The growth of the militia movement in recent 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 him a free pass to grow and recruit, often manipulating the dispossession that many rural and blue-collar workers face in our economic tumult. current. Trump’s rhetoric on immigration, particularly the conspiratorial scare campaign around the border, has played out for a certain audience. This has inspired the growth of groups like Arizona Border Recon and Veterans on Patrol, vigilante groups that sit on the border to try to harm migrants.
In a recent book titled The Marauders: Standing Up to Vigilantes in America’s Borderlandsjournalist Patrick Strickland recounts the battle that many communities have waged against these border militias in states like Texas and Arizona. In this interview, Strickland discusses what inspires these groups to grow, what kind of threat they present, and what it takes to fend them off and regain control of our communities.
Shane Burley: Your Book The Marauders takes readers through the history of the “border militias,” these radical groups of right-wing gunmen positioning themselves as vigilant defenders of the borders. For those who are initiated into this world, who are these characters?
Patrick Strickland: They are sort of an offshoot of the larger militia and patriot movement that focuses primarily on the US-Mexico border. Many are armed groups and some of them come from far from the border. Some have set up permanent stores there in places like southern Arizona and Texas. For example, Larry Hopkins and his group, United Constitutional Patriots, were detaining migrants at one time in New Mexico. So that’s the goal of what they’re doing.
They basically come out to hunt people crossing the border, often carrying weapons. In the past, many of them boasted about detaining migrants, but of course this is illegal. So now we see a lot more of them just pretending they’re doing reconnaissance for the Border Patrol, who they’re passing information to. But it’s not always the case. I discuss in my book the evidence that certain groups have detained migrants more recently. There’s a group in Arizona now called Veterans on Patrol, which is led by a non-veteran named Michael Meyer. One thing they have done over the past year is set up fake migrant stations, which look like the ones aid groups have set up in the desert to help provide water and resources vital to passing migrants. What they do is extend a blue flag, just like those at humanitarian water stations, and then they try to lure migrants to those stations.
The history of these groups is decades long. You can go all the way back to the 1880s, when state-sanctioned vigilante groups patrolled for Chinese immigrants on the southern border. The modern history dates back to 1977 and the Ku Klux Klan Border Watch Knights patrols organized by David Duke and Louis Beam, among others. They also said they weren’t detaining people and just passing information to Border Patrol. Something really interesting is that Border Patrol has always claimed that they don’t work with these vigilante groups, that’s their official line. But sometimes it seems like there might be nice people in the ranks of Border Patrol.
As we continue to see indictments for people who participated in the January 6 uprising, how do the groups you speak of The Marauders compared to those we saw engaging in violence on Capitol Hill?
The Oath Keepers and the Three Percenters have had ties to some of these border militias. Michael Meyer of Veterans on Patrol was actually at Bundy’s ranch when the confrontation with federal officers in Nevada took place. Some of them had gone up to Malheur in Oregon when the wildlife refuge was taken over. And Arizona Border Recon’s Tim Foley, according to transcripts of group phone calls prior to Malheur’s takeover, had been in discussion with the other “patriot” groups and militias that took over the shelter. So there are certainly links, and at the same time, they are distinct. That said, it is certainly not surprising that figures from the frontier militia appeared at the Capitol Riot of January 6.
They’re focused on the southern border, and we’ve seen surges in recent years — the most obvious being in 2018 ahead of the midterm elections as Trump played the so-called “immigrant caravan.” This inspired many of these groups to flock to the southern border. This is actually when I started writing this book and how I found some of the communities that I focused on. I started reaching out to people I had seen talking in the local press about the presence of militias in their town. In one instance, it started with a conversation I had with a lady who had put up 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’ve had a history of tragedy with these types of groups. In 2009, members of rogue militias raided a house they believed belonged to a major cartel drug dealer. They ended up killing him and his 9-year-old daughter. That’s one of the things that I hope the book will convey is that these kinds of conspiracy theories and misinformation really put human lives at risk. I think we’ve seen that confirmed since. Larry Hopkins’ group, United Constitutional Patriots, after news broke that they were detaining migrants, the FBI accused with training to kill Barack Obama, Hillary Clinton and George Soros.
What ties do these groups have to the larger Trump or “Make America Great Again” movement?
It’s an interesting question because there’s a very strong connection between some of these people and some pretty big people in the Republican Party. Arizona Border Recon’s Tim Foley had gone to speak in DC at an event with Roger Stone, Trump’s confidant and former Congressman Steve King. He also befriended former Maricopa County Sheriff and anti-immigrant activist Joe Arpaio. After I finished writing the book, I started seeing information about Dallas-area militia members now operating in South Texas. I found that four or five Republican candidates for Congress or the state legislature had spoken out in favor of this group or had run at recent fundraisers for the militia.
Even after Trump’s resignation, particularly in Texas, Republicans have developed some of the craziest conspiracy theories about migration. The number of people apprehended at the border has increased, but this increase began to occur in April 2020, under the presidency of Trump. So the consequence of this is that people on the far right will think that the federal government (or even the state government with Governor Greg Abbott) is not doing its job effectively. And that’s what makes these people take up arms, go down to the border and try to control it themselves. From my point of view, this highlights a crucial point: migrants must always worry about the violence inherent in the border itself. They have to worry about border patrol and other US authorities, of course, but in some cases they may face the unique violence the border attracts: militias and other vigilantes arriving in the area armed teeth. Of course, many militiamen say they don’t want to harm migrants. I would ask in response: Why bring guns in this case rather than, say, blankets, water and food?
So what are some of these border communities doing to push back these militias?
One of the communities I write about is called Arivaca, and they held a series of town meetings where they tried to pressure local businesses to ban the militias. One of the focal points became the local bar called La Gitana, which kept militiamen out and eating and drinking. This caused a lot of anger among the militias, who saw it as a kind of hill to die on. But the community wanted to send a strong message that it had a history and that the locals did not appreciate the presence of the militias.
Elsewhere in southern Arizona, others I spoke to had become self-taught sleuths, learning to research information about militias and other vigilante groups that had popped up in their area. We are not talking about seasoned activists or people with long resumes in organizing migrant solidarity or tracking down the far right. But once thrown into this situation, many people banded together. These communities communicated with each other, sharing information, names and news. They warned each other if they had militias arriving. And it became a way that they could push back against militias who are organizing a takeover of their communityand where they united to fight for another vision of the border.
This interview has been lightly edited for clarity.