How A Virtual Border Wall Is Taking Over The Tohono O’odham Nation


When you imagine the nearly 2,000-mile border that separates the U.S. from Mexico, perhaps you think of the Rio Grande River that flows between Texas and Caohuila; the tall steel slats that reach into the Pacific Ocean and divides San Diego and Tijuana; the 18- to 26-foot-tall fence that bisects one city: Nogales, Arizona, and Nogales, Sonora. Or maybe you imagine the log-and-metal fence that cuts through the desert land in the Tohono O’odham Nation. There, high above the short barrier and past the 40-foot saguaro cacti, stand 10 newly erected 160-foot surveillance towers that dot the 62-mile federal border that bisects the reservation.

“We’re a continuous people,” Amy Juan, an activist on the International Indian Treaty Council told MTV News correspondent Yoonj Kim of the tribe, who have lived on the land for centuries. The Tohono O’odham Nation used to stretch 350 miles — from what we know as Phoenix, Arizona, to Hermosillo, Mexico — but federal governments from the U.S. and Mexico both worked to undermine their ownership of their land. Today, the fence separates a number of Tohono O’odham communities, but the barrier is only physical. “Our lands continue just right on the other side of the border,” Juan adds. “And there’s still communities there. It’s still a living community, even though we’ve been divided by the border for so long.”

In order to function as a singular community, the tribe’s nearly 30,000 members retain the right to freely go back and forth between the two countries as long as they present their tribal ID to border authorities. But newly implemented surveillance technology is threatening to infringe on their privacy and civil liberties, though Juan isn’t too surprised. “Our area has kind of always been a testing site for different kinds of technology for tracking people and tracking movements,” she said.

According to AZPM, one of southern Arizona’s NPR stations, the new surveillance towers have high-definition 360-degree swivel cameras with night vision, remote zoom capabilities, and sensory technology that detects movement along the border and sends real-time data to Customs and Border Patrol agents miles away. The Intercept reported that they can store an archive with the ability to rewind and track people’s movements — “an ability known as ‘wide-area persistent surveillance.’” What’s more, these towers are produced by the same contractor that’s militarized the Israel-Palestine border. Built by the U.S. division of Israeli defense company Elbit Systems, the total cost of the towers was an estimated $26 million, according to a news release. The Arizona Daily Star reports the company’s towers operate across Arizona, including in Nogales, Douglas, and Sonoita.

Our area has kind of always been a testing site for different kinds of technology for tracking people and tracking movements.

Because of the arrangements between the U.S. and the Tohono O’odham Nation, the tribal nation has had to make concessions — including the size and share of their own land and border patrol presence on it, and now, with these towers. On March 22, the Tohono O’odham Tribal legislative council voted to approve Customs and Border Protection’s plan to build them, and on June 26, Elbit announced it would be deploying the surveillance tools. Verlon Jose, then-tribal vice chair, told the Los Angeles Times that one of the reasons they decided to vote to allow the towers was to dissuade the Trump administration from building a taller border wall across their lands.

As USA Today reports, the tribe has been through a few different iterations of a wall of any kind. In the mid-2000s, the tribal council allowed the federal government to build a small vehicle barrier that would still allow space for wildlife and people to cross through. Then, after the September 11 terrorist attacks, then-President George W. Bush signed the Secure Fence Act, which removed the barbed-wire fence and replaced it with the line of thick metal posts which still stand today.

As Jose sees it, the Tohono O’odham Nation is “only as sovereign as the federal government allows us to be.”

It’s not clear if the towers would actually eliminate the Trump administration’s push for a wall on their land, though. When Kim asked Kendal Jose, the Vice President Chairman of the Chuku Kuk District of the Tohono O’odham Nation, if the government could still, theoretically, build a wall even after the towers were placed, he said: “You know, I guess that they could. I guess in the name of border security, they can do it.”

Gregg Conde

Your privacy is basically invaded 24/7. And with these integrated fixed towers that’s even adding onto it.

The towers are just one recent example of the Tohono O’odham Nation negotiating their quality of life with the U.S. government, and existing border patrol presence and growing surveillance has created tension and fear across the reservation. When MTV News traveled to the national border that bisects the Nation, we met with a number of tribal members who are growing increasingly concerned about their safety and privacy. Raeshaun Ramon recently found a hidden camera in the trees near his house that disappeared soon after his discovery; he believes CBP members quickly removed the device when they realized its location had been compromised.

“We’re really under surveillance 24/7,” Samuel Lopez, the Vice President of the Tohono O’odham Youth Council, told MTV News, adding: “Your privacy is basically invaded 24/7. And with these integrated fixed towers that’s even adding onto it.”



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