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.
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 US 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."
At her house, Ofelia Rivas tells me a story. One day, she was driving with Tohono O'odham elders towards the US-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 US, 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.
It's here at Border Security Expo 2014 that the future seeds get planted; here that you can dream your corporate dreams unimpeded, sure in the knowledge that yet more money will flow into borders and "protection."
Between the unbridled enthusiasm of the vendors with their techno-optimistic "solutions" and the reality of border life in the Tohono O'odham Nation—or for that matter just about anywhere along the 2,000-mile divide—the chasm couldn't be wider.
On the reservation back in 2012, Longoria called in the GPS coordinates of the unknown dead woman, as so many agents have done in the past and will undoubtedly do in the years to come. Headquarters in Tucson contacted the Tohono O'odham tribal police. The agents waited in the baking heat by the motionless body. When the tribal police pulled up, they took her picture, as they have done with other corpses so many times before. They rolled her over and took another picture. Her body was, by now, deep purple on one side. The tribal police explained to Longoria that it was because the blood settles there. They brought out a plastic body bag.
"Pseudo-speciation," Longoria told me. That, he said, is how they deal with it. He talked about an interview he'd heard with a Vietnam vet on National Public Radio, who said that to deal with the dead in war, "you have to take a person and change his genus. Give him a whole different category. You couldn't stand looking at these bodies, so you detach yourself. You give them a different name that detracts from their humanness."
The tribal police worked with stoic faces. They lifted the body of this woman, whose past life, whose story, whose loved ones were now on another planet, onto a cart attached to an all-terrain vehicle and headed off down a bumpy dirt road with the body bouncing up and down.
When you look at a map that shows where such bodies are recovered in southern Arizona—journalist Margaret Regan has termed it a "killing field"—there is a thick red cluster of dots over the Tohono O'odham reservation. This area has the highest concentration of the more than 2,300 remains recovered in Arizona alone—approximately 6,000 have been found along the whole border—since the Border Patrol began ramping up its "prevention by deterrence policy" in the 1990s. And as Kat Rodriguez of the Colibri Center for Human Rights points out, these numbers are at the low end of actual border deaths, due to the numbers of remains found that have been there for weeks, months, or even years.
When they reached a paved road, Longoria helped lift the woman's body into the back of their police truck. From here the Tohono O'odham tribal police took over. He and his partner continued their shift in a world in which borders are everything and a human death next to nothing at all.
Todd Miller has researched and written about US-Mexican border issues for more than 10 years. He has worked on both sides of the border for BorderLinks in Tucson, Arizona, and Witness for Peace in Oaxaca, Mexico. He now writes on border and immigration issues for NACLA Report on the Americas and its blog "Border Wars," among other places. His first book,Border Patrol Nation: Dispatches From the Front Lines of Homeland Security (City Lights Books), has just been published. You can follow him on twitter @memomiller and view more of his work at toddwmiller.wordpress.com.
Follow TomDispatch on Twitter and join us on Facebook and Tumblr. Check out the newest Dispatch Book, Ann Jones's They Were Soldiers: How the Wounded Return From America's Wars—The Untold Story.To stay on top of important articles like these, sign up to receive the latest updates from TomDispatch.com here.