SUNLAND PARK, New Mexico.- Three self-declared "patriots" leave on patrol to make sure that no undocumented migrants are crossing this stretch of the New Mexico border. All wear military garb, faces covered with ski masks. One of them takes up the rearguard, wearing an extra layer; a tactical camouflage suit with the appearance of Chewbacca, the tall and hairy Star Wars warrior.
They communicate by radio. One man, with a telescopic sight mounted on his rifle, lies face down on the ground. "Clean," he tells his teammates and the other two continue stealthily walking with their AR-15s at the ready.
The group calls itself the 'United Constitutional Patriots'. They are stationed at a point on the New Mexico border where the metal fence ends and gives way to a more natural border barrier; a large desert mountain. More than a month ago they set up camp, with tents and a motor home whihc serves as the office of its commander, Johnny Horton Jr., an unkempt and stout 69-year-old, who says he is three quarters Cherokee Native American.
" We want to protect the American people from this invasion ‘cause it is an invasion. Anybody says isn’t, come down here to the border and see ... Watch the hell the Border Patrol is going through," Horton explains, squeezed behind a small table in the motor home piled with an assortment of items from a ziploc bag with spaghetti and tomato sauce, two packs of cigarettes, a pot of garlic powder, a clock without a battery, and a gas lamp. On a bed are several rifles and on one side, a gas stove is lit for no apparent reason.
"We’re not here in any way to hurt anybody. Sure we’re armed, that’s for our own protection, ‘cause we don’t know who is coming across that border. Our… our mission is to just stop what’s going on," he adds, saying they operate out of a desire to support President Donald Trump, the Constitution and their fellow citizens. They claim to have arrested more than 2,000 people in just one week, including families with children.
Whenever they stop someone crossing the border without documents, they call the Border Patrol by radio to deliver them into federal custody.
Horton alleges that the migrant caravans include rapists and child kidnappers, who, while they may not be drug cartel members but nonetheless represent "an armed force." He says they have word of another caravan on ist way with an estimated 670 people. "It’s sickening how they wanna come here and take over our country," he adds, warning "this could end in a war".
Outside the motorhome, a couple of people cross the border from Mexico, but they stop short when they see the militiamen with their AR-15, and run back over to the Mexican side.
The patrol takes up guard behind some rocks. "I'll make sure it's safe and then we'll keep walking," says a man who calls himself 'Viper', a 53-year-old U.S. veteran who recalls his soldiering in Afghanistan, but asks not to be identified by his real name. He's been with the group for less than a week, and says he has spent 38 hours without sleep, all because he wants to protect his five daughters from the "armed immigrants who are coming." Viper then loads his AR-15, begins walking and asks his partner to keep watch.
The camp of the United Constitutional Patriots is in the middle of the arid desert of Sunland Park. Every so often during the day, a deafening freight train passes by and cars arrive from militia supporters with a box of Dunkin Donuts for breakfast, or food for lunch and dinner. One of them wears a cap with the slogan: "Trump Makes America Great".
But outside that perimeter, in the closest communities, about three minutes by car, no-one seems to know them, or have any idea about a possible invasion. Sunland Park police bumped into them by chance on one of their patrols but paid them little notice. Neighbors have not filed any complaint about their presence, at least not prior to Univision's March visit.
The United Constitutional Patriots are not listed on the map of hate groups in 2018 by the Southern Poverty Law Center (SPLC), a non-profit which monitors the actions of U.S. extremist groups. However, judging by their actions and the language they use, they resemble what the SPLC classifies as anti-government movements who have been looking for a leader like Trump in the White House.
The SPLC claims that these anti-government groups spent much of last year preparing for a supposed invasion along the southern border, using the Central American migrant caravans to justify their mobilization.
"The fantasies the militias embraced smeared the caravan as an invading army rather than a group of a few thousand desperate people fleeing poverty and violence, " the SPLC wrote in February in an article on "paranoia" in the border militia movement. It said the militia view the caravans as "part of a secret plot by Mexico to take over the Southwestern U.S. — a conspiracy theory known as 'la reconquista'."
By 2018, the SPLC identified 1,020 hate groups in the country: 612 belonged to this antigovernment current and 216 were militias, according to its recently published Intelligence Report. The organization says that since the election of 2016, the president's words have fed its fears and paranoia in regard to Muslims and immigrants.
Johnny Horton talks mostly about the latter.
From singer to militia commander
Horton was baptized Larry Mitchell Hopkins, the name he used as a country music singer, including hits from the real Johnny Horton, a well known performer whose parents worked in the fields with migrants picking fruit and cotton, according to several biographies.
But the real Horton died in 1960 in a traffic accident. And Horton - the militiaman - adopted his name around 2007 on his YouTube channel, where he sings cover versions of old songs under the artistic alias of Johnny Horton Jr.
He was arrested in Klamath County, Oregon, in 2006 for impersonating a police officer and illegal possesion of two firearms, which he had showed off to a group of young people, according to the police report. Hopkins claimed to be a bounty hunter and was wearing a black shirt with a police-style badge on his chest and gold stars on each of his collars. One of the witnesses said he bragged about working for the federal government in Afchanistan, working directly under President George W Bush and going on drug busts.
But when they checked Hopkins' criminal record, the police discovered he had "numerous criminal charges."
A month later, he reached an agreement with the prosecutors and pleaded guilty to one charge of illegal possession of a firearm.
"It was nothing serious," he replied when asked by telephone about his past. "You're talking about 15 years ago," he added.
"No authority to arrest"
Viper and another militiaman, who calls himself 'Stringer', patrol the border wall. They say they have not had to fire a single shot during their patrols, up to now. "Our weapons are for our security and yours," says Viper. Although Hopkins declined to discuss details of the group, citing security reasons, Viper said they numbered about 20.
A Border Patrol van approaches and Viper gets on the radio with his base. He reports: "Border Patrol's here, we've got movement to the west."
"Could we have a word with you," the agent tells Viper, who goes on to ask if they have seen anyone approaching the border. Viper responds that about half an hour earlier they spotted someone on the other side of the border.
"Guys, we appreciate your efforts, do you understand that, right?" the agent says, adding that the patrols was spotted from higher ground. "We thought you were aliens, you know? That's number one. Number two, this is federal government land here. When you doing something here it messes with our operations. You guys are really kind of in our way."
The militia mission is aborted. Viper and Stringer walk back to base camp - without any captured migrants.
"We get that all the time. Well, actually they're really in our way ... but we work with them," Viper says.
Asked about the militia patrols, the Border Patrol told Univision that they understood they "want to contribute to the protection of the border" and that they often call them by radio to deliver migrants detaind in that area. However, the Border Patrol clarified that the militia "does not have the authority to arrest or enforce immigration laws."
"CBP chased us away," Viper tells his teammates on arrival back at camp. "We were in their sector. They were very upset. We must have activated some of their sensors. "
"Viper, 911, the commander needs you," interrupts one of militia women with an order from the motorhome.
"One second," he replies, wanting to finish telling his story about the patrol.
"911, the commander needs you!" she repeats in a louder voice, and he obeys.
(This story was made possible with the support of the International Women's Media Foundation and its Adelante Latin American Reporting Initiative.)