What happened when a reporter went undercover in the world of border militiamen

Last summer, Mother Jones reporter Shane Bauer stunned readers with a long dig on what he saw as a private prison guard. For the magazine’s new print issue, he offers something equally haunting: an account of his time joining self-styled militiamen on the US-Mexico border. The armed and organized band goes out “hunting Mexicans,” as one member puts it—part of their efforts to fight enemies real and imagined: cartels, undocumented immigrants, a future takeover by the federal government, a new world order, or complete societal chaos.

Bauer’s deep dive into the minds of these militiamen—encapsulated in the short video above, and explored in depth in MoJo’s November-December print issue and online—provides some surprising revelations about their worldview. It’s a mix of self-styled patriotism, anti-immigrant and anti-government sentiment, and pronounced paranoia that leaves some members itching to pull the trigger on a “beaner” (in one militiaman’s parlance) in the desert as soon as they get the chance. Interestingly, during Bauer’s stint with the group, they never actually come face-to-face with the border-crossers or cartel members they are out to hunt. Instead, they drill, execute simulated “ops” in the desert, recruit new members, and have a fascinating encounter with Border Patrol agents. It is a group high on adrenaline and anticipation.

One militia activity that’s particularly gripping is SERE training: survival, escape, evasion, and resistance instruction patterned after the US military’s training program, which—among other things—subjects trainees to extreme, interrogation-style physical and emotional duress. Here’s how these militiamen practice it, as led by the group’s de facto commander, “Showtime”:

The recruits are told to imagine they are out in Arizona and have been captured by a drug cartel. They’re put in a stall in a horse barn and subjected to sleep deprivation. “We keep ’em up. Keep ’em hungry,” Showtime says. The mock detainees are cuffed to a table sloped at an angle and asked questions like how many people are in their group and what radio frequency they use. Their task is to resist giving any information. “We got a stress box,” Showtime says. “We put ’em in there. Stick a cattle prod through the holes. One guy, he tried to turn around and we got him right between his legs in the ball sack.”

One of Bauer’s subjects spends a great deal of time trying to estimate how many United Nations “blue helmets” he could kill if they invaded.

Bauer is able to join the group fairly easily. He plugs into the online community of border-watchers through some simple Facebook searching, and meets up with a Colorado branch of the Three Percent United Patriots (or 3UP) during their operations in southern Arizona. The group’s name—ubiquitous on gun-show bumper stickers—stems from their belief that only 3 percent of the early American colonialists belonged to the crucial, liberty-winning militia groups of old.

As with his previous prison-guard employment, the 3UP members don’t ask Bauer too many questions about his identity or background, allowing him to join their group without assuming deep cover or misrepresenting himself. (Later, he reaches out to his fellow individual militiamen for comment; some actually take him up on it.)

The militiamen’s driving concern is that America as they know it is on the brink of doomsday. “There are many theories about what will make the ‘Shit Hit The Fan,’ Bauer writes. “Some believe it will be economic collapse. It could be civil unrest provoked by Black Lives Matter. It could be a natural disaster. It could be a government attempt to disarm gun owners and impose martial law.” Now is the time to prepare, and treating southern Arizona as a war zone is the perfect way to practice and protect their world from outsiders. Many group members fear that Barack Obama—in the winter of his final term as president—still wants to do away with American sovereignty and replace it with a unified world government.

One of Bauer’s subjects spends a great deal of time trying to estimate how many United Nations “blue helmets” he could kill if they invaded. (Thanks to the training he’s received from the group, he feels his potential kill rate has increased from about five to several dozen.) Others view the Black Lives Matter movement as a sign of the social upheaval to come, and think that Obama (whom at least one member refers to as “the nigger”) has helped to stoke a race war. A 3UP leader says that membership “exploded” in particular after the Ferguson protests.

But while the militiamen express deep skepticism about government and law enforcement, he observed a cozy relationship between the group members and some Border Patrol agents. This may be the most explosive revelation of Bauer’s story. He records a telling encounter between the two while the 3UP-ers are out on yet another desert patrol. Without spoiling the surprise, the comment offered by an agency spokesperson about the encounter makes it clear why Bauer’s investigation is so valuable.

As he sleeps in their camp, shares meals with them around the fire, and engages in their daily activities, Bauer becomes privy to the conversations and worldview of a group that, while relatively small and extreme, is armed, passionate, and part of a larger universe of right-wing, nationalistic, and anti-government sentiment. Check out Bauer’s full, gripping longread in the November/December issue of Mother Jones, and watch what he saw in the video above.