Border vigilantes are blurring the lines of law enforcement

A member of the Patriots for America vigilante group looks through night vision goggles in Shelby Park in Eagle Pass, Texas, in 2022. Photo by Jordan Vonderhaar for Arizona Center for Investigative Reporting

It was late afternoon when a small group traveling in a white Ford F-150 approached a humanitarian aid camp near Sasabe, a remote Arizona community along the U.S.-Mexico border. The visitors walked among tents, blue tarps and nonperishable food, surveying the camp and filming its occupants. The uninvited guests, who appeared to have left their firearms in the pickup, aimed cameras at immigrants who dotted the cluttered encampment.

Humanitarian workers with the Arizona-based advocacy group No More Deaths immediately confronted them. “This man is filming. He’s refused to stop,” one volunteer told migrants clustered nearby. Only when an aid worker implored the group to leave did members begin to move. As he left, the group’s leader, 27-year-old Cade Lamb—accused volunteers of “aiding and abetting false asylum-seekers.”

Soon after, the video appeared in a fundraising email for Pinal County Sheriff Mark Lamb, a longshot U.S. Senate candidate in the July GOP primary—and Cade’s father. In a campaign Instagram post, Sheriff Lamb said he’d sent his son to film the camp. “Look at all these military age men! … Does this not look like a terrorist camp right here on our southern border?” he exclaimed, echoing inflammatory slogans used by other right-wing politicians to target charities that serve immigrants in Arizona and Texas.

Cade Lamb is the founder of the Sonoran Asset Group—one of various vigilante organizations that target aid workers and migrants along the U.S.-Mexico border.

On January 20, just three days after Cade’s visit near Sasabe, another group assembled on a ridge overlooking the Rio Grande in Texas and stood over five seated migrants. Some of those standing were armed with long guns or pistols and one wore tactical gear; they questioned the migrants, all young men or boys, while filming them.

Greg Gibson, the leader of the North Carolina United Patriot Party who had driven from North Carolina to Eagle Pass, ordered the migrants to stay put. “Tell ‘em to stay here!” he yelled. “Quédate aquí,” a group member translated for the migrants, who remained seated and looked concerned in the video.

Across Texas and Arizona, a monthslong investigation by the Arizona Center for Investigative Reporting the Texas Observer has found, organized vigilante groups are filming themselves conducting patrols, taking photos of themselves alongside law enforcement, and sharing footage online to solicit donations, promote their work and recruit new members.

These vigilantes often wear camouflage and tactical gear, issue orders, and detain and even point guns at migrants. They’ve also forged relationships with local and federal law enforcement, particularly in several border counties in Arizona and Texas. These ties appear to elevate the risk of violence in already volatile areas, and such collaboration raises questions about the extent to which vigilantes are illegally attempting to do the work of law enforcement or violating other laws.

For this collaboration between AZCIR and the Texas Observer—both nonprofit newsrooms—reporters reviewed scores of social media posts and digital profiles, submitted public records requests to agencies in Arizona and Texas, and conducted dozens of interviews with members of vigilante groups, public officials, humanitarian workers, experts and other stakeholders.

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May 2024