The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

An armed militia was ‘detaining’ migrants at the border. The FBI arrested its leader.

Larry Hopkins, 69, was arrested on April 20 and charged with being a felon in possession of firearms. He led an armed militia that patrols the southern border. (Video: Reuters)
Placeholder while article actions load

The leader of an armed militia that scours the southern border for undocumented migrants was arrested by the FBI on Saturday, days after a video of the group holding migrants against their will sparked outrage.

Larry Mitchell Hopkins, 69, was arrested in the New Mexico border city of Sunland Park on charges of being a felon in possession of firearms and ammunition, the FBI said.

The charges stem from the discovery of weapons at Hopkins’s residence in 2017, after the FBI received a tip about “alleged militia extremist activity” connected to Hopkins, according to a federal court complaint that was unsealed Monday. Elizabeth Martinez, a spokeswoman for the U.S. attorney’s office in New Mexico, declined to comment on the long delay in charging Hopkins.

Hopkins leads the United Constitutional Patriots, or UCP, one of several militias that have taken to patrolling the U.S.-Mexico border. The patrols have been prompted by a recent surge in caravans of Central American migrants and emboldened by President Trump’s assertion that the arrivals constitute an “invasion.” The militia’s stated objective is to “uphold the Constitution of The United States of America” and to protect citizens’ rights “against all enemies both foreign and domestic” — which mimics the Oath of Enlistment taken by U.S. service members.

The FBI said it had found nine guns when it searched Hopkins’s home in November 2017, including a 12-gauge shotgun, long rifles and handguns. Hopkins told agents at the time that the woman with whom he was living owned the weapons.

The FBI said it had been given information that Hopkins had “allegedly made the statement that the United Constitutional Patriots were training to assassinate George Soros, Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama."

Hopkins appeared in court Monday for a brief appearance and continues to be held in custody ahead of a detention hearing next week.

His attorney, Kelly O’Connell, a former conservative radio host in New Mexico, questioned the timing of the charges against Hopkins in a brief phone interview.

“The main takeaway is this was not about anything down at the border,” O’Connell said. “If it was a very serious charge worthy of prosecution and incarceration, why not jump on it immediately?"

The United Constitutional Patriots came to public attention this month after the emergence of videos that showed men stopping and detaining people crossing the border. In an April 16 video, posted to Facebook by a woman who goes by Debbie Collins Farnsworth, a large group of migrants, including several children, were seen sitting on the ground and huddled together in the darkness, some of their faces illuminated by flashlights.

“This is crazy, everybody, totally crazy,” a voice that appeared to be Farnsworth’s narrated as she walked the perimeter of the group, claiming that it consisted of “hundreds” of people. “I don’t know what to say about this, other than the fact it’s got to stop,” she said.

A few minutes into the 45-minute live video, Border Patrol officers arrived and ordered the migrants to sit down before telling them to begin walking. The migrants were shepherded through the night by Border Patrol officials while Farnsworth followed behind.

Adults walked past holding children’s hands. “See the way they hold their kids? I don’t think those are their kids, honestly,” she said. “They’ve got grips on their wrists. It’s crazy.”

Farnsworth’s video had garnered more than 100,000 views and 2,700 shares as of Sunday afternoon.

The militia has maintained that its actions are legal, though Sunland Park Police Chief Javier Guerra told BuzzFeed News that he explicitly informed the group that they are not.

On Thursday, the New Mexico chapter of the American Civil Liberties Union sent a letter to the state’s governor, Michelle Lujan Grisham (D), and attorney general, Hector Balderas (D), demanding that they investigate the UCP and the actions portrayed in the April 16 video.

“We cannot allow racist and armed vigilantes to kidnap and detain people seeking asylum,” the letter said. “We urge you to immediately investigate this atrocious and unlawful conduct.”

“Law enforcement belongs strictly in the hands of trained professionals,” Peter Simonson, director of the ACLU in New Mexico, told The Washington Post. He said his group alerted officials because of fears that the armed militia members would harm the migrants.

On Friday, Grisham called the militia’s actions “absolutely unacceptable.”

“This is a dangerous felon who should not have weapons around children and families,” Balderas said in a statement after Hopkins’s arrest. “Today’s arrest by the FBI indicates clearly that the rule of law should be in the hands of trained law enforcement officials, not vigilantes."

Hopkins found himself in a similar situation in 2006 in Oregon’s Klamath County, where he was arrested and charged with impersonating a police officer and being a felon in possession of a firearm, according to an incident report cited by the Southern Poverty Law Center. The report states that Hopkins was seen at a gas station in Keno, Ore., near the California border, showing firearms to a group of children and telling them that he was a police officer.

President Trump has pivoted from closing the southern border to imposing new tariffs on Mexico. But who will be the most affected? (Video: Luis Velarde/The Washington Post)

A Klamath County sheriff’s deputy wrote in the incident report that he had “observed that Larry Hopkins was wearing a black uniform style shirt and black pants. Hopkins had a badge similar in appearance to a police officer badge pinned above his left breast in the area a police officer would wear a badge. Hopkins had a gold star on each of his collars which is often a sign of rank. Hopkins had several military or law enforcement style pins all over his shirt in a uniform appearance.”

Hopkins was indicted on one count of impersonating a police officer and two counts of being a felon in possession of a firearm but, in the end, did not serve a sentence, according to the Southern Poverty Law Center.

After Hopkins’s weekend arrest, one of the militia’s members, Jim Benvie, addressed the recent charges in a Facebook Live video, saying that the UCP was not breaking any laws and that Hopkins would be exonerated.

He asserted that Hopkins was “set up” by Grisham and Balderas based on the ACLU’s “false, baseless allegations against the group.”

“This was their first attack,” Benvie said. “They want to create a narrative that there’s a bunch of reckless criminals out on the border.”

The UCP did not respond to a Facebook message and a phone inquiry from The Post requesting comment.

A U.S. Customs and Border Protection spokesman distanced the agency from the militia in a statement to The Post, saying the agency “does not endorse private groups or organizations taking enforcement matters into their own hands” and warning that “interference by civilians in law enforcement matters could have public safety and legal consequences for all parties involved.”

However, some of the UCP’s videos showed Border Patrol agents arriving to take away migrants who had been stopped by militia members. One UCP member, Mark Cheney, told BuzzFeed News that Border Patrol officers are “happy we’re here. . . . We have a direct line to the local outpost.”

Read more:

Report: U.S. Navy investigates after finding hidden camera in women’s restroom on ship

Tiger attacks a keeper at the Topeka Zoo