Originally published by The NY Times
How much latitude do paramilitary groups get?
By Simon Romero in Sunland Park, N.M.
From their encampment in a barren stretch of New Mexico desert, a right-wing militia called the United Constitutional Patriots emerged from obscurity this month after its members filmed themselvesdetaining migrant families on the border with Mexico.
Where did this group originate? It turns out the F.B.I. had known about them at least since 2017 when it investigated tips that a group of heavily armed men at a trailer park in northwest New Mexico were “training” to assassinate Barack Obama, Hillary Clinton and George Soros.
Still, the origins of such groups stretch back a lot further, going far beyond the current policies aimed at curbing immigration from Latin America and fitting into a long tradition of border vigilantism and efforts to crack down on immigrants who were not white.
As far back as the 1850s, armed patrols from Texas crossed illegally into northern Mexico in efforts to capture African-Americans who escaped from slavery. The Border Patrol itself boasts that it originatedfrom “mounted inspectors” who pursued Chinese immigrants trying to avoid the Chinese exclusion laws passed to severely limit immigration from China.
More recently, in 1977, the Ku Klux Klan created its own border patrol in California and Texas. David Duke, the prominent white supremacist and former Grand Wizard of the organization, said at the time that the project was created to do something about the “illegal alien problem.”
Kathleen Belew, a historian at the University of Chicago, documents the K.K.K.’s actions and those of other armed groups on the border in her book “Bring the War Home,” about the white power movement and the paramilitary groups it spawned.
By 1986, as Ms. Belew explains, an armed paramilitary group calling itself Civilian Materiel Assistance, or C.M.A., gained notoriety for detaining men, women and children in the Arizona desert much in the same way that the United Constitutional Patriots has done this year.
Then, as now, the United States was debating a surge of asylum-seeking migrant families from Central America.
Calling itself “anti-Communist,” C.M.A. included American mercenaries who were active in the 1980s in Central America. Wielding military-style rifles, clad in military fatigues and operating out of southern Arizona, the group held 16 immigrants for about 90 minutes before handing them over to Border Patrol agents.
Despite widespread criticism of these tactics at the time, local authorities in the United States opted against prosecuting the C.M.A. mercenaries, at least for violating kidnapping laws.
The Cochise County attorney in Arizona elected not to prosecute, and the migrants who could have testified about being held by the C.M.A. were deported, preventing them from serving as witnesses in any case.
“At many points legal authorities have been tacitly accepting of paramilitary actions on the border or direct participants in them,” Ms. Belew said.
Eventually, the federal government stepped in, and the C.M.A.’s leader, J.R. Hagan, was arrested in 1986 on a felony firearms charge, similar to what occurred this week with the U.C.P.’s leader, Larry Mitchell Hopkins, another felon.
Mr. Hagan was found guilty and received a two-year sentence. The sentence was suspended and he was put on probation.
he sentence was suspended and he was put on probation.
But that wasn’t the end of border militias in Arizona. In 2005, hundreds of “Minuteman” volunteers, some of them armed, drew national attention when they launched patrols along a 23-mile stretch of border in Cochise County. They flagged 335 illegal border crossers for the Border Patrol, but their leaders instructed the volunteers not to detain anyone.
In the present case, the United Constitutional Patriots posted videos of their members circling and holding migrants until Border Patrol agents arrived. The legal case involving Mr. Hopkins will shed light on how much latitude paramilitary groups will be given along the border in this new era.