A county district attorney is suing the New Mexico Civil Guard, saying it endangered public safety by trying to protect a Spanish statue during protests last month.
The lawsuit seeks to halt the group from presenting itself as an unregulated police force.
Bernalillo County District Attorney Raul Torrez says that the group of civilians dressed in military-like attire and armed with weapons attempted to disrupt a protest last month seeking to remove the statue of Juan de Onate, the Spanish conquistador and colonial governor of Santa Fe.
The event turned violent when a man, not affiliated with the group, shot and injured a protester.
The New Mexico Civil Guard told people they were there at the protest to protect property, but according to the legal complaint, they broke the law by representing themselves as an unauthorized police force.
“NMCG has unlawfully exercised and intends to continue to unlawfully exercise the power to maintain public peace reserved to peace officers,” the 33-page complaint read. “This is a case about paramilitary action that threatens public safety and intimidates the public’s exercise of First Amendment rights.”
Mr. Torrez said some members of the New Mexico Civil Guard were white supremacists and from “neo-Confederate” organizations.
State law bans private security forces that are unregulated as well as paramilitary organizations.
“Whatever our differences are, there is simply no place in our society for private paramilitary groups to impose their will on other citizens or threaten public safety. Regardless of our diverse political views, we must remain committed to the rule of law,” Mr. Torrez said.
Bryce Provance, the leader of the New Mexico Civil Guard, said city officials are trying to divert blame for how the protest was handled.
“They are deflecting,” Mr. Provance told Albuquerque TV station KOB, channel 4.
“The mayor and deputy chief ordered their officers not be in an area so that violence could be carried out against property, against counterprotesters and it backfired. Somebody got shot, and then we had to disarm the shooter, form a perimeter around him and hold him until police arrived. And because of the mayor and deputy chief’s ineptitude, they are going to deflect and try and charge us and sue us whatever they are going to do,” he said.
Mr. Torrez teamed with the Georgetown Law Center in filing the lawsuit.
Georgetown’s Institute for Constitutional Advocacy and Protection previously represented the city of Charlottesville against the private military-like groups at the Unite the Right rally in August 2017, when violence erupted over the removal of a statue of Robert E. Lee. A protester was run over and killed, and two law-enforcement responders died in a helicopter crash.
In that dispute, several settlement agreements were reached where the groups agreed not to return to the city.
“Self-proclaimed private militias in New Mexico and elsewhere are increasingly purporting to ‘protect’ property and monuments against unsupported claims of anti-fascist violence, unlawfully usurping the role of law enforcement officials while intimidating peaceful protesters and raising the risk of violence,” said Mary McCord, the legal director of the Georgetown institute.
“The district attorney’s action today is necessary to thwart this threat to public safety and ensure the protection of fundamental constitutional rights,” she added.