SUNLAND PARK, N.M. — In this small town where thoroughbreds race and a statue of Jesus looms over the community, a few members of an armed group attempting to act as border enforcers have worn out 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 told them they had 30 minutes to vacate the property. Members of the group told NBC News they were moving a quarter-mile away to try to find private property.
A short time later, the last members of the group had peacefully left the property and cleared the camp.
Sunland Park Police Chief Javier Guerra said earlier Tuesday he had warned the head of the militia group two months ago against detaining migrants or pointing weapons at them.
“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 handgun when he first spoke to him. Hopkins has since 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 said 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 heeding 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 originally had asked them not 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’s 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 isn’t being shown by news media.
Guerra said the city developed an 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. He said the city would be meeting with Border Patrol and the railroad police to discuss its operational plan.
Guerra said the people in the group he spoke with told him they stopped the migrants by yelling "stop, stop, sit, sit" in Spanish. He said he left to avoid any altercation. By that 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 pleasantries and was offered breakfast. He said he told Hopkins he needed to talk to him and Hopkins responded, “Am I in trouble?”
He said Hopkins agreed to ride with him back to the police station where FBI was waiting for him and made the arrest.
Armando Gonzales, 52, said he drove more than 20 hours from St. Louis to support the militia members.
He said it was a “ slap in the face” to be told he had to leave the land where the group was camping. He wanted to be there and “help my country.”
Gonzales, who said he is an Iraq vet and served from 1990-1991 as military police, said he wanted to come out and find out for himself what was going on.
“Me being a veteran, I feel like I was robbed,” he said.
As a Latino he did not see contradiction in his actions.
“Me being a Mexicano, I’m proud of it. I’m an American first. My family came from Piedras Negras, my abuelito. And he did everything right.”
'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 scrubland at the border.
“These are just people trying to cross here," Perez said. "Most of the people that do come through, you don’t see the rapists and killers and murderers and these bad hombres that they call them."
“It’s heavily policed by immigration," he said. "There’s 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’t have brought my family here,” he said.
Sunland Park, a city of 17,000, is wedged into a corner between Ciudad Juarez, Mexico, and El Paso, Texas.
Quieter and smaller than its neighbors, Sunland Park is best known for its racetrack, home of the Sunland Derby, an 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 Mount Cristo Rey over the place along the border where migrants collide with Americans intent on stopping what they see as an “invasion.”
Under the statue’s gaze, the militia group United Constitutional Patriots set up camp to carry out its private immigration enforcement operations.
The Border Patrol has been in recent months issuing cries of desperation, saying it is unable and unequipped to handle the increased flow of families arriving to 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 parts of 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 handle.
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 kind of people are coming in.” When asked if she agreed with building a wall, she said she didn’t think it would do anything. “They would still be 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 United Constitutional Patriots' activities, the federal government arrested and charged Hopkins, 69, on charges of felony possession of firearms and ammunition in his home in 2017.
In an affidavit filed Saturday in support of Hopkins' arrest, an FBI agent said the agency had received reports on its public tip line of "alleged militia extremist activity" in October 2017 in Flora Vista, New Mexico.
The reports said the United Constitutional Patriots had their home "base" at Hopkins's 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 Constitutional Patriots bearing firearms at Hopkins' residence," the complaint said.
"Hopkins also 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 no plan to do any of that."
In November 2018, the Southern Poverty Law Center, a civil rights organization that tracks anti-government and extremist groups, wrote that Hopkins (going by his alias 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 telling you 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 the Islamic State group, according to the Daily Beast. In the radio show, Hopkins also urges members to head to the border.
At the end of February, Hopkins wrote in a post on his Facebook page that the group was headed to the border to try to stop a different caravan, calling for "boots on the ground" and donations.
The executive director of the ACLU's New Mexico chapter, Peter Simonson, said the civil rights group hopes to see the charges against Hopkins expand in coming days.
Simonson said the ACLU and other local immigration advocates had thought the militia members were a “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," Simonson said. "They absolutely described themselves as actively detaining people under some fantasy theory about citizen arrests."
Simonson compared the militia members’ activities to kidnappings that can be traced back to “the mouth of the president who has spared no opportunity to spout hateful rhetoric and stir up racist feelings and intolerance about people coming across our southern border.”
He said the activities should not 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 told 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.