This story was updated at 3:55 p.m. EDT to remove the description of Mauricio Garcia as an “Army veteran” after a Pentagon spokesperson said Garcia’s service had not warranted “veteran” status.
Investigators have not yet made public what drove Mauricio Garcia to open fire on weekend shoppers at a Texas outlet mall on Saturday, killing 8 people, including families, and children, of color. But a picture is emerging of a failed soldier with alleged white supremacist beliefs.
Garcia, 33, spent just three months in the Army in 2008, but was dismissed from infantry training due to a mental health issue, Army officials told Military Times. As investigators dig into Garcia’s past life to determine what drove him, the Global Project Against Hate and Extremism said it had found years of Garcia’s past posts, spouting racist hate speech.
If the mass shooting is determined to be an act of domestic violent extremism, the killings would add to a growing list of violent acts by active-duty service members or veterans. According to the Center for Strategic and International Studies, a bipartisan think tank, veterans were responsible for 10% of all domestic terrorist attacks and plots between 2015 and 2021.
“Violent far-right and far-left networks have solicited military personnel because of their skill sets,” according to a 2021 CSIS report. “According to one estimate, veterans and active-duty members of the military currently make up roughly 25% of active militia members.”
News of Garcia’s ouster from the Army sparked questions about whether his discharge should’ve been flagged in a background check while purchasing firearms.
But Garcia was dismissed with an “uncharacterized” discharge for a mental health condition, an Army official told the Military Times, which is an entry-level discharge that signifies neither honorable nor poor service. Garcia entered the Army in June 2008 but was removed from infantry training at Fort Benning, Georgia, after three months, the Army official said, speaking anonymously to describe personnel records.
In Texas, federally licensed firearms dealers must conduct a background check on gun purchasers, but private sellers do not. Moreover, Garcia’s uncharacterized military discharge wouldn’t have been flagged even if a background check were conducted. Only military personnel with dishonorable discharges are federally banned from owning firearms. Those discharges are given to people convicted by the military of crimes equivalent to felonies.
The Department of Defense submits the names of personnel with dishonorable discharges to the FBI’s National Instant Criminal Background Check System, or NICS. As of January, the NICS contained information for 19,493 dishonorably discharged service members.
Texas Governor Greg Abbott responded to the shooting and Garcia’s separation from the military by emphasizing the need to address mental health issues, rather than gun laws.
“People want a quick solution,” Abbott said in an interview on Fox News Sunday. “The long term solution here is to address the mental health issue.”
President Joe Biden said Garcia wore tactical gear and fired an AR-15-style weapon. He urged Congress to pass legislation banning assault weapons and high-capacity magazines, as well as enacting universal background checks and requiring the safe storage of firearms.
Officials who are investigating Garcia’s possible extremist beliefs told reporters he wore a patch on his chest that read “RWDS,” an acronym for “Right Wing Death Squad,” which is a popular phrase among right-wing extremists, the AP reported.
The badge was worn by some members of the neo-fascist Proud Boys during the attack on the U.S. Capitol on Jan. 6, 2021, and it appeared on shields used at the “Unite the Right” rally in Charlottesville, Virginia, in 2017, according to the Anti-Defamation League.
Heidi Beirich and Wendy Via, co-founders of the Global Project Against Hate and Extremism, said Garcia exhibited multiple signs of violent extremism, including following conspiracy theorist Andrew Anglin, who runs the neo-Nazi website The Daily Stormer.
“Garcia spread white supremacist and vile racist and misogynistic material online, largely on the Russian social media site, OK,” Beirich said in a statement Monday. “We’ve obtained Garcia’s social media posts. We are currently analyzing years’ worth of posts to help us better understand his radicalization process and motivations. We’re also analyzing how the far-right movement is reacting to this attack.”
Tom O’Connor, a retired FBI agent who focused on domestic violent extremism for 20 years, said in cases like this, the FBI would typically look through a suspect’s phones and computers for any writings about their ideological beliefs. The AP reports that investigators are reviewing Garcia’s social media posts, as well as interviewing his family members and looking into his financial records.
O’Connor said determining a motive for the shooting could help prevent another attack by educating the public to be on the lookout for the neo-fascist Right Wing Death Squad insignia.
“Knowledge is power, and we have to be able to get knowledge out to people so we can try to prevent some of these things,” O’Connor said. “Law enforcement can’t do it by themselves. It has to be a community approach.”
The probe into Garcia’s suspected neo-Nazi ideology prompted thousands of social media comments from people who said it was unlikely he held those beliefs because of his appearance. Rep. Marjorie Taylor Greene, R-Georgia, tweeted that Garcia “appears Hispanic with what looks like a gang tattoo on his hand,” and she used the moment to call for more security on the southern border.
O’Connor argued that if it was proven Garcia held extremist views, his case wouldn’t be unusual. He pointed to the example of Enrique Tarrio, the former leader of the Proud Boys who was convicted last week of seditious conspiracy in the Jan. 6 attack. Tarrio is of afro-Cuban background.
“This shooter appears to be Hispanic, and you have people saying, ‘Well, he can’t be a white supremacist.’ But that’s not accurate,” O’Connor said. “They pick their own portion of that ideology to go to.”
Three other Proud Boys members convicted of seditious conspiracy alongside Tarrio were military veterans, like Garcia technically was, though his service was short-lived. A disproportionate number of veterans and service members were charged with crimes related to the Jan. 6 attack on the U.S. Capitol.
In the aftermath of the attacks, Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin ordered a forces-wide “stand-down” to teach troops what extremism is, and the limits on troops’ participation. A policy prohibiting extremist activities within the DoD has existed in some form since 1969. In 2009, one year after Garcia entered and was separated from the Army, the Pentagon revised the policy to add examples of prohibited behavior, which included advocating for the overthrow of the U.S. government. In 2021, the list of banned activities was expanded further, ranging from advocating for terrorism to rallying on behalf of an extremist group or sharing extremist views on social media.
Yet according to CSIS, the number of domestic terrorist plots and attacks perpetrated by service members is increasing, with 6.4% of attacks and plots were carried about by troops in 2020, up from 1.5% in 2019, and none in 2018.
The DOD issued a 2021 report that found only a small number of extremists among service members, basing that on data from the West Point Cyber Security Institute and the University of Maryland’s National Consortium for the Study of Terrorism and Responses to Terrorism. According to that report, there’s been only a handful extremist cases reported among service members. But the study authors acknowledge that “even the actions of a few can have an outsized impact on unit cohesion, morale and readiness – and the physical harm some of these activities can engender can undermine the safety of the total force,” the report reads.
Davis Winkie covers the Army for Military Times. He studied history at Vanderbilt and UNC-Chapel Hill, and served five years in the Army Guard. His investigations earned the Society of Professional Journalists' 2023 Sunshine Award and consecutive Military Reporters and Editors honors, among others. Davis was also a 2022 Livingston Awards finalist.
Nikki Wentling covers disinformation and extremism for Military Times. She's reported on veterans and military communities for eight years and has also covered technology, politics, health care and crime. Her work has earned multiple honors from the National Coalition for Homeless Veterans, the Arkansas Associated Press Managing Editors and others.