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Leader Of Armed Militia Group Operating Along New Mexico Border Appears In Federal Court


The alleged leader of an armed militia group operating along the New Mexico border appeared in federal court this morning in Las Cruces, N.M. Larry Hopkins was arrested on Saturday on charges of illegally possessing firearms as a felon. Joining us now to discuss the case is reporter Mallory Falk of member station KRWG. Welcome, Mallory.


CORNISH: Tell us about this militia group that Hopkins leads. What is it, and what are they alleged to be doing?

FALK: So the group is called United Constitutional Patriots. It's a group of armed civilians often dressed in military fatigues. They've been camped out in Sunland Park, N.M., which is a small community very close to the U.S.-Mexico border. And they've been stopping migrant families that they're encountering crossing the border who are trying to come into the U.S. to claim asylum. They've been stopping those families, telling them to sit on the ground and then calling Border Patrol. And Border Patrol then comes in and apprehends those families. I spoke with Kelly O'Connell, who's the lawyer representing Larry Hopkins. He talked a little bit about how this group views themselves. And we're going to hear from him right now.

KELLY O'CONNELL: They generally think that Border Patrol is spread too thin, and that there are gaps in the system or there's literal gaps in the fence. They think - they believe that they are helping to enforce the law of America.

FALK: But I should say that Border Patrol has said explicitly that they do not endorse or condone private groups taking law enforcement into their own hands.

CORNISH: And what is Hopkins being charged with specifically?

FALK: The charges don't relate to his recent activity here in southern New Mexico. They actually date back to 2017. And at the time, the FBI had received some reports that Hopkins was saying his group was training to assassinate Barack Obama, Hillary Clinton and the philanthropist George Soros. So they went to search his home and found some guns there. And they're charging him with illegal possession of firearms and ammunitions as a felon because he'd had at least three previous felony charges, including impersonating a peace officer.

CORNISH: So unrelated to the militia activity, why are they charging him now?

FALK: It's a little hard to say. Officials haven't yet commented on that. I did speak with his attorney, who, in his words, says that this timing gives rise to suspicions. He thinks that it's possible that some leaders here in New Mexico want to put a stop to the United Constitutional Patriots, want to stop them from patrolling the border as armed civilians. And so in his view, potentially they're using these old charges from a year and a half ago as a way to kind of put some pressure on the group and potentially stop these activities.

CORNISH: How is this playing out in New Mexico? Is there much support for what he and this group were doing along the border?

FALK: There has been some online crowdfunding - although some of those sites have since been removed - but where people were donating for food and supplies while this group was camped out. But there's also been a lot of condemnation. The Democratic governor of New Mexico, Michelle Lujan Grisham, has ordered an investigation into the group. She says it's unacceptable to menace immigrant families and asylum seekers as they're crossing the border. And the New Mexico attorney general has said that armed vigilantes should not be enforcing the law. So he has condemned this as well.

CORNISH: Do you have any sense of whether this has been a problem in the past?

FALK: There have been armed militia groups along numerous parts of the border for years. This isn't new. I believe it's relatively new here in Sunland Park. But this has been happening in Arizona. It's been happening along the border. But, you know, the folks that are crossing the border here - that composition has changed where it's now often families, parents with young children as opposed to single men. And so people are saying it also looks very different when you have militia members stopping, you know, young children, stopping families during the night.

CORNISH: That's Mallory Falk from member station KRWG. Thank you for your reporting.

FALK: Thank you for having me. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.