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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 3)

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.”

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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.


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