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Tribe Uneasy About Border Surveillance Plans on Their Land

Tensions are high on the Tohono O’odham Nation, where Border Patrol has proposed high-tech surveillance towers.

As a member of Southern Arizona’s Tohono O’odham Tribe, Ofelia Rivas uses Native-language names for the desert outside her adobe home and the animals that inhabit it. She has names for the stoic cactus, for the furrowed bluffs, for the humbling, boundless horizons.

She also has a name for plans by US Customs and Border Protection — parent agency of the Border Patrol — to build a huge surveillance tower on a sacred mountain near her village in the Gu-Vo District of the Tohono O’odham Nation. That epithet, however, tumbles out in precise English: “Lawless,” she says, simply. “We’re in an area that’s completely lawless.”

Now, this might sound counter-intuitive on a 4,500-square-mile reservation that shares 75 miles of borderline with Mexico and is subsequently overrun with hundreds of Border Patrol agents. But in such a remote place, so far from the public gaze, she says the federal government can pretty much do as it wants — such as ignoring the Tohono O’odham Nation’s sovereign rights and trampling the civil liberties of its nearly 30,000 residents.

Still, that doesn’t stop her and other villagers in the sparsely-populated Gu-Vo district from fighting back — and perhaps even stopping the huge tower from intruding on their lives. Instead, Gu-Vo’s staunch opposition to the project may finally pry loose the Border Patrol’s long-running domination of Tohono O’odham life.

The tower is part of the $700 million Arizona Border Surveillance Technology Plan, a decade-long deployment of cutting-edge gadgetry, from infrared cameras and heat sensors to radar that detects low-flying, ultra-light planes used to ferry drugs from Mexico. In total, the federal government intends to build 52 of these Integrated Fixed Towers along the Arizona-Mexico border, with 15 slated for the Tohono O’odham Nation. Customs and Border Protection recently awarded a $145 million construction contract to the American subsidiary of Israeli defense-industry giant Elbit Systems to construct the towers. Elbit is best known for its precision surveillance equipment — an expertise honed on the tense borderland between Israel and the Palestinian territories.

Rivas has lived nearly her whole life in Ali Jegk, a small, unpaved settlement of adobe and wood-frame houses, hard against the hills and just a quarter-mile from Mexico. It’s a place where internet connections are rare and cell phone reception is spotty. In this low-tech hamlet encircled by ancient sacred sites, the notion of cameras peering down night and day is inconceivable. That’s in addition to the government drones already buzzing O’odham villages, the agents constantly gazing from inside idling trucks, the mobile cameras rising among spindly mesquite trees, and the Border Patrol checkpoints waiting on every outbound highway.

The towers could be considered just another aggravation of this intensely fortified landscape. Yet they have stirred long-simmering tensions on a reservation struggling to balance rapacious border security with a timeless way of life. Rivas says the balance has already tipped too far in the government’s favor. “This is O’odham land. It’s part of our culture. The mountain where they want to put the tower is a part of us, too.”

In a statement, CBP says the project is moving forward and denies running roughshod over sacred sites and ancestral remains, as claimed by Rivas and others. “Customs and Border Protection understands and values the importance of protecting culturally sensitive sites, and all proposed IFT sites have been fully cleared by the Tohono O’odham Nation’s Tribal Historic Preservation Officer and biologists,” the statement says. “All findings were shared with the Gu Vo and Chukut Kuk districts and the Tohono O’odham Nation. In the past five years, with cooperation and input from both districts, CBP was able to select IFT tower sites that do not impact cultural sensitivities, as designated by the Tohono O’odham nation.”

The arrival of this advanced surveillance points to a steadily growing, warlike posture along our national boundaries, according to Timothy Dunn, author of The Militarization of the US Mexico Border 1978-1992: Low Intensity Conflict Doctrine Comes Home. “It’s just the latest rendition of a long progression,” he says, adding that Tohono O’odham resistance may face tough odds against the border-wall rhetoric of President-elect Donald Trump. “I’ve got a feeling,” Dunn says, “that the next administration is not going to give a damn what they want.”

Lee Maril is a sociologist at East Carolina University in Greenville, where he researches the costs — monetary and human — of huge border-security projects. He says the tower cameras can see for 10 miles or more and even use infrared imaging that can peer through walls into homes. “I don’t want to exaggerate, but if you have one of these next to a community, there’s not a whole lot it can’t see.”

However, the towers are just one part of an extremely sophisticated “virtual wall” envisioned by CBP, including vehicle-mounted surveillance systems, laser range-finders and GPS tracking. All of it will presumably be deployed on the Tohono O’odham Nation.

That’s a lot of high-tech hardware for a remote, rustic reservation. Still, out here, attitudes about CBP and its whiz-bang technology are complicated, even divisive.

Since the small Tohono O’odham Police Department is thinly spread across the huge reservation, Border Patrol agents are often the first responders in isolated communities that are routinely threatened by armed smugglers or bandits from Mexico. It’s a fraught co-dependency dating back almost 20 years to when the Patrol began pushing illegal cross-border traffic away from urbanized ports-of-entry and deeper into rugged desert areas where people could be caught more easily.

That led to a deluge of illegal immigration and drug smuggling across the Tohono O’odham Nation. By 2004, then-Tribal Vice Chairman Ned Norris was sitting before a US Senate committee asking for help. His request was quickly fulfilled, as Border Patrol agents spilled onto the reservation, and plans were laid for two military-style outposts in busy smuggling areas.

Though illegal immigration eventually waned, narcotics trafficking did not. In fiscal year 2015, there were 301 recorded drug offenses and nearly 370,000 pounds of marijuana seized on the Tohono O’odham Nation.

This has led to a delicate political dance. Despite steady complaints about heavy-handed agents (the ACLU calls the reservation “ground zero” for Border Patrol abuses), the Tohono O’odham rarely opposes federal security initiatives. Why is this so? One reason lies in the tribe’s deep dependency upon Border Patrol protection. Another is the millions of dollars it receives each year from federal law-enforcement grants. In 2013, the Legislative Council essentially green-lighted the tower project by approving an environmental impact assessment. The sole dissenting vote came from the Gu-Vo District, which now threatens to gum up the federal government’s best-laid plans.

Gu-Vo is one of two Tohono O’odham districts abutting the Mexican border. The other, Chukut Kuk, largely supports the massive federal presence, including the tower project. A spokesman for the tribal chairman didn’t respond to numerous requests for comment, illuminating the sensitivity of these issues. Calls to Chukut Kuk District offices similarly went unanswered. But according to one Chukut Kuk resident, a woodcutter named Shawn Miguel, he and his neighbors believe the towers will deter crime. “We were open to it as soon as the Border Patrol brought it up,” he says. “We’re just concerned about (criminal) activity.”

Miguel concedes that the Border Patrol could do a better job of relationship-building. “They make all these promises, but they didn’t really keep up their end of it,” he says. “When they first came out here, they said that they would go to community events, get to know the kids, and be familiar with the community. But they don’t do that. They come out here and shine their lights in our faces and ask us who we are. More like harassing us than getting along with us.”

That last sentiment is easy to find in neighboring Gu-Vo, which includes the village of Ali Jegk. But Gu-Vo has gone a step further, with its strong opposition to the surveillance towers. When reached by phone, District Chairman Rodrick Manuel declined to comment. But in a letter to CBP officials, he outlined the concerns of residents such as Ofelia Rivas. “The Gu-Vo District opposes the proposed towers as the Border Patrol (has) not provided sufficient responses nor data on human, animal and plant life effects by micro radiation emissions produced by proposed tower technology,” Manuel wrote. “Gu-Vo District further opposes the proposed towers as all our community members will be subjected to continuous surveillance.

“The proposed towers threaten Ta’k Va’vak, the Ajo Mountain range that is sacred to our existence as O’odham People,” he continued, as “it holds and protects not just our ceremonial items…and the remains of our holy medicine people but elements of great concern to the Well Being of all O’odham people.”

So far, this fierce opposition seems to have slowed — if not outright stopped — a pivotal project from moving forward. One sign of that is the delayed release of the CBP’s final environmental assessment, which still remains under wraps nearly a year after the draft was published.

No matter the reason, Ofelia Rivas would consider it a blessing. “At first, they just said the towers would be for communications,” she recalls. “And then later, they said, ‘Oh we’re also going to have some cameras and video.’ They’re going to be able to see through my house and see what I’m doing with those cameras.”

But the invasion of privacy isn’t her only concern. There is also the militaristic occupation of her spiritual universe. “Anywhere they put a tower on that mountain is a part of us, the land, the plants, the animals,” she says. “When people come here and disregard everything, it affects us on a deeper level than they’ll ever understand.”

However, if one trait marks the Tohono O’odham people, it is a determined patience honed by their rugged desert home. It is that patience, one senses, that will ultimately keep Big Brother at bay.

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