On April 22, American Gavin Seim caused a minor media firestorm in Mexico when he posted a video on social media showing him flouting COVID-19 restrictions in the city of Santiago de Querétaro. The maskless Seim insisted that the government had no right to close a plaza he was visiting as part of its efforts to limit large gatherings, nor to manage his health. Several media outlets and commentators brushed him off as a disgruntled tourist. The American ambassador to Mexico, Christopher Landau, called him “a spoiled brat and an embarrassment to our country… a perfect example of the ‘Ugly American.’”
But this was not an isolated incident. Seim is an anti-government activist and coronavirus truther. He falsely claims the coronavirus is a normal flu and that there is no evidence that masks work. Last month, he posted two more accounts of willful violations of mask policies in Mexican stores, part of an effort to push his followers online not to be “sheep” following mask “bullies.”
The weirdest part: He insists that he’s not just a visitor being a jerk, but a political refugee from American injustice.
Seim, a 35-year-old photographer from Ephrata, Washington, was involved with the patriot movement that rallied around the Bundy Family, members of which were criminally charged after an armed standoff with the feds over cattle grazing fees, in the mid 2010s. He seems to share many of their utopian libertarian beliefs, as well as their concerns about the erosion of American freedoms, and indulges in conspiracies about the machinations of shady elites. But even some fellow Bundy supporters view him as uniquely absolutist, aggressive, and hyperbolic. For example, he calls all cops “Blue ISIS” and has argued that “not one person in the U.S. prison system is there lawfully. Every trial has been botched and every prisoner abused.”
“When you put out 20 percent truth and the rest is fake, it comes off as fact,” Greg Whalen, a Bundy supporter, told The Daily Beast of Seim’s grandiose and extreme rhetoric. “He can’t see it for himself, right? But he’s a cross between antifa and a sovereign citizen.” Sovereign citizens, of course, are unified mainly by the beliefs that most, if not all, law enforcement is thuggery—and legal systems sophistry meant to keep citizens confused and oppressed.
Seim responded briefly to an initial query, but as of publication had not actually addressed any issues raised in messages sent by The Daily Beast seeking comment for this story.
Starting in at least 2014, Seim made it his business to challenge cops sitting in unmarked vehicles or making traffic stops, mostly by lecturing them on the supposed unconstitutionality of their actions. But in August 2017, a cop arrested him for allegedly interfering in a traffic stop, and the local court ordered him to open his phone so they could access his video of the encounter. Rather than contest the order in court, Seim packed his wife and kids into an RV and drove 18 straight hours to Mexico, fleeing a misdemeanor charge because he insisted local authorities wanted to plant evidence on his phone to put him away for good.
“You might be facing charges that are really minimal, but you still end up dead” in America’s justice system, he said in a recent video about the incident.
Seim has claimed that he applied for political asylum in Mexico City. But that was only after he started filming his confrontations with Mexican police officers, within weeks of arriving in the country. By January 2018, he was already attempting to challenge their activities, in English, by citing articles of the Mexican constitution. He says the videos show they are less thuggish than American cops, but insists that he still needs to keep them honest.
Far-right movement scholar Matthew Sweeney says he’s never heard of someone in these circles leaving to live in Mexico before. Seim’s decision has confused and amused some fellow Bundy circle members, who sometimes see trials as a welcome opportunity to grandstand for their beliefs.
But even stranger than Seim’s choice is the fact that Mexico may actually—as Seim claimed earlier this year—have granted him and his family asylum.
Daniel Berlin of Asylum Access, a group that helps asylum seekers navigate the country’s immigration system, told The Daily Beast that Seim’s description of the asylum process matches his group’s case experiences, and that papers he has brandished on camera, while not definitive, appeared to be valid at first glance.
Neither the Mexican Commission for Aid to Refugees, which vets and approves asylum claims for the nation, nor the U.S. Embassy in Mexico responded to requests for comment. But Maureen Meyer of the human rights group WOLA pointed out that the Mexican National Institute of Migration’s data indicates it has issued 12 permanent residence permits to Americans based on refugee status attainment so far this year—and issued seven of them in January, when Seim claims he, his wife, and their five kids received said documents.
Regardless of his status, there is no evidence that Seim’s provocations in Mexico have attracted much local support, either before or since the pandemic began. Sure, Mexico has its own brands of anti-state activists. And sure, as Sweeney notes, the economic strain and the chafe of personal restrictions stemming from COVID-19 responses are leading to a surge in beliefs and protests that mirror Seim’s in a number of countries across the world. But American far-right, patriot-type rhetoric appears relatively absent in Mexico.
“There tend to be too many barriers—everything ranging from political and cultural differences to personality differences—that make folks unlikely” to jump onto Seim’s bandwagon in Mexico, explained far-right movement researcher Amy Cooter.
Instead, after largely ignoring him for his first couple of years in the nation, Mexican news outlets have started accusing Seim of distorting their constitution, and a number of locals have suggested deporting him, citing an article of their constitution to justify the idea. They seem more attentive to, and irked by, his pretensions to authority and his flouting of local laws when doing so actively disrupts efforts to control a raging pandemic, rather than avoid a traffic stop.
But Seim may not need to bring locals into his activist protests to have an impact on his new home. Over the last couple of years, he’s published materials actively encouraging his fellow Americans to flee to Mexico, and offering guidance on seeking asylum and settling in. One of his recent Facebook posts went so far as to suggest others may be trying to follow his lead: “This must be how it felt to help slaves escape!! I love reports from the people who saw my warning, jumped bail and escaped the USA.”
As of now, Mexican authorities don’t seem to care about Seim’s exploits. He didn’t get arrested, or even face any serious official pushback, for his stunt in the plaza in April. The cops in his videos usually seem bemused or exasperated by his lack of language skills and his insistent, aggressive demeanor, but ultimately brush him off. And José Antonio “Toño” Mejía Lira, the municipal president of Tequisquiapan, in Querétaro State, where Seim has filmed several videos, told The Daily Beast that Seim wasn’t on his radar. Whatever this American gets up to, Mejía Lira explained, “does not concern the municipality.”
This may reflect the fact that Querétaro State has not suffered nearly as much from the pandemic as some other states in Mexico. Government figures showed just 387 active cases in the state as of Thursday evening, out of 30,010 nationwide, and one of the nation’s lowest per capita caseloads, as well. According to the latest U.S. Embassy information, most businesses there remain open, if operating at limited occupancy and with relatively mild masking and distancing restrictions in place.
But Seim does run risks if he pushes his luck. Not because, as online commentators often imply, there’s a serious chance of corrupt cops killing him. But instead because the Mexican government might get tired of his antics.
“If Seim were to commit a serious crime,” explains Meyer, while stressing that in some states there are now strict regulations in place to control COVID-19 and legal responses to infractions of those rules, “he could have his status revoked.”