U.S. Army and Border Patrol officials hosted an unusual event in the Sonoran Desert on Wednesday, inviting members of the press to watch as they blew up a portion of a national monument in support of the president’s ongoing effort to wall off the United States from Mexico.
Presented as a run-of-the mill construction project, the explosives detonated on the Organ Pipe Cactus National Monument in southern Arizona went off just as the chair of the Tohono O’odham Nation — a Native American tribe with deep historic and cultural ties to the area — offered testimony in Washington, D.C. regarding the Trump administration’s desecration of O’odham lands.
The Intercept was first to report on the use of explosives on Organ Pipe earlier this month, detailing how the blasting was the latest move in a controversial project that threatens to destroy a fragile desert ecosystem. Since then, the construction has come under withering criticism from Democratic lawmakers, as well as environmental and Indigenous rights advocates. In recent days, top officials in the Border Patrol’s Tucson sector have gone on a public relations blitz in response, tweeting “fact checks” and making videos to counter the bad press that comes with blasting sacred Native American sites on federally protected public lands.
Wednesday’s event was the most elaborate of those efforts, with journalists invited to a trailer in a dirt lot that has served as a base of operations for the Organ Pipe project.
Taped to the walls inside the space were Google Earth-style images of the border with colored demarcations charting different portions of wall expansion and replacement. Sitting in plain view was a set of Department of Homeland Security blueprints — labeled “Wall Standard Details” — that showed a wall topped with spikes (while President Donald Trump has described his desire for a spiked border wall, the existing wall in Arizona currently lacks spikes). When asked why the wall had spikes, a Border Patrol agent examined the document for a moment, told us all of our questions would be answered, and then took the documents into another room and shut the door. James O’Loughlin, a contractor with the Logistics Management Institute and project manager for Customs and Border Protection-Pentagon projects, later told me that “there is no current plan for spikes on the wall” nor are there current plans to paint the wall black, which the president has also expressed interest in.
Photos: Ash Ponders for The Intercept
Soon after the blueprints disappeared, the day’s events began. Jim Hug, a military explosives expert with the Army Corps of Engineers, led with a safety presentation. “This is a typical thing that we do in construction around the world,” Hug said. “This is going to be pretty underwhelming for you folks.”
Hug explained that 86 holes had been dug on the area known as Monument Hill, each one 10 feet deep. Inside the holes were 5 pounds of an ammonium nitrate-based explosive. “When the shot goes off, what you’re basically going to see is straight up and straight down,” Hug said. “You’ll hear a little bit of a thump, but that’s about it. Not a whole lot that’s going to go on. Not damage. Basically, all we’re doing is just breaking the rock to be able to move it.” Following the explosions, Hug went on to say, he would need “total silence” from the crowd in order to listen for flying debris. “When you’re dealing with explosives, you always have to expect the worst,” he said.
With the safety presentation complete, a CBP official opened the floor for questions. The assembled reporters learned that Wednesday’s blasts on Organ Pipe were the fifth of their kind, and that other blasting was planned in Douglas, Arizona. Paul Enriquez, CBP’s Acquisitions Real Estate and Environmental Director out of Washington, D.C., said the border wall expansion project was preceded by a “large outreach” to “about a hundred different stakeholders,” including tribal leaders and the Tohono O’odham Nation.
As The Intercept reported earlier this month, critics of the agency’s efforts have painted a much different picture, saying that CBP has run roughshod over tribal concerns. “I can’t really speak to the difference in terms of what they see as a level of consultation versus what we’ve done,” Enriquez said. According to the senior CBP official, the agency has a privately contracted “cultural monitor” on hand daily to identify potential environmental or archaeological issues that come up during border wall expansion and blasting in Arizona. Enriquez declined to identify the company the monitors work for. “I’d rather not,” he said.
In a fact sheet distributed to journalists, CBP reported that “an estimated average of 84,000 gallons of water” are used each day for border wall construction on Organ Pipe. The extensive pumping of a rare desert aquifer to provide that water has been among the chief concerns associated with the project, as it threatens an oasis known as Quitobaquito Springs. The springs have profound spiritual significance for the Hia C-ed O’odham people, who inhabited the area through the late 1950s. In a 1980 report, the National Park Service documented the existence of more than 30 Hia C-ed graves at the springs. In a November letter to Roy Villareal, chief of the Border Patrol’s Tucson sector, Tohono O’odham Nation chair Ned Norris Jr. wrote that construction activities on Organ Pipe had already led to the inadvertent discovery of human remains near the springs.
Enriquez told reporters that the springs’ water levels are being monitored carefully. He did not, however, indicate that the project would stop if the agency determined that border wall construction is creating an existential threat to the springs. Already, Trump’s Department of Homeland Security has waived dozens of laws to push forward with border wall construction, including strict environmental and archaeological laws specifically designed to protect and preserve places like Quitobaquito. As for the discovery of human remains, Enriquez said the National Parks Service had helped to identify three sets of “potentially human” remains found near the springs, adding that none have been found on Monument Hill where the blasting is currently happening.
Following the briefing, journalists filed out of the trailer to attend the day’s main event, rumbling to the blast site in a caravan of vehicles.
“Don’t go off-road while we’re turning around here,” a Border Patrol agent told a carload of reporters, cautioning the journalists not to damage the protected lands on their way to his agency’s explosives demonstration.
Photos: Ash Ponders for The Intercept
At 10 minutes to noon, the press was gathered in the shadow of the wall, with Monument Hill in the distance. A small dog with scruffy yellow fur slipped under the steel barrier and parked itself in the dirt, staring at the journalists with their cameras before turning around and heading back into Mexico.
“One minute,” Hug announced.
The blasting that followed was exactly as the explosives expert said it would be, and perhaps as the Army and the Border Patrol intended it to be: an underwhelming ripple of explosions up Monument Hill that was barely audible to the press.
The explosions kicked off at precisely the same moment that a hearing convened by the House Natural Resources Subcommittee, titled “destroying sacred sites and erasing tribal culture,” began in Washington, D.C. “I know in my heart and what our elders have told us and what we have learned — that that area is home to our ancestors,” Norris testified, adding that the Wednesday blasting had “forever damaged our people.”
Enriquez, the senior official from CBP headquarters, told reporters at Organ Pipe that he was aware of the hearings on Capitol Hill going into the day’s events, but that the event was not intended to counter the messaging coming from Washington.
Having offered to pardon U.S. officials if they commit crimes in the process of building his border wall, Trump’s desire to make good on his core 2016 campaign promise ahead of the 2020 election is no secret. O’Loughlin, the civilian contractor overseeing CBP-Pentagon border wall projects, declined to discuss the political nature of the endeavor, explaining that it came down to two things: money and mission. “I’ve got a job to do and we always move as fast we can,” he said. “It’s to the benefit of the contractor — the faster they get done, the faster they make their money, the faster we get the Border Patrol what they need.”
Within an hour of the blasts, the press had dispersed. On the highway north of the wall, a handful of protesters stood holding signs and chanting “Save Organ Pipe!” Motorists honked in support. Border Patrol agents and contractors passed by, one flashing a peace sign, another filming the demonstrators on his phone. A middle-aged woman in an SUV pulled to a stop in front of the crowd. Leaning out her window, she said that she wanted the wall, then added that she was from the Midwest before pressing the gas and continuing north.
Among the demonstrators standing along the highway was Victor Garcia, an O’odham resident of Ajo, an unincorporated community some 40 miles north of the border. “It’s a ploy to instill fear,” Garcia said of the border wall construction, adding, “I myself won’t be intimidated by any tactic they use.” All of the lands on which Organ Pipe boundaries were drawn are sacred, Garcia said, and right now the National Park Service is failing in its duty to protect them. “Their oath means nothing.”