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They Are Watching You

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Posted on Apr 24, 2014

Photo by Edith Soto (CC BY-SA 2.0)

By Todd Miller, TomDispatch

(Page 2)

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.

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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.


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