Off a shrubby desert rural roadway about 10 miles north of Nogales, Arizona, a surveillance tower’s metallic glare beamed in the sun, sticking out like a cellular antenna from a distant bluff about a mile away. “There it is up ahead,” I pointed, leaning forward from the back seat of the car.
In the driver’s seat and passenger side sat two visitors on a national speaking tour for the Addameer prisoner support group based in Ramallah, Palestine. One of them, Lana Ramadan, had expressed astonishment when I’d met her the night before about what she had learned during her visit to Southern Arizona, where she’d met with an Arizona prisoner support group. She was amazed at the similarities between Arizona and the prison situation in Palestine, where Israel has incarcerated up to 40 percent of Palestinian men since 1967, and 8,000 children since 2000, in the backdrop of a decades-long military occupation and ongoing colonial settlement. Everything Ramadan was seeing was Southern Arizona’s small but key part along the U.S.-Mexico border, where the Trump administration was locking up a record number of children and separating them from their families. Add to that the fact that Arizona’s own prison system has achieved the fourth-highest incarceration rate in the world, while the U.S. as a whole locks up more people of color than South Africa under apartheid.
The first time I saw this tower, I told the visitors, was January 2015. Journalist and author Todd Miller and I had just completed an investigation for TomDispatch about a contract for a new 53-tower Integrated Fixed Towers (IFT) security project, known in shorthand as a “virtual wall,” by Customs and Border Protection and awarded to Israel’s largest weapons manufacturer, Elbit Systems, through its U.S. subsidiary, Elbit Systems of America.
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Israel’s Elbit Systems surveillance towers in Palestine (L) and US-Mexico borderlands (R) pic.twitter.com/fQhdoUORKj
— Max Blumenthal (@MaxBlumenthal) January 28, 2015
Customs and Border Protection hadn’t confirmed whether the towers were being constructed or not, even though nearly a year had passed since the contract’s announcement in February 2014, and our article went to press without the confirmation. But just a day or two after publication, we got a tip from a local hiker who, while traversing one of his usual trails, saw a tower that wasn’t there before, which looked like the ones we described in our article.
So off we went, piled in a car with a couple of visiting journalists, to follow the lead. We had a hunch that one of the towers was being erected already.
As President Trump and the mainstream media still talk of “the wall” in the future tense, we must remember that multiple layers of barrier enforcement have already been increasingly scarring the borderlands. The first “virtual wall,” known as the “Secure Border Initiative Network,” or SBInet, got awarded to Boeing (with Elbit as a subcontractor) in 2006 under the George W. Bush administration’s “Secure Fence Act.” In 2011, it was scrapped by the Obama administration, because it failed to provide “a single, integrated border security solution,” according to a former Arizona governor who was then Obama’s homeland security secretary. With the new towers, the government appears convinced that Elbit has “fixed” the problem, so to speak.
When Death Is Called “Deterrence”
The tower was right where the hiker said it would be. We knew we had come to the right place when, as soon as we parked at the base of a trail leading up to the tower site, we heard ahead of us the howling engine of a Caterpillar bulldozer. It slowly scaled its way up the hillside, and we followed on foot after it.
Caterpillar bulldozer heads up to site where Israel’s Elbit Systems builds a surveillance tower on US-Mexico border pic.twitter.com/FtVigDgRkv
— Todd Miller (@memomiller) January 28, 2015
That day in 2015, the Elbit tower, now allegedly an “integrated” improvement over its failed predecessor, was under construction atop one of the remote peaks and hills in the wilderness area. As Miller, the visiting journalists and I finished hiking up the 20-minute winding path to the summit, we saw a gaggle of workers in neon reflective vests milling around the construction site. The area was marshaled by a single man. Armed with a sidearm holstered on his military-issue utility belt, he was dressed in camouflage pants, black army boots, a Kevlar combat helmet and a cherry-red T-shirt. His bushy handlebar mustache stamped a permanent grimace under his mirrored sunglasses.
As we approached, the hard earth crunching below our feet, the security agent and a few of the workers walked up to us and asked who we were and what we were doing there.
As we looked at each other, figuring out what to say, the surveillance tower loomed high above us in the still air. A worker perched atop the tower, spoke to one of his co-workers below. I could hear him as clearly as if he spoke three feet away — a testament to the remoteness of the location where border-crossers deal with the “mortal danger” by design of the Border Patrol’s “deterrence” strategy begun under the Clinton administration.
Deterrence strategy deploys agents as well as high-tech and barrier infrastructure in urban areas to steer migration routes into the remote and hazardous terrain of Southern Arizona, where the “mortal danger” of the desert acts as a deterrent, in the words of a 1994 Border Patrol planning document. In other words, the strategy uses deadly geography as an “ally” (according to an early strategic planner, Doris Meissner) to “deter” border-crossers. One Border Patrol agent described this strategy to Miller as putting “choke points” in the desert, across which it is impossible to bring enough water for the days-long journey. More than 7,000 human remains have been recovered since the strategy was deployed in the 1990s, and many, many families are still in search of their lost loved ones, suggesting the actual death count is much higher.
The Elbit tower project has inherited this deadly legacy of U.S. border militarization. SBInet, the Bush-era predecessor to today’s IFT towers, was the subject of a recent academic study employing archeological and military science methodology to search for any differences in death rates before and after SBInet’s deployment. The study found a meaningful and measurable shift in the location of human remains toward routes of travel outside the visual range of the SBInet system, routes that simultaneously required much greater physical exertion, thus increasing peoples’ vulnerability to injury, isolation, dehydration, hyperthermia and exhaustion.
“In short,” the scholars — Geoffrey Boyce, Samuel Chambers and Sarah Launius — conclude, “our findings affirm that surveillance programs like SBInet work not only to increase rates of detection or interdiction, but also operate in concert with the rugged desert climate and terrain to maximize the hardship and suffering inflicted on unauthorized migrants,” including “an increase in the rate of mortality among authorized border crossers over time.”
The study found that the presence of the towers alone appears to be enough to steer border crossers further into the “mortal” reaches of the desert.
In an interview included in Miller’s forthcoming book, Empire of Borders: The Expansion of the US Border Around the World (Verso, July 2019), one Border Patrol agent boasted that the towers were a “force multiplier” and one tower could do the work of 100 agents, stressing the ground-sweeping radar. The towers are designed to synchronize with each other to create an electronic surveillance wall reinforced by the more than 12,000 implanted motion sensors along the U.S.-Mexico divide. Another Border Patrol agent, who liaises with the nearby Tohono O’odham Nation where more towers are slated to crop up, described to the Los Angeles Times in May that the power of the towers is like “turning on a light in a dark room.” If a sensor is tripped, a beeping sound goes off in the command center where agents watch the monitors. And if one of the unmanned aerial vehicles — drones used on the undeclared U.S. battlefields of the greater Middle East — spots something, agents would also be alerted.
In environmental terms, the tower, roadway and Border Patrol presence scar the southwestern edge of the Coronado National Forest, amid a binge of environmental degradation that enjoys free rein by a hefty stack of national security waivers to build roads and walls, first passed under the George W. Bush administration and continued under President Obama, with President Trump adding even more.
Elbit in Arizona: “10+ Years Securing the World’s Most Challenging Border”
Back at the tower site in 2015, the construction workers and security guard were waiting for our answer to their question about what we were doing there. We told them we were just taking a hike and asked them if they were working for Elbit, and if this was one of the Elbit towers. We heard one of the workers inform his coworkers that we wanted to know about Elbit, suggesting that Elbit was their employer. The conversational atmosphere nevertheless stayed cordial. The security guard later posed — like a conqueror with one leg up on the raised earth, his arms akimbo on his heavy-duty tactical belt — when we wanted to take a photo of the tower. His cherry-red T-shirt read, “International Towers,” one of Elbit’s subcontractors.
Found one of the surveillance towers on US-Mexico border made by Israel’s Elbit Systems and funded by DHS contract pic.twitter.com/08uE1KtMK4
— Max Blumenthal (@MaxBlumenthal) January 27, 2015
Elbit enjoys an advertising claim to fame in selling its products: “10+ years securing the world’s most challenging border.” The gigantic Elbit Systems operates a multitude of subsidiaries from Europe and Latin America, its U.S. subsidiary based in Texas. This way, Elbit fits into a larger system of industrialists that leads the world in military and homeland security production per capita. For arms manufacturers, there’s plenty of business to go around, with meteoric world markets in boundary-building valued at $526 billion in 2017 and estimated to strike $742 billion by 2023.
The differences between the Israeli arms industry and the U.S. arms industry are illuminating. In sheer volume and financial resources, the U.S. arms industry is gargantuan, far larger than Israel’s and every nation in the world. But in unit terms, Israel is twice the size of the U.S. in arms exports per capita. Israel also employs double the percentage of its national workforce to arms-mongering than the U.S. And Israel has 500+ percent greater per-GDP from arms exports, according to political economist Shir Hever’s leading work on this topic.
The Palestinian territories, especially Gaza, act as Israel’s whetstone for its advanced homeland security industry. In April 2018, Saar Koursh, then the CEO of Magal Systems — a contender for President Donald Trump’s proposed additions to surveillance infrastructure on the U.S.-Mexico border — was even reported as having described Gaza as a “showroom” for the company’s “smart fences” whose customers “appreciate that the products are battle-tested.”
What’s more, plenty of global customers are sold on the idea, including those that Amnesty International recently condemned as “questionable states and dictatorial or unstable regimes” like Mexico, the Philippines, United Arab Emirates, and others. Profit margins reflect it. “Magal’s U.S. traded shares jumped in late 2016 as Trump talked about a Mexican border wall,” according to Bloomberg. During the first month of Israel’s 2014 attack on Gaza, Elbit’s share price increased by 6.1 percent. More than 2,200 Palestinians were killed in that attack.
On O’odham Lands; More to Come
Nearly four years after the Elbit tower was first constructed and had been long up and running, I arrived at the tower with Lana Ramadan and her colleague from Addameer. There were no guards or workers this time.
The tower lay atop its remote hill overlooking a magnificent valley. Its construction long complete, the tower is now protected by a fenced enclosure and bolstered by a propane tank and solar panels.
Although this tower near Nogales was among the first erected, Border Patrol has long had its sights on the nearby Tohono O’odham reservation, the second-largest Native reservation in the U.S. in land mass, however shrunken by nation-state conquest by Mexico and the United States.
To be sure, the tribal government collaborates extensively with Border Patrol. Through a long-established presence of mobile towers, cameras and sensors, checkpoints, vehicle barriers and substations — including a remote “forward-operating base” modeled on U.S. military bases in the Middle East — the tribal government has worked with the agency as it has deployed the largest concentration of federal troops on O’odham lands in U.S. history, as Miller writes in his book, Border Patrol Nation.
Border Patrol has been trying to get “virtual wall” towers on the O’odham Nation land since the first installment of towers during the Obama era but faced constant resistance from O’odham communities. That changed this past March when Border Patrol quietly got a victory when the nation’s legislative council unanimously approved an expansion of 10 towers on O’odham lands while many community members were at an important ceremonial run.
By 2017, according to Customs and Border Protection, nearly all the 53 towers slated for the project had been built, or were about to be built. Construction of the remaining towers on O’odham lands is expected to begin as early as October 2019. But even without that impending expansion, the “virtual wall expands away from the international boundary, deep into the interior of the country,” Miller wrote recently at In These Times.
Ramadan didn’t expect the permanent checkpoint we encountered on the way back to Tucson, Arizona, some 65 miles, as the crow flies, from the border. “This is normal for me,” she said. “I get stopped on checkpoints in the same manner and harsher in Palestine. It just felt strange that it is also happening … in the U.S.”