Border

Arizona’s Border Vigilante Groups Call On Truckers To Join Them

A tall border fence has long separated Nogales, Arizona, from Nogales, Mexico.
A tall border fence has long separated Nogales, Arizona, from Nogales, Mexico. Steven Hsieh
Emboldened by the "Freedom Convoy" protests that gripped Ottawa last month, some trucker caravans in Arizona have plans to shut down the U.S.-Mexico border.

Hodgepodge convoys of long-haul truckers, supporters, and activist groups have been cropping up across the U.S. over the last several weeks. They draw inspiration from a protest movement that began in January in Canada's capital, along the northern U.S. border.

The "Freedom Convoys" occupied Ottawa for a period of weeks, protesting cross-border vaccine mandates for truckers and the country's COVID-19 restrictions.

Many long-haul truckers are independent business owners and can leverage control over their tractor-trailers to throw a monkey wrench in the supply chain. For days at a time, protesters lined up 18-wheelers and blockaded key crossing points between the U.S. and Canada.

The protests have morphed, now, into a more scattered, right-leaning movement. And it is turning its attention from Canadian border towns to the desert.

One trucker convoy is planning to start a blockade at the southern border between the United States and Mexico, Phoenix New Times found. It dubs itself "America Against Trafficking" on social media. Flyers for the rally on the right-wing messaging mobile app Telegram have already been viewed by thousands.

Furthermore, border vigilante groups in Arizona, some of which are considered hate groups by organizations like the Southern Poverty Law Center, have been asking for trucker caravans to join their strongholds in the Sonoran desert.

Arizona's border vigilantes frequently detain immigrants and question them, sometimes under the guise of fighting human trafficking. The groups often claim to be working in tandem with U.S. Customs and Border Protection. And though the federal agency claims to oppose vigilantism, it often turns a blind eye to these activities.

“The sort of narratives that are driving [trucker convoys] to organize are fueled by a lot of conspiracies,” said Freddy Cruz, a research analyst for the Southern Poverty Law Center tracking border extremism. “It’s not surprising that some of the vigilantes near the border are trying to capitalize on that."

Tammy Willard, who co-owns a small Kansas trucking company with her husband, said she plans to join the fray.

Willard is planning to send a semi-truck down to the U.S.-Mexico border to aid Veterans On Patrol, one of Arizona's most active border vigilante groups. The group bases its operations out of Pima County, in and around the small border town of Sasabe. For the Willards, that's a 1,000-mile journey.

“We’re just one of the trucks that’s going to go,” Willard told New Times over the phone. Her husband is a longtime trucker, she said.

She felt called to help "the children [who] are being trafficked [across] the border," she said. “And, you know, we need more attention to the border."

Wayward militia group members often claim that they are both trying to stop an “invasion” at the border, which they argue the U.S. Border Patrol has ignored for decades, and at the same time are battling human trafficking rings.

Veterans On Patrol frequently posts footage of immigrants and unaccompanied children along the border on social media. The videos, which researcher Cruz deems "propaganda," have garnered a national audience. More than 10,000 people follow the group on Telegram.

Violence against women and children migrating to the U.S. is well-documented. But experts say that groups like Veterans On Patrol are peddling misinformation. Their claims about uncovering orchestrated human trafficking rings and sex trafficking camps, involving the government and humanitarian groups, are not based in reality, research shows.

It is, however, an effective way to convince volunteers to make the trip down south.

This activity along the U.S.-Mexico border is happening as several trucker convoys drive through Arizona.

These convoys consist of loosely affiliated individuals, including truckers and avid supporters of the movement. At times, far-right groups have linked arms with the protesters.

In Ottawa, for example, confederate and neo-Nazi flags flew in the crowds.

Trucker convoys that have formed in the U.S. have also espoused extremist views, though their ideologies are somewhat disorganized, researchers have found.

At one recent convoy stop in Kingman, Arizona, protesters carried Trump gear and sold QAnon conspiracy theory merch from makeshift stands. Vehicles were decorated with messaging in support of acquitted Kenosha shooter Kyle Rittenhouse and InfoWars, Alex Jones' far-right website.

So far, trucker protests in the U.S. have been thinly attended compared to the throngs in Canada. One recent rally in D.C. attracted just 20 people, according to local reports.

In large part, the convoys coming through Arizona are made up of personal vehicles, not semi-trucks. Estimates on the number of participating truckers in these U.S. convoys fall in the dozens, far fewer than the number who participated in the Ottawa protests — over 400, according to some estimates.

One caravan is known as “the People’s Convoy."

Those truckers drove through Kingman last week. Another convoy arrived in La Paz County's Quartzsite on Wednesday.

Even if sparsely attended, the convoys have attracted support from a dedicated base. Video footage shot along the route often goes viral on Telegram. Supporters are shown gathering together on overpasses as the caravans drive by.
click to enlarge Supporters of a trucker convoy line up to cheer as they drive through Arizona. - TELEGRAM
Supporters of a trucker convoy line up to cheer as they drive through Arizona.
Telegram

Organizers of the People's Convoy claim to have raised upwards of $1 million from sympathetic donors.

One demand from individuals representing the caravan that trekked across Arizona this week is for officials to "secure the southern border," according to its website.

There is a long history of vigilantism along the U.S.-Mexico border. In Arizona, active groups span from armed militias, who are claiming to defend U.S. soil when the government won't step up, to camps of activists who continue to peddle wild child smuggling conspiracy theories, based on half-truths about human trafficking at the border.

One of the groups asking for help from truckers is Veterans On Patrol, which already has a stronghold at the border.

The group, founded by local vigilante Michael Meyer, has worked with the Oath Keepers, a far-right militia. It spreads wild, Pizzagate-style conspiracies of large-scale child sex trafficking rings that they are working to uncover along the border. In Pizzagate, conspiracists falsely claimed that a quirky D.C. pizza restaurant was connected to a sex trafficking ring.

“[Veterans on Patrol] has over the years pushed this narrative that their organization is fighting human trafficking and child smuggling," Cruz, the extremist group analyst, said.

But the group’s political rhetoric is “steeped in anti-immigrant narratives. It's a lot of racist material," he said.

Meyer has begun requesting that truckers drive down to the border to "volunteer in our child search-and-rescue mission," he said in a phone call with New Times.

Meyer said he hopes truckers will park their vehicles along sections of the slatted metal border wall where migrants have attempted to cross over. But he denies any affiliation with the convoys headed to the U.S. Capitol.

Meyer spoke at length about the supposed child trafficking and “child dumping” his group is fighting.

Experts say this is disinformation that distracts from genuine cross-border human trafficking, which research shows happens but is rare, making up only a tiny minority of trafficking cases, even in border towns. Often, human trafficking is conflated with human smuggling or providing assistance to cross the border illegally. These are distinct, advocates emphasize.

Meyer also asserted that he works with CBP, a frequent refrain of groups like Veterans On Patrol.

“We work with Border Patrol agents. I have multiple agents as my sources,” he said.

In response to detailed questions about Meyer's claims, CBP spokesman John Mennell provided New Times a statement that said that the agency "does not endorse or support any private group or organization taking matters into their own hands as it could have disastrous personal and public safety consequences."

Using the group's personal Telegram channel, members discussed their plans to use trucks in their activities.

“Truckers have shown up,” one message, written by a user named Allen on February 21, reads. “More have contacted [us] from Virginia, possibly making their way down… We can make excuses or we can answer the call!”

Another newly-formed group, named America Against Trafficking, claims to be a collective of truckers opposed to human trafficking at the U.S.-Mexico border.

According to the group’s Telegram channel, it is planning a rally next month to "kick off the border blockade against child and drug trafficking."

The post requested the presence of truckers and cars, which would blockade the border wall "from Yuma to the New Mexico border."

"We are not going to take it anymore!" the flyer for the rally reads.

Thousands of people have viewed social media posts that promote the blockade.

Cruz, the analyst, said that the new activity was par for the course in terms of the history of border vigilantism. And ultimately it would benefit these groups, he said. Even if volunteers didn't "show up in droves."

The volunteer recruitment efforts were being spread far and wide on social media.

“In essence, I think [Veterans On Patrol] gets a lot of exposure. But they also get a lot of things like donations," he said.

Veterans On Patrol frequently posts photos of the donations that they receive from those across the country that follow them, which include Visa gift cards and electronics, as well as supplies the group gives to migrant children. "They're just grifters," Cruz said.

Meyer rejected these criticisms. "They thank us for the offerings," he said, saying that some of the donations have gone to care packages for migrant children.

Now, the group will soon have 18-wheelers, as well.
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Katya Schwenk is a staff writer for Phoenix New Times. Originally from Burlington, Vermont, she now covers issues ranging from policing to far-right politics here in Phoenix. She has worked as a breaking news correspondent in Rabat, Morocco, for Morocco World News, a government technology reporter for Scoop News Group in Washington, D.C., and a local reporter in Vermont for VTDigger. Her freelance work has been published in Business Insider, the Intercept, and the American Prospect, among other places.
Contact: Katya Schwenk