This story first appeared on the TomDispatch website.
With the agility of a seasoned Border Patrol veteran, the woman rushed after the students. She caught up with them just before they entered the exhibition hall of the eighth annual Border Security Expo, reaching out and grabbing the nearest of them by the shoulder. Slightly out of breath, she said, "You can't go in there, give me back your badges."
The astonished students had barely caught a glimpse of the dazzling pavilion of science-fiction-style products in that exhibition hall at the Phoenix Convention Center. There, just beyond their view, more than 100 companies, including Raytheon, General Dynamics, and Verizon, were trying to sell the latest in futuristic border policing technology to anyone with the money to buy it.
The students from Northeastern Illinois University didn't happen to fall into that category. An earnest manager at a nearby registration table insisted that, as they were not studying "border security," they weren't to be admitted. I asked him how he knew just what they were studying. His only answer was to assure me that next year no students would be allowed in at all.
Among the wonders those students would miss was a fake barrel cactus with a hollow interior (for the southern border) and similarly hollow tree stumps (for the northern border), all capable of being outfitted with surveillance cameras. "Anything that grows or exists in nature," Kurt Lugwisen of TimberSpy told a local Phoenix television station, "we build it."
Nor would those students get to see the miniature drone—"eyes in the sky" for Border Patrol agents—that fits conveniently into a backpack and can be deployed at will; nor would they be able to check out the "technology that might," as one local Phoenix reporter warned, "freak you out." She was talking about facial recognition systems, which in a border scenario would work this way: a person enters a border-crossing gate, where an image of his or her face is instantly checked against a massive facial image database (or the biometric data contained on a passport)."If we need to target on any specific gender or race because we're trying to find a subject, we can set the parameters and the threshold to find that person," Kevin Haskins of Cognitec ("the face recognition company") proudly claimed.
Nor would they be able to observe the strange, two day-long convention hall dance between homeland security, its pockets bursting with their parents' tax dollars, and private industry intent on creating the most massive apparatus of exclusion and surveillance that has ever existed along US borders.
Border Security Expo 2014 catches in one confined space the expansiveness of a "booming" border market. If you include "cross-border terrorism, cyber crime, piracy, [the] drug trade, human trafficking, internal dissent, and separatist movements," all "driving factor[s] for the homeland security market," by 2018 it could reach $544 billion globally. It is here that US Homeland Security officials, local law enforcement, and border forces from all over the world talk contracts with private industry representatives, exhibit their techno-optimism, and begin to hammer out a future of ever more hardened, up-armored national and international boundaries.
The global video surveillance market alone is expected to be a $40 billion industry by 2020, almost three times its $13.5 billion value in 2013. According to projections, 2020 border surveillance cameras will be capturing 3.4 trillion video hours globally. In case you were wondering, that's more than 340 million years of video footage if you were watching 24 hours a day.
But those students, like most of the rest of us, haven't been invited to this high energy, dystopian conversation about our future.
And the rebuff is far from a surprise. It has, after all, been less than a year since Edward Snowden emerged on the scene with a portfolio of NSA documents revealing just how vast our national security state has become and how deeply it has reached into our private lives. It has by now created what the Washington Post's Dana Priest and William Arkin have termed "an alternative geography." And nowhere is this truer than on our borders.
It is in the US borderlands that, as anthropologist Josiah Heyman once wrote, the US government's modern expertise in creating and tracking "a marked population" was first developed and practiced. It involved, he wrote prophetically, "the birth and development of a... means of domination, born of the mating between moral panics about foreigners and drugs, and a well-funded and expert bureaucracy."
You may not be able to watch them at the Border Security Expo, but in those borderlands—make no bones about it—the Department of Homeland Security, with its tripartite missions of drug interdiction, immigration enforcement, and the war on terror, is watching you, whoever you are. And make no bones about this either: our borders are widening and the zones in which the watchers are increasingly free to do whatever they want are growing.
Tracking a Marked Population
It was mid-day in the Arizona heat during the summer of 2012 and Border Patrol agent Benny Longoria (a pseudonym) and his partner are patrolling the reservation of the Tohono O'odham Nation. It's the second largest Native American reservation in the country and, uniquely, shares 76 miles of border with Mexico. The boundary, in fact, slices right through O'odham aboriginal lands. For the approximately 28,000 members of the Nation, several thousand of whom live in Mexico, this international boundary has been a point of contention since 1853, when US surveyors first drew the line. None of the region's original inhabitants were, of course, consulted.
Now Tohono O'odham lands on the US 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, US Customs and Border Protection (CBP) awarded a $145 million contract to that Israeli company through its US 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 US 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 US-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.
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 US-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.