Verlon Jose had long vowed President Trump would build a wall along his tribe’s 75-mile border with Mexico only “over my dead body.”
But late last month, the Tohono O’odham Nation’s vice chairman stood at the border and praised a planned wall meant to deter migrants, smugglers — and, according to the tribe, federal agents — from disturbing its lands.
The wall he described was not physical, but virtual: 10 towers up to 140 feet tall, with radar and night vision cameras capable of surveying over several miles and streaming footage around the clock to the Border Patrol.
“The idea is to reduce the footprint of these guys running around, tearing up our land,” Jose said of agents patrolling the reservation.
The integrated fixed towers, or IFTs, as the Border Patrol calls them, were approved in March by a unanimous vote of the tribe’s legislative council, many of them older tribal members.
But some younger members oppose the towers, fearing that their elders have sacrificed hard-won sovereignty. “We’re going to inherit this problem,” said Amy Juan, 33.
And they worry that instead of reducing the Border Patrol’s presence, which has grown in their lifetimes, compromising on the virtual wall will lead to more surveillance and physical barriers.
The agency has said as much. A spokesman said the Border Patrol had no plans to decrease the number of agents patrolling the reservation after the towers were built. He also said the towers did not eliminate the need for a border wall.
But tribal leaders believe the towers could have that effect.
"It is our hope the IFTs will decrease the flow of illegal trafficking and thus the need for such a large Border Patrol presence on the nation,” said tribal Chairman Edward Manuel. He emphasized that his people remained firmly against a wall.
“The nation will never support a fortified wall on the border, which would divide our people, devastate the environment and destroy sacred sites, all while failing to halt the flow of migrants and smugglers,” he said.
The Tohono O’odham Nation reservation once stretched 350 miles from Phoenix to Hermosillo, Mexico. But Mexico never recognized the tribe’s claims to land. The reservation the U.S. government created in 1917 now covers 2.8 million acres.
Half of the tribe’s 34,000 members live on the reservation, which has its own language, schools, police and a government comprising 11 legislative districts. Two are on the border where the towers will be built: Chukut Kuk to the east, Jose and Juan’s ancestral home, and Gu Vo to the west.
The border here is an expansive basin between mountains the tribe considers sacred. To the east looms the 8,000-foot granite Baboquivari Peak — the name means "neck between two heads" in the Tohono O’odham language, and tribal members believe the mountain to be the spiritual home of their creator, l’itoi.
It can take the nation’s 87 tribal police several hours to respond to 911 calls — often related to drug and human smuggling — in remote border villages.
“Some of these ranchers are getting broken into constantly,” said tribal Police Chief Elton Begay.
Tribal police spend more than half their time assisting federal agents and doing other border-related enforcement, Begay said, and the nation spends $3 million annually on border security.
Hundreds of Border Patrol agents and a federally funded team of more than a dozen Native American smuggling trackers called Shadow Wolves patrol the border and reservation.
Tribal leaders previously allowed the Border Patrol to install cameras, sensors and portable towers and to build two small, remote bases that it staffs around the clock. Other agents patrol from larger stations and checkpoints on the reservation’s outskirts.
Last month, Border Patrol agents hopped on motorbikes at the foot of the Baboquivari range to chase migrants before they climbed beyond reach. Smugglers have recently shifted to the remote mountain routes, said agency spokesman Dan Hernandez. Nearby trails through desert grasslands were littered with the remnants of campfires and migrants’ black water jugs, the color intended to camouflage them in the brush. Later the same day, agents used a helicopter to track 16 migrants who had fanned out across a steep mountainside.
The agency has tried for nearly a decade to install towers on the reservation so it can catch smugglers before they reach the mountains, said Hernandez. But residents protested and wrote to tribal leaders, worried the towers would disturb the land. Border Patrol contractors had previously disturbed human remains and damaged saguaro cacti, sacred to the Tohono O’odham.
But the Border Patrol continued trying to sway the tribe.
Two years ago, the agency released a study that said tower construction wouldn’t cause archaeological, environmental or community harm. It held community forums and took tribal members on field trips to inspect smaller tower systems near the reservation. It decreased the number of proposed towers in Gu Vo district and redesigned the towers’ bases so they didn’t extend underground.
Border Patrol officials also promised to improve rutted dirt roads leading to the towers and said they would consider adding hardware that would boost cellphone and police radio reception.
‘The greatest camera in the world still makes zero arrests. It can’t apprehend somebody.’
Dan Hernandez, Border Patrol spokesman
During a visit to the border last week, Jose pointed out waist-high fencing. Instead of building tall, impenetrable barriers, as it has in other areas, Border Patrol compromised and erected a vehicle barrier that allows animals such as coyotes, jaguar and javelina hogs to migrate.
The land at the border is part of a 60-foot-wide federal easement from the Pacific Ocean to the Rio Grande. Though the easement ensures access, the Border Patrol has negotiated with the Tohono O’odham Nation over road use and fencing.
Jose described the newly approved towers, which would be north of the easement, as a similar compromise — placating the federal government in hopes it will not build a physical wall. “We’re only as sovereign as the federal government will allow us to be,” Jose said.
As the Border Patrol presence on the reservation has grown over the years, tribal members have complained of harassment, including what they call unnecessary stops and questioning. Ranchers have to close gates and repair fences that agents cut. Roads erode after frequent Border Patrol use.
Tribal leaders said decreasing agents’ traffic on the reservation is one of the reasons they agreed to the towers. Jose said he wants agents to stick to the border. But tower critics are also concerned about surveillance.
During a tour of one of the proposed tower sites last week, Hernandez said the agency does not plan to pull agents from the reservation once the fixed towers are built. Nor does Border Patrol plan to reduce the hidden cameras, sensors and truck-mounted temporary towers already on the reservation. And, he said, there’s still the need for an enhanced border barrier.
“The greatest camera in the world still makes zero arrests. It can’t apprehend somebody,” Hernandez said. “We still need some infrastructure there, the fence or barrier, to slow them down and the agents to make the apprehensions.”
Supervisory Border Patrol Agent Rafael Castillo, a former Tohono O’odham police officer who now serves as a tribal liaison, said the towers will allow the agency to “see what we’ve never seen before” and compared it to “turning on a light in a dark room.”
“We all have that same end goal: to protect the nation, its sovereignty and way of life,” he said.
The day the tribe’s leaders voted to approve the towers, many Tohono O’odham were attending an annual tribal run across the border. About a dozen people went to the council meeting, some of whom live on the border and spoke in favor of the towers; others spoke against them, including David Garcia, who urged the leaders to reconsider.
He doesn’t believe the Border Patrol will stop at the towers. “It’s just a matter of time before other negotiations come into play,” Garcia said.
The towers could be installed as soon as October, Hernandez said. The Border Patrol has a $145-million contract with Elbit Systems of America, the Fort Worth-based subsidiary of an Israeli company that manufacture towers used in the Gaza Strip and the West Bank. Juan and other tribal activists traveled to Israel two years ago to see the Elbit towers; they heard Palestinians’ concerns and still worry about their effect, even though the Border Patrol’s study said that “any adverse effects on human health would be negligible.”
Juan said she knows the importance of border security: Her grandfather was a U.S. customs agent shot and killed in 1986 as he attempted to intercept three drug smugglers fleeing across the reservation to Mexico. A decade later, her other grandfather was robbed at night by a smuggler who entered his bedroom and tried to shoot him through his pillow — narrowly missing his head.
Juan said that now that the towers have been approved, she hopes the Tohono O’odham will mobilize to monitor their impact: whether sacred sites and wildlife are disturbed, what sort of sounds or radiation the towers emit and any changes in nearby residents’ health.
‘We all have that same end goal: to protect the nation, its sovereignty and way of life.’
Rafael Castillo, Supervisory Border Patrol agent
Late last month, she urged community college students on the reservation to help. Speaking to a class in an indigenous borderlands program, she explained where the towers are planned and asked how many of the 20 students have family living on the border. Several raised their hands.
“The whole border area is going to change,” she said.
As she spoke, across the reservation, tribal leaders were meeting contractors hoping to build roads to the towers.
“Everything we do to our land has an effect on us. Our sovereignty is being tested,” she said. “So we’ll go out there and survey the land and keep track of those changes. That’s what sovereignty is.”