A right-wing “patriot” group that detained hundreds of migrants at gunpoint at the southern border this week after raising thousands of dollars online was notified by crowdfunding giants PayPal and GoFundMe that its fundraising campaigns have been shut down, dealing a major blow to the militia's operation.
Known as the United Constitutional Patriots, the militia has been patrolling a remote stretch of the New Mexico desert near the Mexican border for months with heavily armed members reportedly detaining dozens of migrants a day.
The group has used the thousands of dollars donated online to supply food, gasoline, propane, and a portable toilet at a camp in Sunland, New Mexico, but by Friday members of the militia learned they would no longer be able to use PayPal or GoFundMe to raise money.
"They killed us," Mark Cheney, who described himself as the commander of the United Constitutional Patriots, told BuzzFeed News in a phone interview. "I have to find some other way for people to donate."
On Friday, the militia was notified that both their PayPal and GoFundMe campaigns had been shut down for violating the crowdfunding sites' policy on the promotion of hate or violence, and in at least one instance allegedly using the funds to buy firearms. Cheney denied that the group used donations to purchase weapons.
"The account associated with United Constitutional Patriots has been closed due to a violation of our Acceptable Use Policy," a PayPal spokesperson told BuzzFeed News in a statement. "We do not allow PayPal services to be used to promote hate, violence, or other forms of intolerance that is discriminatory."
That decision, Cheney said, dealt a significant blow to the group's operations in a remote area near the southern border, where costs can quickly add up.
"As the commander, it's my responsibility to find some way for people to donate," he said.
On Monday a third company, Cash App from Square, confirmed to BuzzFeed News that it too had shut down efforts by the group to raise money through its service.
"Square does not tolerate our products or our platform being used for hate," the company said in a statement. "When we determine accounts violate our terms of service, we take swift action."
Members of the group have been camped near the border since November, hoping to shut off the flow of people crossing the border they have called an "invasion," echoing the hardline rhetoric by President Trump. Leaders say in that time they've detained more than 3,000 people, and members have posted dozens of videos online showing migrants, including young children, held in detention near the border.
But this week, state and local officials issued warnings to the group after videos suggested members were stopping migrants at gunpoint, wearing badges, and falsely identifying themselves as law enforcement.
Cheney, who has been a member of the United Constitutional Patriots since its inception six years ago, didn't dispute that its members were armed when detaining migrants at the border.
"Oh sure, we'd be fools not to be," he said.
He conceded some of the men carry badges that resemble those worn by law enforcement.
"If [immigrants] can't tell the difference, that's their problem," he said.
In at least one of the videos posted online by the militia, a person is heard yelling at immigrants "Polícia!" (or "Police!") in heavily accented Spanish before detaining the people crossing the border. Cheney said the person yelling "must have been one of the immigrants."
On Thursday, the New Mexico attorney general released a statement condemning the militia and saying it "should not attempt to exercise authority reserved for law enforcement."
Peter Simonson, executive director for the ACLU of New Mexico, said citizen arrests can only be made in the case of a felony. Illegal entry into the US is a misdemeanor, and not reason enough for a person to carry out a citizen's arrest.
Simonson said he grew concerned about the militia impersonating law enforcement officers after watching videos posted by the group.
"That's one crime that is a federal felony," Simonson told BuzzFeed News. "I also suspect the militias could be guilty of false imprisonment and maybe even kidnapping, and that's just the tip of the iceberg."
Armed detention of large groups of people who recently crossed the border is "completely unprecedented," Simonson said, even when compared to the Minutemen Project that descended on the border in 2005 and 2006.
"This pales in comparison to anything I've previously seen," Simonson said. "This underscores the importance of authorities prosecuting the issues to the fullest extent of the law. They need to send a signal to any other group considering this type of anarchy. It is simply prohibited and illegal."
Cheney contends that what the group does — there are currently six members stationed at the border — is legal and a "duty."
The United Constitutional Patriots have had a sporadic presence at the border for about two years, a sight welcomed by the local sheriff and Border Patrol officers, he said.
"If the Border Patrol says 'We don't need you,' we'll leave," he said.
Javier Guerra, police chief for the city of Sunland Park, near the militia's base camp, told BuzzFeed News he warned the group not to detain immigrants or point weapons at people. Members of the group, Guerra said, told him they had descended on the area at the invitation of both Border Patrol and the White House, and claimed that they had a direct line to President Trump.
After seeing news reports about the group's actions Thursday, Guerra said he went to the militia’s camp and explicitly told them they do not have the authority to conduct a citizen's arrest.
“It’s illegal,” Guerra said he told them.
People who were detained in recent weeks by the militia have since been released from federal custody, the police chief said, adding that authorities would likely need material witnesses to build a case against the group despite the videos they posted.
US Customs and Border Protection officials said in a statement the agency did not "endorse or condone private groups or organizations taking enforcement matters into their own hands."
But Cheney said their interaction with agents at the border was far from adversarial. Militia members, he said, speak with agents "on an hourly basis," coordinating operations.
"They're happy we're here," he said about Border Patrol. "We have a direct line to the local outpost."
Although the group is armed, he said, they've never had the need to fire a weapon. Members of the militia instruct migrants to sit until Border Patrol agents arrive, and most of them, he said, follow their command.
"If they don't stop, we can't stop them," Cheney said. "We're not there to hurt anybody, harm anybody. We're here to help slow it down."
And despite the warnings from state and federal officials, concerns from civil liberty groups, and a halt to their funding stream, the group intends on staying put.
"Some people might not want us up there," Cheney said. "All I could say is 'tough.'"