Above: A group photo of militia members who have set up a camp near Brownsville.
Two weeks ago, Maria Cordero and her family noticed they had new neighbors near their home outside Brownsville: A group of heavily armed men, wearing military fatigues, had set up a campsite on a nearby property.
“We don’t know who they are,” Cordero told me. “Do they have criminal records? People are afraid, but more than that they are confused.” Cordero, a community organizer with the ACLU, has been trying to learn more about the group to assuage her neighbors’ fears. “We don’t need armed civilians in our community. We have enough Border Patrol agents,” she says. “What if they fire at someone and a stray bullet hits a child?”
Cordero’s neighborhood, not far from the Rio Grande, already has government surveillance cameras, heavily armed Border Patrol agents and Texas Parks and Wildlife game wardens. There are armored gunboats on the river and drones overhead. Recently, Gov. Rick Perry deployed 1,000 National Guard soldiers to the border to complement a Texas Department of Public Safety surge underway. And now there’s a campsite full of armed men down the street from Cordero’s house.
We follow Cordero down the road from her house, and I can see the rust-colored 18-foot border wall that divides the Rio Grande from the neighborhood. Not far from the fence is a motley collection of tents, generators and a mud-caked ATV next to a small house with “Don’t Tread on Me” and American flags. Some of the neighbors think that the men might be National Guard soldiers. But the encampment is too ragtag to be military. A bald, shirtless man with a Buddha-like physique in camouflage pants stands next to one of the tents scratching his belly.
As we approach, the Buddha yawns, then stares. Two lady journalists—a photographer and me, holding a notepad—walk into the campsite. His mouth slowly curls into a smile. Another man in dark sunglasses, eating a plate of beans, turns to stare at us. He doesn’t smile. A large hunting knife hangs from his belt. “Where’s the CO!?” the shirtless guy yells. “We got some media here!”
A man with a blond soul patch, wearing sand-colored fatigues, appears from behind a tent. He’s the CO, he says, then explains that stands for commanding officer. He wears a pistol in a holster and a gold skull ring on his ring finger. His hands are covered in crudely drawn tattoos. On the back of his neck in old English letters: “KC,” which happens to be his name we learn—KC Massey III.
KC introduces us to the shirtless guy in camo pants. “That’s Alabama,” he says. “Hey Alabama, better button up before something falls out.” KC grins. Alabama hurriedly zips up his fly. “Dangit,” he mumbles. KC sizes us up. “First off, don’t call us a militia,” he says. “We’re here because we’re American citizens.” Many of the camp members met through the Patriot Movement and over Facebook or “through other channels, which I can’t go into,” he says. The San Antonio Express-News and other media have reported that members are being recruited and mobilized through a 24-hour “Patriot Hotline.”
KC is an electrician from the Panhandle, and laments that he is one of only two Texans in the Brownsville camp. “What ever happened to Texas pride?” he says. It’s hard to tell how many people are at the camp. There are a handful of tents next to the small home where landowner Cuban “Rusty” Monsees lives and two or three tents in the back. It appears to be all men at the camp but Cordero says she has seen at least one woman. They wear military fatigues, and they all appear to be white. KC refuses to say how many men are there. Disclosing the number of people staying at the camp to the media, he says, would jeopardize their safety. “We don’t want cartel operatives knowing about our operation,” he explains. “Let’s just say if there were 10 of us, then the cartel would send 20 hit men to take us out.”
Monsees, who invited the group to stay on his land, says his parents bought the riverside property in 1940. His land is divided by the 18-foot border wall with the river on the south side. The 61-year-old Monsees drives a red truck with a fluttering American flag. “Happy Birthday America Every Day” it says on the rear window. When I ask him why he’s invited the group, he claims he’s No. 5 on the Gulf Cartel’s hit list, that his dogs were decapitated by a drug capo from Mexico and that Mexicans are living on welfare in Texas “three times as good as we are. … I also killed a man when I was 8 years old,” he adds, waiting for me to write it down in my notebook.
KC and Archie—who is from Louisiana and wears a “Duck Dynasty” T-shirt—want to show us where a Gulf Cartel member left the cartel’s initials on the border wall as a sign for the group to back off. We hop on to the mud-caked, camo-colored Mule and speed toward the river. “They wrote CDG,” KC says. “You know what that means? It means Cartel de Golfo. They’re sending us a message. Because everyone who crosses that river has to pay them, and we’re cutting into their profits.” We fly over mounds of mud and demolish clumps of brush in the Mule, and nearly tip over a couple of times.
KC points out shiny handprints up and down the rusted metal bollards where people have shimmied up and over the 18-foot fence. “They can do it in a matter of seconds,” he says. “This fence is a joke, and the taxpayers paid for it.” The fence, which was built by the feds, angers the 48-year-old just like most things the U.S. government does. “I’m here because I want America to be like it was,” he says. “In my day, if you had a problem you’d go outside and have a fistfight and settle it like a man. Nowadays they’ll put you in jail if you do that. There are so many laws taking our freedoms away. I want my kids to have a life and opportunities like I had.”
Archie nods. It was the influx of Central Americans crossing into the Rio Grande Valley that drew him to the Brownsville camp. He says he’s securing the border for his family back home. “They’re allowing illegal aliens to come across and take our jobs,” Archie says of the Obama administration. “There could be terrorists coming across. Members of ISIS.”
Their mission at Camp Lonestar, as they call their encampment, is to “push back the illegals,” Archie explains. They stand on the bank of the Rio Grande in military uniform, heavily armed, and try to scare people illegally crossing the river back into Mexico. Sometimes, they also detain people, which they hate to do, KC says, because the immigrants “get in the system and collect welfare.” In one recent video (see below) posted on Facebook, the men bind the hands of two men and a woman with zip ties. “Sorry we had to ‘Detain’ them but they were wore out and just fell down and gave up while the other 7-8 ran like gazelles!” writes KC on the Facebook post. “One of the guys pissed himself! These were young 20’s [sic] people.”
KC assures us they don’t harm anyone. When someone wants to join Camp Lonestar, he explains, it’s up to him as the group’s commanding officer to help weed out “media whores” and trigger-happy “glory hounds.” One guy was sent packing the previous week, because he was too eager to shoot someone, he says. “We make sure they’re here because they love America, not because they want to kill somebody.”
We drive past a Border Patrol SUV cruising the river levee looking for footprints of illegal crossers in the dust. Usually, when I go on the levee, I’m surrounded by Border Patrol and forced to leave, even if I have the permission of the landowner to be there. But this time, the Border Patrol agent doesn’t even glance at us on the ATV. It could be because two weeks ago a Border Patrol agent opened fire on a guy they call “Jesus” at the camp, while he and KC were on patrol in the brush. “We call him Jesus because he’s got long hair and looks just like Jesus,” KC explains. According to local media reports, Jesus is John Frederick Forester who has misdemeanor convictions for theft and trespassing and a felony conviction for burglary.
After the shooting incident, Border Patrol spokesman Omar Zamora told the Associated Press that agents had been chasing a group of immigrants near the Rio Grande when an agent saw a man holding a gun. The agent fired four shots at Forester, but didn’t hit him. Forester dropped his gun and identified himself as a member of Camp Lonestar. KC says the Department of Homeland Security and the local sheriff detained them for five hours. A pistol, a GoPro camera, a machete and other equipment were confiscated. KC says he doesn’t believe Border Patrol didn’t know they were there or recognize them. “We’ve run through the woods side by side with the Border Patrol and worked with them for the last month,” he says. “Now they’re denying all knowledge of us, but they know who we are.”
After the incident, Border Patrol Chief Kevin Oaks, who is in charge of the Rio Grande Valley sector, issued a statement denying any working relationship with Massey and other members of Camp Lonestar. “We do not endorse or support any private groups or organizations attempting to enforce immigration laws or conducting border security operations as it could have disastrous personal and public-safety consequences.”
It’s not the first time militia members in the Rio Grande Valley have surprised Border Patrol agents. In August, the Associated Press reported that seven militia members appeared one night in Mission to help Border Patrol agents apprehend immigrants. At first, Border Patrol thought the armed men were a tactical team from the Department of Public Safety.
“Sometimes it can be dangerous,” Oaks told the Associated Press. “Because you have all these [non-law enforcement] people out there running around the border. There are cartel members that carry assault weapons and camouflage, and then there’s others that may be under the auspices of whatever group, may look very similar, and we have no idea who those people are. My fear is that these things clash and eventually there will be a very bad outcome.”
After the tour at Camp Lonestar, we meet up with Maria Cordero and her husband, Rolando, at a local fast food restaurant. Their 3-year-old daughter happily skips through the restaurant toward the playground outside. These days there are too many heavily armed people in their community, Cordero says, and it worries her. Families in her neighborhood are afraid. They can no longer distinguish between law enforcement, armed militia or cartel members. “We don’t know who these people are. They’re carrying high-powered weapons. It makes us feel less safe, not more safe to have them here,” Rolando says. “I just hope they leave soon.”