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N4T Investigators: Tower concerns

TUCSON – They are called “Integrated Fixed Towers,” “IFT’s” for short. They are 160-foot-tall surveillance towers. They have high-definition cameras, night vision, sensors and radar. They will send data to Border Patrol agents at a central station in Ajo, Arizona.

Border Patrol agent Daniel Hernandez said, “IFT’s serve as an eye in the sky. And it’s a tower that’s very low maintenance.”

The towers cameras detect much more than agents on the ground. “It can cover very large areas,” Hernandez said. ” So we’ve had many arrests from the IFT, whether it’s a person coming over the border illegally, an incursion through pedestrian means or through contraband coming over the border. Our IFT’s have detected that throughout the entire sector.”

Hernandez says the Tucson sector intends to build 10 towers on the Tohono O’odham reservation. A recent online story by “The Intercept” reported one nation resident as saying she believes the nation will be under constant surveillance.

“Our focus is not to spy on anybody, or to be intrusive on Tohono O’odham Nation,” Hernandez said. “But we want to mitigate those incursions as they happen.”

A nation spokesperson was not available for an interview despite repeated attempts by the News 4 Tucson investigators. The nation’s leadership voted earlier this year to ask Homeland Security for compensation for the towers. No word on the amount or a decision. Customs and Border Patrol has reportedly entered into a $26-million contract with the U.S. division of Elbit Systems of America, an Israeli military contractor that has a facility in Marana.

Dozens of fixed towers in southern Arizona have been operating the past five years between Douglas and Three Points. But the 10 new ones will be the first on the reservation.

Hernandez said, “We want to assure the community that this is a positive, this is a tool to better secure the nation, which includes the Tohono O’odham Nation and the residents. So we don’t want anybody coming through their backyard, anybody going through their neighborhoods with drugs or smuggling humans. We feel this is a tool that’s going to help us make their communities a lot safer.”

Congress allocated $100 million earlier this year for the additional surveillance towers. A Border Patrol spokesperson said construction on those to be built on Tohono O’odham land is expected to begin within the next couple of months.

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Matthew Schwartz

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