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Border Patrol blindsides Nogales with 24-hour surveillance blimp

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Jonathan Clark/Nogales International

Residents of Nogales awoke Thursday to a new and soon-to-be permanent presence in the sky above them: a tethered observation blimp meant to give the U.S. Border Patrol round-the-clock, ground-level surveillance capability in the local area.

The installment of the aerostat this week came with no advance warning to the community. Its sudden appearance Tuesday on a hilltop on the east side of the city caught residents and their elected leaders off guard, and raised concerns over privacy and transparency.

"I don't know what they're surveilling. I don't know what type of instruments they have on there and what they can see," local resident Rafael Lopez said after seeing the aerostat inflated on a hill approximately a half-mile from his home on Tuesday.

"Is it a 360 view? Is it just west? Will they be able to see when I'm having a get-together with friends and family? Is this going be up 24 hours a day? Can they see at night? Will it have infrared sensors?" Lopez asked, adding: "Could that thing pop and come down on somebody's house? I don't know."

U.S. Customs and Border Protection did not initially respond to questions posed about the blimp on Tuesday. On Wednesday, it issued a news release acknowledging that it had begun installing a 22-meter-long "persistent ground surveillance system aerostat" in Nogales, approximately one mile north of the U.S.-Mexico border, on Monday.

The news release did not, however, offer any assurances regarding invasion-of-privacy issues. Finally on Thursday, hours after the blimp first took flight, an agency spokesmen responded to the NI's initial questions about privacy with a statement reading: "The technology will not be oriented in such a way as to monitor the activities occurring outside of the immediate areas of the border."

The blimp was initially set to launch on Wednesday, but the plan was postponed due to stormy weather. It was airborne first thing Thursday morning, then reeled back in around noon. CBP described it as a 24/7 asset, though it wasn't clear when it would begin round-the-clock operations.

Santa Cruz County Sheriff David Hathaway, who said he could see the airborne blimp from his office window on Thursday morning, called it "blatant spying in our community."

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"I think it's disgusting," he said. "I think it's evidence of a kind of growing police state along the border and I don't know why Americans aren't more upset about that."

Francisco Ramos, a 54-year-old Nogales resident, pointed up to the blimp on Thursday and called it "unnecessary."

"It's ridiculous. It's shameful. It's racist. It's gone too far. No one is invading," he said.

Ramos, a permanent U.S. resident from Mexico who recently moved to Nogales from Oklahoma, said he already had a negative experience with the heavy border-focused police presence in town.

"I was stopped by a policeman. I gave him my driver's license. Before I knew it, there's 10 immigration cars surrounding us. They even stopped traffic," he said. "Going forward, I fear being stopped by the police or immigration. That's racism."

But 75-year-old Jorge Hernandez, another local resident, was happy to see the aerostat.

"My son works on those cameras. He's the one watching us through the blimp," Hernandez said. "With the Border Patrol here in Nogales, it is much safer than any other city. They are law enforcement agents that we have in addition to the sheriff's and local police. I feel comfortable."

Speaking in Spanish, he said, "El que nada debe, nada teme," which roughly translates as: "He who has nothing to hide has nothing to fear."

Others were uninterested.

"It neither benefits or affects me, at all. The truth is I do my thing, they can do their thing," said Manuel Santana, a 68-year-old bus driver.

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In the dark

Federal law enforcement regularly makes surprising and sometimes jarring moves in the local area with no outreach. In recent years, those surprises have included riot police blocking off the Dennis DeConcini Port of Entry during morning rush hour, the bulldozing of a mountainside to create a staging area for border wall construction, and U.S. Army troops arriving in the city on Election Day 2018 to install razor wire on the wall.

The installation of the blimp followed a similarly opaque approach – not even local elected officials were aware that the project was in the works.

"This is the first I'm hearing about it," Santa Cruz County Supervisor Manuel Ruiz said when told about the blimp on Tuesday afternoon, adding: "They operate in a vacuum, they don't tell anyone, they don't have the dignity to just come and talk to people and say this is what they're planning."

Nogales Mayor Arturo Garino saw the aerostat for the first time while leaving the Nogales International's office after a candidate interview at around 1:30 p.m. Tuesday.

"I said, 'What the hell? Did it land here by mistake?'" he recalled.

In a statement issued Thursday, U.S. Rep. Raul Grijalva, a Tucson Democrat who represents Nogales and Santa Cruz County in Congress, called the blimp a "flying eyesore" that rightfully raises privacy and security concerns for community members.

"U.S. Customs and Border Protection must provide public notice to all relevant community stakeholders and allow for meaningful consultation prior to the deployment of any surveillance technology," Grijalva said. "We urgently need transparency and oversight with these invasive border surveillance technologies."

Grijalva added that he is urging the Biden administration to "expeditiously" remove the blimp.

For its part, CBP was unapologetic about the lack of outreach.

"The CBP press release, social media releases and engagement with the local media occurred prior to the deployment of the technology," the agency said in a statement on Thursday. However, that's only true if "deployment of the technology" refers to the moment it was launched into the sky.

"CBP seeks to engage our community and stakeholders as frequently as possible on a myriad of topics and looks forward to doing so," the statement said.

Ruiz, the county supervisor who was unaware of the aerostat project when reached by the NI early Tuesday afternoon, said on Wednesday that he had since received a call from a local Border Patrol official after Ruiz reached out to a contact in the Department of Homeland Security in search of answers. He said the official assured him that the blimp's cameras would not be directed at private property.

"As an elected official, I'm going to take them at their word that they're not going to be spying on any of our local residents," Ruiz said. "But again, it would have been a lot easier if they had just met with the community beforehand."

In its news release issued Wednesday, CBP said the Border Patrol "has successfully utilized technology assets such as this in the Rio Grande Valley Sector, Texas since 2013," adding that an agreement with the Department of Defense is allowing the agency to expand the number of aerostats across the Southwest border.

"There are currently 17 systems that are scheduled to deploy throughout multiple sectors this fiscal year," CBP said, adding that the aerostat in Nogales is the first to be installed in the Border Patrol's Tucson Sector, which covers all of Arizona's border region except for the area around Yuma.

"The aerostat will be operational and manned by Border Patrol agents 24 hours a day, seven days a week, to provide continuous aerial surveillance of the border," it said, adding that the helium-filled dirigible is tethered to a 15,000-pound mooring platform.

"The system includes day and night cameras to provide persistent, low-altitude surveillance, with a maximum range of 3,000 feet above ground level," it said. "Flying at this altitude allows Border Patrol agents to maintain visual awareness of border activity in the United States for longer periods of time."

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Why there?

The aerostat's staging area is located on a privately owned hill above the Circle K on East Patagonia Highway, approximately a quarter-mile from the southwest edge of the Rancho Grande neighborhood.

Lopez, the nearby resident, questioned the decision to station the blimp in that neighborhood rather than in outlying areas.

"I've lived here for 30 years, and back when I started living here in '93, there was a lot of movement of people coming through this canyon. Nowadays, I never see anybody coming through," he said.

"I don't think a blimp should be in the middle of the city," Mayor Garino told the NI on Tuesday.

Garino said that with all the federal and local law enforcement personnel and equipment already in Nogales, he thought the unpopulated areas west of town would have been a more likely choice.

CBP said the site was chosen due to "the operational requirements of the station," and noted that ground-based surveillance equipment had previously been used there. "This location provides an operationally critical capability for the Nogales Station, increasing border security efforts."

The agency also provided statistics showing that the Border Patrol's Tucson Sector has recorded 173,829 apprehensions so far this fiscal year, and that the 25,923 apprehensions tallied in the sector in May was the fifth-most on the Southwest border for the month.

However, the Tucson Sector covers 262 miles of U.S.-Mexico border. CBP did not provide apprehension numbers specific to the Nogales area.

Sheriff Hathaway also questioned the location of the aerostat in Nogales. Like Garino, he noted the large number of local, state and federal law enforcement agencies already operating in and around the city.

"It just seems weird and dystopian to have that kind of surveillance platform right in the middle of the city — a very peaceful city, you know," he said.

Hathaway suggested one possible use for the blimp:

"I think it would be great if it would show some of the atrocities that Border Patrol is doing, like the shooting on Bankard Avenue that's a big mystery, and some of the other things that have happened," he said, though he acknowledged: "I'm sure we won't have access to that footage so we can keep tabs on what Border Patrol is doing."

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"I just hope people don't get used to it over the years and start ignoring it and just saying, 'This is the world we live in now,' because I think it's crazy," he said.

Additional reporting by Juan Miguel Garcia.
This report was first published by the Nogales International.


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