In their unending battle to deter illegal immigration, drug trafficking and terrorism, U.S. authorities already have beefed up border security with drug-sniffing dogs, aircraft and thousands more agents manning interior checkpoints.
Now, the U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration has decided it wants more, and the Justice Department agency doesn’t care whether someone has even set foot in Mexico.
Clusters of what at first appear to be surveillance cameras have begun turning up in recent months on the Southwest border, and while some of the machines are merely surveillance cameras, others are specialized recognition devices that automatically capture license-plate numbers and the geographic location of everyone who passes by, plus the date and time.
The DEA confirms that the devices have been deployed in Arizona, California, Texas and New Mexico. It has plans to introduce them farther inside the United States.
Special Agent Ramona Sanchez, a spokeswoman for the DEA’s Phoenix division, said the information collected by the devices is stored for up to two years and can be shared with other federal agencies and local police. She declined to say how many have been installed or where, citing safety concerns
“It’s simply another surveillance method used to monitor and target vehicles that are commonly used to transport drugs, bulk cash and weapons north and south,” Sanchez said.
Journalists at the Center for Investigative Reporting saw them situated near a well-traveled checkpoint far inland from Mexico on Interstate 19, which stretches 63 miles from Tucson, Ariz., to the city of Nogales on the border.
Arizona’s Tohono O’odham Nation, which shares a 70-mile stretch of border line with Mexico and is known for its high volume of smuggling activity, has at least four sites with the devices on or near its land.
A local blogger critical of the U.S. Border Patrol’s numerous checkpoints snapped close-up photos of the devices on an east-west state road in southern Arizona’s Pima County.
Undoubtedly, smugglers are traveling along roadways near the border, but everyday residents there also must decide what they’re willing to give up in exchange for improved public safety.
In the past, Arizonans have drawn a line in the sand by expressing their discontent with a similar technology – speed cameras – used for traffic enforcement. Angry drivers reportedly disarmed them with axes and covered the cameras with sticky notes and boxes. Others simply left tickets unpaid, and in one extreme 2009 case, a technician responsible for maintaining the cameras was shot to death. The state’s Department of Public Safety pulled the plug on them in 2010.
A 96-year-old former Arizona governor was ensnared last month when he was stopped and questioned in the desert heat for 30 minutes after a recent medical procedure tripped up the small nuclear-detection devices worn by Border Patrol agents.
Officials elsewhere have said no thanks when asked to install license-plate scanners. Utah lawmakers balked at the idea when federal authorities broached it in May. The plan was for two local sheriffs to receive them as a donation, and the machines would then be installed to record travelers driving on a pair of interstates that connect in southwest Utah.