By Julio-Cesar Chavez and Andrew Hay
LAS CRUCES, N.M./TAOS, N.M. (Reuters) - The head of an armed group that stops migrants who cross the U.S.-Mexico border illegally allegedly boasted of training volunteers to kill former President Barack Obama and former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, an FBI agent said in court papers.
Larry Hopkins, leader of the United Constitutional Patriots, appeared in court in Las Cruces, New Mexico, on Monday to face charges of being a felon in possession of a firearm. The FBI said it found guns during a 2017 visit to his home.
The UCP has helped the U.S. Border Patrol detain some 5,600 migrants in New Mexico in the last 60 days, the group said.
Defence attorney Kelly O'Connell said Hopkins planned to plead not guilty to the firearms charge. He said the charges were unrelated to UCP's actions at the border.
"This is not even dealing with what's going on right here," O'Connell said.
Wearing a dark green prison jumpsuit and bright orange sneakers, Hopkins appeared at ease in court and did not speak to anyone but his attorney.
The UCP has said its two-month presence at the border was intended to support U.S. Border Patrol, which has been overwhelmed by record numbers of Central American families seeking asylum.
In court papers, the FBI said witnesses in 2017 accused Hopkins of saying the UCP was training to assassinate Obama; Clinton, who was the Democratic presidential candidate in 2016; and George Soros, a financier who supports liberal causes. The accusations were made during an investigation into "militia extremist activity," the agency said.
The American Civil Liberties Union and other critics accuse the UCP of being a "fascist militia" whose members illegally detain and kidnap migrants by impersonating law enforcement.
UCP members, many of whom have served with U.S. Special Forces, take turns living in a camping trailer close to the border near Sunland Park, New Mexico and patrolling a five-mile section of border, much of it unfenced.
Armed with rifles and wearing camouflage uniforms with the group's eagle insignia, the group has posted dozens of videos showing the volunteers instructing migrant families to sit and wait until Border Patrol agents arrive. The group has been accused of detaining women and children at gunpoint, a claim it fiercely denies.
The videos show armed men casually standing at a distance from migrants and unarmed UCP volunteers sometimes offering them water. The group gained attention after it posted an April 16 video showing as many as 300 migrants, most of them families, sitting at its camp waiting for Border Patrol.
New Mexico's Democratic Governor, Michelle Lujan Grisham, on Friday ordered an investigation of the UCP. She said "menacing or threatening migrant families and asylum-seekers is absolutely unacceptable and must cease."
"NOT BREAKING ANY LAWS"
FBI Special Agent David Gabriel said in a criminal complaint that in October 2017 the agency received reports a militia was being run out of Hopkins' home in Flora Vista, New Mexico.
When agents entered the home they collected nine firearms, ranging from pistols to rifles, Horton was illegally in possession of as he had at least one prior felony conviction, according to the complaint.
Hopkins, the UCP's national commander, told the agents that his common-law wife owned the weapons in question, according to court papers.
UCP spokesman Jim Benvie said the group's aim was to publicize the "border crisis."
Benvie narrates and posts many of the group's videos. He says the posts prove U.S. President Donald Trump's claims of an "invasion" and "crisis" at the border.
"Bringing up people's past from years ago is getting a little old," said Benvie, referring to the charge against Hopkins. "We're not breaking any laws, we're not pointing guns at people, we're not putting anybody in jeopardy, including the illegal immigrants."
(Reporting by Andrew Hay in Taos, New Mexico, Editing by Scott Malone, Tom Brown and David Gregorio)