RACHEL MARTIN, HOST:
Armed men in military fatigues keeping watch at the U.S.-Mexico border and then detaining migrants who crossed the border into New Mexico - but these men weren't Border Patrol or federal immigration agents. They're just civilians, a little-known militia group who posted a video of these activities online. The alleged leader appeared in federal court in New Mexico yesterday. His arrest over the weekend has ignited a debate about right-wing groups who patrol the border, a debate that is now unfolding in the small city of Sunland Park, N.M., which is where we find NPR's John Burnett. Good morning, John.
JOHN BURNETT, BYLINE: Hi, Rachel.
MARTIN: Tell us more about this group.
BURNETT: Well, they call themselves the United Constitutional Patriots. The police chief here told me he's only seen four of them actually, three men and a woman. They carry AR-15s and sidearms. They wear camo and black tactical gear. And they've assigned themselves to patrol a section of the land border where El Paso, Texas, meets New Mexico.
MARTIN: So no one asked them to do this. I mean, so what happened to the alleged leader?
BURNETT: Well, his name is Larry Mitchell Hopkins. He's charged with illegally possessing firearms as a convicted felon. And his lawyer told NPR the group thinks the Border Patrol is spread too thin, and they consider themselves a force multiplier.
MARTIN: So he is from this town of Sunland Park, right?
BURNETT: He - yeah, he lived outside Sunland Park.
MARTIN: So how is that community reacting to the case?
BURNETT: Well, I'd say surprised, upset, outraged. And that's just New Mexico's governor, Michelle Lujan Grisham. Here's what she had to say about those would-be commandos.
MICHELLE LUJAN GRISHAM: They cannot detain. They have no authority to engage in the same way the Border Patrol agents can. They cannot identify themselves as such. They cannot arrest or detain or harass or intimidate. There's any number of unlawful acts.
BURNETT: Governor Lujan Grisham, a Democrat, was on the phone from Santa Fe. She's asked the FBI and the state attorney general to look for more laws the militia group may have broken. She says she's particularly concerned the Border Patrol may be cooperating with vigilantes.
One of the videos the group posted last week shows militia members with guns holding a very large group of immigrants estimated at 300, most of them families. They had just walked around the end of the border fence. The Patriots told them to stay seated until federal agents show up.
LUJAN GRISHAM: And this notion that there is cooperation between Border Patrol agents and this militia is increasingly alarming because, as you can see, these are largely women and children.
BURNETT: Customs and Border Protection released a statement saying it, quote, "does not endorse or condone private groups or organizations taking enforcement matters into their own hands." CBP added, border security operations require highly trained professionals.
Local officials say the militia showed up about two months ago in response to a surge of families from Central America crossing the border illegally to seek asylum. In March alone, CBP agents took more than 100,000 migrants into custody. And El Paso, just east of Sunland Park, is the newest hotspot. Adolpho Telles is chairman of the El Paso County Republican Party. He condemned this particular militia, but he says he understands why they're out there.
ADOLPHO TELLES: Because of that high level of frustration on the border, people are taking the law into their own hands. And that's a concern. Those people have a right to be at the border. They have the right to exercise their Second Amendment rights. But I'm concerned that at some point in time, there's going to be some type of little explosion, and somebody's going to get hurt.
BURNETT: Some critics believe the militiamen should be charged with impersonating federal officers. Sunland Park Police Chief Javier Guerra says he went out to visit the group at their campsite about a quarter mile from the border. He says he saw official-looking badges on their flak jackets that said fugitive recovery agent, which is what bounty hunters carry. And Guerra figured the migrants would think the militiamen were Border Patrol agents.
JAVIER GUERRA: Of course, those poor individuals coming in from another country, they don't know the difference. So that's what they - probably what they thought.
BURNETT: Most people in Sunland Park didn't know the Constitutional Patriots were out there until news reports about them surfaced late last week.
(SOUNDBITE OF DOG BARKING)
EDUARDO ALVIDREZ: Here, I got it. OK.
BURNETT: Eduardo Alvidrez is a furniture salesman and a lifelong Sunland Park resident. He was out walking his three dogs yesterday.
ALVIDREZ: It's scary. What if - like, you see me. I'm out walking my dogs. What if, all of a sudden, they come up and start questioning me? Am I supposed to carry my passport with me? Why are they here? Nobody asked them to come.
BURNETT: Why are they here? In one of the videos, a man who gives his name as Jim Benvie says they're going to stay in Sunland Park until Trump's wall is finished.
(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)
JIM BENVIE: This is Mexico. This is where the wall ends. This is dangerous where we're standing. OK? These people have spotters. This is well-organized crime. Keep in mind, they're involved in human trafficking, sex trafficking, drugs, opioids. OK?
BURNETT: For the record, the police chief says this is one of the quietest, safest communities on the border. Late yesterday, I drove out to the pop-up trailer in the desert where they're camped out next to the Union Pacific Railroad tracks. A tattooed man in a balaclava said they'd have no comment and gave me the one-finger salute. A Union Pacific spokesman said the group is trespassing and has been asked to leave.
MARTIN: NPR's John Burnett reporting there, and John is still with us. So you've told us about this one militia group, John, that's caused so much controversy. How large is their reach?
BURNETT: Well, this is just one small group. But, you know, they've been - these militias have been patrolling the international divide down here for more than a decade in every border state. And they seem to be spreading, Rachel, with Donald Trump constantly warning about the border crisis with the caravans and the migrant flows increasing. Most of these militias spot crossers and notify the Border Patrol and then wait for them. Observers say what this group did was to detain crossers at gunpoint until federal agents arrive, which was somewhat extreme.
MARTIN: All right. NPR's John Burnett. Thanks, John.
BURNETT: You bet.
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