Self-styled U.S. citizen border patrol unravels after leader's arrest
By Julio-Cesar Chavez and Andrew Hay SUNLAND PARK, N.M./TAOS, N.M. (Reuters) - A group of armed Americans who have been stopping migrants illegally crossing the U.S.-Mexico border abandoned their New Mexico camp on Tuesday days after its leader was arrested and allies deserted them during a storm of criticism. Still clad in their camouflage uniforms, the handful of volunteers drove out of the Sunland Park, New Mexico, camp after two months working to detain thousands of illegal migrants.
By Julio-Cesar Chavez and Andrew Hay
SUNLAND PARK, N.M./TAOS, N.M. (Reuters) - A group of armed Americans who have been stopping migrants illegally crossing the U.S.-Mexico border abandoned their New Mexico camp on Tuesday days after its leader was arrested and allies deserted them during a storm of criticism.
Still clad in their camouflage uniforms, the handful of volunteers drove out of the Sunland Park, New Mexico, camp after two months working to detain thousands of illegal migrants.
The abrupt departure of the paramilitary group, the United Constitutional Patriots (UCP), followed accusations they had kidnapped migrants and an ultimatum by the Union Pacific Railroad for them to leave the area in 30 minutes, after the company accused the group of trespassing.
Larry Hopkins, the leader of the UCP, appeared in court in Las Cruces, New Mexico, on Monday to face firearms charges following his arrest over the weekend by the FBI.
"They were saying they're just tired of this B.S. and they're going back to their homes," said Sunland Park Police Chief Javier Guerra. "As of today, they won’t be out there harassing anybody."
UCP members did not respond to requests for comment.
WORK WITH BORDER PATROL
Carrying semi-automatic rifles and wearing black ski masks, UCP members claimed to have detained some 5,600 migrants in the last 60 days, most of them Central American families seeking asylum, before handing them over to U.S. Border Patrol.
UCP spokesman Jim Benvie said on Saturday that local Border Patrol gave the group operating guidelines, such as not to touch migrants, and to shoot only if they were shot at.
"We wouldn’t be there if they didn’t want us there," Benvie said. "They just can’t publicly say that."
El Paso Sector Border Patrol spokesman Ramiro Cordero declined to comment beyond a statement released by U.S. Customs and Border Protection that the agency did not support U.S. citizens taking law enforcement into their own hands.
In a March interview with Diario de El Paso, Cordero said the UCP had helped Border Patrol by telling them what was going on in the area, but stressed they could not carry out any law enforcement role.
"PIN THEM IN A BUSH"
The UCP'S numerous online videos show members stopping migrant groups, sometimes in the hundreds, herding them and telling them to sit and wait for Border Patrol agents to arrive.
The American Civil Liberties Union on Thursday accused the group of being a "fascist militia" with no authority to detain or arrest migrants. Other critics accused members, with their military-style uniforms with eagle insignias, of impersonating law enforcement.
"We try, with a verbal command, to stop them running, because we’ve seen women with babies in backpacks jump down that rock hill next to the railroad tracks," Benvie said. But he said the group tried to trap migrants who did run, suspecting them of being criminals.
"If we can do something to slow them down and locate and pin them, we’ll pin them in a bush,” he said. "Then we call border patrol and say, ‘Hey, we’ve got a guy in a bush.’"
New Mexico Governor Michelle Lujan Grisham, a Democrat, said on Friday the UCP's activities had to stop. The Federal Bureau of Investigation moved in on Saturday to arrest Hopkins on 18-month-old weapons charges.
Hopkins, also known as Johnny Horton, appears in Youtube videos as a country singer and previously served two prison terms for violating gun laws. He has a history of falsely claiming to be a government agent, court and police documents show.
The FBI affidavit against him stated that in 2017 a witness said his group was training to assassinate financier George Soros, former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton and former President Barack Obama.
After the charges, former allies began to desert the UCP.
In March, Gavin Clarkson, a Republican candidate for a New Mexico U.S. Senate seat, appeared in a 30-minute video with UCP members praising their work on the border.
On Saturday he lashed out at them. "Masked militiamen are the antithesis of what a free republic looks like. I absolutely condemn their lawless activities," Clarkson tweeted.
(Reporting by Andrew Hay in Taos, New Mexico, and Julio-Cesar Chavez in Sunland Park; additional reporting by Mark Hosenball in Washington; editing by Howard Goller, Sonya Hepinstall and Leslie Adler)
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