New Mexico’s Constitutional Sheriffs Pave the Way for Militias Patrolling the Border

About Cloee Cooper

The U.S.-Mexico border between Columbus, N.M. and El Paso, TX. Photo:
Hadley Paul Garland/Flickr.

On April 20, the FBI arrested Larry Hopkins, the leader of a New Mexico-based militia group, on charges of being a felon in possession of firearms and ammunition. His group, the United Constitutional Patriots, drew international attention for illegally detaining hundreds of asylum seekers at the U.S.-Mexico border in Sunland Park, New Mexico on April 16. The hundreds of parents and children seeking asylum were held at gunpoint by militia members until Border Patrol arrived.

Upholding long-standing tensions between federal and state law enforcement and militia organizations, the U.S. Customs and Border Protection (CBP) condemned the United Constitutional Patriots for taking matters into their own hands. Similarly, the New Mexico Attorney General Hector Balderas said, “the rule of law should be in the hands of trained law enforcement, not armed vigilantes.”

Constitutional Sheriffs and Peace Officers Association (CSPOA) is a network of local law enforcement founded in 2011 by former Arizona Sheriff Richard Mack.

Although these state and federal officials tried to distance themselves from militia organizing, New Mexico’s constitutional sheriffs cumulatively have taken actions that signal that militias are welcome in the state. In fact, the majority of New Mexico’s local law enforcement over the last decade have closely affiliated with the Constitutional Sheriffs and Peace Officers Association (CSPOA), a network of local law enforcement founded in 2011 by former Arizona Sheriff Richard Mack. CSPOA is just one formulation of today’s Patriot movement, which is fueled by an interpretation of the U.S. Constitution that effectively “prohibits almost the entire structure of the current U.S. federal government.”

CSPOA views the local sheriff as the ultimate defense against a tyrannical government, furthers an alliance between local law enforcement and militia, and encourages all sheriffs to protect their interpretation of the Second Amendment. With roots in the Posse Comitatus, an organization founded in 1971 on the west coast as a vehicle for White supremacism and antisemitism, Mack’s CSPOA repackaged this ideology into more palatable terms for the 21st century. When he founded the CSPOA, he was also on the board of the leading militia organization, Oath Keepers. He fundamentally opposes immigration, defends unrestricted gun rights, and supports creating strong local law enforcement that can challenge the federal government, when he disagrees with their agenda.

Under the Obama administration, the CSPOA claimed involvement by more than 500 of the 3081 sheriffs nationwide. The states with the most widespread involvement are in the pacific northwest and southwest, with significant participation by sheriffs in various southern states.

Records indicate that 29 of New Mexico’s 33 sheriffs departments participated in CSPOA activities over the last 6 years. From signing a CSPOA resolution vowing not to enforce gun control laws under the Obama administration, to filling out an assessment of how “constitutional” they are, to attending meetings with right-wing antisemitic groups like the John Birch Society and the Oath Keepers on how to prepare against the New World Order, many of New Mexico’s sheriffs departments have closely affiliated with CSPOA and/or served as a conduit for their ideology. By doing so, they are signaling to militia groups like United Constitutional Patriots that they are welcome in New Mexico.

The majority of New Mexico’s county sheriffs and the New Mexico Sheriffs Association signed onto a CSPOA letter in 2013-2014, pledging to say “No” to Obama Gun Control laws. Among the signers was then-sheriff of Doña Ana, the county where the United Constitutional Patriots took action last week. The letter, which was signed by hundreds of local law enforcement and state sheriffs associations across the country reads:

in keeping with the Oath we each swore to protect and defend the United States Constitution and the Constitution of our State, and to do our duty to preserve the rights of the people we work for, we, the Sheriffs of America, do hereby declare and make it known, that we will oppose and disallow, any and all attempts to further erode the rights of the citizens of our counties and parishes. Accordingly, we oppose the current gun control scheme being proposed and any attempt to register gun owners or their firearms. In fine, the rights of the people to keep and bear arms Shall Not Be Infringed.

This map depicts in orange the 29 of New Mexico's 33 sheriffs departments that participated in the Constitutional Sheriffs and Peace Officers Association (CSPOA) between 2013-2014.

This map depicts in orange the 29 (of 33) sheriffs departments in New Mexico that participated in Constitutional Sheriffs and Peace Officers Association (CSPOA) activities between 2013-2014. Map credit: Olivia Lawrence-Weilmann/Political Research Associates. Lena Gluck, Erin Gifford, and Jess Conger-Henry contributed data collection for this map.

Although the majority of New Mexico’s sheriffs that signed on to the 2013-2014 letter are no longer in office, Lincoln County Sheriff, Robert Sheppard, is and currently serves as the treasurer to New Mexico Sheriffs’ Association.

In line with CSPOA’s political position, Sheppard and at least 24 other New Mexico sheriffs recently spearheaded a statewide campaign to declare their counties “Second Amendment sanctuaries,” co-opting the immigration sanctuary model. Organized in response to Senate Bill 8, which will take effect in July 2019 and make it a misdemeanor to sell a firearm to anyone without a background check, sheriffs passed so-called “Second Amendment sanctuary” ordinances, vowing not to enforce Senate Bill 8. Sheriffs in Washington, Colorado, Oregon, and Illinois have joined New Mexico in vowing not to enforce statewide gun restriction laws.

Not enforcing the law would make it even easier for vigilantes with felony records, like United Constitutional Patriots leader, Larry Hopkins, to purchase guns and patrol the U.S. border.

As the U.S. Customs and Border Patrol and the New Mexico Attorney General denounce armed militia taking laws into their own hands, we must identify other government officials who are complicit in the proliferation of militias patrolling the U.S.-Mexico border. New Mexico’s constitutional sheriffs have acted as a conduit between sheriffs departments and militia, signaling to the militia organizations that they are welcome in the state. Moreover, with the majority of New Mexico’s sheriffs currently declaring their counties as “Second Amendment sanctuaries,” they open the door to armed militia groups terrorizing immigrants and asylum-seekers.

Cloee Cooper (PRA Research Analyst) holds a master’s degree in journalism from the Medill School of Journalism, specializing in social justice and investigative reporting. Cloee tracked, monitored and organized against anti-immigrant organizations with ties to white nationalism with the Center for New Community from 2009-2012. Her work can be seen at Chicago’s local PBS affiliate – WTTW, Alternet, Social Justice News Nexus, Imagine2050, Hard Crackers and in a Chicago Tribune investigation. She currently serves on the Editorial Board of Hard Crackers, a journal documenting the everyday life of those striving to overturn the mess we are in.