President Bush’s Terrorist War on American Indians:
Sonoran Desert Storm: Homeland Security Ramps up the War at Home
by Lenny

In June, unmanned spyplanes began to fly over the Tohono O'odham reservation in southern Arizona. Two thousand US Border Patrol agents have been deployed in the Tucson sector of the US-Mexico border, driving offroad vehicles through wilderness corridors, wildlife refuges and other public lands. A five-foot-high metal fence is going up in Organ Pipe Cactus National Monument. Federal agents are breaking into O'odham houses and detaining people without cause.

For the people and wildlife of the Sonoran Desert, the war has always been at home.

On March 16, Asa Hutchinson--Undersecretary for Border and Transportation Security of the Department of Homeland Security (DHS)--announced the Arizona Border Control Initiative, a $10 million plan to seal the Arizona-Mexico border against drug traffickers and immigrants. The initiative provides funding for extra Border Patrol agents and high-tech military weaponry and surveillance. In addition, it allows the Border Patrol to drive all-terrain vehicles on federally protected land.

Militarized crackdowns in urban areas of California and Texas have pushed 40 percent of undocumented Mexican immigrants into the Arizona desert, often into the most remote wilderness. Immigrants continue to die in the Summer heat--more than 2,000 people have died since 1998--and the US government has responded with efforts to make this crossing even more deadly, all the while expanding their military control over border communities and natural areas.

At Organ Pipe Cactus National Monument, which spans 31 miles of the Mexican border, park officials have allocated part of their limited budget to hiring law enforcement officers and building a five-foot high, vehicle-resistant fence to aid DHS's efforts. The fence is constructed out of railroad ties and is expected to span the entire length of the monument's southern border.

The barrier's effects on wildlife will be severe. The Sonoran bioregion is home to a number of unique species that have historically ranged across the political border. A wall would fracture the populations of these animals, placing them at greater risk of extinction on both sides of the border. For example, although the range of the jaguar is now limited to Mexico, it once extended into Arizona. In recent years, jaguars have been spotted in the US, but a wall would prevent their return. All in all, the Arizona border region is home to 107 threatened, endangered or other specially managed species.

Nonetheless, Organ Pipe Cactus officials have chosen to embrace the militarization of public lands rather than defend the bioregion's wildlife. Entire areas of the monument are currently occupied by DHS agents and are closed to the public. Once militarized, these lands are removed from public control and the realm of "the commons" where they belong. Does anyone believe that they will ever be returned for the people's use once taken?

The military seizure of our public lands continues. In the bordering Cabeza Prieta National Wildlife Refuge, refuge officials are struggling to prevent the destruction of the desert by off-roading federal agents. Off-roading is devastating to the precarious existence of desert plants and to the habitat of highly endangered animals such as the Sonoran pronghorn. But with the government demanding that refuge managers focus on "fighting crime" rather than protecting wildlife, refuge managers have become subservient to the Border Patrol and DHS.

Roger DiRosa, manager of Cabeza Prieta, is trying to persuade the Border Patrol to use horses instead of motorized vehicles and to rely more on high-tech monitoring than on physical manhunts. But as the wall around Organ Pipe Cactus pushes more immigrants toward Cabeza Prieta, DHS is not likely to accept even this more limited militarization.

"They're breaking into houses, doing random drug stops, cutting fences and making their own roads. They chase people down. They are not on the border--they are on the reservation," said Tohono O'odham Ernest Moristo on Indigenous People's Day in Phoenix, Arizona, in March.

Moristo recounted that up to 100 Border Patrol agents camped on the sacred mountain Baboquivari--home to the O'odham Creator, I'itoi--in May 2003, while Moristo was in New York, pressing the United Nations for the mountain's protection. The agents, driving jeeps and vans, claimed to be acting under the direction of DHS. "They set up camp on sacred ground right below I'itoi's home," Moristo said.

More recently, DHS announced that military surveillance of the border region--including the Tohono O'odham reservation--will increase under the Arizona Border Control Initiative. Extra helicopters and airplanes are being deployed above the reservation, as are two unmanned aerial spy-planes. Electronic ground sensors and remote video cameras are being placed throughout the region. DHS appears unconcerned about the effects of low-level helicopter flights on wildlife and local residents. DHS also ignored the risks posed by the spyplanes, which have a crash rate 100 times greater than piloted aircraft. Tohono O'odham tribal members already live in danger from frequent aircraft crashes due to military maneuvers and patrols on their land. On May 20, an F-16 fighter jet crashed on the reservation during training exercises.

Because the Tohono O'odham Nation stretches across the US-Mexico border, US Border Patrol agents regularly stop residents at gunpoint and demand that they produce papers proving their citizenship with one of the occupying powers. Sacred bundles are regularly inspected when traditional O'odham travel between villages for their ceremonies. Border Patrol vehicles race recklessly down reservation streets, and in April 2002, a young O'odham man was struck and killed.

As if this weren't enough, the government is moving forward with plans to bisect O'odham territory with a 225 mile-long wall that will run nearly the entire length of the Arizona-Mexico border. The fence will be lit 24 hours a day, disrupting the natural cycles of bats and other nocturnal creatures. O'odham families already separated by the border will be entirely cut off, and sacred ceremonies will be made nearly impossible.

Plans to build the wall were stalled due to a flawed environmental impact statement, but a new statement on the same plan is expected in September. DHS is telling the O'odham that the wall is meant to protect them from Al Qaeda.

But many of the region's residents believe that "homeland security" is only a pretext to continue the repression of the Southwest's indigenous people. Moristo claims that the government is actually using the Border Patrol to look for minerals on O'odham land, since Baboquivari lies 22 miles north of the border and is not on a common migration route. Tohono O'odham people in Arizona and Mexico allege that DHS is using the same tactics that the Mexican government employs to monitor and control indigenous people struggling for sovereignty in places like Chiapas.

In fact, the border activities of DHS fall neatly into the pattern of "low intensity conflict," a model utilized by US supported regimes throughout Latin America to remove the support bases of groups seeking social change. In this type of military offensive, civilian populations are deliberately targeted with tactics that destroy their quality of life and create a climate of fear and intimidation. Low-level helicopter flights, random searches and detentions, home invasions and abuse by law enforcement are all crucial parts of low intensity conflict strategy. More sinisterly, the strategy often relies on armed paramilitary groups that operate with impunity--chillingly similar to the vigilantes in southern Arizona that terrorize immigrants and border communities, and who the authorities refuse to prosecute.

Law enforcement activities on the border are coordinated by Joint Task Force-6, a military operation composed of Army and Marine forces who aid local police in the "war on drugs." The task force is the largest domestic use of military force since the Civil War. It engages in construction of border roads and walls, as well as the training of local law enforcement in surveillance, intelligence and military tactics--another frightening parallel to the Latin American paramilitary model.

Rather than just hunting for immigrants or smugglers, DHS is making a concerted effort to intimidate the O'odham and other border residents out of challenging government policies. Perhaps the government hopes to drive the O'odham from the border region altogether, destroying their indigenous identity once and for all.

Resistance to US border policy is growing. Humane Borders, a nonprofit organization based in Tucson, Arizona, maintains water stations in the desert and organizes "Samaritan patrols" to provide food and water to desperate migrants. On May 28, the No More Deaths Coalition kicked off a freedom Summer to stop the deaths in the desert by bringing in volunteers from across the country, raising awareness, and taking direct action against checkpoints and other human rights abuses. The O'odham Voice Against the Wall, a coalition of traditional O'odham communities in the US and Mexico, is working to mobilize youth against the border wall. They are also looking for legal observers to travel to the reservation and document abuse by Border Patrol agents.

More action is desperately needed on all fronts. Whether against the walls or the vehicles, the checkpoints or the land invasions, the people and wildlife of southern Arizona need your help today.

For more information, contact The O'odham Voice Against the Wall, POB 1835, Sells, AZ 85634. To learn more about Freedom Summer, visit No More Deaths Coalition.

© Earth First! Journal July-August 2004