Joe Mulhall recounts his time in the desert with militia leader Larry Mitchell Hopkins who was arrested by the FBI over the weekend.  

Over the weekend news broke that the FBI had arrested Larry Mitchell Hopkins, the commander of a private militia group called the United Constitutional Patriots, on a federal complaint charging him with being a felon in possession of firearms and ammunition. It has since been claimed that his group were training to assassinate Barack Obama, Hilary Clinton and George Soros. At first I didn’t recognise the name, but when I saw a picture of him, I realised I knew him.

In late 2016 I convinced an American militia group, the Borderkeepers of Alabama (BOA), to let me accompany them on their trip to the Mexican border. The group was led by an imposing but affable figure who went by the name of ‘Cornbread’ who sported a white handlebar moustache, camouflage headband, a bulbous stomach and a .45 Glock pistol strapped to his leg at all times. “To put it bluntly” he said, “our country is being invaded… We are the wall, for now”.  

As dusk approached everyone began suiting up for the night-time operation. They wore full camouflage gear with heavy bulletproof armoured vests, a medical kit, compass, knife, flashlight and a hydration pack on their back. Everyone typically carried an AR15 semi-automatic assault rifle along with a pistol strapped to their leg. Glocks seemed to be the sidearm of choice but being British I was offered a Walther PPK, à la James Bond (I politely declined).

The idea was that any cartel drug runners, undocumented immigrants or – as some believed – Islamic State-supporting terrorists would be pounced upon and temporarily detained until the official border police arrived to take over.

Some such as Rocky, the youngest of the group, carried a third ‘backup gun’ inside their vest while Cornbread opted for a shotgun and a belt of shells. Finally, they stuffed every remaining pouch and pocket with enough ammunition to start a small war. Most loaded their guns with hollowpoint or ballistic-tipped bullets which were purposely designed to cause maximum damage. As they so often told me, if they ended up in a firefight they were prepared to kill.

Meeting Hopkins

Each night the routine was the same. Suit up, then head into the desert and lay low, hoping to spot people crossing the border. Once spotted we were to “light them up”, meaning blind them with high powered torches, and then detain them.

On the second night, there was plenty of action. We heard footsteps and voices and jumped out of the bushes. The shock of the lights sent the smugglers/immigrants running and the whole of the BOA team set out in a ‘spread pattern’ with a view to forcing them towards ‘Mobile 1’, the name given to a huge armoured truck that they used for patrols. You could see fresh footprints in the dried up river beds that indicated the direction of travel but despite the best efforts of BOA they snuck past them again and up to the waiting cars that sat on the highway.

Things then took a turn for the surreal when we headed back towards base. A car was spotted with its lights on right near the group’s camp. The person next to me cocked his gun and the team readied themselves for an ambush, presuming it was a pickup vehicle waiting for drugs or people. However, instead of finding gun-toting drug smugglers we came across a fat, older American gentleman sat in a pickup truck with his patently dyed pitch black hair half covered by a baseball cap with the words ‘God, Guns and Guts’ emblazoned below a golden eagle. This was Larry Mitchell Hopkins, or Johnny Horton Jr as he introduced himself to us.

My relief at not being caught in the middle of a firefight was matched by the group’s excitement as they realised who the new arrival was. Johnny Horton Jr was supposedly son of the world-famous country singer, Johnny Horton, and a relatively well-known singer himself.

He was a mightily peculiar figure who would one minute happily sing you a song that he claimed he co-wrote with Johnny Cash and then the next swear blind that Elvis was alive and living in Hawaii; he went as far as to try and get him on the phone for me!

However, he was also the commander of a militia group called the United Constitutional Patriots and had come down to lend a hand and donate a four-wheeled dirt bike to BOA for future desert operations.

He was treated as a bona fide legend by the rest of the group and people rushed to move their semi-automatic AR15 assault rifles from their camp beds and offer him a place to sleep. He spent the next two days with us, not really coming out on night time operations, but holding court around the fire; singing songs, telling stories and eating tins of small Vienna sausages.

No Surprise

Hearing of Hopkins arrest over the weekend came as no surprise, nor did his violent plans. While he and BOA were friendly to me, there was genuine and visceral hatred towards Obama – routinely described as “that n***er in the Whitehouse” – as well a general belief that a civil war was imminent. Talk of violence was routine with the groups deputy leader telling me in a petrol station that: ‘If the civil war kicks off the first thing we’re gonna do is wipe out those mosques’.

More surprising than the arrival of this supposedly famous country singer was the arrival of the official Border Patrol officers one evening. With BOA being an extremely heavily-armed nativist extremist group, I had (naively) presumed the authorities would be at pains to distance themselves from such vigilante activity. However, the officers that turned up were genuinely pleased to see BOA. They talked amiably and openly expressed their gratitude for the work they were doing. ‘Hey, we are all Americans here,’ one of them said. They were even told to call the local border patrol office and explain their plans to avoid overlapping with the activities of the official operations.

The arrest of Hopkins at the weekend is a welcome step, but clearly, as my trip to New Mexico proved back in 2016 (and as recent investigations continue to reveal), there is a huge problem with militia groups on the Mexican border and their potential for violence is terrifying.