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Senate candidate says he was misled by group

SANTA FE – Republican U.S. Senate candidate Gavin Clarkson said Tuesday that he was misled by leaders of an armed group camped along New Mexico’s southern border, after a video surfaced on social media of him meeting last month with masked group members.

Clarkson, the only GOP candidate in the race for the seat currently held by U.S. Sen. Tom Udall, D-N.M., said he was told during the March meeting the group had been issued radios by U.S. Border Patrol officials and were merely engaged in monitoring action along the border.

“They promised me they were only going to be eyes and ears and that’s all they were ever going to be,” Clarkson told the Journal.

“In hindsight, I wish I’d done more due diligence,” he added.

The group, which calls itself the United Patriots of the Constitution, has come under scrutiny after the American Civil Liberties Union of New Mexico described members as “armed vigilantes” and raised concerns the men were illegally detaining hundreds of migrant families.

In a letter to the governor and attorney general last week, the ACLU called for an investigation and referenced social media videos that show members of the group in camouflage standing over groups of migrant parents and children.

The man who had identified himself as the group’s commander, Larry Mitchell Hopkins, was arrested Saturday on federal charges of being a felon in possession of firearms and ammunition. He made his first court appearance this week in Las Cruces.

Clarkson said Hopkins had “lied to me about everything,” including his name, an alleged familial tie to the late singer Johnny Cash and the exact nature of the group’s activities.

A former New Mexico State University professor who also worked in President Trump’s administration, Clarkson said he has been on “fact-finding missions” along the border due to distrust of the media and political extremists on both sides of the political spectrum.

He found out about the camped militia group from a southern New Mexico newspaper reporter and decided to meet with members.

Clarkson said he thought it made sense they were wearing masks because cartels could target recognizable faces who are tipping off Border Patrol agents. But he said he regrets encouraging people to participate in the group’s activities and said he believes masked militiamen are the “antithesis” of a free republic.

“Do I wish I hadn’t appeared on video? Absolutely,” he said.

Clarkson ran unsuccessfully for the GOP nomination in the southern New Mexico-based 2nd Congressional District last year, before entering the secretary of state race as a fill-in candidate after the GOP nominee withdrew.

During the run-up to Election Day, he accused Democratic incumbent Maggie Toulouse Oliver of registering noncitizens and dead individuals to vote, but Toulouse Oliver ended up winning by a decisive margin.