The leader of the United Constitutional Patriots (UCP), a militia group that filmed itself detaining asylum seekers near the U.S.-Mexico border last week, embraced the same rhetoric used by other far-right extremists, including allegedly saying his group was plotting to assassinate Hillary Clinton and George Soros, as well as making a reference to the sovereign citizen movement.
Larry Mitchell Hopkins was arrested by federal agents on Saturday after he was charged with being a felon in possession of firearms and ammunition. Hopkins’ group emerged into the limelight last week after footage emerged showing UCP members apprehending hundreds of migrant families at the border, all while heavily armed and despite having no authority to do so.
According to the criminal complaint, the UCP had previous run-ins with the law — including one 2017 incident after the FBI received a tip that the group was engaged in “militia extremist activity” in Flora Vista, New Mexico.
Before the tip was received, Hopkins allegedly said the group was “training to assassinate George Soros, Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama.” He claimed it was because the three prominent Democrats supported Antifa, according to the complaint. A month later, when FBI agents returned to talk with Hopkins, they observed at least nine firearms in Hopkins’ office, which he said were owned by his “common law wife.” The complaint added that Hopkins had previous convictions for firearms possession in 1996 and 2006, as well as an impersonating a police officer charge from 2006.
Hopkins’ reference to high-profile Democrats, as well as his use of the phrase “common law wife,” are common fixtures in some far-right circles. Both Soros and Clinton are villains in conspiracy theories like Pizzagate and QAnon. Soros and Clinton were also both targets of Cesar Sayoc, an ardent supporter of President Donald Trump who sent homemade pipe bombs to several Democratic figures who criticized the president. According to The Daily Beast, Hopkins claimed that Trump had also personally asked him about “Muslim immigration” and produced a radio show that spread rumors about the QAnon conspiracy theory.
Hopkins’ use of the phrase “common law” is significant as it is often used by sovereign citizens, a fringe group who believe, in a nutshell, that the United States government is illegitimate. Sovereign citizens, as a result, often violently oppose authorities of the government.
It’s unclear why the UCP has been allowed to operate in a semi-legitimate fashion. The criminal complaint shows that the FBI has had evidence on Hopkins since 2017, but only took action this week. Likewise, although Border Patrol said it did not condone any assistance from the UCP, the vigilantes could be seen readily helping Border Patrol officers when the initial video emerged last week.
Law enforcement’s lackadaisical attitude towards these groups is a particular point of criticism for Peter Simonson, executive director of the ACLU of New Mexico.
“These people are putting innocent families in harm’s way and it would not take much for one of those incidents where they’ve detained hundreds of migrants to escalate into a violent encounter,” Simonson told ThinkProgress. “You can imagine someone reaching into their pocket and before you know you’re in the middle of a gun fight. [Border Patrol] has an obligation at the very least to tell vigilantes to cease and desist. I think they should have at least contacted the FBI.”
Simonson stressed that the ACLU did not take any issue with individuals organizing themselves to patrol the border, but that these groups were acting as though they had taken the law into their own hands.
He added that the anti-immigrant rhetoric routinely used by Trump and members of his administration has contributed to an increasingly tense environment. In the video from last week, for instance, a member of UCP referred to the asylum seekers as a “brand new group who’s invading.” Trump himself, as well as his supporters on Fox News, have also frequently referred to immigration as an “invasion.”
“The president has spared no opportunity to mischaracterize immigrants as threats to public safety, offering no evidence of such,” Simonson said. “Combined with other strains of rhetoric like access to guns it just sets the stage for something like this to happen, it incites people to anger so they they’re feel justified in taking matters into own hands and meeting out vigilante justice.”
According to a Justice Department release Monday, Hopkins remains in custody until his next hearings, scheduled for April 29. If convicted on the criminal complaint charge, he faces a maximum of 10 years imprisonment.