April 23, 2019

Armed vigilantes along border bring national attention

dawn paley

The U.S.-Mexico border wall, from the Mexican side,. (Flickr/cc

A group of armed, masked vigilantes who have held those crossing the border, including those seeking asylum, until Border Patrol arrived has brought national attention to New Mexico and the ongoing border debate.

The far-right group which calls itself United Constitutional Patriots recorded members detaining men, women and children who crossed the U.S./Mexico border in New Mexico and broadcast it on Facebook last week.

Their actions drew immediate condemnation from a range of New Mexico elected officials, including Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham and Attorney General Hector Balderas, who said individuals “should not attempt to exercise authority reserved for law enforcement.”

A spokesman for the governor’s office told NM Political Report they have been in contact with the AG, state police and local police about the group to stay informed.

U.S. Customs and Border Protection wrote on Twitter, “#CBP does not endorse or condone private groups or organizations that take enforcement matters into their own hands. Interference by civilians in law enforcement matters could have public safety and legal consequences for all parties involved.”

Republican U.S. Senate candidate Gavin Clarkson, meanwhile, appeared in a Facebook video with the group. In the dimly-lit video, recorded in March, members of the group in masks and camouflage gear hold firearms while Clarkson sat next to them.

Clarkson, a former Trump administration official in the Department of Interior and former congressional and Secretary of State candidate, has focused on immigration issues and the border in the past months, backing Trump’s border wall and other immigration proposals.

A member of the group asked Clarkson if he feels what the group is doing is “legit.”

“Absolutely,” Clarkson said, adding he showed up to for first-hand research.

“I heard what y’all were doing down here and I wanted to see it for myself,” Clarkson said near the end of the video. “And basically what I see is honest, sincere patriots who want to protect the country, who are not here as sort of gun-happy Rambos, yes they’re armed, but it’s dangerous out here. But Border Patrol is thanking these people every day for their help.”

This weekend, after news broke nationally of the group’s actions along the border, Clarkson distanced himself from the group.

“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,” Clarkson wrote. “I absolutely condemn their lawless activities. Period.”

And on Monday, Clarkson further distanced himself from the group. He told the Las Cruces Sun-News, in a statement later also given to NM Political Report, that the group’s leader, Larry Mitchell Hopkins, had lied to him.

“Their ‘commander’ assured me that they had permission to camp at their location,” Clarkson said. “He also told me that they had been issued radios by and were fully cooperating with Border Patrol, that they were only there to be ‘eyes and ears,’ and that they were never going to apprehend or detain anyone.”

Clarkson also said, “I regret that encouraging people to assist in passive surveillance of the border on private land later appeared to be an endorsement of armed ‘citizen arrests’ on federal land. I believe that the rule of law is the exclusive role of law enforcement authorities. Even National Guard troops do not engage in law enforcement activities and are only on the border to support the brave men and women of Customs and Border Protection.”

Hopkins was arrested this weekend for being a felon in possession of a firearm. As a felon, Hopkins is barred from carrying guns.

Tripp Stelnicki, a spokesman for the governor, said, “We are certainly encouraged by the FBI arrest over the weekend and word of their continuing investigation.”

After Hopkins’ arrest, a spokesman for the group criticized the arrest on a Facebook Live video and said it was an “attack” on the group by Lujan Grisham and Balderas.

Reuters reported that court papers filed by the FBI alleged that Hopkins told members of his group in 2017 that the group was planning to assassinate former President Barack Obama, former Democratic presidential nominee Hillary Clinton and high-dollar political donor and liberal philanthropist George Soros.

Benvie said Hopkins was “set up by the governor and the Attorney General’s office.” He said they wanted to “set up a narrative that there are a bunch of reckless criminals along the border.”

He said that the group is “confident that [Hopkins] will be exonerated.”

Last week, the American Civil Liberties Union of New Mexico sent a letter to both Lujan Grisham and Balderas, along with federal prosecutors and members of New Mexico’s congressional delegation, last week calling on the state to investigate the group.

“The vigilante members of the organization, including Jim Benvie, who posted videos and photographs of the unlawful arrests to social media, are not police or law enforcement and they have no authority under New Mexico or federal law to detain or arrest migrants in the United States,” the ACLU wrote. “Their actions undermine the legitimate efforts of our state’s law enforcement officials to keep New Mexico families safe and they erode community trust.”

Update: Added more of Clarkson’s statement that was provided to NM Political Report Tuesday morning.