Leader of Sunland Park border militia found guilty in federal court

Border Report

LAS CRUCES, NM (KTSM/BORDER REPORT) — A member of the border militia group known as the United Constitutional Patriots was found guilty of impersonating a Border Patrol Agent in New Mexico Federal Court Tuesday.

James Christopher Benvie, known publicly as ‘Jim Benvie,’ was facing two counts of False Personation of an Officer or Employee of the United States Government. The federal case against him began Monday in the New Mexico Federal court in Las Cruces. Tuesday night, Benvie confirmed the guilty verdict on his Facebook account around 6 p.m.

A search of federal court documents do not reflect the verdict as of yet but are expected to be updated Wednesday morning.

Sunland Park Incident

Benvie became well-known on social media in early 2019 after streaming videos of the group patrolling the border fence near Anapra in search of migrants attempting to cross illegally. At the time, migrant crossings were at an all-time high, migrants were coming across the border in large groups where they would turn themselves in to Border Patrol agents to claim legal asylum.

In February 2019 Benvie and a group of militia leaders set up camp near the existing border fence in Anapra, New Mexico. Their arrival coincided with President Trump’s visit to El Paso, however, there is no indication the President’s rally was the deciding factor for the group to set up camp in Sunland Park.

They operated mostly undetected to the general public in the area until a series live videos streamed on Facebook April 15 and 17, 2019 went viral nationally. The videos show the group detaining a group of approximately 300 migrants by gunpoint. The federal indictment alleged Benvie impersonated a Border Patrol Agent on April 15 and April 17, 2019 — the dates the videos were posted to social media.

Benvie told KTSM in an interview in April the group had been stopping people crossing the border until Border Patrol agents arrived. He said Border Patrol had full knowledge of their activities in the area and welcomed the help.

“They are like, ‘Don’t quit.’ I hear it from the agents every day. A lot of people in El Paso hate our guts. You know what, we’re here. You guys know what’s going on. You’re telling the story. Even if they are talking negatively about you, don’t leave, don’t quit, don’t pack and you know we’re not gonna, we’re not gonna,” Benvie said at the time.

Legal Trouble & Larry Hopkins

The viral video set of a series of legal issues for the militia group and its leaders. The group was forced to abandon their campsite after law enforcement in Sunland Park arrived to remove them when the Union Pacific Railroad posted ‘no trespassing’ signs near their initial campsite. They peacefully cooperated with police but insisted they were trying to serve the country and help Border Patrol.

Shortly after being ousted from their initial campsite, the group found refuge on the property of American Brick Company, operated by co-owner Jeff Allen. The new campsite was privately owned and sat at the base of Mt. Cristo Rey in Sunland Park. They continued their operations in the area, albeit with fewer social media posts documenting their precise movements in the area.

Their campsite removal coincided with the federal indictment and arrest of the United Constitutional Patriot’s Commander, Larry Mitchell Hopkins. The arrest was a result of a federal grand jury indictment alleging Hopkins was in possession of a weapon at his home in Flora Vista, New Mexico in 2017. Hopkins, who was previously convicted of impersonating a peace officer, was prohibited from owning or possessing firearms.

Just two days after the group’s relocation, on April 25, U.S. Representatives Veronica Escobar (D-TX), Deb Haaland (D-NM), and Ben Ray Lujan (D-NM) called on the FBI to investigate the militia and their documented activities in the viral videos on the nights of April 15 and 17.

“Armed militias are not only engaging in unlawful conduct, they are stripping migrants from their due process and dignity,” Escobar stated in a Tweet posted that day.

After Hopkins’ arrest, Benvie voluntarily notified local law enforcement in May when a man arrived unannounced. He told KTSM the man wanted to join their cause but shortly after his arrival, he began making neo-nazi threats in reference to incoming migrants.

“He was not a member and was somebody that we filed a police report on because some of the things he said were disturbing,” Benvie said in May.  “Something made a noise in the trees and he immediately ran back to his truck and grabbed his gun and said, “do I need to shoot?” That’s not the type of people we need at the border,” Benvie told KTSM.

Benvie and the militia changed their name from the United Constitutional Patriots to the Guardian Patriots in an effort to distance themselves from the incident.

Hopkins accepted a plea deal on January 20, 2020, in Federal Court to charges of possession of a firearm by a felon. He is scheduled to be sentenced on April 15, 2020. He faces up to 10 years in prison and could be fined up to $250,000.

We Build the Wall

In late May, the United Constitutional Patriots again became the center of media attention when a GoFundMe page known by Brian Kolfage known as “We Build the Wall” raised more than $20 million to build a privately funded border barrier on private land.

“We Build the Wall” reached an agreement with Jeff Allen, co-owner of American Eagle Brick Company to build the wall on the property the United Constitutional Patriots were already patrolling. The new barrier was built in just 17 days along the U.S. – Mexico Border near Sunland Park.

Although ‘We Build the Wall’ never claimed Benvie is part of the organization, he was granted unmitigated access to their building process and land during the erection of the private border barrier.

Arrest

On June 21, just weeks after the completion of the private barrier in Sunland Park by “We Build the Wall,” Benvie was arrested in Oklahoma on federal charges of impersonating a federal officer stemming from the viral Facebook video in April.

In addition to those federal charges, Benvie was also charged with Possession of Vehicle charge after being indicted July 2, 2018, in Logan County, Oklahoma for being in possession of a Penske moving truck that was reported stolen in April 2018.

A sentencing date for Benvie has yet to be posted.

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