New Mexico border town caught in middle of caravan tensions

COLUMBUS, N.M. — When the two men with a self-described militia showed up offering Columbus Mayor Esequiel Salas help protecting the border, the conversation was brief and polite.

“I told them, ‘We have a good relationship with Mexico, with our little sister village Palomas,” said Salas, referring to the community just across the border.

“A lot of people who never come here, they have a misunderstanding. They hear things that are not true.”

While rumors and heated rhetoric about a crisis on the border contribute to rising tensions, border communities are caught in the middle.

In Columbus, home to about 1,600 residents, the mayor and other villagers were perplexed by the arrival of a small band of men with the Patriots of the Constitution militia. The men said they were there scouting locations to prepare for the migrant caravan from Central America slowly making its way through Mexico toward the southwest border.

The number of those in the caravan has dwindled from about 7,000 to 3,500 people. President Donald Trump announced last week that he planned to deploy 15,000 troops to the border to meet the caravan he referred to as an “invasion” and he vowed to set up tents to hold Central Americans who he said will likely be denied asylum and be deported. The caravan appears headed for Texas. A previous caravan’s final destination was California.

Some residents are expressing concern about armed militias making their way to the border.

“They should not be patrolling the border if they were not sent by the federal government,” said Martin Garcia, a Columbus resident, as he watched over farmworkers picking red chile in a field that borders Mexico. “If the U.S. wants to send soldiers, that’s fine.”

‘Stop the bad guys’

At a hotel in town Wednesday, a few members of the militia rested and waited for nightfall to patrol the border. One of their trucks in the parking lot had an “ISIS hunting” decal on the bottom of the windshield.

As one of the militiamen paced in front of the hotel, smoking and talking on his phone, another sat in a chair on the second-floor balcony holding binoculars.

They were spurred to action by news of thousands of Central American migrants in a caravan headed for the border, said Jim Peyton, a 71-year-old retired Detroit police officer.

Peyton drove 1,355 miles from Jasper, Alabama, where he now lives, to Columbus.

“We’re only armed for self-defense,” he said. The goal of the militia is to “stop the bad guys.” He declined the Journal’s request to photograph him.

Peyton said he and his second in command checked in with U.S. Customs and Border Protection as soon as they arrived in Columbus, as well as with the mayor.

“We’re here to assist when possible,” he said. “We don’t have the authority to touch, corral, interfere. That would be illegal because we are not authorized to do so.”

Peyton said Border Patrol asked that the group stay north of Highway 9 to avoid confusion when agents are tracking footprints and other traffic from illegal border crossers.

“We are aware a group of people have arrived in New Mexico with the goal of ‘patrolling’ the border but they are not working in conjunction with the Border Patrol,” according to a statement from the El Paso Border Patrol sector, which includes all of New Mexico.

Extra eyes, ears

The militia will serve as extra eyes and ears near the border and notify Border Patrol dispatch if they spot illegal crossings or smuggling, according to Peyton.

Peyton said he is spending a lot of his time on the phone calming fears about the caravan.

“A woman from Florida was in tears calling me, thought she was going to die,” he said.

“They’re taking this as they’re going to knock on their door and blow their brains out. That’s not going to happen.”

Patriots of the Constitution put out a call via social media Oct. 23 for “A FULL DEPLOYMENT OF EVERY ABLE BODY U.S. CITIZEN to Head to the U.S. Southern Border and Link up with other U.S. Citizen Groups whom are making a Stand to Secure our Border from a Mob of Migrating Immigrants.” The organization is among patriot militia groups committed to defending the Constitution and, in some cases, the border.

Peyton said there are volunteers ready to help in Arizona, California and Texas.

“It was reported to us this was a soft spot, but so far we have not seen much of anything. But, then again, the caravan hasn’t really arrived and there’s a second one coming up,” he said.

The U.N. Refugee Agency providing assistance in Mexico said many of those traveling in the caravan are families.

Peyton believes the caravan is a “Trojan horse” hiding ISIS, MS-13 and cartel gang members, as well as Nigerians and Venezuelans. He would not say how many militia members were in Columbus, but several people in the village said it was less than a handful of volunteers.

Caravan a ‘decoy’?

David Miller, 59, drove from Alamogordo with his dog Snow after hearing a call for volunteers.

“It’s my country,” Miller said. “If we’re getting invaded, shouldn’t we help?”

Miller called the migrant families in the caravan a “decoy” for gang members trying to sneak into the country.

“They’re not coming for ice cream and cake,” he said.

Miller is doing odd jobs in Columbus to earn money to get his truck repaired. But for now, he and his lab mix are stranded near Pancho Villa State Park.

The park’s museum includes a “remembrance” for the Americans who gave their lives defending the village when the Mexican revolutionary Pancho Villa crossed the border with a band of his men and raided Columbus in 1916.

David Ferguson, 79, and his wife parked their RV in Pancho Villa State Park. The snowbirds escaped winter in Michigan for sunny southern New Mexico.

Ferguson isn’t worried about the caravan or staying so close to the border.

“Albuquerque is a lot more dangerous than this place ever thought of being,” said Ferguson, though he acknowledged that he had never visited.

As tensions rise over the migrant caravan, Mayor Salas tried to dispel misperceptions about his hometown.

“Don’t be fearful,” he said. “We’ve lived here for years. We have good relations (with Mexico). We work together.”

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