When border militias start getting involved with people crossing the U.S.-Mexico border, it’s always a nightmare waiting to happen—or rather, to happen again. When they start targeting asylum-seekers, as they appear to be doing in New Mexico, it’s a recipe for disaster.
An outfit calling itself United Constitutional Patriots has been prowling the borderlands in New Mexico’s Sunland Park area and rounding up asylum-seekers whom they encounter, turning them over to authorities with U.S. Border Patrol.
What’s clear is that the militiamen are presenting themselves to the refugees—most of whom, their own interviews reveal, appear to be arriving from Central America seeking asylum on a variety of grounds—as official federal patrolmen.
“Alto! U.S. Border Patrol!” announces UCP militiaman Jim Benvie at the opening of one of his Facebook videos showing his encounters with border crossers, as Benvie proceeds to interrogate them about their travels and how often they’ve attempted to cross. His confused interlocutors mostly smile back.
In later videos, he can be seen being inundated with a group of asylum-seekers crossing the Mexico border at Sunland Park and telling his audience that they are witnessing an “invasion.”
“This is a national security issue. It’s an invasion,” he says in one of the videos. “I’ve said this a hundred times: If the invaders came armed and started shooting us, or started shooting at us on the border, everybody in the country would jump in to help, wouldn’t they? But because these people are invading us without guns, coming in from 50 different countries, everybody ignores it and debates it as if it’s just a political issue to talk about on the news. And they don’t even cover it properly because it’s fake news.”
The Sunland Park area has attracted a steady flow of asylum-seekers crossing the border from mostly Central American nations, in part because of its proximity to El Paso, Texas. However, when they have encountered Benvie and his fellow militiamen, they have been detained and turned over to authorities. Last week some 230 migrants were arrested in New Mexico after being detained by UCP.
“We’re just Americans,” Benvie said in an interview with KENS-5 TV in San Antonio. “We’re veterans, we’re ex-law enforcement, we’re people who care about the overstrained Border Patrol.”
Benvie claims that most of the asylum-seekers are actually people who have paid Mexican drug cartels to sneak them over the border by pretending they are parents of the children they accompany, a plan he calls “grab a baby.” “A lot of these children are being recycled,” he told his audience in one video.
What’s clear from the videos is that many of the asylum-seekers are traumatized from encountering armed vigilantes in the border area. In one of the videos, some of the migrants being detained with their hands on their heads can be heard sobbing.
The history of “Patriot” militiamen on the Mexico border from the start has been fraught with criminality, violence, and monetary fraud. There are no signs that the most recent iterations will prove any different.
The very earliest such vigilantes to attempt a regular presence on the border were part of an outfit called Ranch Rescue, which operated on the Arizona border in the early 2000s. One of their leaders, an Arizona resident named Casey Nethercott—who had done prison time in California for assault in the 1990s—and some of his fellow Ranch Rescue members in 2003 assaulted two Salvadoran migrants who had crossed the border on foot and wound up on a ranch where the nativist border watchers operated. The migrants were held at gunpoint, and one of them was pistol-whipped and attacked by a Rottweiler. With the assistance of the SPLC, the migrants sued their attackers and won a million-dollar civil judgment against Ranch Rescue, including $500,000 against Nethercott, who also faced criminal assault charges in the case but eventually had them dismissed.
Then, in 2005, an outfit calling itself the Minuteman Project launched an Arizona border-watch operation that drew intense national media coverage, which then appeared to launch a national border-watch movement. However, six years later, the entire movement appeared to collapse in a heap of criminal charges and accusations of financial misdeeds.
The most notorious of these were the 2009 borderland murders of a 9-year-old Latina girl and her father in their Arivaca, Arizona, home by a gang of thugs led by Minuteman leader Shawna Forde. Though Minuteman leaders tried fruitlessly to distance themselves from Forde’s criminality, the stigma attached to border militias became permanent.
In April 2012, one of Forde’s associates in the desert, a Tucson man named Todd Hezlitt, was arrested and charged with two counts of sexual conduct with a minor for an affair he had initiated with a 15-year-old girl from the local high school where he was an assistant wrestling coach. Two months later, he fled with the girl to Mexico, and he briefly became an international fugitive. A few weeks after that, the girl turned herself in to the American consulate in Mazatlan. Hezlitt was caught a short time later and extradited. He eventually wound up agreeing to plead guilty to the sexual conduct charges in exchange for not being charged with kidnapping, and was sentenced to six years in prison.
Another violent incident from a former border watcher erupted in Arizona in May 2012 when Jason Todd “J.T.” Ready—a longtime leader of the state’s neo-Nazi National Socialist Movement, and an organizer of independent NSM border watches in Arizona—went on a shooting rampage at the home of his girlfriend. Before committing suicide, Ready shot and killed his girlfriend, Lisa Lynn Mederos, 47; her daughter, Amber Nieve Mederos, 23; the daughter’s boyfriend, Jim Franklin Hiott; and Amber’s 15-month-old baby girl, Lilly Lynn Mederos. Investigators later found chemicals and military-grade munitions that apparently belonged to Ready at the residence.
The final capstone on the saga of the Minutemen, however, was co-founder Chris Simcox’s conviction in 2016 on two counts of child molestation, for which he was sentenced to nearly 20 years in prison.
As Tim Steller at the Arizona Daily Star observed, “Undoubtedly, there have been border-militia members in Arizona who have carried out citizen patrols without harboring racist motives or having criminal tendencies. The problem for the movement … is that people with these motives or tendencies have cropped up repeatedly among citizen border-watchers.”
However, none of this history ended the nativist movement’s attempts to establish vigilante border watches in the Southwest. Another outfit in the Altar Valley named Arizona Border Reconnaissance, led by a veteran named Tim Foley, has been operating on the border since at least 2011. More recently, militias began flooding back to the borderlands in Texas, New Mexico, Arizona, and California in response to Donald Trump’s fearmongering about caravans of asylum-seekers from Central America coming to the border. As usual, these militias have mostly devolved into packs of squabbling paranoid egos, with each claiming that the others are either “keyboard warriors” or perhaps secretly agents of the Deep State.
The New Mexico militiamen told local reporters that they’re just like a neighborhood watch, but with guns and camo. They claim to be armed only for “self-defense,” and say they just want to “stop the bad guys”. “We’re here to assist when possible,” Jim Peyton, the president of UCP, said. “We don’t have the authority to touch, corral, interfere. That would be illegal because we are not authorized to do so.”
What’s actually showing up on video, however, is an entirely different story.
These are not the first border militiamen to have detained border crossers. In 2015, members of a Texas-based unit near the Rio Grande recorded themselves on video intimidating and detaining border crossers they encountered during their encampment. The three men they kept were “zip-tied, debriefed, and given water,” and U.S. Border Patrol officers eventually arrived and took them away.
As always, the militiamen’s presence in that case complicated an already difficult situation and actually increased the workload of law enforcement officers in the area. And as always seems to be the case, that militia eventually dissolved, amid arrests, in a heap of internecine squabbling, egos, paranoia, and financial misdealings.