Earlier this month, an armed militia group patrolling the U.S.-Mexico border made headlines when they posted a series of videos that showed members, decked out in military fatigues and black face masks and carrying guns, detaining migrant families.
These vigilante-style detentions of asylum seekers were widely denounced by politicians. Customs and Border Protection officials—despite videos that showed Border Patrol agents seemingly collaborating with the group, which calls itself the United Constitutional Patriots—distanced themselves from the militia, telling CNN that CBP “does not endorse or condone private groups or organizations taking enforcement measures into their own hands.”
A few days later, the group’s leader, 69-year-old Larry Mitchell Hopkins, was arrested by the FBI, who charged him with being a felon in possession of firearms and ammunition. Hopkins had been on the FBI’s radar since at least 2017, when they received a tip that he had, in the words of an FBI affidavit, “allegedly made the statement that the United Constitutional Patriots were training to assassinate George Soros, Hillary Clinton, and Barack Obama, because of these individuals’ support of Antifa.”
The group ultimately vacated the land they’d been camped out on in response to an order to do so, but the United Constitutional Patriots is just one of many militia groups that patrol the border. And they’re not new—these organizations trace their lineage as far back as the 1970s, and, in ways both practical and ideological, to the very creation of the border.
As Harel Shapira, a professor at the University of Texas at Austin and the author of Waiting for José: The Minutemen’s Pursuit of America, told Jezebel, in order to fully understand the motivations of these militia groups, it’s important to grapple with the long history of the militarization of the border. “It would be too easy to pin this as a story of Donald Trump and the rise of kind of very conservative Republican administrations,” he said. “This is a story that dates much, much further back.”
Between 2005 and 2008, Shapira spent extensive time with the Minuteman Civil Defense Corps, a militia group on the border that dominated the news headlines during the Bush years. He lived with them in their camps and tagged along as they went on their border patrols. What he found, an experience he recounted in his book Waiting for José, is a story that cannot be understood without context—how masculinity, militarism, and xenophobia function as mutually reinforcing belief systems that tip participants into extremism when coupled with the rhetoric of the border as a “dangerous” place. “There’s lots of racist people, there’s lots of people who hold xenophobic beliefs, but the majority of them don’t go and patrol the border,” he pointed out.
Jezebel spoke with Shapira about the link between masculinity and militarism and how the border functions, in his words, as a “particular kind of experience,” one that goes back to the “very origins of America.” Our interview has been lightly edited for length and clarity.
JEZEBEL: You spent significant time with the Minutemen for a period of three years between 2005 and 2008. What did that look like for you? Was there anything surprising?
HAREL SHAPIRA: First of all, the majority of people who make up these groups are a lot older than I expected. In my case, the average age was about 66 or so, and they’re composed of predominantly military veterans. And not just veterans, but people who spent a significant time in the military. Even after spending a lot of time in the military, those who left entered other kinds of institutions and organizations that are connected to policing, to the military—so private security, police officers.
They’re old, retired, they were almost all white, and they were almost all men. The other thing that’s sort of important to point out, is that a lot of them do not live in or along the border or in fact in any of the border states. Many of them live across the country and will travel down to the border in order to do these patrols.
There were women in the group. It’s not that it was all men, but there was a very, very big distinction in terms of the kinds of activities that men would do and the kinds of activities that women would do.
Can you talk more about the gender dynamics you saw?
Everything within the organization was modeled after a military kind of organization, so they operated under what they called the chain of command. People there used their old handles or nicknames from their days in the military. That’s how they referred to each other.
Women would be at the base camp maintaining the base camp, this kind of very gendered work. They would also go out on patrol, but the patrols they would do would tend to be during the day. You would almost never see women out at night.
So it’s a very gendered organization, very gendered space, and in many ways again, it was modeled after and reproduced a kind of military organization to the point where, even back at “base camp,” there would be this idea of the men are out at war in the battlefield. The women are back home, and then the men would come back after doing a shift of patrol, almost this kind of homecoming. Everything really felt as if it was reproducing this militaristic organization.
You caution that it’s important to not just understand these militia groups as racists.
What I found was that on the one hand, ideology matters an enormous amount when we talk about the right wing. So if I had to give a broad sketch of the kind of ideology of these militia groups, they had a lot of xenophobic anti-immigrant sentiments. They also have a very strong streak of anti-government attitudes.
The thing that’s sort of interesting about that is that they speak the language of pro-government, pro-America. They talk about supporting the Border Patrol, helping enforce immigration laws. But embedded in that was actually a very strong anti-government, anti-any-kind-of government intervention streak in their attitudes. I think the better way to think about their relationship to the government is that yes, they believed in government, but government to govern other people. Predominantly non-white, people of color. In other words, they believed in policing, they believed in government, but not for them.
There’s a way that people paint these militia groups as fringe. But really, they’re not so fringe, and their ideas have in some ways won the national debate when it comes to talking about the border.
This is not to discount the role of Trump normalizing a lot of this rhetoric, including these groups, without a doubt. But the truth of the matter is that this is a much older story. The border began really aggressive militarization under Clinton. Various campaigns in San Diego, so Southern California, and then parts of Texas.
And it continued. It would be too easy to pin this as a story of Donald Trump and the rise of kind of very conservative Republican administrations. This is a story that dates much, much further back.
So we have Clinton, and then of course the Bush administration, and these groups emerge alongside the broader policies, as you very accurately say that are connected to the administration, which are normal sort of state-sanctioned policies. Now, 9/11 is a very important turning point in the history of these groups. As it is, of course, for our own country. The rhetoric around the border as a dangerous place. The rhetoric of the border as having to do with national security and connecting it to terrorism is a rhetoric that came from the government.
I mean, after 9/11, Bush had this speech, right, where he talks about how every citizen is a soldier in this fight. Well, this is exactly the language and the rhetoric that these militia groups use, and they embrace it and take it down with them to the border and say, “Yeah, you know this is a war on terror.” And immigration gets lumped up with and connected to a national security issue and having to do with terrorism.
You’ve pointed out, as well as other reporters and writers who have written about these kind of militia groups, that many of them will talk about how they would much rather be killing “Muslim terrorists” or “fighting ISIS.”
I think that’s absolutely true, although in their imagination, the one and the other are the same. I mean it’s remarkable, you see Donald Trump echoing the exact same words that I heard them talk about in 2005. What is that, 14 years ago? For example, one story that you would hear is finding prayer mats on the border, a stand-in for the idea that there are, in their minds, radical Muslim terrorists coming across. Now, the thing that’s amazing is, I would go with them and say, “Oh, can you show me this?” So, for example you would see something that was kind of maybe a rug, but this ambiguous rag on the ground, and they would say, “There it is. You see?”
They repeatedly would talk about, and this is language coming from the border patrol, OTMs, which stands for Other Than Mexican. The idea was that there were these OTMs coming across the border, presumably that is, people who were terrorists.
You asked me originally what surprised me. Well, one surprising thing is that encounters with immigrants are remarkably rare.
So I’m sure you’ve seen the video [of the United Constitutional Patriots].
So two things stand out to me about that video that echo things that I experienced. I say that in part because they have this narrative of going on patrol and it being dangerous and militaristic. Actually, these people wander into their camp.
In other words, they did not actually encounter migrants very often, and it was just as likely that if they did, it would be as the result of mistakes, happenstance, as opposed to anything that they, the militiamen, specifically did.
The second thing I would say about that is, at least in my time in Arizona, what the militiamen were and were not allowed to do in terms of interacting with migrants was determined very locally in negotiation with the Border Patrol. So, at one point, originally at the baseline, the group was sort of no contact, no communication with migrants, et cetera. And then there were certain things that they negotiated with the Border Patrol. One, for example, was being able to shine very, very bright stadium-type lights into the eyes of migrants if they saw them.
What does that say about the relationship between the Border Patrol and these groups?
In fact, many of these Border Patrol agents, to come back to the overall connection with the military industrial complex, are, like the militiamen, usually former military people, former police officers. It’s a well-paying job that has very, very strong upward mobility trajectories within the organization. So that line that it takes a lot of sort of skill to do this, it doesn’t necessarily. Secondly, to the extent that it does take skill, it’s a skill that these militiamen do have, which is, it’s a skill connected to militarism. Because the basis of our policies is a militarized border.
The other thing that I found on the ground is that the Border Patrol, what mattered to them was to kind of carve out the fact that they, themselves, were needed and important and a kind of professional, credentialized group that these civilian [militiamen] were not. So that’s why they talked about this a lot. It was important for them to say, “Hey, we are needed and we’re different than these people.”
And in my conversations with them, the thing that they would say to me is two things. One, they would go out of their way to say that the militia groups did not have any impact, in terms of how many people they apprehended broadly, that it didn’t matter very much. And again, it’s not that that’s not true, but I think it was important for them to say that to say, “Oh, it’s not that Border Patrol are not needed.”
The second thing that they said, as far as what the Minutemen and the militia groups did do, they said is that they certainly helped amplify the border as a “dangerous place” and they said that they helped increase funding for the Border Patrol. So I remember, for example, going on a ride along, and a Border Patrol agent was in this very new car with all this incredibly expensive equipment. And he said to me, “Yeah, I think this is partially as a result of the Minutemen.”
That really points to one of the functions that these militias actually serve, which is to paint the border as this dangerous place that needs these sorts of patrols.
I think an important aspect you have underscored is that the existence of these militias is so intertwined with militarization and how that’s wrapped up with an idea of masculinity that is becoming outdated or needs to become outdated, but that a lot of them still cling to.
The border more broadly, the way that it functions in America, is not just as a set of ideas, but as a particular kind of experience. That is, why do you need to go to the border? You can be a racist in Indiana, you can be a racist in New York City, you can be a racist in Austin, which of course people are. But the border offers something different, which is a chance to have a particular kind of experience, and that experience traces, of course, back to the very origins of America.
The frontiers are based on a particular experience. Lawlessness, masculinity, militarism to impose a kind of will on a kind of wild, dangerous place. And I think that’s a very important thing to understand about how the border functions in America’s imagination. Not just as a set of ideas that are connected to it, which of course they are, but also as a place to have a particular kind of experience.