I had a feeling when former Tohono O’odham tribal councilman David Garcia opened up the gate on the U.S.-Mexico boundary that it would attract the attention of the U.S. Border Patrol. We were in an isolated area near Papago Farms in late June, in the western corner of the Tohono O’odham reservation in southern Arizona, just across the international divide with Mexico. Up the rutted dirt road about a mile was a Border Patrol’s “Forward Operating Base,” one of three such bases in the Tucson Sector. The Pentagon commonly uses Forward Operating Bases in Iraq and Afghanistan as “secured military positions” to facilitate tactical operations. Their use in the U.S.-Mexico borderlands, a region treated as a war zone of sorts, is on the rise.
This ongoing militarization of the borderlands, and the territory of the Tohono O’odham Nation in particular, has alarmed many, most prominently the six Tohono O’odham and Navajo activists who locked themselves down on May 21, 2010 at the Border Patrol Tucson Sector headquarters. Supporters of the BP6, as they became known, draped a banner that said “Stop Militarization on Indigenous Lands Now” over the plate-glass in front of the Border Patrol receptionist (see video below). They were arrested, prosecuted, and after more than a year in the courts, on June 29, the judge ruled that they were not guilty on the disorderly conduct charge that remained (an earlier trespassing charge had been dropped). But the surprising defeat of the Obama administration does not signal de-escalation of the militarization of the borderlands. Indeed, with Garcia I witnessed that the boundary enforcement apparatus they were protesting, and its potential for abuse, was as strong as ever.
After Garcia opened the gate, and Mexico appeared unimpeded behind him, I knew it was just a matter of time before federal agents would come. The gate was between the vehicle barriers the Department of Homeland Security constructed after the The Secure Fence Act of 2006. The vehicle barriers are closely-set posts sunk in concrete, spanning the 75 miles of border the Nation shares with Mexico. Garcia told me that before the barrier construction there were eight crossing points for the Tohono O’odham along the international boundary that divided their aboriginal land. “Now there are only two,” Garcia said, “and Homeland Security didn’t even want that many.”
Again I looked back in search of Border Patrol, but I saw nothing but the heat waves coming up from the ground from the scorching late-morning sun. Forecasters were predicting a 110 degree day, the hottest of the year. Even five minutes in this heat was enough to push us back into the air-conditioned car. It would be very close to here, one week later on June 29, that agents would discover the remains of five migrants on a single day.
We saw the Border Patrol coming for us when we got back on the road and headed north. The vehicle was a mile away coming at us, driving fast, kicking up a cloud of dust. Garcia and I looked at each other, knowing what was about to happen. When they were within 30 feet the green and white SUV skidded to a dramatic stop with its siren blaring. Two officers jumped out of the car, clearly agitated.
“They don’t have to do that,” Garcia said un-amused as I stopped the car.
One agent circled around to the back of our car to call in the license plate. The other approached the window. I thought I could feel the frenetic, potentially trigger-happy law-enforcement adrenaline in the air. I wondered if the agent had recently been in Afghanistan or Iraq, since the Department of Homeland Security had made it a priority to recruit veterans.
“What are you doing?” he asked us. It was a question that sounded like a command.
“We went to look at the border,” I replied.
“Why?” he asked.
“To report about what’s happening there. I live in New York City.”
“How do you know each other?”
“Through a friend,” I replied.
“Oh yeah, do you have a lot of friends in New York City?” the agent asked Garcia. His tone was sarcastic, as if our story didn’t jive, as if it would be impossible for this Tohono O’odham man to have friends in New York.
“Can I see your identification?” He asked the darker-skinned Garcia, not me. Garcia pulled out his tribal membership card. The agent didn’t seem to believe it was him, and he looked from the photo to Garcia several times.
“It’s me,” Garcia said.
“And who is this friend?” the agent responded, still insinuating that we were making up the story about the mutual friend. But there was something else to his tone, despite Garcia’s tribal membership or maybe because of it. His tone was one of ”We are the ones in control here,” like he really was part of the "occupying force" described by O'odham Mike Wilson in a previous post. These agents were confirming one of the very things that the BP6 were protesting, and the source of many Tohono O’odham complaints about the Border Patrol presence – that Border Patrol constantly pull over and harass O’odham, and many assert that it is due to the color of their skin. Many also complain about the Border Patrol’s detainment of Nation members, as well as its high-speed driving on reservation roads and tail-gating, its check-points on roads, and deportations of Mexican members of the Nation.
But such matters only superficially reflect the abusive power wielded on the Nation by the agents of the U.S. Homeland Security state. When the agent took my driver’s license and Garcia’s identification to do a criminal record check, there was a feeling, for five uncomfortable minutes, that they could do anything to us. We were in a Homeland Security zone, an area along the same boundary where the federal government has been able to waive laws at will, including critical laws that protect the environment and Native American heritage, to "secure our borders." It was as if we were in a place where all rights were dissolved.
This was further confirmed when they threatened to confiscate my camera if I were to take a picture of the Forward Operating Base.
“Why?” I asked, that seemed like a clear violation of my rights.
“National security,” the agent replied. National security? Indeed, that justification was the blank check. Of course they could confiscate my camera.
“They think they can do anything,” Garcia told me when they finally let us go. He called the Casa Grande Border Patrol station to report harassment. For the rest of that hot June day, I had an even deeper understanding of what could drive people to go to the Tucson Sector headquarters and lock themselves down.
And I wondered what would’ve happened had the Border Patrol encountered a dark-skinned undocumented migrant from Michoacán in this isolated region of the borderlands, instead of a white male who lived in New York City.