An armed militia that pushes anti-immigrant conspiracy theories filmed itself rounding up hundreds of asylum seekers near the El Paso border this week, reigniting controversy over U.S. Border Patrol’s coordination with militia groups.
The United Constitutional Patriots (UCP) is one of several civilian groups outfitting themselves in camo and patrolling the border with guns. Video footage from Monday night shows the group standing above hundreds of asylum-seekers, many of them children, who sit on the ground. The group’s footage from another recent night shows two members holding what appear to be semi-automatic rifles, with one member wearing a skull mask. Online, the group produces a radio show where members peddle conspiracy theories like QAnon, and accuse migrants of associating with ISIS.
UCP says it works with Border Patrol, which publicly claims that it doesn’t condone them. And the group’s founder, a conspiracy theorist who was previously convicted of impersonating an officer, claims to be in contact with President Donald Trump.
Jim, a UCP spokesperson who declined to give his last name, called descriptions of the group as a militia “absolutely wrong. You have veterans and law enforcement people here. The only reason people carry guns is for their own safety and protection.”
Yet as an armed civilian group organizing to supplement federal forces, the UCP would appear to definitionally meet the criteria for a militia.
The group uploads regular videos of its members interacting with migrants at the southern border, sometimes ordering the migrants to the ground. Border Patrol agents sometimes appear in the periphery of the screen.
“There’s no question about whether or not we work with Border Patrol,” Jim said. “That’s all documented, and not just once. It’s documented hundreds and hundreds of times over in the videos that I post.”
Border Patrol claimed otherwise.
“U.S. Customs and Border Protection does not endorse private groups or organizations taking enforcement matters into their own hands,” a Border Patrol official told The Daily Beast. “Interference by civilians in law enforcement matters could have public safety and legal consequences for all parties involved.”
Border Patrol is not supposed to work with civilian groups, although it has been documented coordinating with the growing border militia movement. A Mother Jones reporter who embedded with a border militia in 2016 found the group mingling with and getting information from Border Patrol agents.
“That is exactly the statement they give and they have to give,” Jim said of the agency’s comment.
“I would characterize it as an awesome relationship,” he said of UCP’s alleged relations with Border Patrol. “We have great support within the Border Patrol. You can watch the videos if you disagree.”
Jim denied that UCP was a vigilante group. But the group’s description of actions against immigrants is textbook vigilante justice.
“We’re within our rights,” he said when asked whether ordering migrants to the ground at gunpoint might put the group at risk for kidnapping charges. “They’re breaking the law. They went across the border, they’ve broken the law.”
In an interview with an El Paso news station last month, UCP members “told ABC-7 they are aware they are not allowed to detain anyone,” the station reported. Jim was more upfront about the group’s actions.
“I’m not touching them, we’re not hurting them, we’re simply detaining them,” he said.
Civilian border patrols have a long history among the far right. The first modern border militia was a 1970s effort by then-Ku Klux Klan leader David Duke and his cronies. (“Duke’s project quickly fell apart amid internecine bickering with his fellow neo-Nazis,” writer David Neiwert recounts in his book Alt-America.) Today’s border militias have mobilized around far-right conspiracy theories.
UCP produces an online radio show, a recent episode of which pushed a racist conspiracy theory accusing the country’s Muslims (including Rep. Ilhan Omar) of trying to “impose Sharia law.” The group also latched onto a conspiracy theory accusing ISIS of trying to sneak into the country across the border. (Trump has tweeted a discredited meme that alluded to the conspiracy.)
The radio show has also promoted QAnon, a far-right conspiracy theory that falsely claims most of Trump’s enemies are involved in a child sex-trafficking and cannibalism ring.
“Two of the more long-winded members of the chat [...] often go through speeches on QAnon releases (the March 11 broadcast featured the 3019th post by Q) or concerns about the ‘Cabal’, a popular topic of QAnon followers,” MilitiaWatch, a blog covering vigilante movements reported last month.
The conspiracy theory appears to have influenced a number of border militia groups, including the bizarre “Veterans on Patrol” scammers and “also that of the UCP,” MilitiaWatch wrote.
The conspiratorial DNA goes deep with the group. Its founder goes by Johnny Horton Jr., a reference to musician Johnny Horton. The 69-year-old’s actual name is Larry Mitchell Hopkins, the Southern Poverty Law Center reported last year.
Despite a professed love for the law, Hopkins has his own rap sheet. Court records reviewed by The Daily Beast revealed multiple convictions, including a 2006 conviction for impersonating an officer and felony firearm possession. (Reached by phone on Thursday, Hopkins declined to speak.)
Online, Hopkins has played up his supposed ties with high offices. In November, Hopkins gave an interview on a conspiracy-heavy YouTube channel, the host of which wore a gasmask and used a voice distorter. During the interview, Hopkins claimed Trump listened to his internet radio show and asked him for information on Muslim immigration. Hopkins claimed his tie with the president originated from a chance meetup in a Las Vegas casino. “That’s how I knew him,” he said. “And Trump and I have kept in touch ever since.”
In an October interview with the SPLC, Hopkins claimed “very high level” law enforcement officials had “prewarned” him of “armed groups [...] already here,” that were “planning on flanking us … to shoot us.”
No such attack materialized. But the heavily armed group often portrays itself as under siege by migrants.
In a video last week, several heavily armed UCP members congratulated themselves on apparently rounding up a group of migrants, whom they ordered to sit on the ground. “It was basically the four of us against 300 or however many’s here, maybe 400. I don’t know,” the speaker on the video says, casting the camera on two UCP members. Both carry what appear to be semi-automatic rifles. One is wearing a half-face skull mask, a type favored by far-right groups.
Hopkins and others helped push conspiracy theories about migrant caravans ahead of the 2018 midterm elections.
“im 69 years old and i am going to the border when i know the enemy is close to the border,” Hopkins wrote in an October Facebook post. “i am going to fight and i may give my life but at least i will be there and stand by my oath, they didnt get me when i was in the army and i will stand for our country, if they get me now at least i will die for our country and what keeping america free is all about, GOD WILL GUIDE AND PROTECT ME”
For its trouble, the group wants supporters to send it money, which it wants for things like ATVs, MilitiaWatch reported. On Facebook, the group gives the appearance of being associated with a nonprofit. “We are covered under the 501C3 Home of the 5th.”
No such organization (under the spellings “Home of the 5th” or “Home of the 5th”) currently appears in federal 501(c)(3) registries, or in registries in New Mexico where the group is based.
Still the group claims it has federal authorities’ blessing.
“If Border Patrol didn’t want us here, if we were breaking laws, it’s plain and simple,” Jim said, “we would not be here.”