What A Reporter Learned When He Infiltrated An Arizona Militia Group

Oct 25, 2016
Originally published on October 26, 2016 2:11 pm

Along the border between the U.S. and Mexico, armed groups on patrol — mostly men — look for illegal immigrants and drug traffickers. They're not U.S. Border Patrol, but regular people who've decided to take matters into their own hands.

They call themselves militias. Groups such as these have been around for decades, but they exploded in number after Barack Obama was elected president. Today, there are 276 militia groups around the country, according to the Southern Poverty Law Center.

Shane Bauer, a reporter with Mother Jones magazine, went undercover with one of those groups — the Three Percent United Patriots — on one of their operations in southern Arizona.

"They didn't know that I was a journalist," Bauer tells NPR's Kelly McEvers. "I didn't lie to them, but I was just there as another militia member, so they're all being very frank around me."


Interview Highlights

Describe the organization you infiltrated. What is their goal?

What they say to each other is that they are looking for drug cartels. That's also their public statement about what they're doing. ... Some of these guys, when they roll out of the guarded, armed camp, they're really amped up. They're going out at nighttime with night vision, and guys are talking about hunting Mexicans. It feels like going to war. Their stated goal is to find people and report them to the Border Patrol.

Tell us about some of the people you met there — particularly the guy who went by the name Iceman.

A good number of them are military veterans. Some had done multiple tours in Iraq or Afghanistan; there was one sniper who was there. Some of them are just people that lived in the suburbs, kind of working class, mostly white men.

Iceman is a guy from Aurora, Colo., had been in the Marines in Afghanistan. He was struggling to hold jobs, to get good jobs. He had a child who had health problems, seemed generally kind of alienated. And when he left the Marines, he ended up looking for militias to join and he found the Three Percent United Patriots and joined up.

When we're out in the wilds of Arizona, rolling around in a pickup truck, armed to the teeth, he said, "This reminds me of Afghanistan," and he was very frank about it. For him, this was therapy.

So what these militias are doing — is it legal?

That's a big question. They call themselves militias because they're associating themselves with the militias of the time of the Revolutionary War. The modern-day militias see themselves as a defense against the federal government. They believe in a lot of wild conspiracies about the U.N. invading the United States to take away everyone's weapons; the government has concentration camps ready to put patriots in.

But the issue is that the law does not provide for people to organize and train on their own. And a lot of states have laws against militia training, and against paramilitary training, but these laws have never been enforced.

What is their motivation?

This is something I thought about a lot while I was there. ... People have very individualized reasons for doing it that tend to point to some conspiracy, or fear that the federal government has too much power.

But it seemed to me that there was something much deeper than that. Part of that seems to be a kind of sense that they — white men — are losing power, and I think a lot of them are not happy with that.

But I think there's also a sense of just excitement that they get from this. Initially, I was judging them internally for this. But then I realized that, look, in some ways, I'm there for a similar reason. These guys, like myself, are enjoying this kind of excitement, and maybe that's the reason they're there, because they feel that they're out in a kind of Wild West and they're basically re-enacting war again.

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KELLY MCEVERS, HOST:

On the U.S.-Mexico border, men and sometimes women suit up in camouflage, arm themselves with semi-automatic rifles and go looking for illegal immigrants and drug traffickers. This is not the official U.S. border patrol. Instead they are regular people who have decided to take matters in their own hands. They call themselves militias. Groups like these have been around for decades, but they exploded in number after Barack Obama was elected president, and today there are about 275 militia groups around the country.

Shane Bauer of Mother Jones magazine went undercover with one of those groups, the Three Percent United Patriots, on an operation in southern Arizona.

SHANE BAUER: What they say is that they are looking for cartels, drug cartels. They didn't know that I was a journalist.

MCEVERS: Right.

BAUER: I didn't lie to them, but I was just there another militia member. So they're all being very frank around me. And some of these guys, when they go roll out of the guarded, armed camp, they're really amped up. And you know, they're going out at night time with night vision, and guys are talking about hunting Mexicans. It feels like going to war. Their stated goal is to find people and report them to the Border Patrol.

MCEVERS: Tell us about some of the people you met there. I'm particularly interested in a guy who went by the name Iceman.

BAUER: So a lot of these guys - a good number of them are military veterans. Some had done multiple tours in Iraq or Afghanistan. There was one sniper who was there. Some of them were just kind of, you know, people that lived in the suburbs, kind of working-class, mostly white men.

Iceman is a guy from Aurora, Colo. By the way, all of these guys use what they call call signs or these kind of nicknames that they use to refer to each other. And a guy who went by the name Iceman had been in the Marines in Afghanistan. He is struggling to kind of hold jobs, to get good jobs. He had a child who had health problems, seemed generally kind of alienated. And when he left the Marines, he ended up looking for militias to join and found the Three Percent United Patriots and joined up.

You know, when were out in the kind of wilds of Arizona, rolling around in a pickup truck armed to the teeth, you know, he said this reminds me of Afghanistan. And he was very frank about it. For him, this was therapy.

MCEVERS: So is what these militias are doing - is it legal?

BAUER: You know, that's a big question. They call themselves militias 'cause they're associating themselves with the militias of the time of the Revolutionary War.

MCEVERS: Right.

BAUER: The modern-day militias see themselves as a defense against the federal government. You know, they believe in a lot of wild conspiracies about the U.N. invading the United States to take away everyone's weapons.

MCEVERS: Right.

BAUER: The government has concentration camps ready to put patriots in. But the issue is that the law does not provide for people to organize and train on their own. And a lot of states have laws against militia training and against paramilitary training. But these laws have never been enforced.

MCEVERS: You know there's this great line where you're writing about what it feels like for you there with them out on one of these operations.

BAUER: Yep.

MCEVERS: And you write, my blood feels like an electrical current. Is this ultimately why they do this? Maybe what drives them is not just the fear of illegal immigration or the New World Order but this feeling I'm having right now - nerves exploding, blood coursing, alive.

BAUER: Yeah, this is something I thought about a lot while I was there. You know, I was constantly trying to get at, why are these guys doing this? And people have very individualized reasons for doing it that tend to point to, you know, some conspiracy or fear that the federal government has too much power.

But it seemed to me that there was something much deeper than that. Part of that seems to be a kind of sense that they, white men, are losing power. And I think a lot of them are not happy with that.

But I think there's also a sense of just excitement that they get from this. And you know, initially I was kind of judging them internally for this, but then I realized that, look; in some way, I'm there for a similar reason. These guys, like myself, are enjoying this kind of excitement. And you know, maybe that's the reason they're there - because they feel that they're, you know, out in a kind of Wild West. And you know, they're basically, you know, kind of reenacting war again.

MCEVERS: Well, Shane Bauer, thank you so much for your time.

BAUER: Thank you.

MCEVERS: Shane Bauer's a reporter for Mother Jones magazine. His story about his time with the Three Percent United Patriots is called "Undercover With A Border Militia." Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.