Their commander is in jail. The authorities are giving them until Friday to clear out and leave. But the United Constitutional Patriots, the right-wing militia under scrutiny over detaining migrant families at the border with Mexico, is digging in.
“It’s my God-given right to be here,” said one balaclava-clad militia member who gave his name only as Viper. Chafing at the hostile reactions to the militia’s actions, he said that he was an Army veteran and that he expected his group, if pushed out, to set up camp in another location along the border.
“The guys in Washington say one thing about not wanting us on the ground, but no one from the Border Patrol here has ever told me they don’t want our help,” he said, squinting under the midday sun. “We’re here to protect Americans from the illegals violating our sovereignty.”
The militia’s encampment Tuesday was little more than a trailer and a few pickup trucks next to a newly installed “No Trespassing” sign. It appeared to reflect the impasse these armed vigilantes now find themselves in: under the magnifying glass of the FBI, cut off from funding, defending their actions to the public and torn asunder by the arrest of their leader, a resident of northwest New Mexico and a three-time felon who went by the alias Johnny Horton Jr. but whose real name is Larry Hopkins.
Tempers were on edge in the camp, which is next to railroad tracks and a dusty road where the existing wall on the border comes to an abrupt end. That is where militia members have been filming their activities, and where, on several occasions, they have confronted and detained groups of migrants who have crossed the border into the United States.
These migrants, like others who have crossed the border in recent months, have largely been Central Americans. In sharp contrast to previous inflows of migrants, most of these new arrivals routinely seek to surrender to Border Patrol agents to legally request asylum.
Still, the militiamen and those who support them have seen their work as necessary.
Armando Gonzalez, 52, said he drove to Sunland Park, which sits on New Mexico’s borders with Mexico and Texas, from his home in Tulsa, Oklahoma, to lend a hand to the United Constitutional Patriots. He said he believed that the news media had distorted the group's work and the reality of life along the border.
“If you ask me, this is all about politics,” said Mr Gonzalez, adding that he was a disabled Army veteran with post-traumatic stress disorder. “The Democrats want illegal immigration because that means more votes for them.”
“But I took an oath to protect my country and what’s happening on the border is an invasion threatening our people,” said Mr Gonzalez, who is planning to sleep in his 2001 Chevrolet Suburban. “These men are patriots and I'm proud to stand alongside them.”
Mr Gonzalez, who was carrying a 9-millimeter handgun in a holster strapped to his belt, said he considered himself part of the militia. But the two other men at the spartan camp said they didn't think Mr Gonzalez was part of their group.
“He just showed up today,” said the man called Viper.
At one point Tuesday, there were more reporters milling about the camp than militiamen. Some of the journalists broadcast in Spanish to reach viewers on both sides of the border.
Judith Sierra, the owner of Tortilleria Sierra in Sunland Park, chuckled at the thought of armed men travelling to the border to chase after women and children. It’s not uncommon for migrants to pass through her property, she said, lately in large groups.
“We offer them water or tortillas,” she said, adding that the Border Patrol is never far behind.
“Even with a fence or whatever else, it’s not going to stop people,” said Ms Sierra, who was attending to a steady stream of customers in a black apron dusted with flour. “They’ll come over or under, somehow, they’ll find a way to cross.”
Meanwhile, the authorities in Sunland Park, whose population of about 15,600 is more than 90 per cent Latino, have made it clear that the men in the desert are testing their patience.
The Sunland Park Police Department is evicting the group, telling its members that they want them gone from the camp site by the end of the week. Union Pacific, which operates the railroad near the militia's camp, warned the armed men that they were trespassing to reach their camp.
“These outsiders talk about an invasion when they are the ones invading our peace and quiet,” said Jesus Hernandez, 70, who lives in Sunland Park and works in nearby El Paso, Texas, shining shoes. “I have some advice for them: Get a job and leave us alone."
What's next for the United Constitutional Patriots? Their ranks, while never numerous, seem to be thinning. Hopkins is in jail on a felony weapons charge and Jim Benvie, the group's self-described spokesman, was away from the camp Tuesday.
An older militia member known as "Pops" used vulgar language when a reporter asked him a question, making it clear that he doesn't care for journalists. He also warned against trying to take his picture, telling reporters he didn't want publicity.
Still, officials are increasing scrutiny of the group. Three Democratic members of Congress – Deb Haaland and Ben Ray Luján of New Mexico and Veronica Escobar of Texas – wrote to FBI Director Christopher Wray, requesting an investigation of the United Constitutional Patriots.
“The right to stop and detain should remain reserved for law enforcement,” they said in the letter. “As a nation, we must end this xenophobic behavior.”
Elsewhere in Sunland Park, residents are wondering when the militia will leave. Claudio Alvarado, 69, a retired foreman with the Texas Gas Co, was on a morning walk through his neighbourhood with his two young grandchildren.
Mr Alvarado said that he had lived in the town since he was 12 and that his son-in-law had worked as a Border Patrol agent for a decade. Mr Alvarado made it clear that he doesn’t like the idea of militia members patrolling the border.
“It makes me angry,” Mr Alvarado said, “because that’s not their job.”
The New York Times