NEW YORK - In the quiet desert community of Nomirage, located just 20 kilometres east of San Diego, the sounds of impending war creep over the silent landscape.
Armed with a 100-million-dollar budget and over 1,000 acres of desert space, Brandon Webb, ex-Navy Seal and chief executive officer of the San Diego-based firm Wind Zero Inc., is forging ahead with plans for a law-enforcement and military-training facility, which, once completed, will be capable of firing a whopping 57,000 bullets on an average day.
According to Bill Conroy, a correspondent at Narco News specialising in U.S.-Mexico border issues, the Imperial County Board of Supervisors voted 4-1 in favour of the proposed garrison in late December, despite strong opposition from community groups.
Featuring mock-up urban environments, live-fire training houses, helicopter landing pads, an airstrip and a 9.8- kilometre racetrack, Wind Zero's new endeavour boasts all the elements of full-scale U.S. military centres in warzones, such as the Kirkush Training base located 112 kilometres east of Baghdad.
The facility bears a striking resemblance to a project launched by the private paramilitary contractor Blackwater in 2006, which was abandoned under torrential opposition two years ago. In an interview with the San Diego reader last week, Webb stated "There is a big conspiracy that we are a shadow for Blackwater but that's just ridiculous," adding that any similarities were purely confidential.
However, one thing that cannot be denied, according to Conroy, is the shared interest of Blackwater, Wind Zero and one of their most powerful and affluent supporters, RAND Senior Management Systems Analyst John Birkler, in the "emerging arena of drone warfare".
Dehumanising the Immigrant 'Other'
"The Department of Homeland Security (DHS) is currently operating about half a dozen Predator B (Reaper) drones primarily along the U.S. southern border with Mexico," Conroy told IPS.
"These drones do have deadly capabilities, but supposedly are now being used only for surveillance. In addition to the DHS, the U.S military also operates drones, though their uses along U.S. borders and coastal areas is less clear," he said.
Conroy added, "On top of all of this, the Mexican government is allegedly operating drones along the U.S./Mexican border. In addition, U.S. military bases all along the southern border are used as staging sites for drone operations."
Any lingering doubts about the unbridled proliferation of virtual surveillance technology are quickly dispelled by the fact that Wind Zero's new facility is fully equipped to provide instruction in operating Unmanned Aerial Systems.
Conroy writes, "The camp will feature a long airstrip and multiple heliports; a control tower and operations center; a 25,000-foot above-ground-level (AGL) air ceiling; and a location only 87 miles from a major border population center (San Diego/Tijuana) that is ground zero on the West Coast for the drug war."
For immigrants fleeing the brutal narco-violence in Mexico, which claimed over 15,000 lives in 2010 alone, the increased policing of the U.S.-Mexico border is nothing short of a nightmare.
Alex Rivera, a filmmaker whose work deals extensively with the crisis on the border, told IPS, "The image of these drones, which cost millions to deploy, flying over a desert where migrant women and children are carrying jugs through the blistering heat is reminiscent of films like 'Terminator'. In reality this image belongs not in science fiction but in the history books because it's been happening for years."
"Surveillance drones are only one dot in a constellation of technology being deployed on the border that includes heat- seeking cameras, sensors embedded in the deserts and thousands of border patrol agents," Rivera told IPS.
In fact, figures released by the DHS last year showed that the number of border personnel has increased from 10,000 in 2004 to over 21,000 in 2010.
"Border patrol has always used a kind of twin-logic that conflates the flow of drugs with the flow of people," Rivera added.
American Science and Engineering (AES) Inc., responsible for the notorious 'Z-backscatter' technology that is being widely deployed in international airports, coined the term 'organic contraband' to refer to both narcotics and human beings crossing the border.
"AES's old X-rays could only detect metal," Rivera told IPS, "but they've now been stepped up to be able to detect a bundle of marijuana, a bag of cocaine, and even human flesh."
"So if a person is being smuggled across the border in the trunk of a car - that would be considered 'organic contraband'," he added.
Organisations such as No More Deaths (No Mas Muertes) have waged an arduous battle against such dehumanising language that has given rise what they believe are inhuman laws.
"Increased surveillance technology over the last 10 years has been accompanied by a huge increase in the number of deaths at the border," Geoffrey Boyce, the media spokesperson for No More Deaths in Tucson, Arizona, told IPS.
"People are being pushed into more remote and difficult terrain," he said. "The length of a crossing has shot up from a day or two to an average six-day long crossing - and in the summertime we are talking temperatures from 100-120 degrees almost every single day."
Boyce added, "Although the government's law enforcement strategy is premised on the fact that increased difficulty at the border will reduce the number of people attempting to cross, we have seen the opposite scenario unfolding over the last decade."
Far from reducing the flow of immigration, Boyce said, surveillance has simply made the already grueling trek through the desert ever more deadly. In southern Arizona alone, No More Deaths monitors over 200 deaths every year at the border.
"This situation has been absolutely tragic and there appears to be no end in sight," Boyce told IPS.