By Suzanne Gamboa, Daniella Silva and Cal Perry
SUNLAND PARK, N.M. – In this small town where thoroughbreds race and a statue of Jesus looms over the community, a few members of armed group trying to act as border enforcers have been out of their welcome. The group has been detaining migrants in what it says is an attempt to help immigration authorities, against the wishes of the police chief, the mayor and other officials and advocates.
On Tuesday afternoon, officials with the Union Pacific railroad company determined that they owned the land where about three people were camped and they had 30 minutes to vacate the property. NBC News group members were moving a quarter-mile away to find private property.
Sunland Park Police Chief Javier Guerra said earlier Tuesday he had been the head of the military group two months ago against detaining migrants or
"I made it very clear to them what I expected of them and then I left," he said. In an interview with NBC News and one other reporter, Guerra said that the group's leader, Larry Hopkins, had a deal when he first spoke to him. Hopkins has been arrested and is facing a charge of felon in possession of a firearm.
Guerra had learned of the presence of the group, United Constitutional Patriots, which he has been only four or five people, through the Border Patrol . The three people on the Union Pacific land on Tuesday sought to distance themselves from the United Constitutional Patriots, saying they were "citizen journalists" documenting the border crisis.
The chief said they seemed to be his warning until he saw a video last Thursday posted by the group of members detaining a large group of immigrants. Some of the members were carrying weapons and others were barking orders for the migrants not to move.
“They went against what I had originally asked them to do, so I went out there and I spoke to them and at that moment they admitted that they had been stopping people, "Guerra said.
Some of the groups' members have captured video of their activities or those of Border Patrol and posted the video on social media. Videos posted by members often describe the events as a side of ongoing immigration that is not shown at news media.
Guerra said the city developed and operational plan Monday should the situation with remaining members escalate.
The city of Sunland Park put up signs Monday for a portion of the land in the area that it owns. Guerra said the decision to put up the signs came three weeks ago. The city also had the Roman Catholic diocese that owns land around Mount Cristo Rey do the same.
Guerra said the people in the group he spoke with they stopped the migrants at yelling "stop, stop, sit, sit" in Spanish. He said he left to avoid any altercation. By the time the New Mexico attorney general and FBI were also in contact with the police department.
Guerra said Hopkins had told him he was a "general" of the group when they first met.
On the day Hopkins was arrested, Guerra said he went with his officers to the camp since he had a relationship with the group. He exchanged pleasant breakfasts. He said he told Hopkins he needed to talk to him and Hopkins responded, "I was in trouble?"
He said Hopkins agreed to ride with him back to the police station where the FBI was waiting for him and made the arrest. 19659021] 'These are just people'
Dusk waned Monday as Edgar Perez, walked with his wife and 5-month-old son in their neighborhood not far from where the private citizens, some armed, had been stopping and holding immigrants.
An immigrant born in Juarez, Mexico, who arrived legally as a young child, Perez, 36, said he is more worried about poverty in his city than he is with the migrants traversing the desert at the border.
"These are just people trying to cross here," Perez said. "Most of the people that come through, you don't see the rapists and killers and murderers and these bad guys that they call them." heavily policed by immigration, "he said. "There are people on horseback, on ATVs all the time."
Perez, who works in insurance, recently moved back to the area after living in larger cities like Phoenix and Detroit. ”If it was risky to be here, I wouldn
Sunland Park, a city of 17,000, is divided into a corner between Ciudad Juarez, Mexico, and El Paso, Texas.
Quieter and smaller than its neighbors, Sunland Park is known for its racetrack, home of the Sunland Derby, and official Kentucky Derby prep race.
Locally, it is the site of pilgrimages for the faithful to a 29-foot statue of Jesus with outstretched arms that looms from atop Cristo Rey over the place along the border where migrants collide with Americans intent on stopping what they see as "invasion."
Under the statue's gaze, the militia group United Constitutional Patriots set up Border Patrol has been in recent months issuing cries of desperation, saying it is unable to handle the increased flow of families arriving at this area of the border and claiming asylum and pushing the nation's immigration system to its breaking point.
The administration shifted 750 agents from other jobs and the border to help process immigrants who are arriving at the border, turning themselves over to Border Patrol and requesting asylum. But it has also blocked migrants from crossing the border at legal ports of entry to request asylum, shifting migrants to illegal crossings outside of the ports, adding to the migrant numbers for Border Patrol to act.
Diana Casillas, 23, rents a trailer near the border. Speaking in Spanish, she told NBC news she would like to see more security "because you don't know what people are coming in." do anything. "They would be still coming through."
For the most part, she has seen a few people crossing at a time, coming through different areas.
The United Constitutional Patriots
After a complaint by the American Civil Liberties Union of New Mexico about the group's activities, the federal government arrested and charged with the leader of the United Constitutional Patriots, Hopkins, 69, on felony possession or firearms and ammunition in his home in 2017.
In an affidavit, Saturday filed in support of Hopkins' judgment, and FBI agent said the agency had received reports on its public tip line of "alleged militia extremist activity" in Oct. 2017 in Flora Vista, New Mexico.
The reports said the United Constitutional Patriots had their home "base" at Hopkins residence and were supported by about 20 members "armed with AK-47 rifles and other firearms," according to the criminal complaint
"Witnesses reported seeing members of the United States Constitutional Patriots bearing firearms at Hopkins residence," the complaint said.
"Hopkins allegedly made the statement that the United Constitutional Patriots were training to assassinate George Soros, Hillary Clinton, and Barack Obama, because of these individuals' support of Antifa, 'the complaint said. [Kelly] O'Connell, Hopkins' lawyer, denies that allegation as "categorically false," adding, "There was now plan to do that any of that. "
In Nov. 2018, the Southern Poverty Law Center, which tracks anti-government and extremist groups, wrote that Hopkins (by his nickname Johnny Horton Jr.) was a believer in conspiracy theories and unsubstantiated rumors about the so-called caravan of migrants and refugees that came to the border that fall.
Hopkins said at the time that he had gathered a team of "patriots" to travel to the southern border to stop the migrants, according to the SPLC
"Our information comes from the very top," Hopkins told the SPLC. "I'm not counting where, but it comes out of very high agencies."
And online, the United Constitutional Patriots produces a radio show that has peddled conspiracy theories such as QAnon and accusing migrants of associating with terrorist group ISIS , according to the Daily Beast. In the radio show, Hopkins also urged members to head to the border.
At the end of February, Hopkins wrote a post on his Facebook page that the group was headed to stop to stop a different caravan, calling For "boots on the ground" and donations.
ACLU or New Mexico executive director Peter Simonson said the civil rights group is looking at the charges against Hopkins expand in coming days.
Simonson said the ACLU and other local immigration lawyers had thought the militia members were "rag tag group" out for weekend excursions carrying out their frustrations over the current immigration problems.
"And then we found out they were actually detaining people at gunpoint … they absolutely described themselves as actively detaining people under some fantasy theory about citizen arrests, "Simonson said.
Simonson compared the militia members' activities to kidnapping that can be traced back to" the mouth of the president. Ent who has spared no opportunity to spit hateful rhetoric and stir up racist feelings and intolerance about people coming across our southern border. ”
He said the activities should have been allowed to take place, that law enforcement and Border Patrol should have been directing the members to "cease and desist."
A spokesperson for the group duty NBC News they were acting as "a patriot group" and the "eyes and ears of Border Patrol."
Customs and Border Protection has said it "does not endorse private groups or organizations taking enforcement matters into their own hands."
Suzanne Gamboa and Cal Perry reported from Sunland Park, New Mexico, and Daniella Silva reported from New York.