Large Group Nabbed Right Where SBInet Is Operational

By Janice Kephart on February 25, 2011

On February 18, 2010, the Border Patrol arrested an abnormally large group of illegal immigrants – 128 of them, to be exact – crossing right through the middle of one of the "virtual fence" surveillance areas. Most of them have already been returned to Mexico. According to the Associated Press story, the area where the "Border Patrol surveillance video operators spotted a group of more than 100 people walking just north of the Mexico border" was "about 15 miles west of Lukeville, Arizona." Strangely, right in this area's proximity are the large surveillance and communications towers built as part of the now-cancelled SBInet (Secure Border Initiative), otherwise referred to as the "virtual fence". In fact, SBInet's Ajo-1 portion covers 30 miles of border here, with Lukeville at the base of Highway 85, running north on the map below.

The fact that the Border Patrol is making this capture public may not be simply the administration's attempt to look "real" about securing the border, but also the Border Patrol trying to indirectly let the public know that SBInet does, in fact, work – exactly what I heard from those who watched it being operated this past year but who have no ability to say so without blessings from higher-ups. Perhaps the Border Patrol is trying to tell Congress to insist on taking a look, before they buy the Department of Homeland Security's argument that SBInet was not really such a grand idea, after all. Customs and Border Protection Commissioner Alan Bersin never saw SBInet, and neither did Secretary of Homeland Security Janet Napolitano, before she decided to cancel it. Maybe, just maybe, this is a Border Patrol form of an "SOS".

To be clear, the video referred to in the AP story could possibly be some other form of surveillance, but anonymous sources from Tucson yesterday told me that it was indeed SBInet surveillance that nabbed the group. This makes sense since Organ Pipe National Monument received Ajo-1 surveillance because nothing else was there. (I have written about Organ Pipe extensively, and included slides from presentations on this area in my "Hidden Cameras on the Arizona Border 2" mini-documentary.) No other system we know of has "operators" – as in control room operators – associated with it except for SBInet. Border Patrol in Tuscon did not officially answer questions, but in this odd world of Department of Homeland Security shadow games regarding border security, that only provokes more questions, it does not answer them. Yet evidence suggests that the Border Patrol wants technology to stick around that is, at minimum, very similar to SBInet:

"Before in remote areas we didn't have the technology or infrastructure or personnel to actively patrol and monitor the more remote areas," he [Border Patrol agent Eric Cantu] said. "The larger groups are easier to spot so they're getting rarer and rarer. We're getting to the point where it's almost impossible to cross in groups so large."

Yet aside from a motive for releasing this data by the Border Patrol or the Department of Homeland Security, this still raises the question of why the smugglers would choose such a well-covered area to drive such a large group through the border? Perhaps the smugglers thought that the cancellation of SBInet meant that the cameras that can show agents the exact location of illegal activity were turned off and the control rooms were empty.

Because why else would such a large group attempt to cross where large towers loom on the border? Apparently a group this size only comes through about "once or twice a year" and "illegal immigrants typically travel in groups of five to 15, he [Cantu] said, because larger groups are much easier to detect."

Who said that our unwillingness to show strength on the border was encouraging illegal border crossing and smuggling? Couldn't be!

Ajo-1, with 6 sensors, 4 communications towers, an operations control center, and 30-mile coverage area on the border with Mexico. This is the western piece of SBInet, on the west side of the Tohono O'odham Indian Reservation located in the Organ Pipe National Monument owned by the Department of Interior. The other, larger SBI location of the cancelled SBInet project borders the east side of Tohono O'odham, and is known as Tus-1. Tus-1 replaced its much-maligned prototype P-28 in January 2010.