- While the coronavirus pandemic has shut down a lot of the world, construction on President Trump’s long-touted US-Mexico border wall has continued.
- The US Customs and Border Protection is building 43 miles of 30-foot-high wall through the Organ Pipe Cactus National Monument, in Arizona, on sacred land for the Tohono O’odham people.
- J. Weston Phippen, a writer in New Mexico, visited the wall this spring with Ofelia Rivas, a tribal leader and activist.
- Opponents have long decried the environmental effects and ineffectiveness of a physical barrier, but at some point numbers fail to communicate what – as the O’odham know – always follows a wall.
- Visit Business Insider’s homepage for more stories.
In her favourite memory of Quitobaquito Springs, Ofelia Rivas is a teenager. The elders had agreed to teach her the ceremony, passed through generations of Tohono O’odham warriors, even though she was so young, and a woman. Their car left the highway in Organ Pipe Cactus National Monument just before the US-Mexico border, onto a dirt road that was once a wagon trail. Conquistadors and Jesuit priests exploring the new world had carved the path, though Rivas knew her own people’s history here reached back thousands of years.
From the car’s windows, Rivas looked up at saguaro and organ-pipe cactus that were the tallest she’d ever seen. The desert monsoons had washed boulders and sand across the two-track rut, and the overgrown mesquite branches clawed at the doors with a screech. When they reached Quitobaquito, the elders bent to drink from the water. Then they built a small fire to warm their coffee, because the old men loved coffee, and for the rest of the day Rivas wandered the rocky hills alone, stopping to pray over the graves of her ancestors. As the sun set, she returned to the elders by the still burning fire, where she first learned the blessing for this land.
This spring, when the novel coronavirus was still a distant threat, I returned with Rivas to Quitobaquito. But as we drove the old path, everything had changed. Thirty-foot-long steel poles were being raised for President Donald Trump’s wall in Organ Pipe, two hours southwest of Tucson, Arizona. The contractors working for Customs and Border Protection had scraped a two-lane road over the wagon trail, and their bulldozers and purple Porta-Johns rested in the shadow of the wall. As the road bent around Monument Hill, we lingered beside a white sign with bold red letters that said “Blasting Warning Signals.”
“I can’t believe it,” Rivas, now 63, said as she squinted through her grey-streaked bangs. “There are remains on those mountains.”
The crews were dynamiting this sacred O’odham site to soften the clay for the wall, which, when I visited, stood in spurts for 10 miles from the base of Monument Hill to Quitobaquito. But as of April, while the rest of the nation has sheltered in place, CBP’s construction workers have quickened their pace, completing 15 of 43 planned miles in and around the national monument, exploding the rock, scraping the desert, and felling ancient cactus.
“For us,” tribal chairman Ned Norris told Congress in February, “this is no different than the DHS building a 30-foot wall through Arlington Cemetery.”
Everything from Phoenix to the Sea of Cortez once belonged to the O’odham. And Quitobaquito was the land’s heart. Young men began the yearly salt pilgrimage by its waters, running south for days to wade in the ocean. When the US-Mexico border split their home, in 1853, Quitobaquito remained in O’odham hands by the grace of 200 yards, though many of their people now lived in Mexico.
Even after the US forced the O’odham onto a reservation in 1927 and Quitobaquito passed to federal hands, the ceremonies continued. It was only after 9/11 that it became difficult to bless the springs, when agents in green Border Patrol uniforms stopped Rivas to ask who she was and what purpose she had there.
There were times Rivas could hardly bring herself to give the yearly blessing. It was changing so much from her memory. And somewhere between flying to New York to speak at the United Nations and protesting Border Patrol’s incursion on O’odham land, Rivas let her responsibility to the springs slip. It had been years since she visited.
When I met her in the Organ Pipe visitor-centre parking lot, she was eager to return. Even in spring it was 85 degrees Fahrenheit, harsher still without a cloud in the sky. Rivas greeted me in a colourful ankle-length dress, carrying a water bottle, a bag of ceremonial supplies, and a wooden staff adorned with feathers. She was practically giddy as we set out.
She laughed as we passed two agents chasing a stray dog through the desert. It was a skinny brown mut with its ribs showing, and I’d watched it slip through a gap in the wall earlier. “That’s a serious offence,” Rivas joked. “Crossing without papers.”
As we rounded Monument Hill we stopped, and I told the agents that the dog probably had a home over the border. The nearest town was only a few miles away. But the agents either didn’t hear me or didn’t care, and they kept on after the animal.
As we drove farther, Rivas grew more sullen – at the sight of the wall, of the scraped road. Halfway to the springs Rivas asked me to stop. “Have you seen death?” she asked.
“Like a dead body?” I said.
She didn’t fully explain the question. She just shot me a disappointed look, then said something about having to do the ceremony on her own.
What always follows a wall
The weekend I visited Organ Pipe, the tourists were out in droves, drawn like flies to the flurry of construction at the border, and the newly scraped road. A heavyset man in a cutoff shirt rode a yellow trike motorcycle past us as he steadied a bulldog on his lap. I counted 12 jeeps, some with American-flag stickers on their windows, as their sunburned passengers pointed their phone cameras toward the wall. Sedans and RVs passed us, and with each new vehicle Rivas’ eyes grew wide.
“Wow,” she said. “I can’t believe it.”
From Tucson, the highway to Organ Pipe is almost a straight shot southwest through some of the most remote land in the country. It was once a busy migration corridor. Until 2014, much of the national monument was closed for a decade after drug smugglers killed a park ranger. And while most migration has since moved to Texas, signs near Organ Pipe’s campgrounds still read “Smuggling and Illegal Immigration May Be Encountered in This Area.”
Earlier, I’d watched a tourist couple in a Mercedes-Benz Sprinter van park near the Porta-Johns. A woman with zip-off pants jumped out.
“Can I go to the other side?” she yelled to her husband, who said nothing as she marched toward a gap in the wall.
Between July and September, almost anywhere a wall bisects a wash in the Sonoran desert it clogs with debris during the yearly thunderstorms. This happened three hours to the east, in Nogales, when a torrent flattened sections of wall drowned two people and caused $US8 million in damages. In Organ Pipe, CBP will occasionally open these massive floodgates to let water flow underneath, and that of course means people can flow underneath too.
The woman spread her arms in the gap as she posed for a photo. She stepped back to stare at the gap in the wall, then muttered, “What’s the f—ing point?” as she climbed back into the van. The short answer is that building a wall in Organ Pipe was the easiest option.
After Trump declared a national emergency at the border last year, he bypassed Congress and diverted $US18 billion for wall construction. This section in Organ Pipe will span 43 miles. It crosses a wildlife refuge to the west, spans all of Organ Pipe, and ends at the O’odham Nation. Even though most migrant traffic steers toward Texas these days, there the border follows the Rio Grande, where land is often privately held. Throughout all of Arizona, however, the federal government has owned everything within 60 feet of the border since 1907. With the 15 miles completed in Organ Pipe – at a cost of $US21 million a mile – CBP says it’s built 142 miles of wall along the border under Trump, though some people gripe about this figure.
In places like Organ Pipe, where chest-high metal railing, called a vehicle barrier, was erected in the mid-2000s, some argue Trump has only updated the border fencing. But this ignores how a 30-foot structure, which CBP says is “high enough to inflict severe injury or death from a fall,” will forever change the desert here.
There are the environmental considerations. Organ Pipe is an International Biosphere Reserve, one of only 56 in the US. Twenty-three endangered and at-risk species call the monument home. This desert is also a migration corridor for the jaguar, and the Sonoran pronghorn, which the US has already devoted $US27.3 million to protect. Topped with stadium lights that outshine any nearby town, how the wall will affect these animals is anyone’s guess. Trump waived all environmental laws to speed construction in Organ Pipe with the REAL ID act, a rider in a 2005 bill that funded the Iraq and Afghanistan wars.
The devastation of land, of plants, of animals – these are arguments made most often against the wall in Organ Pipe. They are tangible concerns, many of which the O’odham share. But at some point numbers fail to communicate what’s happening here, and what, as only the O’odham know, always follows a wall.
As Rivas and I continued the drive, we passed chopped saguaro cactus discarded like yard waste. Some looked old enough to predate the border. For generations, saguaro had nourished the O’odham between the dry winters until the summer thunderstorms arrived. To this day the O’odham harvest the saguaro’s fruit. They call it “grandmother” and believe it has a soul.
Defending O’odham land from US militarization
From the awning outside Rivas’ home, I looked out on black mesquite and palo verde trees and orange bursts of wildflowers. Her town, Ali Chuk, means “little clearing” in O’odham, and rests on the western slope of mountains that define Organ Pipe’s border. Mexico was less than a mile south. And to the east was a wrinkled peak called Ve’Ju-Pan.
“As children we climbed all over that mountain,” she said. “We played all day and came home in the evening. No one ever bothered us.”
A cool wind blew north, and Rivas remembered how each Sunday her aunt dragged her by the dress to Catholic church. She’d screamed up the road until she wriggled free from the dress and ran home naked so she could visit the elders with her father. All her life it seemed, someone tried to extinguish this deeply essentially part of her, the O’odham part. But Rivas comes from a long line of rebels. Her dad lived in Mexico, where 2,000 of the 34,000 O’odham still live today, and he carried a gun to defend his land from intruding ranchers, firing the occasional pot shot as a warning. The family’s own cattle are descended from stock Pancho Villa gave to Rivas’ grandfather for his help during the Mexican Revolution. So as a teenager, when the Bureau of Indian Affairs shipped Rivas to the Stewart Indian School, in Nevada, where teachers scolded her for speaking O’odham, she practiced her language on the bus.
In 1993 her father died of a heart attack, a month before she graduated from college. She returned home with the intention of leaving shortly after.
“But there were things that needed to be done culturally that were not being done,” Rivas said. “The politicians here wanted to be American and to follow whatever that means. But we’re O’odham. We have certain obligations.”
I asked what that meant. Rivas pointed to the Ve’Ju-Pan peak.
“My father taught me that this mountain has a name, it has a song, it has an essence of who it is.”
Shortly after Rivas came home, the government built walls in and around the border cities to funnel migration into the deserts. And whereas before some 200 migrants crossed O’odham land each day, now 1,500 came. Drug traffickers, too, tearing over the fenceless border in their trucks. In 2004, the tribal council allowed DHS to build a vehicle barrier on their land. That 4-foot metal fence now marks the international line through Organ Pipe and the O’odham reservation.
But without consulting the tribe, Border Patrol put traffic checkpoints on the highways. The whop-whop-whop of helicopters broke the silent desert nights. The agents, in green uniforms, patrolled O’odham neighbourhoods on foot and tore up the desert in their SUVs.
“Unfortunately,” O’odham chairman Ned Norris, then serving his first term, told the Arizona Daily Star, “there are some bad apples in the basket, and we have some pretty aggressive border agents.”
Rivas became intimate with this change as she helped elders from her father’s hometown cross through a new entry gate nearby. Agents swarmed the old men and women, Rivas said, forcing them on their knees with guns to their heads. “Like you see on TV when they execute people,” she said.
These stories are so common on O’odham land that you begin to think they’re lies. Years ago, I’d interviewed a tribal member thrown to the ground, maced, and held at gunpoint in front of his daughter’s school bus. Agents stormed homes because footprints – migrant footprints, perhaps – led to the property. Border Patrol can detain a driver and search a car for no other reason than it is peak smuggling time. They can strip-search you based on a hunch.
Within 100 miles of the border, basic rights like the Fourth Amendment don’t exist. There’s a war here, what Timothy J. Dunn, a sociology professor at Salisbury University, calls “low-intensity conflict” in his book “The Militarization of the US-Mexico Border.” Dunn borrowed the term from the Pentagon, which had fashioned it to describe battles of ideology fought with or among civilians, where the military takes on a police-like role, and personal rights succumb to the needs of national security. The same month I visited Rivas, her neighbour had found a surveillance camera pointed at the local children’s rec centre, hidden in a gallon jug painted black.
Each night, Rivas sleeps beside a photo of her and Subcomandante Marcos, the philosopher Marxist who led southern Mexico’s indigenous in armed rebellion. She met Marcos in the late ’90s and has since started a nonprofit called O’odham Voice Against the Wall. When DHS ordered more agents to the area, and when the agency broke ground on a new operational base 15 minutes west of the O’odham Nation, in 2010, Rivas protested this incursion of tribal sovereignty. But long before she’d met Marcos, Rivas’ father taught her she’d always need to fight.
“When you’re born Indian,” Rivas told me, “You always have to defend yourself and your land.”
What Rivas wanted to show me most was being built atop Ve’Ju-Pan mountain. We’d swung up the rocky incline and were pointing out red blossoms when I saw a Border Patrol SUV coming toward us on the road below. We had a good jump on them, though, and we continued slowly uphill. As we reached the top, another agent stepped in front of the car. “How’s it going?” he asked kindly. A diesel truck hummed beside him, and in the back was a periscope-looking pole, a mobile surveillance system, outfitted with radar, thermal imaging, and cameras that would probably watched us since we left Rivas’ home. We told the agent we wanted to see where the IFT tower was being built. And again, kindly, he waved us past.
In June of last year, the Israeli defence company Elbit won a $US26 million contract to build 10 integrated fixed towers in O’odham land. Each 160-foot tower can monitor every person within 7.5 miles, day or night, and were “field-proven” in the Gaza Strip and West Bank. The O’odham tribal council approved construction, but the deal seems to have been made under duress. “We’re only as sovereign as the federal government will allow us to be,” Verlon Jose, then the tribal vice chairman, said.
Contractors had staked out only the tower’s base so far, and Rivas walked the perimeter and picked at the native plants. As she chewed on a berry, she asked me if I could see the vehicle-barrier fence below. It was an almost imperceptible clearing in the desert brush.
Prevention through deterrence funnels migrants through the deadly desert onto O’odham land
On March 17, CBP announced 91 more miles of wall planned for Arizona, leaving the largest remaining, fenceless gap on O’odham land. Before this latest news, I’d talked to Todd Miller, a reporter and author who lives in Tucson. It was difficult to reason why, strategically, he said, the government needed a wall in Organ Pipe. It hadn’t been an immigration hotspot in years.
“Honestly,” Miller said, “the only way it does make sense is that Trump wants to build a wall and this is where he can do it. So why not?”
Miller’s latest book, “Empire of Borders,” explained how DHS policy has moved in the opposite direction. The idea was to create “border sets,” as Miller described, that would extend our nation’s border to southern Guatemala, through Panama, and into South America. Today, Miller wrote, “thinking of the border as a single line was ridiculous.” Yet here was Trump’s DHS spending billions on rusty steel poles. “It just seems to me to be very Trumpian,” Miller said. But with the revelation of 91 more miles, it all clicked.
When Rivas returned home after her father’s death, the border policy that pushed migrants onto O’odham land was called “prevention through deterrence.” By walling border towns, the government figured no rational human would choose to walk days through deserts where the temperature reaches 120 for weeks, where the only water for miles is held inside cactus with thorns that shred flesh.
But prevention through deterrence coincided with the collapse of Mexico’s peso, and that same year the North American Free Trade Agreement passed, which decimated Mexico’s rural farmers. So migrants, mostly Mexican at the time, weighed starvation and a future less certain for their children and chose the desert. In maps that plot the fallen migrants with dots, the O’odham nation became a sea of red.
“So if the question is, ‘What does a wall through Organ Pipe do?'” Miller said. “Well, smugglers will find other places without a wall.”
When I asked CBP if it was concerned about funelling migration onto O’odham land with the new wall, the agency said, “In an attempt to circumvent the barrier, violators will often seek out places along the border they perceive as vulnerable.”
More than 7,000 migrants have died on their journey north since prevention through deterrence. And those are only the bodies we’ve recovered. But unlike before, the new border-crossers are overwhelmingly Central American. These people, too, now flee US actions that have helped destabilize their governments and economies – even seeded the gangs that rape and rob them on their streets.
Never having imagined a desert like the Sonoran, these people won’t understand that they will need to drink two gallons of water a day as they walk. Their tongues will swell from thirst. Their dying brains will panic with hallucinations. In their attempt to find moisture, they will eat handfuls of sand, and O’odham land will once again become a killing field.
The smuggler’s journey
In Phoenix I met a man who is crucial to understanding the consequences of a wall. The US might label him a Sinaloa cartel operative, but the reality is more complicated. What’s important is that, in a few years, he’s learned to circumvent our multibillion-dollar solutions.
“The only thing a wall will do is raise the prices,” the man said as he leaned on a wood chair in the kitchen, his arms thick from years of construction work.
In 2015, the man was deported. Deputies working under former Sheriff Joe Arpaio pulled the man over in one of their immigration sweeps that targeted Latino neighbourhoods, and that ended the man’s legitimate work.
He placed $US9,000 from his back pocket on the blonde-wood table. “The last time we worked near Sonoyta,” he said of the Mexican town beneath Organ Pipe, “was three days ago.”
His entry into the smuggling world came about simply. The man who returned him to the US asked if he wanted a job, and, recently jobless, he said yes. “Now I’m his boss,” the man chuckled. He directs two dozen smugglers working in the US – lookouts, drivers, informants. So his phone is always ringing, from the moment he drops his daughter at school in the morning until long after she’s asleep.
We like to think, or have been led to think, that people like this man operate under a pyramid, that someone like El Chapo, El Mayo, or El Mencho exert control over an organisation that reaches beyond the border into our cities. But the smugglers I’ve known work in affinity groups, tied by family or hometown. The man and his group have no cartel allegiance except for the $US1,000 tax they pay to cross a migrant through Sinaloa-controlled land. The man is a link in a chain. He can be replaced without any disruption to the flow at our border. And he is driven by an unstoppable motivation: like the people he crosses, he too wants to feed his family.
It was dark outside the windows as the man explained the many ways to cross. In human smuggling, a premium is placed on safety. So the easiest and most expensive route is through an official port of entry. I asked how he circumvents customs officers, and the man rubbed his thumb and forefinger together. “Everyone has a price,” he said. The least expensive is through a wall. The smugglers will need to cut the wall, of course, but this can be done with a welder in 10 minutes during daylight to hide the sparks. These routes involve avoiding CBP surveillance cameras, ground sensors, roving Border Patrol agents in SUVs, and days of following a guide.
I read somewhere that the Taliban, when explaining how they could withstand the bottomless resources of the US government, said that while the Americans may have all the watches, they had all the time. I thought of this when I asked the man how he evades a border built by the most powerful nation on earth. “I learned this work with patience,” he said. “We study Border Patrol’s schedules, their shifts.” Each month he buys a few thousand dollars in binoculars, radios, and camping gear the lookouts will need as they record the movements of agents from desert hilltops. Then he opened his phone to a Google Maps screenshot, a swath of land marked with areas to avoid and a line winding between. “We also have equipment that can locate a phone number exactly where it is.”
“Where do you buy that?” I asked.
He smiled and rubbed his fingers together again. “Everything has a price.”
With some crude maths, what we have is a $US21 million per-mile wall, a $US26 million contract for 10 towers in O’odham land, DHS’s $US50 billion yearly budget, and some 20,000 Border Patrol agents along the border drawing yearly salaries. All that, against a few dozen determined smugglers. So when the man told me they will always find a way to cross, I believed him. Then his phone rang with news of another group headed to Phoenix. He stood from the table, shook his head and sighed, as if exhausted. “I’m always answering my phone,” he said, “all day and night.”
At Quitobaquito Springs, I slowed near a row of cars. Rivas grabbed the bag of ceremonial items from my trunk, along with the wooden staff, which, because I’d failed her earlier question about knowing death, she made clear I was not allowed to touch.
A dense ring of cottonwood and willow trees surrounded the springs. The limbs created an archway and the air grew cooler as we neared. It felt like we’d entered a portal from the desert, and when we emerged, ducks swam in a knee-deep pool of water clear as a windowpane. Grass lined the pond, and I spotted endangered Sonoyta mud turtles scurrying from the edges. Some 270 species of plants, half of the flora in the monument, depend on this oasis. And whereas the desert has an eerie, still quality, birds chirped from the trees and insects skittered about Quitobaquito. The spring exists because an underground aquifer bubbles through a fault line, some of the water not having seen the light since the last ice age. CBP, by its own estimate, pumps 84,000 gallons a day to mix with concrete for the wall’s base. So it’s not unreasonable to think that it could all disappear. But no one knows for sure, because Trump bypassed the environmental surveys.
I stayed silent while Rivas recited the blessing, focused on the pink glow of dusk on the hills. Before we’d left the parking lot that day, Rivas said I couldn’t record the ceremony’s specifics. She’d only say that the ritual was a form of “spiritual upkeep,” one that would signal to the ancestors buried nearby and to the plants and animals at the springs that the O’odham still protected this land.
Before construction began last summer, the National Park Service surveyed the 60-foot path scraped by CBP’s bulldozers. The survey found 22 archaeological sites and countless artifacts, like arrowheads, knives, pottery shards, rocks cracked by fires that may have warmed the descendants of the O’odham 10,500 years ago, even bones. CBP said it had recovered all artifacts before construction. But that meant they’d been removed from the land – beyond the blessing. And with the wall, nothing would remain as Rivas remembered it. More Border Patrol SUVs would follow, spotlights, perhaps surveillance towers, and an arsenal of technology that, for two decades, has only altered the flow of migration and failed to stop it.
“They do all kinds of things to try and wipe you out,” Rivas had said. “They take away your history.”
After the ceremony, we drank from the water as Rivas did on her first trip with the elders. Then we left to beat the setting sun. With the cool of evening, the desert came alive and a black-tailed jack rabbit jumped in front of the car, which Rivas remembered was good eating as a child. We spotted a mobile surveillance tower in the distance that we’d missed earlier. And at Monument Hill we paused where we’d seen the two agents chasing the dog. “Here, pup, here,” we called out the window. But nothing.
After all Rivas had shared with me that day, for some reason the capture of this dog made me most upset. It was young, maybe six months, and seemed to be wandering. Maybe it’d been pushed out of its home, or never had one. Maybe it just couldn’t find food. But I couldn’t imagine why Border Patrol needed to catch it, or where they’d send the animal. Rivas, too, shook her head, and we complained to each other as we drove.
But as we rounded Monument Hill, there was the dog, standing in the middle of the road, staring at us and panting. “Look,” Rivas said, “it’s smiling.”
I wanted to open the door and take it somewhere safe. It would get close to freezing at night. And it must have been thirsty after running from the agents for so long, so I felt behind my seat for water.
“What are you doing here?” Rivas called out the window.
The dog tilted its head. As we stared, the little brown mutt took a cautious step to the side, then disappeared into the desert.