CHARLOTTE, N.C. - The letters have been coming in to the Latin American Coalition about once a week for the last two years: envelopes stuffed with index cards, all with handwritten messages and subtle -- or not so subtle -- threats.
“Once again, lock the borders down, open fire, have gun, will travel,” someone wrote on one of them.
“You wetbacks better find you a hole and get in it. Kaboom,” says another, this one signed by Matthews Mint Hill Militia.
While the words change, the message is consistent: fear and hate.
It's a snapshot of what is a much bigger picture, as framed by the Southern Poverty Law Center, of hate groups on the rise across America -- and here in North Carolina.
“There are absolutely more of them than there were five years ago, said Keegan Hankes, a researcher who helped put together the report that identified 40 hate groups in North Carolina. “In fact, there are more of them than there were last year.”
Only five states -- New York, California, Texas, Florida and Georgia -- have more.
The groups cover a wide range -- from white nationalists, to black nationalists, anti-immigrant, anti-Muslim and anti-LGBT – fueled, Hankes said, by anxiety and fear.
“I think one of the consequences that we're seeing because of this is an increase in violence as well,” Hankes said.
We have seen the shadows cast by hate groups locally. Last summer, racist flyers showed up in a Rowan County neighborhood, distributed by a group called The Loyal White Knights.
When someone lobbed a flaming package into an Indian and Nepali market in east Charlotte two years ago, police investigated it as a hate crime.
“It's very troubling,” said former Charlotte city Councilman and state Sen. Malcolm Graham, whose sister was one of those killed by a white supremacist at a church in Charleston.
“I learned the lessons of the underground network of hate that exists in our country,” Graham said.
In 2017, the FBI reported that hate crimes were up by 17 percent nationally, in part because more law enforcement agencies are reporting hate crimes to the agency.
“We do track anybody who's actually made threats -- we would investigate those people,” said Eric Davis, who oversees hate crime investigations locally for the FBI.
But Davis said trying to identify when hate speech might lead to a hate crime is not easy.
“That's the rub, or that's the tricky part for us, is trying to predict which groups are going to cross that line,” he said.
Davis told Channel 9 the FBI plans to take a look at the letters that have come in to the Latin-American Coalition to see if they can identify the person or group behind them.
In the meantime, Jose Hernandez said they have to prepare for the worst.
“To have to worry about staff safety and have to develop plans of a ‘what if’ scenario- it's a little uncomfortable,” he said.
Report hate crimes here.
Read more top trending stories on wsoctv.com:
- Affidavit reveals disturbing details of Appalachian Trail machete attack
- NC family searching for daughter who disappeared during hike on Maui
- WATCH: UNCC shooting victim takes first steps after 2 weeks in hospital
- FORECAST: Chilly morning as dry, cool air settles in across Carolinas
- Father charged with murder of boy found under NC billboard in 1998
© 2019 Cox Media Group.