Vigilante Men – The New Republic

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

“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

Larry Mitchell Hopkins, seen here in March, has spearheaded vigilante efforts to keep immigrants from crossing the border.PAUL RATJE/AFP/Getty Images

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

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.”