In addition to the border wall, the federal government has set up an entire system of ultra-vigilance which can record and forensically review everything that happens in the border area, presenting serious concerns for members of the Tohono O’odham nation.
NARRATOR: The U.S. Government’s Border Security build-up, has been going on for 18 years now, affecting not only the Latino community, which has had to deal with the separation of families, the criminalization of communities, and with racial profiling, but it has also affected native American border communities.
We spoke to Ofelia Rivas, a Tohono O’odham Elder, who lives in the area of Ajo, Arizona.
Tohono O’odham Elder
“The powers that be, the government, can and will just waiver, any rights that we have today, and do what they want to do, which is to build a vehicle barrier, build a wall and build an Integrated Fixed Towers [system] on O’odham lands and sacred lands that we have.”
NARRATOR: To compliment the border wall, the federal government has gradually constructed an entire system of ultra-vigilance, with different kinds of mobile sensors, cameras, radar units, microwave systems, surveillance drones, and an Integrated Fixed Towers Surveillance network, or ITF, patrolling the border region around the clock and feeding information to a control center.
By using mobile high definition cameras, sensors and radar stations, the system can detect and track movement from many places simultaneously, giving its control room the ability to guide many ground teams at the same time and to use a host of technological resources and special cameras to track many subjects at the same time.
Tohono O’odham Elder
“When the Border Patrol proposed these towers, they were calling them originally communication towers, oh, we can’t communicate with each other. So we’re going to put these towers up. And originally they were 200 feet tall and because of airplane regulations they reduced them to 180 feet tall, and they proposed 15 towers on O’odham nation land.”
NARRATOR: Elbit Systems is installing the surveillance system on O’odham land. The Israeli company was awarded a $145 million contract to construct 53 ITF towers in Arizona’s southern border in 2014. According to the Jerusalem Times:
“[It] will ‘be able to detect a single, walking, average- sized adult’ at a range of 5 miles [8 km.] to 7.5 miles [12 km.] during day or night, while sending close to real-time video footage back to agents manning a command post.” Jerusalem Times, March 2, 2014.
“Elbit’s system is so specific that it can determine whether an individual is carrying a backpack or a long-arm weapon.” Popular Mechanics, Jan 28, 2016
In Ajo, Arizona, we spoke to a group of native community activists and inhabitants of the border area. According to most of them, this net of intensive surveillance has radically changed their lives in many ways.
Ajo, AZ, local inhabitant
“The border has changed, you know, used to be, you know, it has always been very open. When I was born and raised here, we used to jump in my grandfather’s struck, everyone’s kids. We’d go down to Mexico. And it was no big deal crossing the border. You know, it’s like normal stuff, like family.”
NARRATOR: Everything changed after 9-11. The border became a national security issue, with all the might of the Federal Government behind it.
Nellie Jo David
Tohono O’odham environmental activist
“after 9/11 we saw the increase of checkpoints. We cannot enter or leave our lands without going through a checkpoint and being questioned on who we are and where we’re from. It’s ironic because a lot of the people doing the questioning are outsiders to our homeland, and yet the people that are originally from there are often harassed and questioned the most..”
NARRATOR: Rivas, a Tohono O’odham Elder, described being attacked on the way home from a wedding, for refusing to speak english or to show her papers.
Tohono O’odham Elder
“Since 9-11, there’s been a great difference, very aggressive, and attacking people. To to the point of, you know, injuring people, and killing people.”
“I spoke in my language, so he pulled his pistol, and he put it at my head in front of my daughter, and my grandson and said that I would have to say whether I was a US citizen or a Mexican citizen. And I said I am Tohono O’Odham Nation.”
NARRATOR: There have been many reported instances of violence that the border patrol has committed, including the running over an O’odham nation tribal member. This, along with constant surveillance, has damaged an historically cordial relationship between members of the O’odham nation and the Border Patrol.
Tohono O’odham Elder
The international border impacts our people, we are impacted by the policies, immigration policies, We are not immigrants ourselves, you know, in our, our oral history, we’ve been here since the beginning of time. But these policies have been violating our cultural rights, and our human rights. “
NARRATOR: The Border Patrol has installed sensors all over the border area and is patrolling it using surveillance drones. Some locals told us that they were followed when they were taking a walk with their dogs. They also pointed out that they are required to carry their identification papers constantly, to avoid being detained or even deported.
The ITFs are just one of many surveillance tools that the Border patrol uses. There are also Remote Video Surveillance Systems, Mobile Unattended Ground Sensors, Unattended Ground Radars, Mobile Vehicle Surveillance Systems, Agent Portable Surveillance System, surveillance drones, planes, helicopters and even high tech surveillance blimps.
All of these systems can network and form a “virtual fence”, which, even if you manage to cross the wall that is being built in the area, would make it impossible to pass undetected,
Many of these integrated systems can also record all the information in its coverage area, process it, identify subjects and retroactively review where they have been and who they have been with.
“Wide area persistent surveillance camera systems, have the ability to surveil a specific region, in order to increase the opportunity to detect and observe activities, identify entities involved, and track events forward in real time or backwards forensically.”
Speaking to The Real News Network, Bill Parrish, a reporter who wrote a story about the O’odham nation and Border Patrol for The Intercept, describes how this “virtual wall” affects border towns and neighborhoods.
Reporter, The Intercept
“Some are located right next to residential areas. So basically anything that anyone is doing living in those areas is going to be captured by these integrated fixed towers, which pipe images and other data back to Border Patrol command centers in southern Arizona.
They have a back in time feature, sort of like a TiVo meets Google Earth kind of feature, where basically all the images and data are stored and can be pulled up across time, so the Border Patrol agents are able to monitor people’s movements over time, which is essentially what persistent surveillance means.”
NARRATOR: During the production of last week’s report about the new border wall and the local ecosystem, a Real News team visited Quitobaquito springs for several hours. We filmed right next to the border, but until we got to a checkpoint, we weren’t approached or searched.
It is very probable that the agents in charge of the surveillance system in the area, who were notified of our presence beforehand, knew exactly what we did, with whom and where.
This kind of “omnipresence”, entails great power over the populations it covers. As a result, it presents many questions, especially if the government expands its use. Bill Parrish, writing for The Intercept, quotes Bobby Brown from Border Protection at Elbit Systems as saying:
“Over time, we’ll expand not only to the northern border, but to the ports and harbors across the country,” Bobby Brown from Border Protection at Elbit Systems
Despite numerous voices of opposition within the O’odham nation, a March 22, 2019 meeting, of the Tohono O’odham council approved the construction of the towers, as a sign of support for Border Patrol, the War on Drugs, and, as reported by The LA Times, in the hope the wall will not be constructed in certain areas. This hope, however, seems misplaced, since the wall is scheduled to cover all of Arizona’s southern border.
Rivas believes that something larger might also be at play. She describes a worldwide trend of taking native land and displacing native nations as a very real danger for the Tohono O’odham people.
Tohono O’odham Elder
“They continue to funnel people through here, maybe it’s because they want the land of O’Odham nation.
Trump did say that He was going to privatize all Indian lands. And that takes years of steps before they can get to that point to privatized all Indian land. And they’re also playing with the word of eminent domain. eminent domain.”
Adrian Vega also of O’odham nation, born in Ajo, told us that there is a consistent rumor about eminent domain.
“That’s always a question with the native lands in America, is, you know, is because the government feels they gave it to them, they probably feel they can take it back. And that’s a huge concern, you know, to native nations around here.”
NARRATOR: Rivas finds the current situation of Central American immigrants to be similar to the infamous boarding system, which the US government imposed on native communities all over North America.
Tohono O’odham Elder
“I don’t listen to the news because of the children dying in prisons, and the women getting raped or, you know, all this displacement of families, you know. And I mean, it reminds me of the boarding school system.
My aunt who was probably 12, was removed from home and got sent to New Mexico early on, when boarding school happened.
I was taken to Nevada for boarding school, so that … we understand that, and that is all we can do, send our prayers, because we know how the system works and what has happened to indigenous people here on this land.”
NARRATOR: Stay tuned with The Real News Network for more on this issue.