SUNLAND PARK, New Mexico (AP) — Authorities on the U.S.-Mexico border have distanced themselves from an armed civilian group that detains asylum-seeking families, but the United Constitutional Patriots have never been shy about saying they work with Border Patrol agents.
After its activities drew widespread criticism, the group was thrown out of its camp this week for trespassing in Sunland Park, New Mexico, a suburb of El Paso, Texas. Frequent social media posts show masked men in combat fatigues chasing migrants and ordering them to stay put until border agents arrive. Videos capture agents taking migrants into custody.
Jim Benvie, a spokesman for the group, said in a March 7 video on Facebook titled "Hunting illegals/us Mexico border" that he agreed to join the effort because he was "looking for action and video." He encouraged anyone who "wants to do the militia thing" to come to Sunland Park — with a gun, if available.
"Everything is registered, so you work in hand with the Border Patrol," he said.
Armed civilian groups have been an intermittent presence on the border for years, portraying themselves as auxiliaries to the Border Patrol and operating in areas where agents are not stationed. As the videos show, U.S. authorities keep them at arm's length while also responding to reports of people entering the country illegally.
Customs and Border Protection, which includes the Border Patrol, said Friday on Twitter that it "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," the agency said.
The Sunland Park police chief said he had told the small group they could stay as long as they did not try to arrest anyone or hold anybody at gunpoint.
Three Democratic members of Congress, including Veronica Escobar of El Paso, wrote FBI Director Christopher Wray asking for an investigation into the presence of armed civilians and any assistance from U.S. authorities.
"The right to stop and detain should be reserved to law enforcement," they wrote.
Border Patrol spokesman Carlos Antunez said Wednesday that agents will investigate such groups only if a migrant complains, which has not happened with the United Constitutional Patriots.
If the group is detaining migrants, "that's all they're doing," Antunez said. "At that point, we take charge ... We end up arresting the people that entered illegally, and then we take it from there."
The group's leader, Larry Hopkins, was arrested last weekend on federal weapons charges. Hopkins, 69, was transferred Tuesday out of a New Mexico jail after suffering unspecified non-life threatening injuries, the Dona Ana County Sheriff's Office said.
Benvie narrated a March 13 video under the words "Caught another group of well-dressed illegals." He said the Border Patrol will arrive "in a minute" and then showed an agent taking a small group into custody. Three days later, he posted another video under the heading "Detained a man with a baby!" As an agent arrived, Benvie said, "The border is overrun. We're being invaded."
In another video, he said: "It's a war zone, guys. This is like the Wild West, but we caught these guys right away."
A video that drew strong criticism included a man who could be heard reporting on a group of at least 200 migrants. Benvie alerted viewers when the Border Patrol arrived.
The group was thrown out of its camp Tuesday after Union Pacific Railroad posted no-trespassing signs nearby.
"Base camp is relocating, new videos coming soon!" Benvie wrote the next day.
Two El Paso men who were fishing on the Rio Grande in Sunland Park were skeptical of the group.
"We all look Mexican. How are they going to know the difference?" asked Angel Martinez, a 34-year-old factory worker. "That's what Border Patrol is for."
His friend and fellow fisherman Henry Aguilar, a delivery driver, once worked at an immigration detention center where he came into contact with hardened Central American gang members from MS-13, who he's glad were deported. But the families being detained by the militia "are not even threats," he said.
In the past, vigilante patrols interrupted his fishing farther downstream, near where the United Constitutional Patriots plan to relocate. He believes a member of the group approached him last summer.
"He told us we couldn't fish there. I told him to identify himself, and he refused to do so," Aguilar recalled. "He had camo gear on, and he had a hat, and he was covered from the nose down."
Spagat reported from San Diego.