A pattern of cross-border vigilantism endangers migrants and amplifies QAnon-adjacent conspiracy theories.
The footage begins with images of multistory buildings perched on a hill, framed by a car windshield. The video, shared by the Western States Center, purportedly depicts a sprawling orphanage complex, according to the narrators. As the camera shifts, a street sign comes into focus—a bright red sign with the Spanish word “alto.”
A man narrates: “It’s just a ruse… they raised half a million dollars and they pocketed the money. And so, honestly, I can’t say I’m upset about it because… who knows how many more kids would be getting trafficked” if they rebuilt the orphanage.
The speaker is Samuel Hall, leader of the Texas-based border militia Patriots for America (PFA), talking to an associate he identifies in a related video as “Sammy C.” Hall acknowledges in the video that he has come to the Mexican city of Juárez—just across the border from El Paso—to investigate an alleged conspiracy that humanitarian organizations abroad are trafficking children into the United States.
While it is significant that Hall, whose militia works to suppress migration into Texas, has traveled miles into Mexican territory, his cross-border venture is not unique. Rather, this excursion to Juárez is just one of many instances in which emboldened border militias have extended their activities outside the territorial United States.
Extremist groups like Patriots for America and Veterans on Patrol (VoP), which espouse anti-immigrant rhetoric, have advertised cross-border activities on Telegram, Facebook, and other platforms, in recent efforts to garner support. Recent evidence indicates a pattern of nativist actors—from militia volunteers to political pundits—operating outside the United States. These extranational activities endanger migrants and legitimize baseless conspiracy theories.
Cross-border vigilantism has taken many forms. In recent months, militia affiliates have threatened an unarmed man at gunpoint and, in this footage, boasted about dismantling humanitarian water caches and implied that this took place in Mexican territory. In other instances, actors like Hall cross the border to conduct investigations or surveillance, in support of QAnon-adjacent conspiracies.
Domestic extremism that crosses U.S. boundaries presents new legal and policy challenges to protect victims of physical violence and conspiratorial rhetoric.
Armed incursions into Mexico represent the most alarming form of cross-border vigilantism. In June 2022, the first verified instance was recorded. In the footage, since-deceased VoP volunteer Jeremiah Shivers trains his firearm on an apparently unarmed man atop a barren ridgeline, nearly 11 miles southwest of Sasabe, Arizona (a city that straddles the border, about 60 miles southwest of Tucson, Arizona). When the man stands and raises his hands, Shivers gives chase and yells at him to “run all the way back,” before confiscating items left at his makeshift camp.
A former Proud Boy and Nationalist Social Club 131 associate, Shivers traveled to the border to support VoP’s nativist mission in southern Arizona. His violence in Mexico was lauded by the militia’s leaders in a series of Telegram posts.
Consistent with their blatant promotion of Shivers’s actions, Veterans on Patrol associates have openly discussed kidnapping children in Mexico and bringing them into the United States. This ideation reflects VoP’s predilection for QAnon-adjacent conspiracies; convinced that migrant children are victims of sex trafficking rings that reach the highest echelons of government, militia volunteers aspire to “rescue” children preemptively.
Claims of Aggressive Cross-Border Vigilantism
In a livestream promoted on the militia’s Telegram channel in June 2022, for example, VoP leader Michael “Lewis Arthur” Meyer claimed that he crossed into Mexico for the purpose of removing children into the United States: “We have gone over there and gotten those children, forced them out of these places. We’re not going to let them stay over there in the hands of [these] criminals[.]”
Meyer elaborates on the calculated nature of these so-called rescue operations, reiterating that he and his volunteers “have a plan.” He explains, abstractly, that “it takes boots on the ground. It takes a number of people, and they have to do something that doesn’t make any sense to them.”
When contacted by Lawfare, Meyer stated that he actually does not bring groups of children into the United States; instead, he claimed to “either negotiate immediate release or force an ‘early release’ through psychological means.” Meyer declined to offer additional evidence to substantiate his assertions, citing installments of VoP’s livestreamed Telegram meetings as confirmation.
Nonviolent Vigilantism in Mexico
Veterans on Patrol associates have admitted to damaging humanitarian aid caches in remote parts of the Sonoran Desert, even claiming that some were located in Mexico. Militia volunteers frequently target aid stations maintained by organizations like No More Deaths and Humane Borders, under the false belief that these groups collude with cartels to facilitate human trafficking.
In May 2022, the YouTube account of VoP principal Shawna “Butterfly” Martin shared footage in which a narrator purporting to be Martin claimed that she crossed into Mexico, for the express purpose of removing water caches that are maintained by humanitarian organizations for migrants traversing inhospitable stretches of desert. Martin crossed into Mexico prior to making this claim, according to footage shared in January 2022, which shows her driving through the Sasabe Port of Entry with VoP volunteer Grant Lindaman. “First time I’ve been able to use my passport,” says Martin just before going through customs.
Neither Martin nor Lindaman responded to Lawfare’s request for comment.
For years, damaging, emptying, and removing water caches altogether have been common practice for VoP volunteers. In 2018, the militia’s leader was charged with counts of felony burglary and misdemeanor theft for attempting to damage water stations located in southern Arizona.
VoP associates have repeatedly tampered with aid caches, most commonly by emptying water barrels. While some vigilantes—like Arizona Border Recon leader Tim Foley—deny participating in this behavior, it has been a recurrent modus operandi for militias like VoP and the Colorado-based Three Percent United Patriots during that group’s 2016 stint on the border.
Volunteers for the group Humane Borders—whose elaborate operations provide aid to vulnerable migrants—have reported finding their water tanks emptied, shot, and vandalized. These reports are corroborated by the organization’s detailed records. Other aid organizations have reported similar experiences.
In weekly reports, the humanitarian group assigns a distinct number to each water barrel, classifies containers by volume, and notes their locations. Even simple tampering can have fatal consequences, as local temperatures routinely exceed 90 degrees Fahrenheit during summer months.
Transnational Operations Amplify Far-Right Conspiracies
Associates of border militias like VoP and PFA have conducted extranational operations to “gather intelligence,” fueled by QAnon-adjacent conspiracies. Footage from Sam Hall’s trip to Juárez, Mexico, made available by the Western States Center’s monitoring and training program manager, is a prime example of this. His videos, captured while conducting surveillance of the supposed orphanage complex, demonstrate Hall’s willingness to pursue baseless conspiracy theories outside the United States.
In Juárez, Hall recorded video through a fence that surrounds a Christian orphanage and circled a hotel near the U.S.-Mexico border, investigating whether these entities had supported international sex trafficking rings. Hall’s sincere belief in this conspiracy shows his acceptance of fringe ideologies that are propagated by far-right conspiracists.
Hall’s jaunt in Juárez is riddled with references to child sex trafficking theories that echo conspiracies propagated by VoP’s principals. In one video, Hall and his companion speculate that children working for street vendors are involved in “the sex trade,” while standing outside the iconic Ciudad Juárez Cathedral.
Hall declined to answer Lawfare’s request for comment about his militia’s operations in Mexico.
This activity may seem harmless, but the promotion—and active pursuit—of far-right conspiracy theories can translate into material assistance. For organizations that lack sizable donor bases, fundraising using this sort of video material can be vital. Cross-border operations are often advertised to incite fear or anger, and they even provoke supporters to take action.
In May 2022, the Western States Center alleged that other PFA volunteers had engaged in organized “reconnaissance” missions inside Mexico. This finding is supported with claims by militia associates such as Chris Polone, who publicly advertised his “undercover operation in Mexico” in July 2022.
Polone did not respond to Lawfare’s request for comment pertaining to his alleged participation in cross-border militia activity.
Vigilantes affiliated with other organizations have conducted similar on-the-ground “reconnaissance” activities inside Mexico. In July 2022, a principal member of the Texas-based private security firm Defense Security Response Group (DSRG) traveled into Mexico, capturing photographs that he later shared to social media.
In his post to a private Facebook group, DSRG leader Ray Zavadil claimed to “sit and watch” migrants crossing into the U.S., and implied that the Mexican law enforcement is an ambivalent—if not complicit—facilitator of illegal immigration. (Until July 31, DSRG was a licensed private security firm in Texas that had worked closely with federal Border Patrol agents in Eagle Pass, Texas.)
Zavadil did not respond to Lawfare’s request for comment.
Border vigilantes have also ventured into Mexico remotely, exploiting consumer drones to gather aerial footage. In November 2021, aerial footage captured over Sasabe, Mexico was posted to a VoP-affiliated Telegram channel, alongside claims that the militia was monitoring cartel activity.
VoP associates have continued to fly drones over Mexico. In a social media post from mid-August 2023, militia volunteer Paul Flores shared aerial footage that was collected just across the U.S.-Mexico fence. Near the edge of the frame, a section of fence situated near Yuma, Arizona, is visible.
Flores did not respond to Lawfare’s request for comment for this story.
Footage captured inside Mexico has been used to stoke fears of expansive cartel activity and human trafficking operations in southern Arizona and beyond. In some cases, pundits have ventured farther into Central America to corroborate narratives rooted in “invasion” rhetoric. Far-right internet personality Ben Bergquam, for instance, traveled to the Darien Gap in June to highlight the nexus of crime and migration into the United States. Nativist reporter Oscar El Blue also traveled to Panama to record footage, focusing instead on migrants traveling to the U.S. from China.
Cross-border vigilantism signals actors’ willingness to outbid others, particularly in sustained efforts to gather material and financial support. This activity stokes nativist sentiments, by reinforcing narratives that associate migrants with crime and danger.
Mitigating Cross-Border Vigilantism
Though some cross-border militia activity may be legal, other forms are not. Transnational operations that were conceived to inflict harm on individuals or property may carry legal ramifications in U.S. courts. Thorough planning of such operations, often detailed on Facebook, Telegram, and other social media platforms, could constitute conspiracies to inflict damage beyond U.S. borders and carry penalties under federal law.
In extreme forms, extraterritorial vigilantism risks running afoul of 18 U.S.C. § 956, which criminalizes any extraterritorial conspiracy to “commit … an act that would constitute the offense of murder, kidnapping, or maiming,” so long as an aspect of that conspiracy occurs within the territorial United States. Subsection (b) expands liability to individuals who have conspired to “damage or destroy specific property situated within a foreign country.”
Writing in Lawfare, Tucker Ring previously argued that a federal kidnapping statute, 18 U.S.C. § 1201, could be used to prosecute harmful vigilantism in the United States. Coupling a substantive kidnapping charge with a predicate conspiracy charge that is inclusive of extranational activities could further provide for accountability for illicit cross-border operations.
To date, few border militias have been prosecuted for illicit operations along the U.S.-Mexico border. But some have. Most notably, former United Constitutional Patriots leader Larry Mitchell Hopkins pleaded guilty to federal weapons charges, after the American Civil Liberties Union accused his organization of illegally detaining migrants in New Mexico.
While it is unclear whether Patriots for America and Arizona Border Recon have been investigated for their vigilantism along the U.S.-Mexico border, Justice Department officials based in Tucson have shown an interest in Veterans on Patrol. In an interview, Pima County Sheriff Chris Nanos recounted meeting with top officials from the U.S. Attorney’s Office for the District of Arizona to discuss concerns about VoP’s activities along the U.S.-Mexico border in July 2022. In response to Lawfare’s request for comment, a spokesperson confirmed that the office regularly collaborates with federal, state, and tribal law enforcement agencies on a variety of issues, “including the impact of militia groups on public lands in and around the border.”
It remains unclear whether the activities of Patriots for American, Arizona Border Recon, or other vigilantes have been scrutinized by federal prosecutors.
Next Steps and Persistent Challenges
In lieu of a comprehensive framework for prosecuting U.S.-based violent extremists, 18 U.S.C. § 956 may temporarily provide for accountability for some militia volunteers whose harmful activities spill over international boundaries. Border vigilantes have discussed frankly what appear on their face to be violations of § 956, whether by openly discussing plans to kidnap children in Mexico and bring them across the U.S. border or by tampering with humanitarian aid caches in Mexico. Corroborating evidence suggests the plausibility—though by no means the certainty—of these claims.
While not necessarily engaged in illegal activity, other border militias and pundits have also demonstrated willingness to pursue baseless conspiracies outside the United States. This behavior indicates a broader trend of nativist actors refocusing their efforts beyond U.S. borders.
In the ecosystem of nativist border militias, competing organizations are incentivized to employ increasingly aggressive tactics against innocent victims to garner support. As the risk for extranational violence rises, authorities are increasingly responsible for scrutinizing these claims and prosecuting offenders to the fullest extent of the law.
– Avery Schmitz, Published courtesy of Lawfare.