New Mexico’s thin blurred line

Police in the state have long flirted with radical right-wing vigilantism.

 

In mid-June, on a sunny late afternoon, dozens of protesters led by Indigenous and youth organizers gathered in front of the Albuquerque Museum at the feet of La Jornada, a statue of Spanish conquistador Don Juan de Oñate. They called for the statue’s removal, saying it was a monument to a genocidal colonial history. On the outer banks of the crowd, at least six militiamen from the New Mexico Civil Guard, a civilian militia, flanked the protest in a tight semicircle, some of them shouldering assault rifles.

When some of the protesters began taking a pickax and chain to the statue, a man in a blue shirt — later identified as Steven Baca Jr. — sprayed a cloud of Mace at them. Then he threw a woman to the ground. Her head hit the pavement with an audible smack, and Baca fled, with protesters trailing him, shouting at him to leave. Baca turned to face a man in jeans and a black hoodie, who tackled him. A bystander’s video caught the scuffle that followed: Baca drew a handgun from his waistband and fired four shots. “There’s a man down,” someone shouted. “There’s a man down!”

Protesters call for the removal of the statue of Juan de Oñate as an armed militia member looks on outside the Albuquerque Museum on June 15 in Albuquerque, New Mexico.

Throughout the hours-long demonstration, Albuquerque police had waited behind the museum with an armored car, some watching from museum security cameras. Meanwhile, members of the so-called Civil Guard, dressed in Army uniforms and helmets, tried to keep protesters from the statue. They were there, they claimed, to keep peace and enforce the law. After Baca shot the protester three times, the militia surrounded him, protecting him as he sat in the street. The nearby police took four minutes to arrive. The protester, Scott Williams, was eventually taken to the hospital in critical condition. 

The shooting at La Jornada, Spanish for “the expedition,” occurred several weeks after the beginning of #BlackLivesMatter protests in Albuquerque. At those demonstrations, too, a disquieting camaraderie between official police and another militia, the New Mexico Patriots, emerged. “We’re all here for the same cause, man,” an Albuquerque police officer said to a group of body-armored gym-goers and militiamen before a #BLM protest, according to a video taken by a militia member and shared online. “We’re here to help.”

The incidents are in line with the deeper history of the Albuquerque police’s behavior during the civil rights movement in the 1960s and early 1970s. High Country News unearthed archival documents from the Center for Southwest Research illuminating a history of police cooperation and cross-pollination with radical right-wing and vigilante groups in New Mexico. According to police and FBI reports, newspaper clippings and the testimony of activists, that cooperation included surveillance, harassment and misinformation campaigns against social justice movements by informants and radical provocateurs.

While community members and activists have long complained about excessive use of force and surveillance at protests and in minority neighborhoods, these documents clearly show that New Mexico law enforcement tolerates — and at times embraces — white vigilantism. And despite the Albuquerque Police Department’s statement condemning the New Mexico Civil Guard after the shooting, militiamen with known white-power affiliations continue to patrol protests with the silent encouragement of law enforcement. 

“There’s this overlap between the people who populate militias and populate police departments.”

“THEY ALL TRAVEL in the same circles,” said David Correia, associate professor of American studies at the University of New Mexico. Correia has done extensive research on the cross-pollination that occurred between police, radical right ideology and vigilantism during the civil rights movement. “These are all former police or former military, or former guardsman or current guardsman. There’s this overlap between the people who populate militias and populate police departments.”

Police brutality and political repression flourished in Albuquerque throughout the civil rights movement. A 1974 U.S. Commission on Civil Rights documented an array of alleged abuses and found that police in Albuquerque and across the state used unconstitutional and at times violent, even deadly, methods when policing minority neighborhoods and political dissidents, including the Chicano groups Alianza Federal de Mercedes and the Black Berets.

The militant Black Berets regularly faced death threats from the local Minutemen militia as well as misinformation campaigns organized by the anti-communist John Birch Society. According to Beret leader Richard Moore, the group sent an informant to the militia’s meetings in the late-1960s and created a roster of those who attended, including multiple police departments comprising the secretive Metro Squad, a police intelligence unit. “Many members of the right-wing Minute Men [sic] organization were from the sheriff’s, the state police, and the Albuquerque Police departments. So making a distinction between the two sometimes wasn’t easy,” said Moore in 2001. The group gave out the list at a press conference in Santa Fe, including to a New Mexico attorney general, hoping for an investigation. It never came.

In 1968 and 1969, a spate of bombings struck some of Alianza leader Reies López Tijerina’s relatives. In May 1968, William “Tiny” Fellion — a paid assassin, demolitions expert and John Birch Society member, as reported by state police just two months earlier — blew off his left hand planting a bomb at Alianza’s headquarters in Española, New Mexico. According to a New Mexico State Police report, Fellion told an officer that “he would kill Tijerina and his followers ‘free of charge because he has no use for that type of people.’ ” After Fellion’s botched bombing, tips came in that led both Alianza and the FBI Albuquerque Field Office to believe local police were behind the bombings.

ON THE CLOUDY EVENING of June 1, two weeks before the Baca shooting, members of the New Mexico Patriots met with at least six Albuquerque Police Department officers outside the Jackson Wink Mixed Martial Arts Academy in downtown Albuquerque, before a #BLM protest. “If you guys would see something, gives us a holler,” an Albuquerque officer told the militia. “But take care of each other and, the main thing, take care of the people in Albuquerque.”

Jon Jones, an MMA fighter, explained that their goal was to stop protester “shenanigans” without brandishing their guns.

“A lot of these (protesters), they just move from one block to the next block to the next block,” an Albuquerque police officer responded. “So even just being two blocks away — because police are moving there from one side — that would be helpful, just right there.”

“Militia groups regularly coordinate with police.”

Emily Gorcenski, a researcher and founder of First Vigil, a group that tracks far-right violence, says that there is an extensive history of armed vigilante groups collaborating with police.  “Militia groups regularly coordinate with police,” she wrote, over Twitter. “From Portland to Charlottesville, we’ve seen armed paramilitaries working directly with police against protesters over and over.”

During the Charlottesville Unite the Right rally in 2017, police circulated a false white supremacist rumor that antifa planned to inject police with fentanyl. That same year, at a Portland alt-right rally, American Freedom Keepers militiamen helped police arrest counter-protesters, allegedly at police request.

In New Mexico, the NM Patriots and the Civil Guard both claim to coordinate with local police, reported the Albuquerque Journal, while the Civil Guard also says it has current and former law enforcement and military within its ranks. 

Members of the New Mexico Civil Guard militia group are apprehended after a protester was shot in Albuquerque in June.

THE ALBUQUERQUE POLICE DEPARTMENT did not respond to requests for comment or to questions regarding its officers potential membership within citizen militias, including the New Mexico Civil Guard — a group which APD Chief Michael Geier proposed bestowing “hate group designation” after the Baca shooting. In an email, a spokesperson from New Mexico State Police said their Investigations Bureau is actively investigating possible NMSP membership within militia ranks.

The Albuquerque Police Department has released few details about the shooting at La Jornada. The department’s criminal complaint reported that Steven Baca Jr. acted in a “manner in which to protect the statue from the protesters.” It failed to mention his violent provocation, and described the crowd ejecting Baca from the scene as “maliciously” in pursuit of him. “Steven was similarly recorded, leaving the area of the statue toward the street interacting with the crowd,” the report read. “However, his specific type of interaction with the crowd is unknown at this time.”

Baca’s charge for the shooting was dropped, leaving multiple other battery charges. He was an Albuquerque City Council candidate in 2019 and is the son of former Bernalillo County sheriff’s deputy, according to Albuquerque Journal.

Given the department’s history, Correia said, “It's not clear where the line is between police and right-wing fascist militia in New Mexico.” 

“We know it led to violence directed specifically at individual activists (and) should make us suspicious of the way APD operates today when it confronts social movements like (#BlackLivesMatter),” Correia said. “Because they've done this before, we shouldn't be surprised if they're still doing it.”

After the June 1 meeting between Jon Jones, NM Patriots and the police, the bearded militiaman filming the meeting turned to address the camera directly. “We’re going to be out patrolling in a little bit,” he said. “See you guys out there.”

Kalen Goodluck is a contributing editor at High Country News. Email him at [email protected]g or submit a letter to the editor.

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