The videos that went viral on April 16th shocked viewers: Shaky camera footage from the New Mexico desert shows heavily armed, non-governmental militia members "arresting" hundreds of migrant families at gunpoint. Flashlights illuminate the faces of children and their parents as they kneel in the dirt, detained by the vigilantes until Border Patrol arrives. The vigilante group, which calls itself the "United Constitutional Patriots," has, in recent months, illegally detained hundreds of migrant and asylum-seeking families on New Mexico's border with Mexico.
After UCP's video circulated on Facebook, authorities in New Mexico faced pressure to act. On Saturday, the Federal Bureau of Investigation arrested the group's self-proclaimed leader.
UCP's social media strategy has put armed militias patrolling the southern border in the public spotlight. But the lineage of armed (and often racist and violent) vigilante groups operating on the United States–Mexico border goes back as far as the border itself.
Here's a timeline of important points to understand in the history of militias on the border.
1848 to 1865: Slave Patrols
In 1848, the U.S. seized what is now Texas and the Southwest from Mexico at the end of the Mexican–American War. Almost as soon as the war ended, armed militias formed to patrol the new border. These early groups were not trying to stop immigration into the country; instead, they were formed by slave owners to stop runaway slaves from escaping into Mexico (which had abolished slavery in 1829).
The militias at times advanced into Mexican territory to try to capture former slaves who had escaped, which in some cases provoked armed conflict with the Mexican state.
Late 1800s to Early 1900s: Anti-Chinese Watchmen
In 1882, after the U.S. passed the racist Chinese Exclusion Act, which barred Chinese immigration, armed watchmen patrolled the border on horseback from El Paso, Texas, to California to try to stop Chinese immigrants from entering the country.
1977: The Ku Klux Klan Forms Its Own 'Border Patrol'
In 1977, notorious Knights of the Ku Klux Klan leader David Duke announced that the Klan would form its own "Border Patrol" to try to stop undocumented immigrants from crossing into the U.S. The announcement attracted dozens of reporters and resulted in breathless coverage from the border—but Duke's plan was little more than a publicity stunt. It only lasted a few days. It did, however, likely inspire subsequent racially motivated vigilante border groups.
1980s: 'Civilian Military Assistance' Detains Migrants
According to Katherine Belew, a historian at the University of Chicago, a vigilante group formed in the 1980s called Civilian Military Assistance was one of the first public instances of a militia detaining undocumented immigrants at gunpoint. According to Belew, CMA militants set booby trips, fired live ammunition, and detained undocumented immigrants on the Arizona border.
2004: The Minutemen Form
The most prominent anti-immigrant militia group formed in the last two decades was the so-called "Minutemen," a group of vigilantes that formed in 2004 to stop and detain undocumented immigrants. The group originally earned praise from then-California Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger, but the vigilantes—operating illegally as a para-law enforcement group—became notorious after many of its prominent leaders and founders were arrested on charges ranging from murder to child sexual abuse. Multiple members also had Neo-Nazi ties.
2018 to 2019: Reaction to the 'Caravans'
The attention President Donald Trump and the conservative media focused on the so-called migrant "caravans" arriving on the border from Central America late last year introduced new energy to the border militia movement. According to the Southern Poverty Law Center, paranoia about the caravans—including patently false rumors that the caravans are funded by the United Nations and George Soros, and that they're infiltrated by ISIS and the MS-13 gang—has both radicalized militia members and led to strife in their ranks.
In November, as two prominent caravans arrived on the border, the SPLC interviewed Larry Mitchell Hopkins, the UCP leader who was arrested on Saturday. Hopkins claimed to have a personal relationship with Trump, and that the president had asked him to send "intel" from the border.