After Years of Tribal Resistance, DHS Finishes its “Virtual Wall” on the Tohono O’odham Nation
An all-day quest led me to the final of the 10 towers built on native land. "You never know when you’re being watched,” said a resident.
When I come across surveillance towers in the borderlands, I first look to see if there are any communities, towns, or houses in its view. I did this on Monday, on the Tohono O’odham Nation in the southern Arizona borderlands, when I found an “integrated fixed tower,” built by the Israeli company Elbit Systems. It took me, two other journalists, and O’odham member Raymond Daukei all day to find it. I could see that homes in Topawa—a community of 380 people backed by the verdant western side of the muscular Baboquivari mountain range—were easily in range of the tower’s sophisticated camera system, which can see up to seven and a half miles. From where I stood amid creosote and cholla cacti, the sweeping view was not to the south toward the border, but to the east and the interior of the reservation, which is the size of Connecticut.
This wasn’t any tower; it was the last tower. The Tohono O’odham Nation is the final region of—and had put up the most resistance to—the construction of about 50 IFTs across southern Arizona under a contract that Customs and Border Protection issued to Elbit Systems of America in 2014. During the proposal period, Elbit advertised itself as having “10+ years securing the world’s most challenging borders,” an oblique reference to the Palestinian Occupied Territories.
The IFTs were designed to be the backbone of the U.S. border surveillance system, referred to sometimes as the “virtual wall” by officials, a layer of technological enforcement purposely positioned in the interior, usually five to 10 miles (and sometimes further) from the border. They were equipped with night vision and thermal cameras and a ground-sweeping radar system. In 2018 Border Patrol agent Jacob Stukenberg told me the radar was “far superior than anything else we’ve had before,” and that “one agent can surveil an area that it might take 100 agents on foot to surveil.” The feeds from these towers, other camera systems, and motion sensors were displayed on monitors in command-and-control centers located along the U.S.-Mexico border (and increasingly on agent’s individual cell phones), and they were supported by drone surveillance.
We came to the Tohono O’odham Nation because, as far as I could see, there had been no reporting about the construction of these new towers, even though they had been quite controversial. We wanted to see them with our own eyes. Our quest started in Sells, the capital of the Nation, where we met briefly with the chair and vicechair of the Chukut Kuk District, Elaine Delahanty and Kendall Jose. (Daukei told me later that Chukut Kuk means “sound of the owl” in O’odham). The district is one of two on the Nation that border Mexico; and between the two there is a population of about 2,000 (though there are many who also live off the reservation). The first thing Jose told us was that the O’odham people never consented to the United States’ construction of the border in the mid-19th century. The international boundary bisected traditional O’odham land, which reached hundreds of miles to the south into Mexico (as far as Hermosillo) and over 100 miles to the north (to Phoenix).
The Chukut Kuk officials confirmed that the towers had been built, and that the “company had turned it over to DHS” in the spring. There were 10 towers designated for the Tohono O’odham Nation, eight of them for this district. They were so newly deployed that O’odham officials hadn’t received the first quarterly report from CBP about the tower’s “effectiveness.”
On top of that, when I checked the contract later, I found out that on that very day (August 29), CBP had closed the 2014 contract with its final $63,555 payment to Elbit Systems. The original $140 million contract had expanded to a total of $218 million. I was also there at the beginning. In January 2015, along with some other journalists, I climbed up a steep hill in Nogales and witnessed the construction of one of the first towers. There, we met a husky man with a handgun strapped to his side. He wore a combat helmet and a T-shirt that said International Towers (a Tucson-based company that was subcontracted by Elbit). He blocked us from going any farther. It had been nearly eight years of watching this contract play out.
One of the towers, we heard, was near the small community of Newfield. This meant going down Highway 19, a bumpy, two-lane road that goes from Sells about 27 miles.
It didn’t take us long to have a minor run-in with Border Patrol. It happened because the first IFT we saw was right off Highway 19 at the Law Enforcement Center, a fortified complex shared by the Border Patrol and the Tohono O’odham Police Department. We pulled into the road leading to the center to try to get a picture of the tower, but quickly realized that was not such a wise move when a large Border Patrol van pulled behind us. A three-point turn to get us out of there did not stop the sunburned agent from wanting to talk to us. “Are you aware that you are trespassing on Tohono O’odham land?” Without missing a beat, Daukei rolled down his window and informed the agent that he was a member of the Tohono O’odham Nation.
In 2017, CBP’s chief acquisition officer, Mark Borkowski, gave a rosy report about the IFTs in Arizona, saying they had almost all been constructed around Douglas, Nogales, Ajo, and Sonoita. The only holdout, he said at the Border Security Expo in San Antonio that I attended, was on the Tohono O’odham Nation. That same year, the border district of GuVo was in open resistance and passed a resolution opposing the towers. From 2015 to 2018 in Chukut Kuk, district member Joshua Garcia did more than 30 workshops on the IFTs—discussing federal government encroachment on O’odham lands, health consequences, loss of control of local roads, and racist border policing—because he felt people were getting just the CBP version. Also in 2017, two Tohono O’odham members, Amy Juan and Nellie Jo David, went to a community in the West Bank where the Elbit towers had been deployed and talked directly with Palestinian community members about their experience. “They said that the IFTs were first tested on them and used against them,” David told me in 2019. The community members described the constant buzzing sounds and the sense of being constantly watched.
In 2019, however, when the IFTs came to a vote in the Tohono O’odham legislative council, which I attended along with O’odham elder David Garcia, the decision was unanimously in favor, even from the GuVo district representatives who had previously been in opposition. On Monday, Kendall Jose of the Chukut Kuk district emphasized to us that the towers could help track people and quell border crime. He talked about incidents of “guys walking around the border with guns,” and by the time the calls went to the police department and Border Patrol, they had disappeared. “I personally believe if they had the aid of the IFTs at the time,” Jose said, “they would have caught them.”
After the 2019 decision, the towers disappeared from the media. Perhaps the focus was much more on the border wall, or perhaps eventually they became another casualty to the pandemic. It was compelling to see an issue that brought so much debate and controversy simply fall off the radar. For a long time I wondered, Had they been constructed? Deployed?
At the Law Enforcement Center, practically in the shadow of an IFT, the agent let us go, but getting to Newfield was much more difficult than anticipated. The road cut through swaths of ocotillo and forests of saguaro and turned more rutted, tumultuous as we progressed, and then became flat-out impassable. The many flattened black gallon jugs on the dirt road indicated that many migrants were traveling through a place where running out of water seemed deadly under the burning sun as the temperatures soared to triple digits.
Retracing our steps back to Highway 19, we talked to a man who pointed us in the direction of another tower. When we asked him how he felt about the towers, he tried to respond in a measured way, but ultimately said, “You never know when you are being watched.” He did not want to reveal his name.
At this point, finding a tower—besides the one at the law enforcement center—had become a quest in its own right. It was about 5 pm and we had left Tucson a little after 9 am. Following the man’s directions, we went back to the border at San Miguel gate, where there was construction equipment and several piles of gravel. Two workers were moving around in large trucks. According to signs on the equipment, they were employees of Meridian Engineering, a Tucson-based construction company. Later, I saw that they had a $9 million contract for CBP (under the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers) to build a bridge for the Border Patrol on the road next to the vehicle barriers over the Vamori wash. This same company was awarded a similar $19 million contract in 2019 to construct road infrastructure to access the IFTs on the Nation.
I wondered if Meridian Engineering’s Caterpillar bulldozers and excavators working on the bridge were the same equipment that made the road up to the IFT where I started this piece. About five miles up the road, we saw the tower for the first time. It was surrounded by cattle. At the Chukut Kuk District office, Elaine Delahanty had mentioned that people worried about how the towers would affect the livestock. Delahanty also mentioned that people were concerned about privacy. I thought about the many people on the O’odham Nation who, over many years, had complained to me that they were under surveillance. As we stood there at the base of the tower, I heard the buzzing sound the Palestinians described. Daukei mentioned that the tower could see not only Topawa but also Highway 19, including where the man said that he never knew when he was being watched, along with the communities of Cowlic and Vamori. “Big brother is real around here,” Daukei told me. After eight years of following a contract that had come to a close, I had a feeling that the era of the IFT—and other surveillance towers, cameras, robots, and drones, and resistance to them—was just beginning.
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