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2 arrested protesting border wall construction near endangered Arizona oasis

Work near Quitobaquito Springs a lightning rod for criticism about 43-mile project in Southern Arizona

Two women were arrested Wednesday morning after they halted border wall construction near Quitobaquito Springs, a remote wildlife watering hole along the southern edge of Organ Pipe Cactus National Monument that is considered sacred by the Tohono O'odham Nation.

Nellie Jo David and Amber Ortega were arrested by National Park Service officers  just beyond the springs about 120 miles southwest of Tucson, and charged with two misdemeanors, including interfering with federal function and violation of a closure order. They were taken to a federal facility in Florence, Ariz., by the U.S. Marshals Service, and are expected to have their initial appearances before a judge on Thursday. 

In video published by the O’odham Anti-Border Collective and Defend O’odham Jewed—using the Tohono O'odham word for land — David can be seen sitting in the scoop of bulldozer on a road freshly carved out of the national monument. As she sat, Ortega yelled from off camera, demanding that Border Patrol agents, construction workers, and Park Service law enforcement officers leave.

"Keep this destruction out of here," Ortega said. "They are going to destroy everything we have." 

"We need you to cease and desist, take your machines with you, take your weapons with you, take everything you are with you. Take it back," she said. 

In a statement, officials with the Border Patrol's Tucson Sector said that agents assisted the National Park Service, and during the incident two people were taken into custody.

NPS officials have not responded to repeated requests for comment. 

For more than year, contractors have been marching west from the Lukeville Port of Entry to build a 43-mile span of border wall along the southern boundary of the national monument. The project included removing old barriers, including an 18-foot high wall made of steel screens, low-bollard and x-shaped Normandy barriers intended to keep vehicles from simply driving into the U.S. from Mexico's Highway 2, which runs parallel to the international border there. 

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Contractors are installing a 30-foot tall "bollard" wall, which includes a "linear ground detection" system, as well as lighting systems on towers that will stand up to 40 feet high. As part of the construction, contractors began drilling for water, leading environmentalists and Native activists to worry about the health of Quitobaquito Springs, one of a very few viable water sources in the desert, and an important part of the culture and history of the Hia C-ed O’odham. 

In November, hundreds came out to Organ Pipe to protest the construction, as contractors slashed through the desert with bulldozers and earth-movers, carving a pathway for construction along the 60-foot-wide Roosevelt Reservation—an easement of land that is controlled by the federal government along the borders of California, Arizona, and New Mexico. Some saguaros were purposely destroyed, while others were marked for removal, while contractors dug up or tore through mesquite trees and other desert flora to continue the project. 

In February, protesters again arrived, this time to show their fury over the project's use of explosives to break open part of Monument Hill, as the construction project removed the older 18-foot high metal for the new, taller border wall. This was followed by a march in August, when dozens walked along the border wall to again protest the construction. 

Despite these demonstrations and a major lawsuit in federal courts, the Trump administration has forged ahead, often racing to complete nearly 300 miles of border wall. On Twitter, the current acting head of U.S. Customs and Border Protection Mark Morgan wrote that U.S. Customs and Border Protection, along with the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers had built "307 miles of new border wall system along the Southwest border." 

A video showing time-lapses of construction headlines CBP's website on the project, which includes shows a map that underlines a complex reality of the border wall project: much of the new walls have replaced older border barriers, including the 18-foot high section near Lukeville, and the project's environmental effects largely fall on federal land carved out for the public's use because of their beauty and to protect endangered species.

In Arizona, border wall projects will affect six different ares of federally reserved land, including the monument, as well as the Cabeza Prieta Wildlife Refuge just to the west. Organ Pipe has been hailed as a "pristine example of an intact Sonoran Desert ecoystem," and was designated as a UNESCO International Biosphere Reserve in 1976. 

Wall construction has come within 120 feet of the spring at Quitobaquito, which has been home to at least 47 species of birds, and is the home for the endangered desert pupfish and the Sonoran mud turtle. 

Quitobaquito has been a part of the religious and cultural history of the region, and is an important site for the Hia C-ed O’odham, who lived in the area into the 1950s, and members still use the springs as site for food gathering and sacred ceremonies. As Gary Nabhan, a University of Arizona research scientist, noted, perhaps the first Palm Sunday mass in Arizona was conducted at Quitobaquito by the celebrated Jesuit Padre Eusebio Francisco Kino in 1698 or 1699. 

Despite these concerns, and signs that the water-level at the springs has declined, construction has continued west.  

The video published by the anti-border collective runs for about 2 minutes and 22 seconds, and is clipped together from an incident that lasted about three hours. In the video, Leilani Clark, who is credited with the video, walks along the border road and shows two heavy earth-moving vehicles sitting idle.

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"So, right here we have some activists who are putting their bodies on the line to stop the desecration of Quitobaquito Springs," said Clark. "They are putting their bodies in front of these vehicles." 

As Clark moved along the road, several federal officers, including Border Patrol agents and law enforcement officers with the National Park Service, were also along the road. 

"This is O'odham land, not your land. You do not have permission to be here, this is O'odham land. This is sacred land," one of the women yelled, her voice getting increasingly hoarse. 

Later, an officer with the National Park Service is shown taking both women into custody. As the officer handcuffed Ortega, she pleaded, "You're what's wrong with this country. Everyone of you standing there is what's wrong." 

"This land means so much more than a wall. The animals mean so much more than your guns, your weapons your toys. You can't even face that we're all human beings," Ortega said.

Correction: An earlier version of this story incorrectly attributed some statements that were made by Ortega while the video was being filmed.


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Paul Ingram/TucsonSentinel.com

Nellie Jo David during a protest in Organ Pipe Cactus in November 2019.

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