They Are Watching You: The National Security State and the U.S.-Mexican Border

Published on
by
TomDispatch

They Are Watching You: The National Security State and the U.S.-Mexican Border

(Image: Elbit Systems of America, LLC)

With the agility of a seasoned Border Patrol veteran, the woman rushed after the students. She caught up with them just before they entered the exhibition hall of the eighth annual Border Security Expo, reaching out and grabbing the nearest of them by the shoulder. Slightly out of breath, she said, “You can’t go in there, give me back your badges.”

The astonished students had barely caught a glimpse of the dazzling pavilion of science-fiction-style products in that exhibition hall at the Phoenix Convention Center. There, just beyond their view, more than 100 companies, including Raytheon, General Dynamics, and Verizon, were trying to sell the latest in futuristic border policing technology to anyone with the money to buy it.

The students from Northeastern Illinois University didn’t happen to fall into that category. An earnest manager at a nearby registration table insisted that, as they were not studying “border security,” they weren’t to be admitted.  I asked him how he knew just what they were studying.  His only answer was to assure me that next year no students would be allowed in at all.

Among the wonders those students would miss was a fake barrel cactus with a hollow interior (for the southern border) and similarly hollow tree stumps (for the northern border), all capable of being outfitted with surveillance cameras. “Anything that grows or exists in nature,” Kurt Lugwisen of TimberSpy told a local Phoenix television station, “we build it.”

Nor would those students get to see the miniature drone -- “eyes in the sky” for Border Patrol agents -- that fits conveniently into a backpack and can be deployed at will; nor would they be able to check out the “technology that might,” as one local Phoenix reporter warned, “freak you out.” She was talking about facial recognition systems, which in a border scenario would work this way: a person enters a border-crossing gate, where an image of his or her face is instantly checked against a massive facial image database (or the biometric data contained on a passport)."If we need to target on any specific gender or race because we're trying to find a subject, we can set the parameters and the threshold to find that person," Kevin Haskins of Cognitec (“the face recognition company”) proudly claimed.

Nor would they be able to observe the strange, two day-long convention hall dance between homeland security, its pockets bursting with their parents’ tax dollars, and private industry intent on creating the most massive apparatus of exclusion and surveillance that has ever existed along U.S. borders.

Border Security Expo 2014 catches in one confined space the expansiveness of a “booming” border market. If you include “cross-border terrorism, cyber crime, piracy, [the] drug trade, human trafficking, internal dissent, and separatist movements,” all “driving factor[s] for the homeland security market,” by 2018 it could reach $544 billion globally. It is here that U.S. Homeland Security officials, local law enforcement, and border forces from all over the world talk contracts with private industry representatives, exhibit their techno-optimism, and begin to hammer out a future of ever more hardened, up-armored national and international boundaries.

The global video surveillance market alone is expected to be a $40 billion industry by 2020, almost three times its $13.5 billion value in 2013. According to projections, 2020 border surveillance cameras will be capturing 3.4 trillion video hours globally. In case you were wondering, that’s more than 340 million years of video footage if you were watching 24 hours a day.

But those students, like most of the rest of us, haven’t been invited to this high energy, dystopian conversation about our future.

And the rebuff is far from a surprise. It has, after all, been less than a year since Edward Snowden emerged on the scene with a portfolio of NSA documents revealing just how vast our national security state has become and how deeply it has reached into our private lives. It has by now created what the Washington Post’s Dana Priest and William Arkin have termed “an alternative geography.” And nowhere is this truer than on our borders.

It is in the U.S. borderlands that, as anthropologist Josiah Heyman once wrote, the U.S. government’s modern expertise in creating and tracking "a marked population” was first developed and practiced. It involved, he wrote prophetically, “the birth and development of a... means of domination, born of the mating between moral panics about foreigners and drugs, and a well-funded and expert bureaucracy.”

You may not be able to watch them at the Border Security Expo, but in those borderlands -- make no bones about it -- the Department of Homeland Security, with its tripartite missions of drug interdiction, immigration enforcement, and the war on terror, is watching you, whoever you are. And make no bones about this either: our borders are widening and the zones in which the watchers are increasingly free to do whatever they want are growing.

Tracking a Marked Population

It was mid-day in the Arizona heat during the summer of 2012 and Border Patrol agent Benny Longoria (a pseudonym) and his partner are patrolling the reservation of the Tohono O’odham Nation. It’s the second largest Native American reservation in the country and, uniquely, shares 76 miles of border with Mexico. The boundary, in fact, slices right through O’odham aboriginal lands. For the approximately 28,000 members of the Nation, several thousand of whom live in Mexico, this international boundary has been a point of contention since 1853, when U.S. surveyors first drew the line. None of the region’s original inhabitants were, of course, consulted.

Now Tohono O’odham lands on the U.S. side of the border are one place among many in Arizona where the star performer at Border Security Expo, Elbit Systems of America -- whose banner at the entrance welcomed all attendees -- will build surveillance towers equipped with radar and high-powered day/night cameras able to spot a human being up to seven miles away. These towers -- along with motion sensors spread over the surrounding landscape and drones overhead -- will feed information into snazzy operational control rooms in Border Patrol posts throughout the Arizona borderlands.

In March, U.S. Customs and Border Protection (CBP) awarded a $145 million contract to that Israeli company through its U.S. division. Elbit Systems prides itself on having spent “10+ years securing the world’s most challenging borders,” above all deploying similar “border protection systems” to the separation wall between Israel and Palestine. It is now poised to enter U.S. indigenous lands.

At the moment, however, the two forest-green-uniformed Border Patrol agents search for tracks the old-fashioned way. They are five miles west of the O’odham’s sacred Baboquivari mountain range and three miles north of the U.S.-Mexican border. It’s July and 100-plus-degrees hot.  They scour the ground for tracks and finally pick up a trail of fresh ones.

The agents get out of their vehicle and begin to follow them. Every day, many hours are spent just this way. They figure that people who have just walked across the border without papers are hot, uncomfortable, and probably moving slowly. In this heat in this desert, it’s as if you were negotiating the glass inside a light bulb. About an hour on, Longoria spots the woman.

There’s a giant mesquite tree, and she’s beneath it, her back to the agents, her arm shading her head. They creep up on her. As they get closer, they can see that she’s wearing blue jeans and a striped navy shirt.

When they’re 10 feet away and she still hasn’t moved, Longoria whispers, “Oh, shit, why isn’t she reacting?” In Arizona in July, you can almost hear the sizzle of the heat.

In human terms, this is where the long-term strategy behind the Border Patrol’s “prevention through deterrence” regime leads.  After all, in recent years, it has militarized vast swaths of the 2,000-mile U.S.-Mexican border. Along it, there are now 12,000 implanted motion sensors and 651 miles of walls or other barriers. Far more than $100 billion has been spent on this project since 9/11. The majority of these resources are focused on urban areas where people without papers traditionally crossed.

Now, border crossers tend to avoid such high concentrations of surveillance and the patrolling agents that go with it. They skirt those areas on foot, ending up in desolate, dangerous, mountainous places like this one on the sparsely populated Tohono O’odham reservation, an area the size of Connecticut. The Border Patrol’s intense armed surveillance regime is meant to push people into places so remote and potentially deadly that they will decide not to cross the border at all.

That, at least, was the plan. This is the reality.

“Hey,” Longoria says to the woman as he steps up behind her. “Hello.” Nothing.

“Hello,” he says again, as he finally stands over her. And it’s then that he sees her face, blistered from the sun, white pus oozing out of her nose. Her belly has started to puff up.  She is already a corpse.

The moment is surreal and, for Longoria, depressing. In the 1990s, almost no undocumented people bothered to cross this reservation. By 2008, in the midst of an exodus from Mexico in the devastating era of NAFTA, more than 15,000 people were doing so monthly. Although the numbers have dropped since, people avoiding the border surveillance regime still come, and sometimes like this woman, they still die.

“The Occupation”

Before 9/11, there was little federal presence on the Tohono O’odham reservation. Since then, the expansion of the Border Patrol into Native American territory has been relentless. Now, Homeland Security stations, filled with hundreds of agents (many hired in a 2007-2009 hiring binge), circle the reservation. But unlike bouncers at a club, they check people going out, not heading in.  On every paved road leaving the reservation, their checkpoints form a second border. There, armed agents -- ever more of whom are veterans of America’s distant wars -- interrogate anyone who leaves. In addition, there are two “forward operating bases” on the reservation, which are meant to play the role -- facilitating tactical operations in remote regions -- that similar camps did in Afghanistan and Iraq.

Now, thanks to the Elbit Systems contract, a new kind of border will continue to be added to this layering.  Imagine part of the futuristic Phoenix exhibition hall leaving Border Expo with the goal of incorporating itself into the lands of a people who were living here before there was a “New World,” no less a United States or a Border Patrol. Though this is increasingly the reality from Brownsville, Texas, to San Diego, California, on Tohono O’odham land a post-9/11 war posture shades uncomfortably into the leftovers from a nineteenth century Indian war.  Think of it as the place where the homeland security state meets its older compatriot, Manifest Destiny.

On the gate at the entrance to her house, Tohono O’odham member Ofelia Rivas has put up a sign stating that the Border Patrol can’t enter without a warrant. It may be a fine sentiment, reflecting a right embodied in the U.S. Constitution, but in the eyes of the “law,” it’s ancient history.  Only a mile from the international boundary, her house is well within the 25-mile zone in which the Border Patrol can enter anyone’s property without a warrant. These powers make the CBP a super-force in comparison to the local law enforcement outfits it collaborates with. Although CBP can enter property warrantlessly, it still needs a warrant to enter somebody’s dwelling. In the small community where Rivas lives, known as Ali Jegk, the agents have overstepped even its extra-constitutional bounds with “home invasions” (as people call them).

Throughout the Tohono O’odham Nation, people complain about Homeland Security vehicles driving at high speeds and tailgating on the roads. They complain about blinding spotlights, vehicle pull-overs, and unexpected interrogations. The Border Patrol has pulled O’odham tribal members out of cars, pepper-sprayed them, and beaten them with batons.

As local resident Joseph Flores told a Tucson television station, “It feels like we’re being watched all the time.” Another man commented, “I feel like I have no civil rights.” On the reservation, people speak not only about this new world of intense surveillance, but also about its raw impact on the Tohono O’odham people: violence and subjugation.

Although the tribal legislative council has collaborated extensively with Border Patrol operations, Priscilla Lewis seemed to sum up the sentiments of many O’odham at an open hearing in 2011: “Too much harassment, following the wrong people, always stopping us, including and especially those who look like Mexicans when driving or walking in the desert... They have too much domination over us.”

At her house, Ofelia Rivas tells me a story. One day, she was driving with Tohono O’odham elders towards the U.S.-Mexican border when a low-flying Blackhawk helicopter seemingly picked them up and began following them. Hanging out of the open helicopter doors were CBP gunmen, she said. When they crossed the border into Mexico, the helicopter tracked them through a forest of beautiful saguaro cacti while they headed for a ceremonial site, 25 miles south of the border. They were, of course, crossing what was a non-border to the O’odham, doing something they had done for thousands of years. Hearing, even feeling the vibration of the propellers, one of the elders said, “I guess we are going to die.”

They laughed, Rivas added, as there was nothing else to do. They laughed real hard. Then, a mile or so into Mexico, the helicopter turned back.

Americans may increasingly wonder whether NSA agents are scouring their meta-data, reading their personal emails, and the like.  In the borderlands no imagination is necessary. The surveillance apparatus is in your face. The high-powered cameras are pointed at you; the drones are above you; you’re stopped regularly at checkpoints and interrogated. Too bad if you’re late for school, a meeting, or an appointment. And even worse, if your skin complexion, or the way you’re dressed, or anything about you sets off alarm bells, or there’s something that doesn’t smell quite right to the CBP’s dogs -- and such dogs are a commonplace in the region -- being a little late will be the least of your problems.

As Rivas told me, a typical exchange on the reservation might involve an agent at a checkpoint asking an O’odham woman whether, as she claimed, she was really going to the grocery store -- and then demanding that she show him her grocery list.

People on the reservation now often refer to what is happening as an armed “occupation.” Mike Wilson, an O’odham member who has tried to put gallon jugs of water along routes Mexican migrants might take through the reservation, speaks of the Border Patrol as an “occupying army.” It’s hardly surprising.  Never before in the Nation’s history under Spain, Mexico, or the United States have so many armed agents been present on their land.

On the Borders, the Future Is Now

At the Border Security Expo, Mark Borkowski, assistant commissioner for the Border Patrol’s Office of Technology, Innovation, and Acquisition, isn’t talking about any of this. He’s certainly not talking about the deaths and abuses along the border, or the firestorm of criticism about the Border Patrol’s use of deadly force. (Agents have shot and killed at least 42 people since 2005.) He is talking, instead, about humdrum things, about procurement and efficiency, as he paces the conference hall, just as he’s done for years. He is talking about the inefficient way crews in Washington D.C. de-iced the wings of his plane before it took off for Phoenix. That is the lesson he wants to drum in about border technology: efficiency.

Borkowski has the air of a man whose agency has everything and yet who wants to appear as if he didn’t have all that much. And the big story in this hall is how little attention anyone outside of it pays to the fact that his is now the largest federal law enforcement agency in the country. Even less attention is paid to how, with its massive growth and robust financing, with its ever increasing budgets and resources, it is reshaping the country -- and the world. Its focus, powerful as it is on the southern border of the U.S., is quickly moving elsewhere -- to the northern border with Canada, to the Caribbean, and to borders and border forces across the globe.

So many places are slated to become the front lines for his agency’s expanding national security regime, and where it goes, technology must follow.  No wonder that the same industry people are here, year after year, devouring Borkowski’s every word in search of clues as to how they can profit from his latest border enforcement schemes. After all, some of the sophisticated technology now on the border was only a futuristic pipe dream 20 years ago.

It’s here at Border Security Expo 2014 that the future seeds get planted; here that you can dream your corporate dreams unimpeded, sure in the knowledge that yet more money will flow into borders and “protection.”

Between the unbridled enthusiasm of the vendors with their techno-optimistic “solutions” and the reality of border life in the Tohono O’odham Nation -- or for that matter just about anywhere along the 2,000-mile divide -- the chasm couldn’t be wider.

On the reservation back in 2012, Longoria called in the GPS coordinates of the unknown dead woman, as so many agents have done in the past and will undoubtedly do in the years to come. Headquarters in Tucson contacted the Tohono O’odham tribal police. The agents waited in the baking heat by the motionless body. When the tribal police pulled up, they took her picture, as they have done with other corpses so many times before. They rolled her over and took another picture. Her body was, by now, deep purple on one side. The tribal police explained to Longoria that it was because the blood settles there. They brought out a plastic body bag.

“Pseudo-speciation,” Longoria told me. That, he said, is how they deal with it. He talked about an interview he’d heard with a Vietnam vet on National Public Radio, who said that to deal with the dead in war, “you have to take a person and change his genus. Give him a whole different category. You couldn’t stand looking at these bodies, so you detach yourself. You give them a different name that detracts from their humanness.”

The tribal police worked with stoic faces. They lifted the body of this woman, whose past life, whose story, whose loved ones were now on another planet, onto a cart attached to an all-terrain vehicle and headed off down a bumpy dirt road with the body bouncing up and down.

When you look at a map that shows where such bodies are recovered in southern Arizona -- journalist Margaret Regan has termed it a “killing field” -- there is a thick red cluster of dots over the Tohono O’odham reservation. This area has the highest concentration of the more than 2,300 remains recovered in Arizona alone -- approximately 6,000 have been found along the whole border -- since the Border Patrol began ramping up its “prevention by deterrence policy” in the 1990s. And as Kat Rodriguez of the Colibri Center for Human Rights points out, these numbers are at the low end of actual border deaths, due to the numbers of remains found that have been there for weeks, months, or even years.

When they reached a paved road, Longoria helped lift the woman’s body into the back of their police truck. From here the Tohono O’odham tribal police took over. He and his partner continued their shift in a world in which borders are everything and a human death next to nothing at all.

Todd Miller

Todd Miller has researched and written about U.S.-Mexican border issues for more than 10 years. He has worked on both sides of the border for BorderLinks in Tucson, Arizona, and Witness for Peace in Oaxaca, Mexico. He now writes on border and immigration issues for NACLA Report on the Americas and its blog “Border Wars,” among other places. He is at work on his first book, Border Patrol Nation, for the Open Media Series of City Lights Books.

Share This Article

More in:
,