New Mexico Sues Armed Paramilitary Group

Albuquerque police detain members of the New Mexico Civil Guard, an armed civilian group, following the shooting of a man during a protest over a statue of Spanish conquerer Juan de Oñate on June 15, 2020. A confrontation erupted between protesters and a group of armed men who were trying to protect the statue before protesters wrapped a chain around it and began tugging on it while chanting: “Tear it down.” One protester repeatedly swung a pickax at the base of the statue. Moments later a few gunshots could be heard down the street and people started yelling that someone had been shot. (Adolphe Pierre-Louis/The Albuquerque Journal via AP)

ALBUQUERQUE (CN) — New Mexico has sued the New Mexico Civil Guard and 14 of its members in state court, claiming the militia group helped incite a shooting at a peaceful protest in June.

Protesters gathered in front of the Albuquerque Museum on June 15 to protest the sculpture La Jornada, which includes a statue of 16th century Spanish conquistador Juan de Oñate. Oñate, founder of the Spanish colony of New Mexico, was also responsible for the 1599 Acoma Massacre, a punitive expedition at Acoma Pueblo that killed around 500 Acoma men and 300 women and children. 

In the June incident that made international news, tensions escalated between protesters and counter-protesters, and 39-year-old Scott Williams was shot multiple times by Steven Ray Baca, with the shooting captured on cell phone video. Baca has been charged with aggravated battery with a deadly weapon, misdemeanor battery against other protesters and carrying a firearm without a concealed carry permit. Baca’s attorney called the shooting a “completely lawful exercise of self-defense.”

Also at the protest were members of the New Mexico Civil Guard, a militia group whose stated mission is to “provide rapid local lawful response to emergency and dangerous situations, including Natural disaster, humanitarian crisis, civil disturbances, and civil defence.” (Sic.)

According to the 39-page complaint filed Monday in Bernalillo County Court: “Numerous members of the NMCG attended the protest as a private vigilante or paramilitary unit wearing matching camouflage attire and sporting assault rifles and other military-style gear. Their professed purpose was to ‘protect’ the Oñate statue from defacement. In the tense atmosphere exacerbated by NMCG’s heavily armed presence an individual who apparently is not affiliated with the paramilitary group battered several female protesters before he ultimately shot and injured another protester.”

In the days after the shooting, Governor Michelle Lujan Grisham released a statement drawing attention to the NMCG’s involvement in the incident. “I am horrified and disgusted beyond words by the reports of violence at a protest Monday night in Albuquerque,” Lujan Grisham said.

“The heavily armed individuals who flaunted themselves at the protest, calling themselves a ‘civil guard,’ were there for one reason: To menace protesters, to present an unsanctioned show of unregulated force. To menace the people of New Mexico with weaponry — with an implicit threat of violence — is on its face unacceptable; that violence did indeed occur is unspeakable.”

The complaint also places some responsibility for the shooting on the militia group.

“NMCG’s presence fostered and encouraged violence by counter-protesters unaffiliated with NMCG. The armed presence simultaneously intimidated protesters and established an environment in which counter-protesters resorted to violence over words to convey their message. Steven Ray Baca, who does not appear to be a member of NMCG, joined with NMCG in attempting to keep protesters away from the statue. But with the backdrop of a heavily armed presence seemingly on his side, Baca was not content to express his viewpoint or even to simply restrain protesters. Instead, he began his agitation of the crowd by using a bullhorn and pepper spray, graduated to a battery on a woman with her back turned, escalated his violence further to an aggravated battery against another woman in the defenseless position of facing away from Baca, and finally finished what he began by shooting an unarmed man.”

The lawsuit challenges the NMCG’s rights to operate as a militia under New Mexico law. “New Mexico has carefully regulated the circumstances under which organized force can be exercised by officials and persons who may lawfully maintain the peace in the state. Peace officers are ‘vested by law with a duty to maintain public order or to make arrests for crime.’ […] These duties are expressly reserved for peace officers. Except when specifically authorized to do so by the Governor during ‘times of riot or unusual disturbance,’ ‘[n]o person shall assume or exercise the functions, powers, duties and privileges incident and belonging to the office of special deputy sheriff, marshal, policeman or other peace officer without first having received an appointment in writing from a person authorized by law to appoint special deputy sheriffs, marshals, policemen or other peace officers’. …] It is a crime to ‘exercis[e] or attempt[] to exercise the functions of a peace officer’ without due authority.”

Civil Guard members told the Albuquerque Journal they take no responsibility for the way the situation played out. They said Baca was “justified” in shooting Williams and say their armed presence stopped more bloodshed.

But according to the complaint filed by Deputy District Attorney James Grayson, the NMCG lacks any authority as an unorganized militia under New Mexico law. “NMCG attempts to cloak its activities with a guise of lawful authority,43 invoking NMSA 1978, Section 20-2-2 (2017), which defines New Mexico’s ‘unorganized militia’ as ‘all able-bodied male citizens’ between the ages of 18 and 45. But NMCG’s communications ignore that New Mexico’s constitutional and statutory provisions do not give the ‘unorganized militia’ the power to activate itself. Rather, the authority to activate the unorganized militia belongs exclusively to the Governor of New Mexico as commander-in-chief of New Mexico’s military forces. Id. Neither the Governor nor any of her designees has activated the members of NMCG. Accordingly, NMCG’s paramilitary activity is wholly outside New Mexico’s carefully circumscribed regime regulating the use of organized force.”

The state seeks declaratory judgment against the NMCG for operating as a military unit in violation of the New Mexico Constitution, and abatement of a public nuisance, claiming that “[d]efendants’ ongoing paramilitary activity independent of any civil authority substantially interferes with public health, safety, morals, and welfare and the exercise and enjoyment of public rights and property.”

The state also seeks an injunction preventing the group from operating as a military unit independent of civil authority, and from assuming law-enforcement functions at public gatherings. 

The district attorney’s office could not be reached for comment after business hours on Monday. 

The New Mexico Civil Guard’s Facebook page posted an update on Monday night stating: “The Governor is again falsely accusing the NMCG, and threatening charges. She could not label us as racists and terrorists or tie us to the shooter who none of us knew and is now trying another tactic. She is trying to deflect from the fact that on her watch and Mayor Keller’s police were told to stand down and a man was shot. More individuals would have been hurt if we had not been there to do what APD wanted to do but the mayor and deputy chief ordered them not to. By ordering police to let protesters tear down statues and destroy property they made that situation violent if one cruiser would have been there there would have been no blood on the streets that day.”

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