Right-wing vigilante militiamen have been fixtures on the U.S.–Mexico border scene since the early 2000s. And while the Customs and Border Patrol (CBP) has never officially welcomed their presence, there’s always been a quietly cooperative relationship between them: The vigilantes nab border crossers, and CBP officers come and dutifully pick them up.
Reportage by the Southern Poverty Law Center’s Freddy Cruz this week demonstrated how this relationship plays out on the ground: With Border Patrol officers responding to the scene when the vigilantes find border crossers and detain them, and then later meeting up in friendly powwows with vigilantes to receive intelligence from them.
The vigilante militia groups—Veterans on Patrol (VOP), AZ Desert Guardians, and United People of America, all operating along the U.S.–Mexico border in Arizona—have all posted photos, videos, and written accounts of stopping and interrogating migrants, then handing them off to Border Patrol agents, according to SPLC’s Hatewatch. The officers, in the meantime, clearly have been fully aware of the groups’ operations.
VOP in particular has a sketchy history of volatile personalities and paranoid conspiracism of the QAnon cult variety. The group’s leader, Michael “Lewis Arthur” Meyer, first gained notoriety by camping out in the Arizona desert and claiming he was trying to stop human trafficking by Mexican drug cartels—including “child sex camps” in the desert. Meyer and his group frequently share social-media posts featuring QAnon hashtags and debunked claims, including the idea that George Soros and the Clinton family are responsible for the recent wave of migrants.
But then, that fits in with the nature of these vigilante border watchers, the history of which has been rife with psychopaths, criminals, con artists, grifters, and constant organizational dysfunction, going back at least to their origins in the early 2000s. Even more recent iterations—such as the “Patriot” militiamen who were detaining immigrants and asylum seekers on the New Mexico–Texas region of the border in 2019—collapsed into hapless heaps after facing consequences for their criminal behavior, such as pretending to be Border Patrol officers.
As Hatewatch notes, groups like VOP “have a history of engaging in conspiracy-fueled missions that aim to portray migrants as cartel members and child predators.” But VOP also documents the detainments in the region by its members and other likeminded vigilante groups on Telegram, Instagram, YouTube, and Facebook. Its website proclaims their top priority: to protect “America’s children by disrupting Child traffickers along the southern Arizonan Border!”
Sketchy or not, VOP clearly enjoys a congenial, if not collegial, relationship with Border Patrol officials. In one video Meyer posted to Facebook in May, he and another militiamen meet up with a CBP agent in their car, who greets the men with high fives and praises them as “effective and a lot of fun.”
Cruz notes that the CBP has a record of promptly showing up when the vigilante militias beckon:
In eight of the 15 instances where militias intercepted migrants, Border Patrol agents appear to have responded to calls from Meyer and his allies. The nature of their relationship appears to be one where militia members have made it their job to intercept, detain and eventually call on Border Patrol to apprehend intercepted migrants. In the remaining seven instances, social media posts failed to show the exact outcome of the militia detainments.
As Ryan Deveraux astutely observed at The Intercept: “While the government might not ‘endorse’ the activities of border militias, it’s no secret that the ‘assistance’ the Border Patrol ‘welcomes’ has long included those groups. That’s perhaps due to the fact that the very creation of the border, and the genesis of American border policing, is rooted in a deep and bloody tradition of vigilantism.”
That history was unleashed particularly during the mid-’00s “Minuteman” phenomenon, which similarly collapsed in a heap of criminality, leaving a trail of human wreckage in its wake. This has remained a consistent component of border militia groups even into the present day.
These groups are also powerfully influential within far-right circles, particularly in the “Patriot”/militia movement that fueled the attack on the U.S. Capitol on Jan. 6. As a recent report at Brookings explored, their tactics eventually spread to the broader far right, including suburban militiamen like the Oath Keepers and III Percenters, and street-brawling outfits like the Proud Boys.
These tactics included:
- Using armed force to threaten and detain their targets, and teaming up with law enforcement to do so.
- Running surveillance on their targets, and using videos and photos to report and harass them, under the pretext of protecting private property or public facilities.
- Staking out polling stations supposedly to monitor the integrity of elections.
- Cultivating broad support among mainstream conservative Republican officials and news media.
Among the vigilante border groups’ more unapologetic mainstream supporters has been the Border Patrol, which officially maintains that “it does not support or endorse outside groups.” However, the behavior of its agents on the ground, as the Hatewatch report documents, is another story altogether. In fact, the Border Patrol has tacitly supported vigilante activities by border militia groups, nearly all of whom have demonstrated a propensity for illegal violence, on the Southwest border over many years.
The CBP itself became something of a rogue agency during the Trump administration, accountable to no one despite a horrifying record of mistreatment of immigrants. At least 12 migrants died in the agency’s custody in 2019 alone; its agents were accused of crimes ranging from sexual abuse of migrant children to trafficking firearms to running down a border crosser with a truck. One Border Patrol agent was arrested and charged with being a serial killer.
In 2019, ProPublica revealed the existence of a secret Facebook group where Border Patrol agents used demeaning epithets to describe immigrants, joked about migrant deaths, and posted sexist memes. One discussed throwing burritos at visiting members of Congress, while another posted a meme depicting Congresswoman Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez engaging in oral sex with a migrant.
Another agent posted a meme with a photo of Donald Trump forcing Ocasio-Cortez’s head toward his crotch, written in an admiring parody of Trump: “That’s right bitches. The masses have spoken and today democracy won. I have returned. To everyone who knows the real me and had my back I say thank you. To everyone else? This is what I have to say...”
These messages were not the only incidents involving racist texts from CBP agents. As ProPublica noted, federal investigators uncovered disturbing and racist text messages sent by southern Arizona Border Patrol agents in 2018 during a search on the phone of an agent charged with running down a Guatemalan migrant with a pickup truck. According to a federal court filing, the agents’ texts described migrants as “guats,” “wild ass shitbags,” “beaners,” and “subhuman.” There also were repeated discussions about setting the migrants afire.
Shortly after ProPublica’s story ran, the participants in the Facebook group began assiduously deleting their posts. It also shortly emerged that CBP officials and Border Patrol leadership had known about the secret group for up to three years. One former DHS official told Politico that CBP’s public affairs office monitored the group “as a source of intelligence” to see “what people are talking about.”
Over a year later, DHS fired four CBP agents for their comments in the group, and suspended about three dozen more without pay. However, the agency continued to withhold documents in the matter from congressional investigators, leading Congressman Carolyn Maloney, chairman of the House Oversight and Reform committee, to fire off a 17-page memo outlining how CBP had stonewalled their efforts to investigate the matter, as well as a pattern of downgraded consequences for the participants in the Facebook group.
“These documents include information about dozens of CBP employees who engaged in misconduct by participating in secret Facebook groups that shared racist, sexually violent, dehumanizing, and abhorrent material,” Maloney wrote. “They made these vile posts not only about immigrants—including a father and daughter who drowned in the Rio Grande—but also about a Member of our Committee.”
Maloney added that “the limited information produced to the Committee shows that CBP significantly reduced penalties for numerous employees who they determined engaged in misconduct,” which included reducing three of the firings to suspensions, and cutting the length of 19 other suspensions. “In communications with the committee, the Trump Administration has expressed more concern about protecting the reputations of employees who made racist and sexually depraved posts than the wellbeing of the children and families they interact with on a daily basis,” she said.
Much of this behavior has been enabled by the Border Patrol’s highly politicized union, which is rabidly pro-Trump and has been harshly critical of President Biden’s policies. Moreover, their cozy relationship with far-right extremists has played a powerful role in enabling these vigilante groups to not only target immigrants but the humanitarian organizations that are their chief advocates.
All of which underscores yet again what a monumental task the Biden administration has before it. The Department of Homeland Security’s announced intention to root far-right extremists out from their ranks clearly needs to begin at the Border Patrol—but it’s not yet evident that anyone has to stomach for that fight.
Published with permission from Daily Kos.