LAS CRUCES, US: A New Mexico man belonging to an armed group that has detained Central American families near the US-Mexico border was arrested Saturday in a border community on a criminal complaint accusing him of being a felon in possession of firearms and ammunition, authorities said.
The FBI said in a statement it arrested 69-year-old Larry Mitchell Hopkins in Sunland Park with the assistance of local police. New Mexico Attorney General Hector Balderas said in a separate statement that Hopkins was a member of the group that had stopped migrants.
Hopkins was booked into the Dona Ana County detention center in Las Cruces and it wasn’t immediately known whether he has an attorney who could comment on the allegations.
The FBI statement did not provide information on Hopkins’ background, and FBI spokesman Frank Fisher told The Associated Press that no additional information would be released until after Hopkins has an initial appearance Monday in federal court in Las Cruces.
The FBI said Hopkins is from Flora Vista, a rural community in northern New Mexico and approximately 353 miles (572 kilometers) north of Sunland Park, which is a suburb of El Paso, Texas.
Hopkins, also known as Johnny Horton, represents himself as commander of the United Constitutional Patriots (UCP), a small volunteer group camped out near Sunland Park since late February.
The UCP describes itself as a “patriot group” helping over-stretched US Border Patrol agents deal with a surge in undocumented migrants.
The American Civil Liberties Union on Thursday accused it of being a “fascist militia organization” illegally detaining and kidnapping asylum seekers.
Jim Benvie, a spokesman for the UCP, did not immediately respond to a request for comment.
Hector Balderas, New Mexico’s attorney general, described Hopkins as “a dangerous felon who should not have weapons around children and families.”
“Today’s arrest by the FBI indicates clearly that the rule of law should be in the hands of trained law enforcement officials, not armed vigilantes,” Balderas said in a statement.
Horton was previously arrested in Oregon in 2006 on suspicion of impersonating a police officer and being a felon in possession of a firearm, according to the Southern Poverty Law Center.
Mexico’s government on Saturday said it had “deep concern” about armed groups that intimidate migrants.
US Customs and Border Protection (CBP) said it did not support citizens taking law enforcement into their own hands but encouraged the public to be its eyes and ears on the border.
“Border Patrol welcomes assistance from the community and encourages anyone who witnesses or suspects illegal activity to call 911, or the US Border Patrol,” CBP said in a statement.
One UCP member, who declined to be named, said the group are US military veterans who carried weapons for self defense but that they never pointed guns at migrants, as has been reported.
“People misconceive what we are doing,” the UCP member said. “All we’re down there to do is back up Border Patrol. They’re so thinned out with all these people coming in.”
Armed civilian groups have been a fixture on the border for years, especially when large numbers of migrants come. But, unlike previous times, many of the migrants crossing now are children.
In the Border Patrol’s El Paso sector, which has emerged as the second-busiest corridor for illegal crossings after Texas’ Rio Grande Valley, 86% of arrests in March were people who came as families or unaccompanied children.