Armed vigilantes under scrutiny after statue protester shot in New Mexico

Samuel Gilbert

Officials are scrutinizing armed vigilante groups in New Mexico following the shooting of a protester calling for the removal of a controversial colonial statue.

Police are examining whether the shooter belonged to New Mexico Civil Guard, whose members were out in force at the Monday demonstration in Albuquerque. The group has become a familiar and controversial presence at protests over racial injustice across the state. Protesters have accused it , and other militias, of intimidating and profiling people of color.

“I am horrified and disgusted beyond words by the reports of violence and the protest,” the New Mexico governor, Michelle Lujan Grisham, tweeted in response to the Monday shooting, adding that the “heavily armed individuals” were there for one reason: “To menace protesters and to present an unsanctioned show of unregulated force.”

“The ranks of these militias are populated with ex-cops and military,” said David Correia, a University of New Mexico police violence researcher. “They understand themselves as police, and police understand them as police.”

Officials say that Steven Ray Baca, 31, shot a protester as he and others attempted to bring down a statue of the Spanish conquistador Juan de Oñate, for many a symbol of racism and oppression. Baca is the son of the former sheriff of Bernalillo county.

The shooting occurred during a clash between demonstrators and the NM Civil Guard, who were seen creating a protective circle around the gunmen following the shooting. Thirteen guns and 34 magazines of ammunition were recovered at the scene. The group has denied any role in the shooting or connection to Baca.

“They [NM Civil Guard] were absolutely instigating violence,” said John Acosta, a photojournalist and film-maker who was present to document the protest. “Their presence is very intimating, and tensions build off of that,” he said.

The victim is in critical but stable condition.

Oñate has been a long controversial symbol in New Mexico, particularly the northern part of the state, where the celebration of Spanish conquest persists. He is known for the massacre of 800 Acoma Indians and a subsequent trial where he ordered the amputation of the right feet of 24 captive Acoma warriors.

The removal of Oñate has gained increased momentum as statues of conquistadors, Confederate soldiers and other historical figures of oppression are being toppled throughout the country amid the ongoing protests against racial violence.

In New Mexico, militias give such protests a particular edge. NM Civil Guard claim to be protecting private property from looters and often come dressed in fatigues, wearing bulletproof vests, and equipped with high-powered rifles.

Although the group did not respond to an interview request from the Guardian, it has claimed to be a community organization that is apolitical and non-racist. Yet its Facebook page, which was taken down sometime on Tuesday, featured a “white lives matter” video, NRA slogans and other rightwing material.

Another New Mexico group, the United Constitutional Patriots, made national news in 2019 after heavily armed members detained hundreds of undocumented asylum seekers crossing into the US.

On 5 June, meanwhile, armed members of the True Patriot Foundation were seen patrolling businesses in Gallup, New Mexico, an indigenous border town with a long history of white vigilante violence, during a Black Lives Matter protest. James Eby, the founder of the True Patriot Foundation, told the Navajo Times that the group was prepared to fire at protesters if “absolutely necessary” and “in the instance of protecting life”.

Questions have been raised in the state over the perceived coziness between local police departments and armed groups. The Albuquerque police department referred to one militia group at another protest as “heavily armed friendlies” at another protest, according to KUNM radio station.

Robert Whitman, a member of the militia group American Patriots of New Mexico, said his group had coordinated with Albuquerque police to patrol protests for many years. And on Tuesday a member of the NM Civil Guard told the local news station KOB4 that some Albuquerque police officers thanked them for being part of the protest.

The criminal complaint filed by the state on Tuesday has prompted an outcry from protesters because it suggests Baca was a victim acting in self-defense. According to the complaint, a “male subject wearing a blue-colored shirt” was present at the protest “in what appears to be a manner in which to protect the statue from the protestors”.

“The group appeared to maliciously pursue Steven, with several of the crowd’s individuals striking Steven on the foot while he backed away from them.”

In interviews with the Guardian, protesters said Baca was the instigator. According to Acosta, the incident began when Baca tried to push his way through the protesters to get to the statue. “This girl was blocking him,” said Acosta. Baca threw the woman to the ground and protesters pursued, he added. A cellphone video posted on Facebook shows this moment.

“That’s really what set it off. He is trying to claim self-defense, but the protesters were defending themselves from him,” said Acosta.

“On multiple occasions, he physically assaulted our protesters on video,” wrote protester Jonathan Juarez on his Facebook page. “The finals straw was when Steven threw a young woman into the ground (on video) for absolutely no reason.

The mayor of Albuquerque has called for NM Civil Guard to be labeled a hate group. City police did not respond to questions from the Guardian about the protest.