Alphabet Soup is the working title of my new project chronicling law enforcement’s mobilisation to impede criminal activity in the borderland of Southwest Arizona. This journal entry offers a short synopsis of the project and some ‘sketchbook’ photographs captured during a recce I made in 2018. I have now returned to Arizona and will spend 4 weeks immersed in the searing heat of the border hinterland.
Build That Wall
In recent years, especially with the advent of Donald Trump’s Presidency, resulting from one of his core election campaign promises to “BUILD THAT WALL!”, the border of the United States of America and Mexico has never been higher in the public’s consciousness. Much attention is centred on the border’s migratory pressures, with ample opinion and concern from all political viewpoints and, of course, the drug and human trafficking flowing like enriched veins through the Sonoran Desert’s unforgiving topography.
Running 1,954 miles from the Gulf of Mexico to the Pacific Ocean, the border’s history is contentious, bloody and spans many hundreds of years of conflict, commercial plunder and political upheaval. Today’s border was mostly settled in 1848 with the Treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo which ended the Mexican-American War, with the final pieces of the land distribution puzzle pieced together with the Gadsden Purchase in 1854, which resulted in the boundaries enforced to this day.
Since the 45th President took office I, along with many other creatives with an eye on social discourse, have wanted to embark on building an observational narrative around the President’s election promise to ”Build that wall”. Although successfully popularising the debate around border security, President Trump is certainly not the first Commander-in-chief to promise to provide an effective system to lock down the international boundary. With numerous administrations persuading Congress to approve budgets for fences, vehicle barriers and surveillance - in recent years this includes Clinton’s Operation Gatekeeper and George W. Bush’s ambitious Secure Fence Act of 2006 - none have generated the partisan deadlock created by Trump’s grandiose pledge.
“Build that wall” is of course a soundbite, not a cogent public policy position, as the stark realities of constructing a physical wall is practically impossible - so setting aside political rhetoric, this leaves the more pressing conversation about effective border security and how best to implement it.
Where to focus?
Humanitarian assistance, cartels, detention centres and modern day Minutemen are just some of the themes that have received a lot of media attention along the southern US border - with the more noteworthy work (outside of dangerous opinion silos and echo chambers) offering good insight. With the addition of some of America’s most beautiful landscape, it is easy to see the attraction for an image maker.
Ever since I first entered the US back in 1991 via San Antonio, TX - to head out west - I was beguiled by the vibe and mood along the frontier, with its arid, sparse character stuck in my memory. As an inquisitive photographer, coupled with no let up in the super charged border debate during the intervening years, I decided to return and look into one perspective that remains constant - regardless of multiple US Administrations’ policies and campaign promises - policing the border.
There are many Federal Agencies enforcing a strategic blend of border security - Border Patrol (B.P), Customs & Border Protection (Port of Entry / P.O.E), Drug Enforcement Administration (D.E.A) Homeland Security Investigations & Customs Enforcement (I.C.E), the National Guard, U.S.M.S (United States Marshals Service) US Military and the F.B.I., to name a few. Their collective force adapts from State to State, dependent on the flow and sophistication of illegal cross border traffic, and because they are recognised internationally, their activities often attract high profile media attention. At State level, law enforcement becomes more nuanced - also adapting, but adapting to their local communities’ needs and environments. State law enforcement doesn’t get more local in the US than the County Sheriff, with Constitutionalists considering the Sheriff ‘the law’, above all State & Federal agencies - an unbroken policing presence for hundreds of years, and one that is elected into office every 4 years by their local citizenry.
There are 31 border Sheriffs spanning California, Arizona, New Mexico and Texas, all with varying degrees of public exposure and media presence. One particular Sheriff caught my attention when I listened to an interview by Eddie Mair on BBC Radio’s ‘PM’ programme with Sheriff Mark. D. Napier of Pima County, Arizona. Throughout the 15 minute discussion Sheriff Napier was refreshingly rhetoric free, a superb orator and genuinely impassioned in communicating the real world strategic issues presented by such a hostile and unforgiving mountainous desert environment. With Pima County sharing the longest border with Mexico of any county in the US and considered one of the oldest continually inhabited areas of the contiguous United States, I felt it a good place to start my project - so I made successful contact with Sheriff Napier.
Contained in the last parcel of land settled in the Gadsden Purchase, the county is named after the indigenous Pima Native Americans. It contains San Xavier Indian Province, the Pascua Yaqui Indian Reservation and parts of the huge Tohono Oʼodham Nation, (the latter of which straddles 75 miles of border into Mexico’s Sonora State). Carved out of the scorched Sonoran Desert, covering 9,200 sq miles and encompassing the city of Tucson north of Nogales, the area’s relationship with Mexico is labyrinthine - to say the least. Aside from its two secure ports of entry, Lukeville & Sasabe - the rest of the borderline is mostly a porous boundary, exploited by transnational crime organisations engaging in narcotics, human trafficking and sex trafficking. Because of Pima County’s vast tracts of remote terrain and near impenetrable topography so close to the border, the police department have the additional challenge of responding effectively to the fallout and pressures of border crime, alongside ‘regular’ duties associated with law enforcement like traffic violations, house burglary, domestic violence, drug use, public safety and implementing arrest warrants.
Plan to Capture
During my recce in 2018, I was awe struck by the juxtaposition of abundant natural wonder, enshrined in Organ Pipe Cactus National Monument, Cabeza Prieta National Wildlife Refuge and Buenos Aires National Wildlife Refuge, with the ‘cat & mouse’ deployment of electronic surveillance architecture, physical man power and intelligence gathering infrastructure that is in place to disrupt trafficking networks and supply channels.
I seek to formally document this eerie coalesce and Pima County’s Sheriff Department’s policing blend in high heat of an Arizonan summer. I look forward to reporting my findings.