How a private wall rose on the border using millions in donations — and deception and threats

SUNLAND PARK, N.M. — Nestled between the busy international port cities of El Paso and Ciudad Juarez, near the intersection of two countries and three states, is Sunland Park, N.M.

Though the city itself wasn’t officially incorporated until 1983, the history of this small, predominantly Hispanic border community on the western bank of the Rio Grande is represented in various landmarks — like the 12-foot white stone obelisk known as Monument One, which was erected in 1855 to mark the beginning of the new land border between the U.S. and Mexico following the Mexican-American War. Or the limestone crucifix that has adorned the top of Mount Cristo Rey for nearly 80 years. Even the soil in certain areas has been found to still contain lead and arsenic from decades of pollution caused by the smelter that once loomed large over this region from across the river in El Paso.

Now, at the center of all these artifacts from Sunland Park’s history, stands the first-ever privately funded border wall. Erected quickly and quietly on private property over Memorial Day weekend, the 18-foot-high barrier of weathered steel bollards climbs approximately half a mile up the side of Mount Cristo Rey. Beside it, a freshly paved road seems to glow like a concrete waterfall under the reflection of the mind-bending desert sun.

“This is kind of like Masada,” said former White House strategist Steve Bannon, admiring the massive steel barrier from atop a plateau that had been carved into the mountain as part of the construction process. He was comparing the steep terrain to the cliff on which the biblical king Herod the Great built a fortress, which later was the site of an epic siege by Roman forces that ended in the mass suicide of hundreds of defenders. The word has become a metaphor for a hopeless last stand.

Steve Bannon viewing the border wall built by private funding in Sunland Park, N.M., June 24, 2019. (Photo: Caitlin Dickson/Yahoo News)

Bannon, who serves as advisory board chairman for We Build the Wall, the nonprofit behind the crowdfunded construction effort, made the pilgrimage to Sunland Park late last month along with the group’s founder, Brian Kolfage, and a smattering of other supporters for a live-streamed, three-day-long fundraiser. The goal of the so-called Wall-a-Thon was to recruit corporate sponsors, as well as individual donors, to fund additional construction as an example and proving ground for the Trump administration’s proposed Gulf-to-Pacific wall, which has barely gotten off, or into, the ground.

Supporters of the wall haven’t just given money, though: Thousands of them around the country have enlisted in a campaign to lobby — and threaten — both local and federal officials into letting the project go forward without the necessary permits and paperwork. The mayor of Sunland Park said he has received death threats over the issue.

Bannon, who had recently been in Europe advising far-right nationalist and populist political movements, was out of the country during the big reveal of the wall the month before. He told Yahoo News at the time that the construction had been carried out secretly and quickly over the holiday weekend “to catch them by surprise,” predicting that local residents would “freak out” upon seeing the nearly completed section of wall.

As he marveled at the wall in person, Bannon repeatedly remarked at how shocked everyone in Sunland Park must have been to discover what had been built while they weren’t looking.

He was right.

“I was sure that it was illegal,” said Olga Nuñez, a City Council member and longtime resident of Sunland Park, of her initial reaction to the wall. “There was no way I could even imagine that we would issue a permit for something that size.”

Nuñez was right, too.

An aerial view of the U.S.-Mexico border barrier in Sunland Park, N.M. (Photo: Mario Tama/Getty Images)

Yahoo News has officially confirmed, through documents and several interviews with city officials as well as We Build the Wall president Kolfage, that the group neither obtained nor applied for the required building permits from the city of Sunland Park before breaking ground for the wall, which was built on private property within roughly 240 feet of the actual border. A few days after completing it, they proceeded, once again without a permit, to build a gate from the base of the wall across federal land, blocking access to a dam managed by the U.S. section of the International Boundary and Water Commission, a government agency, as well as the only public entrance to Monument One.

In both cases, construction commenced so quickly and unexpectedly that, by the time officials tried to assert authority over the situation, the projects were either complete or close to it. Attempts to retroactively reverse the process were short-lived, as city and federal officials capitulated under an onslaught of calls, emails and social media posts from thousands of We Build the Wall supporters, whose messages ranged from angry to racist to explicitly violent and threatening.

Kolfage is decidedly unapologetic about the tactics his organization used to build its first section of private wall in Sunland Park and offers no assurance that the same approach won’t be used going forward in other border communities. We Build the Wall has claimed to have 10 other private parcels lined up for future construction, but it won’t disclose their locations.

Brian Kolfage at the border wall in Sunland Park, NM. (Photo: Yahoo News Video)

“We’ve done everything that was required to build here above-standard, highest-quality construction, the very best border wall on the entire border,” Kolfage declared during an interview with Yahoo News.

But, he admitted, “we did not have the permit to do this.” Asked whether We Build the Wall would try to get proper permission before starting construction on its next border wall project, Kolfage said, “We’ll see.”

Kolfage, a decorated Air Force veteran who lives in Miramar, Fla., launched a GoFundMe campaign in December with the improbable goal of raising $1 billion to pay for President Trump’s border wall in lieu of congressional funding. Originally, the plan was to donate the crowdsourced cash directly to the federal government, but a few weeks in, after raising more than $20 million, Kolfage announced that the money would instead go directly to a nonprofit he had created to build the wall independently.

In addition to Bannon, Kolfage’s organization soon had the backing of several other prominent Trump allies, including Blackwater USA founder Erik Prince, former Colorado Rep. Tom Tancredo and Kris Kobach, the aggressively anti-immigrant former Kansas secretary of state who has announced a run for the U.S. Senate from his home state.

A construction crew works on the private border wall on May 30, as pictured from Ciudad Juarez, Mexico. (Photo: Jose Luis Gonzalez/Reuters)

For the construction, they enlisted Tommy Fisher, an outspoken Trump donor and owner of a North Dakota-based construction company who sued the U.S. government in April after the Army Corps of Engineers rejected its bid to build the wall. According to the Washington Post, Trump aggressively pushed for Fisher to get the contract.

Since most land along the U.S.-Mexico border is already owned by the federal government, Kolfage said, finding the right location for the project involved a combination of public records and word of mouth. In addition to creating a database of every private-property owner along the southwest border, Kolfage said, he and members of the We Build the Wall team traveled to various border towns to consult with Border Patrol agents and others familiar with the region.

According to Kolfage, We Build the Wall had been pursuing a different piece of private land farther west in New Mexico when a Border Patrol agent told them about George Cudahy, an 85-year-old Air Force veteran and owner of the American Eagle Brick Co. in Sunland Park whose property was “overrun” with illegal activity from Mexico.

Sandwiched between Mount Cristo Rey and the Rio Grande, directly overlooking Monument One to the south, Cudahy’s now-inactive brickyard abuts part of the first section of the land border with Mexico. It is situated on rugged mountain terrain that is one of the few stretches of border for miles not already fenced by the U.S. government.

A view of Monument One, which was built following the Mexican-American War to establish the start of the land barrier between the U.S. and Mexico. (Photo: Caitlin Dickson/Yahoo News)

In light of the natural barriers, there doesn’t actually seem to be a lot of unauthorized immigration in this sector, according to U.S. Customs and Border Protection statistics and anecdotal observations of local residents.

Still, Kolfage said, he was compelled to build the wall on Cudahy’s property after hearing the fellow Air Force veteran’s stories about the theft of car batteries and a brand-new barbecue grill that he attributed to criminals coming across the border.

“We Build the Wall’s representing him and protecting him,” said Kolfage. He said the group agreed to pay Cudahy for the land on which the wall would be built, but declined to say how much.

Cudahy does not, in fact, live in Sunland Park but in another town near the Texas border about 14 miles away.

According to U.S. census data, as of 2018 Sunland Park was home to approximately 17,000 people — 95 percent of whom identified as Latino or Hispanic. With nearly 40 percent of the population living in poverty, it is among the poorest cities in New Mexico.

“We’re a small town; we have an operating budget of about $7 million right now,” said Mayor Javier Perea, who had just returned from Washington, D.C., where he was lobbying for an official port of entry in his city, which would bring new jobs.

The estimated cost of the half-mile section of wall built by Kolfage’s group is $6 million to $8 million.

Sunland Park, N.M., first incorporated in 1983, is nestled between the busy international port cities of El Paso, Texas, and Ciudad Juárez, Mexico. (Photo: Caitlin Dickson/Yahoo News)

Kolfage told Yahoo News that We Build the Wall “had this whole thing planned out a month in advance and had the best lawyers in the nation review everything.” However, according to a detailed timeline of events provided by Sunland Park City Manager Julia Brown, the first time anyone at City Hall caught wind of a possible construction project on the American Eagle property was on May 22, the Wednesday before Memorial Day weekend, when a state official mentioned it to the city’s chief building official, who informed the mayor and the Sunland Park building inspector. A search of the records showed there was no application on file for the project.

Brown said that after being denied access to the American Eagle Brick Co. property on Thursday, a group of city staffers met with Cudahy, who told them he just wanted to erect electrical poles on his property. Brown said staffers gave Cudahy application forms and copies of applicable ordinances, and reminded him that, along with his application, he would need to submit additional documentation, including plans and a grading permit for authorization to move dirt.

Based on the few specifics they say were offered during that meeting, the city inspector and community economic development director told Cudahy that construction of the electrical poles could continue over the weekend, with city staff planning to work with him to ensure that it complied with city ordinances.

“If the city says, ‘You're good to build,’ you're good to build,” said Kolfage, arguing that anyone who saw the operation that Friday would have realized that something much bigger than light poles was in the works.

However, many city officials and staff said they first learned that the 18-foot steel bollard fencing had been erected on Cudahy’s property along with the rest of the world, through national news reports the following Tuesday. In response, the city manager, along with the community economic development director, authorized a stop-work order on the construction. That’s when the backlash began.

The first-ever privately constructed border wall, as seen from the Mexican side of the border in Ciudad Juárez. (Photo: Caitlin Dickson/Yahoo News)

A series of posts to the We Build the Wall Facebook page, as well as Kolfage’s personal social media accounts, urged supporters of the private wall project to contact city officials and demand construction be allowed to continue. Beyond a simple call to action, many of the posts seemed deliberately designed to fuel outrage, linking to 2012 articles about alleged corruption by former Sunland Park officials and accusing the city of being paid by Mexican drug cartels to halt construction of the wall.

“Burn up the phone lines and email guys!” reads one of many posts on We Build the Wall’s Facebook page from that day, including the address and phone number of Sunland Park City Hall, along with direct contact information for the mayor and city manager. “Ask them who was paid off by the cartels! WE WON'T STOP! YOU DON'T STOP!”

City Hall was suddenly bombarded, as were individual council members and other city employees, with calls and emails ranging from frustrated expressions of support for the wall, to racial slurs and insults like “go back to Mexico,” to violent threats. Mayor Perea personally received multiple death threats against himself and his family.

The calls and messages persisted over the next two days, as representatives from We Build the Wall and Fisher Industries urged city staff to lift the stop-work order. By Thursday, despite still not having received all necessary documentation and other required information, the city issued permits for both the steel fencing and electrical poles, and construction resumed. At a televised press conference, Perea told reporters that the permits had been issued “prematurely.”

Nearly a month later, Perea told Yahoo News that the barrage of calls had mostly died down but that he was still working his way through more than 5,000 emails sent to his direct address by supporters of the private wall, looking for threats that should be reported to law enforcement.

Following a recent City Council meeting, City Manager Brown offered little in the way of reassurance when asked how the city might be able to prevent something like this from happening again.

“You always, unfortunately, will have outlaws in the world who do what they want to do regardless of what the law is,” she said.

Kolfage has little sympathy, and argues that the fact that permits were issued prematurely amid the backlash that followed the cease-and-desist order “just shows the incompetency of the city.”

“This time they had the control, and they still messed it up. It shows that they don’t know what they’re doing,” he said.

As for being described as an “outlaw,” Kolfage said, “I take it with pride. If that’s what they want to call protecting your country, protecting a fellow veteran.”

The city’s attempts at imposing retroactive accountability have been similarly dismissed. Days before the Wall-a-Thon, George Cudahy failed to show up at a scheduled court hearing in response to a criminal complaint the city had issued against him for building without a permit, the maximum penalty for which is a $500 fine.

Sunland Park City Hall. (Photo: Caitlin Dickson/Yahoo News)

Sunland Park may have been an easy target, and Perea admits the city made some mistakes. However, We Build the Wall’s steamrolling didn’t stop with the local government. The same tactics used to get away with building a wall without a permit on private property appear to have been used to manipulate the federal permit process as well.

The American Eagle Brick Co.’s closest neighbor to the east is the American Dam, which is managed by the International Boundary and Water Commission, a binational body created in 1889 by a treaty between the United States and Mexico. Operated under the federal governments of each country, the two sections of the IBWC work together to manage the flow of the Rio Grande for use and flood protection.

According to documents obtained by Yahoo News, Richard Allan Kaye, an Atlanta-based attorney with Barnes & Thornburg, a large U.S. law firm and lobbying group, emailed a letter to the U.S. section of the IBWC on June 2 explaining that We Build the Wall was “seeking a license and permit” to build an addition to the bollard border wall as well as a retractable gate that would extend the privately funded barrier from the edge of Cudahy’s property to an existing fence around the IBWC’s dam, cutting across a federally owned road.

“Our intention is to provide the IBWC and DHS with full and complete control of, and access to the retractable gate and seek your advice as to the procedures required to pass title and ownership of the fence and gate to the IBWC,” Kaye wrote. He included plans for the proposed additional fencing and gate.

The following day, the IBWC sent a formal response highlighting a number of logistical and security concerns raised by the proposed gate and wall extension. The letter lists the environmental and engineering reports needed for a permit, and other federal and state agencies, including the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, that would have to sign off.

The letter noted that the IBWC’s “preference” was to have no gate, but it included recommended specifications from the agency’s Engineering Services Division if one was built.

The gate at the American Dam, managed by the International Boundary Water Commission. (Photo: Caitlin Dickson/Yahoo News)

Kolfage insists that “behind closed doors” the United States’ IBWC commissioner, Jayne Harkins, actually wanted the gate, and points to the agency’s initial response to the proposal as proof that IBWC officials were involved in designing the structure. But if so, the IBWC doesn’t appear to have had much influence on the final product, which was completed without a permit within days of submitting the initial proposal.

According to a press release issued by the IBWC, We Build the Wall ignored the IBWC’s request for a different location for the gate.

An IBWC employee who spoke to Yahoo News on background confirmed this version of events and dismissed the claim that IBWC was involved in the design.

A couple of days later, the completed gate was closed and locked, blocking a government-owned levee road used by IBWC employees to access the American Dam. On June 10, after repeated requests to unlock the gate, the IBWC enlisted the assistance of the Doña Ana County Sheriff’s Office to remove the private lock and secure the gate open.

Once again, supporters of We Build the Wall were called to action, and like the city of Sunland Park before it, the U.S. staff of the IBWC was inundated with angry calls and messages. On Facebook and Twitter, Kolfage helped to foment outrage by repeatedly posting videos of large groups of migrants crossing different sections of the border, accusing the IBWC of deliberately allowing thousands to “invade,” and calling for Harkins, a Trump appointee, to resign.

One person even created a White House petition to fire Harkins, writing that the IBWC commissioner was “doing the bidding of smugglers and human traffickers by leaving border wall gates open to let 1,000's of illegals in every day.”

“I feel like they think on Twitter they can just bully us and everything is fine, and that's not OK,” Lori Kuczmanski, the IBWC’s public affairs officer, told Yahoo News on June 11. Kuczmanski emphasized that the IBWC had not expressed opposition to the private border wall itself. “People are upset that they donated money to this campaign … but it’s not the border wall, it’s this gate that is in question.”

Later that evening, Kolfage tweeted an announcement that a deal had been reached with the IBWC and that the gate was now closed. Kuczmanski initially disputed this, telling Yahoo News that the commissioner had consulted with the IBWC’s security team and made the decision to temporarily close the gate at night and reopen it pending a long-term resolution.

“We didn’t talk to them about this, we just didn’t,” Kuczmanski said of Kolfage’s group. Kolfage insisted that the two sides had been in communication “from day one.”

Shortly after speaking to Kolfage, Yahoo News received an email from Kuczmanski that read: “I was just informed the lawyers have been in daily contact with us and are being very cooperative. Please clarify this in any story.”

Kuczmanski declined to provide any additional information and has not responded to multiple follow-up calls and messages in the weeks since.

“It’s infuriating. It really makes one lose faith in government,” said Kevin Bixby, executive director of the Southwest Environmental Center. “You assume the rules apply to everyone equally.”

Bixby said that his organization, which opposes both private and federal construction of new border barriers because of potential harm to wildlife, has worked with the IBWC for 20 years on ecological restoration projects on the border.

“Let me tell you, they won’t let you plant a tree without getting a permit,” he said. “It’s frustrating, but we work with them.”

The Southwest Environmental Center, along with the American Civil Liberties Union, has denounced We Build the Wall’s aggressive tactics and called on the IBWC to deny its pending permit application and remove the gate.

Sunland Park's public works, planning and permits office. (Photo: Caitlin Dickson/Yahoo News)

In addition to a number of federal environmental laws that may have been violated by failing to go through the required permit process, both groups decry the fact that the gate’s location also blocks public access to Monument One, which is listed on the National Register of Historic Places.

Kolfage sarcastically refers to Monument One as “Yellowstone National Park,” insisting no one goes there. But more than just an international boundary marker, the white obelisk and the small park surrounding it, which also includes a preserved adobe house and tributes to Mexican history, have long served as an important meeting place for friends and family from both sides of the border, and a popular destination for school field trips.

For Sunland Park City Council member Olga Nuñez, the park is where her family would celebrate Easter with relatives in Juarez who didn’t have a visa to cross the border.

Even as Bannon and Kolfage were kicking off the first day of their live-streamed Wall-a-Thon, multiple groups could be seen through the steel bollards coming from Juarez to take photos in front of the historic boundary marker, the new private wall looming large in the backdrop.

“Building a massive steel gate on federal land without proper permits is illegal and arrogant behavior,” said Shaw Drake, policy counsel at the ACLU’s Border Rights Center. “If we allow this kind of lawless behavior to stand, it will set a dangerous precedent for the future that we cannot afford.”

For many in Sunland Park, the potential precedent set by We Build the Wall’s actions is the subject of far more concern than the steel bollards themselves.

A section of the border wall in Sunland Park. (Photo: Mario Tama/Getty Images)

“Right now, it’s just a wall. After that? I don’t know,” said Perea. “Which law are we going to be OK with violating [next] to do what a specific group wants to do?”

The mayor pointed out that back in April, Sunland Park drew national media attention as the home base of an armed militia group that had been posting videos on social media that appeared to show members detaining groups of migrant families at gunpoint and turning them over to the Border Patrol.

Though Kolfage and others have denied a direct affiliation, a number of news outlets have noted apparent connections between We Build the Wall and members of the militia group, who had previously been operating on Union Pacific railroad property on the other side of Mount Cristo Rey from the American Eagle Brick Co.

“When we came down here, that’s how we crossed paths with them,” Kolfage acknowledged.

The self-described “volunteer patriots” were evicted from that spot in April, after reports of their activities drew outrage and their founder was arrested on an unrelated federal weapons charge, and have since changed their name from the United Constitutional Patriots to Guardian Patriots.

In the days and weeks since the wall went up, members of the group have been seen at the site of the private border wall, including Guardian Patriots spokesman Jim Benvie, who has posted numerous widely viewed videos and live-streams from the American Eagle property on his Facebook page.

United Constitutional Patriots member Jim Benvie near the border wall in Anapra, N.M., in March. (Photo: Pail Ratje/AFP/Getty Images)

Days before the Wall-a-Thon, Benvie was arrested on two federal charges of impersonating a U.S. Border Patrol agent.

“The government is enabling that,” Kolfage said when asked about Benvie’s recent arrest. “If we had border security, we wouldn't have these issues of people coming across the border, and then our citizens trying to act.”

In stark contrast to the inflammatory and politically polarizing tone of his social media posts, Kolfage said he supports a pathway to citizenship for Dreamers, expressed sympathy for asylum seekers and insisted that a real solution to the border crisis requires “politicians coming together in the middle as they’re elected to do, to get the job done.”

After speaking to Yahoo News for nearly an hour, Kolfage offered a surprising conclusion: “The wall is not the solution” to the current crisis on the border.

“It does nothing to solve the problem,” he continued. “It alleviates it for a little bit, but it doesn’t solve it.”

The next afternoon, as Kolfage and Bannon were bracing for a second day of fundraising in 100-degree heat, almost 3 miles from the private border wall, a group of migrants, including at least three or four small children, were seen standing beside a white U.S. Border Patrol truck on the shoulder of a busy road near Sunland Park City Hall.

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