Legislators in New Mexico are advancing legislation to rein in paramilitary patrols that have popped up in recent years to halt migrants near the international border with Mexico and at a protest over a statue of a Spanish conquistador.
The bill places New Mexico among several states weighing changes this year to restrictions on paramilitary organizations.
Lawmakers in Oregon and Vermont also are considering initiatives aimed at limiting activities by private militarized groups. Legislators in Idaho are moving in the other direction by advancing a bill to repeal a state law banning private militias, despite criticism that the move could dangerously embolden existing paramilitary groups in the region. A narrow ban on municipal-run paramilitary groups would remain in place.
Democratic state Rep. Raymundo Lara of Sunland Park is cosponsoring the New Mexico initiative and says it gives district attorneys new tools and discretion by making it a crime for armed paramilitary organizations to engage in public patrols capable to causing injury or death with provisions regarding intimidation. The bill includes felony penalties including prison.
The bill emerged Monday from House committee vetting for a possible floor vote, with the backing of Democrats. Republican House legislators have raised concerns that the proposal could interfere with neighborhood-watch style groups that respond to crime or limit opportunities for businesses in New Mexico that have provided tactical training to visiting security forces.
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Lara said the proposal doesn’t interfere with private firearms training or New Mexico’s relatively permissive gun laws that allow both open carry of firearms and concealed handguns with permit and training requirements.
“That’s going to be up to the district attorney, whether they do an investigation … (to) find out if they are connected in any way, if there’s some kind of command structure,” he said.
Lara said the proposal responds to incidents in 2019 in which armed members of the United Constitutional Patriots stopped migrants near the international border in southernmost New Mexico at Sunland Park, and in 2020 when men with long guns and tactical equipment showed up at a chaotic protest in Albuquerque about a statute of early Spanish settler Juan de Oñate, who is both revered and reviled.
The armed group in Albuquerque known as the New Mexico Civil Guard was recently barred by a state district court judge from publicly acting as a military unit without authorization.
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James Grayson, a chief deputy state attorney general who previously worked on the case against the New Mexico Civil Guard, told legislators this week that prosecutors don’t have adequate tools to address militarized groups that can pose a danger to public protesters and authorized law enforcement.
The bill from Lara defines a paramilitary organization as a group of three or more people with a command structure aimed at functioning in public as a combat, enforcement or security unit.
Banned paramilitary activities also include interfering with government operations or a government proceeding and actions that deprive others of their rights. Paramilitary groups also would be prohibited from posturing deceptively as peace officers.
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At Sunland Park, the United Constitutional Patriots were eventually pressured into leaving by local law enforcement amid accusations of trespassing on railroad property. One member of the group was convicted of impersonating a federal officer, while another was convicted on federal firearms charges.
Armed civilian groups have been an intermittent presence on the border for years, portraying themselves as auxiliaries to the U.S. Border Patrol and operating in areas where agents are not stationed.