Border Militias Set Up Fake Humanitarian Stations in the Desert to Trap Migrants

The growth of the militia movement the past several years has left many of our communities reeling from intimidation, harassment and violence. Donald Trump’s tacit endorsement of the far right “patriot” subculture has given it a pass to grow and recruit, often manipulating the dispossession that many rural and blue-collar workers are facing in our current economic tumult. Trump’s rhetoric about immigration, particularly the conspiratorial fear-mongering around the border, has played to a certain audience. This has inspired the growth of groups like the Arizona Border Recon and Veterans on Patrol, vigilante groups which sit at the border in an attempt to harm migrants.

In a recent book called The Marauders: Standing Up to Vigilantes in the American Borderlands, journalist Patrick Strickland chronicles the battle that many communities have had against these border militias in states like Texas and Arizona. In this interview, Strickland discusses what is inspiring these groups to grow, what kind of threat they present, and what it takes to push back on them and regain control of our communities.

Shane Burley: Your book The Marauders takes readers into the story of “border militias,” these radical right-wing groups of armed men positioning themselves as vigilante border defenders. For those who are initiated to this world, who are these figures?

Patrick Strickland: They’re something of an offshoot of the broader militia and patriot movement that has a focus mostly on the U.S.-Mexico border. Many are armed groups and some of them come from far away from the border. Some have set up permanent shop down there in places like southern Arizona and Texas. For instance, Larry Hopkins and his group, United Constitutional Patriots, were detaining migrants at one point in New Mexico. So, this is the focus of what they do.

They go out essentially to hunt for people crossing the border, often while carrying weapons. In the past, many of them boasted about detaining migrants, but that is, of course, illegal. So now we see a lot more of them simply claiming that they’re doing reconnaissance for the Border Patrol, to whom they would pass information. But that’s not always the case. I discuss in my book how there’s evidence that some groups have detained migrants more recently. There’s one group in Arizona now called Veterans on Patrol, which is headed up by a non-veteran named Michael Meyer. One thing they have done over the past year or so is set up fake migrant stations, which look like the ones that humanitarian groups put up in the desert to help provide life-saving water and resources to crossing migrants. What they do is put out a blue flag, just like the ones at humanitarian water stations, and then they try to lure migrants to those stations.

The history of these groups is decades-long. You could trace it back to the 1880s where state-sanctioned vigilante groups patrolled for Chinese immigrants on the southern border. The modern history traces back to 1977 and the Knights of the Ku Klux Klan Border Watch patrols organized by David Duke and Louis Beam, among others. They also said that they weren’t detaining people and that they were simply passing information to Border Patrol. Something really interesting is that Border Patrol has consistently claimed that they don’t work with these vigilante militia groups, that’s their official line. But sometimes it seems like there may be sympathetic folks inside Border Patrol’s ranks.

As we are continuing to see indictments come down for those people that participated in the January 6 insurrection, how do the groups you chronicle in The Marauders relate to those we saw engaging in violence at the Capitol?

The Oath Keepers and the Three Percenters have had ties to some of these border militias. Michael Meyer of Veterans on Patrol had, in fact, been at the Bundy ranch when the standoff with federal officers in Nevada took place. Some of them had gone up to Malheur in Oregon during the wildlife refuge takeover. And Arizona Border Recon’s Tim Foley, according to transcripts of group phone calls before the Malheur takeover, had been in discussion with the other “patriot” groups and militias who took over the refuge. So there definitely are connections, and at the same time, they are distinct. That said, it’s certainly no surprise that some border militia figures appeared at the January 6 Capitol riot.

They do have their focus on the southern border, and we’ve seen surges in the last few years — the most obvious one is in 2018 leading up to the midterm elections while Trump played up the so-called “immigrant caravan.” This inspired a lot of these groups to flock to the southern border. That’s actually the time where I started writing this book and how I found a few of the communities that I focused on in it. I started reaching out to people I had seen speaking out in the local press about the presence of militias in their town. In one case, it started with a conversation I had with a lady who had put out a bunch of anti-militia signs in her yard in her community of Arivaca in southern Arizona. It’s a small town about 11 miles from the border, and they had a history of tragedy with these types of groups. In 2009, rogue militia members had raided a house that they had thought was owned by a big-time cartel drug dealer. They ended up killing him and his 9-year-old daughter. That’s one of the things I hope the book gets across is that these kinds of conspiracy theories and misinformation really do put human lives at risk. I think we’ve seen that borne out since. Larry Hopkins’s group, United Constitutional Patriots, after news broke that they had been detaining migrants, the FBI charged them with training to kill Barack Obama, Hillary Clinton and George Soros.

What connections do these groups have to the larger Trump or “Make America Great Again” movement?

That’s an interesting question because there is a very solid connection between some of these people and fairly important people in the Republican Party. Tim Foley of Arizona Border Recon had gone and spoke in D.C. at an event with Roger Stone, Trump’s confidant, and former congressman Steve King. He’s also gotten cozy with former Maricopa County Sheriff and anti-immigrant activist Joe Arpaio. After I finished writing the book, I started seeing information about militia members from the Dallas area who are now operating in southern Texas. I found four or five Republican candidates for Congress or the state legislature had come out in support of this group or showed up at recent fundraising drives for the militia.

Even after Trump was out of office, especially in Texas, Republicans drummed up some of the wildest conspiracy theories about migration. The number of people being apprehended at the border did go up, but that rise started happening in April 2020, during Trump’s presidency. So, the consequence of that is that people on the far right will think that the federal government (or even the state government with Gov. Greg Abbott) are not effectively doing their job. And that is what inspires these people to pick up guns, go down to the border and try to police it themselves. The way I see it, that shines light on a crucial point: Migrants always have to worry about the inherent violence of the border itself. They have to worry about Border Patrol and other U.S. authorities, sure, but in some cases, they may be confronted with the unique violence that the border attracts: militias and other vigilantes who come to the area armed to the teeth. Of course, many militiamen say they don’t intend any harm to migrants. I’d ask in response: Why bring guns in that case rather than, say, blankets, water and food?

So, what are the kinds of things that some of these border communities are doing to push these militia groups out?

One of the communities I write about is called Arivaca, and they held a series of town meetings where they tried to lobby local businesses to ban militias. One of the focal points became the local bar called La Gitana, which barred militias from being able to come in and eat and drink. This sparked a lot of anger among the militias, who looked at this as sort of a hill to die on. But the community wanted to send a strong message that they had a history and that the townspeople didn’t appreciate the presence of the militias.

Elsewhere in southern Arizona, other people I spoke to had become self-taught sleuths, learning how to track down information about militias and other vigilante groups that had been popping up in their area. We’re not talking about seasoned activists or people with a long resume in migrant solidarity organizing or tracking the far right. But when thrown into that situation, a lot of people did band together. These communities communicated with one another, sharing information, names and news. They warned one another if they had militias coming their way. And this became a way that they were able to push back against militias staging a takeover of their community, and where they bound together to fight for a different vision of the border.

This interview has been lightly edited for clarity.