story about the United Constitutional Patriots, sympathetic commenters flooded the post. 

“Where do I send these Patriots a check?” asked one Facebook user, Wade Hough.

“Wade, we will try to find out which Militia group was in that video,” the party’s Facebook account responded. 

Elsewhere, one of the account’s administrators offered unambiguous support: “[The militia] are there to help keep our communities safe. ... They are out there to provide safety for [Customs and Border Protection] agents who need to keep themselves safe from Drug Cartels.” 

Reached by phone, a volunteer for the county’s Republican Party who did not want to give his name said he was unaware of the social media postings. Given the opportunity to distance himself and the party’s social media presence from the militia, he declined. 

The United Constitutional Patriots managed to coast underground for a while. There are many groups like it. A list provided to The New Republic by a group of anti-fascists catalogues more than a dozen similar organizations and individuals in Arizona, Texas, and Southern California, including social media accounts and online fundraiser links.

Many of these groups don’t appear to be direct-action militias in the mold of United Constitutional Patriots. Rather, they seem to be a loose network of propaganda operations, often highlighting self-published (and dubiously reported) dispatches from the border intended to inflame white nationalist sentiment. The “Border News Network,” for example, has social media handlers in both the El Paso/Ciudad Juarez and Tijuana/San Diego international zones. One of its members, based in El Paso, identifies on social media as a “Latinos for Trump” coordinator. 

Before they were on anyone’s radar, the United Constitutional Patriots were apparently just another makeshift outlet for online hate, trafficking in social media menace and racist radio rants. Most of the shows posted to their YouTube channel have only a few hundred views. What brought them into real renown was their decision to cross over into flesh-and-blood paramilitarism. Along the way, they probably committed a lot of crimes, ACLU-NM Executive Director Peter Simonson explained: “impersonating a federal officer, false imprisonment, kidnapping, conspiracy to commit kidnapping, possibly assault.” Sounding both puzzled and outraged, he marveled at how they chronicled their own illegal conduct in real time: “These people are so proud of what they’re doing, and they’re so emboldened, they are broadcasting hours of video of activities that are almost certainly illegal.”

In recent weeks, Simonson said, members of the ACLU met with New Mexico Attorney General Balderas, and Simonson himself met with the U.S. Attorney in Albuquerque, John Anderson, urging investigations into the militia group. Anderson’s office is already prosecuting Hopkins for the gun charge, but there’s no indication yet that either party will prosecute other militia members. Simonson said he couldn’t even secure assurances from Anderson that law enforcement would tell the group to suspend their operations. 

The world only has some sense of what’s happening in southern New Mexico because the militia is dumb enough to post their crimes all over the Internet. That’s probably not the worst of it. 

“What are they doing to these families when no one is actually looking?” Simonson asked. “They’ve not demonstrated a great deal of perceptiveness or competence, given how they’ve advertised their illegal behavior.” We shouldn’t be surprised, he said, to see that they would “bring that same incompetence into their interactions with these families when the cameras are off.”