The Grim High-Tech Dystopia on the US-Mexico Border

To police the US-Mexico border, the US government is implementing an array of ever more sophisticated military tech — now including AI-powered robo-dogs. It promises to worsen an already severe humanitarian crisis.

Cameras on a US Customs and Border Protection surveillance tower monitor activity along the US-Mexico border on March 8, 2024 in Calexico, California. (John Moore / Getty Images)

The wall bleeds rust. As I put my palm on the vast stretch of metal bisecting the Sonoran Desert, the wall seems to pulsate as it stretches into the horizon, painted black in parts to make it extra hot in the sun. And yet, for all its spectacular length and ability to dominate the news, at a particular point along El Camino del Diablo, or “the Devil’s Highway,” on the US-Mexico border, the rusted metal arbitrarily ends in the middle of the desert.

This is one of the longest stretches of the wall, but many smaller walls — some as short as a few meters — litter the Sonora, a vast area in the state of Arizona and a frequent crossing point for refugees and people on the move from Central and South America. Late one night in February 2022, we are driving along the perimeter in probably the biggest truck I’ve ever been in, and at the wheel, James Holeman is talking nonstop. A tall, white former marine with a neon orange cap emblazoned with a green cross, James is the founder of Battalion Search and Rescue, a volunteer organization that combs the Sonora for bodies and survivors. After a mandatory stop at an ice cream shop in Dateland, Arizona, for “the best — and probably only — date shake you’ve ever had,” he is taking us along the sections of the border where people have been crossing for years, entering military territory where rusted tanks and helicopters have been planted for target practice, competing with cholla cacti for space.

Speaking a mile a minute, James may be the most energetic person I have ever met. After leaving the military, the lifelong Arizonan could not bear to, in his own words, “just sit at home and do nothing.” He and his group of volunteers go into the desert at least twice a month, sometimes overnight, donning reflective orange vests and carrying walking sticks and short-wave radios.

“Sometimes you are chasing ghosts,” he says as he takes us down a winding arroyo, a dried riverbed full of short shrubs, sand, and rocks, a path people use to make their treks through the desert slightly easier. Battalion Search and Rescue goes out at least a couple times a month, sometimes more. Often the long and grueling searches are overnight. Sometimes they find people clinging to life. Often they find only bones.

I also don an orange vest and hat and struggle to keep up with James. The desert is beautiful and sharply inhospitable. Giant saguaro cacti dot a landscape of muted blues, greens, and purples. The smell of creosote lingers in the air, and I can hear the wind make percussive sounds among the ribs of old saguaros.

The desert quietly pulses with life — cryptobiotic earth, we’re told, teeming with tiny microorganisms like algae, cyanobacteria, and fungi. But it also kills. “The desert makes people disappear — just like the ocean,” says James. “People get rubbed out and their families never know what happened.”

I also don an orange vest and hat and struggle to keep up with James. The desert is beautiful and sharply inhospitable. Giant saguaro cacti dot a landscape of muted blues, greens, and purples. The smell of creosote lingers in the air, and I can hear the wind make percussive sounds among the ribs of old saguaros.

The desert quietly pulses with life — cryptobiotic earth, we’re told, teeming with tiny microorganisms like algae, cyanobacteria, and fungi. But it also kills. “The desert makes people disappear — just like the ocean,” says James. “People get rubbed out and their families never know what happened.”

After about two hours in the intense February heat, we arrive at a small delta in the arroyo. This is where Elias Alvarado, a husband and father in his thirties, perished in the summer of 2021. He had several IDs with him, including a Salvadoran passport with a stamp from Texas, along with a cell phone and a COVID mask. He had left his wife and son to try to get a job in the United States, uncertain of where he would end up.

He died on the journey, and his family had no idea for months. James remembers: “It was our third body that day.” César Ortigoza, a volunteer and cofounder of Los Armadillos, another search-and-rescue group based in California that frequently works with the Battalion, was the one who first spotted Mr Alvarado. They contacted his family, and at their request, the following month, César drove back overnight and made a modest orange cross to mark the spot where Mr Alvarado was found. But now, we arrive to find the cross missing, washed away by the winter rains.

We walk farther into the desert, spreading out to see if we can spot a flash of orange in the landscape. Mr Alvarado must have been walking for days, if not weeks, and died just three miles (five kilometers) from a major highway that would have connected him to the town of Gila Bend in Arizona.

James, César, and a few other volunteers held a small funeral for Mr Alvarado after his body was taken by Customs and Border Protection (CBP). They recited a few hymns and called Mr Alvarado’s family. His son, who was never able to see him again, could only leave a scratchy voice recording saying, “I love you, Papa, thank you for everything.”

We finally find the bright orange cross stuck in a pile of spiky bramble. It is sturdy and undamaged. We walk back and dig a new hole, adding a small bouquet of desert flowers and pouring some water on the ground, as a blessing. Water is life in this environment, so we also leave two packs of bottles near the memorial site for people who might make their way through in the future.

The New Border Tech

I meet Samuel Chambers and Geoffrey Boyce in Tucson, Arizona, in February 2022. They are researchers looking into the ways that border walls and technology intersect. Sitting in a quiet corner of the University of Arizona’s geography building, a cavernous architectural marvel somehow blending rippled-yet-rusted-out metal with green vines and cacti, Sam pulls out his phone and shows me a map with the various locations of the surveillance towers dotted throughout the Sonora corridor, their coordinates creating a strange type of Morse code.

These towers are part of an expanding “network of fifty-five towers equipped with cameras, heat sensors, motion sensors, radar systems, and a GPS system” along the US-Mexico border. Following Sam’s map, I drive to see a few.

Winding our way down dusty Arizona roads, I notice that the towers are not exactly hidden. You can drive right up to one, but before you get too close, an electrified fence with a solar panel stands as a warning. “Restricted Area: Enforced by Intrusion Detection. Authorized Personnel Only,” reads one sign, in both English and Spanish. Another sign right next to it: “No Hay Agua / No Water Here.”

Stretching up to one hundred sixty feet (fifty meters) high, they are live surveillance towers powered by artificial intelligence (AI), able to make autonomous decisions, without the aid of human personnel, about where to focus their cameras and sensors over vast stretches of the Sonora that would be otherwise invisible to the human eye, and when to alert border authorities if something in their field of vision arouses suspicion. Some are fixed and rooted, not unlike the saguaro, while others are mobile and can be wheeled around.

CBP has described these towers as “a partner that never sleeps, never needs to take a coffee break, never even blinks.” These autonomous, AI-powered surveillance towers are, in fact, the creation of Elbit Systems, a controversial Israeli company that routinely tests out its technology on occupied Palestinian territory in the West Bank, as well as on dissidents, journalists, and critics.

This vast border enforcement system also surveils the Tohono O’odham Nation’s reservation, located in Arizona approximately one mile from the border. According to Boyce, the securitization of the border rubs up against issues of indigenous land rights and sovereignty. Not all members of the Tohono O’odham were in support of the creeping power of tech companies and of these towers being placed on their land. Consequently, disputes have arisen, as some had serious misgivings about the deal, which opened up the reservation to surveillance in exchange for land rights.

These surveillance towers — along with the cacti — are not the only tall things in the desert. Driving at night along the El Camino del Diablo with the also-tall James in his massive search-and-rescue truck, we cut into the desert near the Organ Pipe Cactus National Monument, a protected natural area. We stop in the darkness to look at the stars and to take in the vastness of the Sonora. It’s so quiet you can hear your own heartbeat. So much natural beauty in an exceptionally inhospitable environment. The temperature is dropping with each hour’s passing.

I can’t help but think how terrifying it must be to be here in the dark, exhausted in an arroyo waiting for daybreak. “Look there,” says James, pointing to a blue dot in the distance. A rescue beacon, like a lighthouse in the desert. We drive to see one with the number twenty-five on it, stopping off for James to explain that these eight-foot-tall (2.5-meter) rescue beacons glow in different colors depending on which area of the Sonora you are — some blue, some red, some green. Some beacons even have water for you. However, any relief you may feel upon seeing one of these is short-lived. There are motion-detection sensors placed along the beacon, setting off an alert to CBP.

Looking up into the sky and praying to the heavens is also not a good idea, because patrolling the sky are drones designed to detect human presence and alert border enforcement officials. A growing aerial arsenal includes radar-equipped aerostat blimps operating from fifteen thousand feet (forty-five hundred meters) in the air, and the aptly named Predator B drone, enabled with video and radar sensors. Its predecessor, the MQ-1 Predator, was used extensively by the US military, initially serving as a surveillance tool in the Balkan Wars in the 1990s.

Drones are unpiloted aerial surveillance aircraft, some small enough to hold while others, like the Predator B, are hulking behemoths that are thirty-six feet (eleven meters) and nearly five thousand pounds (twenty-two hundred kilograms). According to their manufacturer, they can fly nearly thirty hours at a time and can read something as small as a license-plate number from a height of two miles.

These drones are also multipurpose — when they are not busy at the border, they are sometimes lent to other government agencies, including for the surveillance of protesters. Makes sense to share, since they each cost $17 million and the Department of Homeland Services (DHS) estimates that each flight costs $12,255 to operate.

Drones and surveillance towers are complemented by inland surveillance, comprising technologies such as remote license-plate readers, facial-recognition cameras at checkpoints along highways, and various fiber-optic sensor systems — an ever-tightening net. This surveillance in hostile desert environments is also complemented by various physical barriers across the border, from shipping container barricades to newly proposed floating walls across the Rio Grande, with netting and barbed wire intended to snag and drown. All the while, journalists like Patrick Strickland have been documenting the rise of armed vigilante groups in places like Arivaca, Arizona, “a magnet for the far right” across the increasingly lawless borderlands.

A Human Alternative?

Various US governments, including the Obama and Biden administrations, have presented so-called smart-border technologies as a more humane alternative to other border-enforcement methods, such as building walls or putting children in cages, yet scholars have documented that such technologies along the US-Mexico border have increased people’s deaths. Using geospatial analysis, Samuel Chambers, Geoffrey Boyce, and their colleagues Sarah Launius and Alicia Dinsmore have found that deaths have more than doubled with the increasing use of new surveillance technologies over the past two decades, creating what anthropologist Jason De León calls a “land of open graves.”

In fact, deaths at the US-Mexico border in 2021 were estimated to be the highest ever recorded, with the International Organization for Migration finding that at least 650 people died in the Sonora. Actual numbers may be much higher.

Chambers and colleagues have shown that all this surveillance has failed to prevent undocumented border crossings, but instead shifted people’s routes through more inhabited terrain around urban centers toward more dangerous terrain in the Arizona desert, in places like Altar Valley, “increasing [their] vulnerability to injury, isolation, dehydration, hyperthermia and exhaustion,” leading to deaths of people like Elias Alvarado. According to James, “it is a slow-motion genocide.”

Just days after we returned from Elias’s memorial site, in February 2022, DHS announced that military-grade “robo-dogs” were going to be deployed along this deadly frontier.These quadruped autonomous machines were originally designed for combat and tactical training operations. Often painted a cheery bright yellow, with four legs and a boxy body, they look more like mobile toasters than dogs. But they are very strong and very fast, sometimes armed, and able to break down doors and even right themselves when kicked with full force by a human.

Robo-dogs have been used in active deployment by the US military. Able to navigate rugged terrain and equipped with two more legs than a human has, they are the perfect addition, their joints bending in an uncanny jerky way as they run like little Frankensteins across the sands. They are semi- or fully autonomous and obey human commands; in fact the Australian army has experimented with using headsets to read brain signals and control robot dogs via a brain-robotic interface, or telepathy. And with the addition of generative AI, robo-dogs are developing their own voices and personalities: “a debonair British gentleman, a sarcastic and irreverent American named Josh, and a teenage girl who is so, like, over it.” (Will one of them have a fondness for human rights?)

These machines have also been used by various law-enforcement departments, such as in Honolulu and New York City. In Hawaii, the program was cut short after a public outcry when it came to light that the robo-dogs were targeting houseless people during the COVID-19 pandemic, reading their temperature. But the New York Police Department announced in May 2023 that it was reintroducing robo-dogs for law enforcement and rescue operations in the city, proudly unveiling a unit painted with black and white spots, like a dalmatian.

In 2019, the newspaper Le Monde reported that the European Union had also quietly announced various robo-dog pilot projects: a “bio-mimicry enabled artificial sniffer” called SNIFFER, with a research and development budget of €3.5 million, and DOGGIES, or the “Detection of Olfactory traces by orthoGonal Gas identification technologIES,” whose logo is a dog with a CCTV camera in place of its head.

There was also Sniffles and Snoopy, which had multimillion-euro budgets and were the projects of consortiums between state entities including the Hellenic (Greek) Ministry of Public Order and Citizen Protection; the EU’s border force, Frontex; and Thales and other various private companies. What exactly happened to these border canine companions is not clear. Some are listed in the EU-wide project database as “closed projects,” while others were never made public at all.

DHS took a very different approach, proudly announcing the planned rollout of the robo-dogs across social media with its start-up partner, Ghost Robotics, a company well known for its viral videos of robots jumping up on boxes, standing up after being violently kicked, and, more recently, for being outfitted with guns. It is also a darling of the US military, with various contracts for robo-dogs and other tools.

It was surreal to be in the middle of the hauntingly beautiful yet deadly Sonoran Desert as the rollout of these “robo-dogs” was announced. I messaged James when we heard the news, and he was alarmed but not surprised: “As former military, the idea that these machines are going to be running around the desert hunting people is so dark.”

The border is already a war zone for CBP, a frontier to be managed and controlled, with prizes to be won. While driving to the Mexico border, we passed one of the CBP trucks that rounds people up when they are apprehended, stuffing up to eight people into the back, windows obscured by black mesh as it speeds away from Tucson toward the border.

The complicity of the military and national defense in normalizing the use of these types of tools in border enforcement is not lost on us, especially a former marine like James. “We are using military-grade technology against the most vulnerable,” James had told me earlier, “and this is a failure of the state that’s forced humanitarians to make up for it.” Standing in the rolling sands of the Sonora, I already feel overwhelmed by the vastness and hostility of the environment — it’s terrifying to imagine a not-so-distant future in which people like Elias Alvarado will be pursued by high-speed, military-grade technology designed to kill.

These robo-dogs are not yet widely used. But they are part of a growing arsenal of other, more seemingly mundane, and perhaps less shocking technology that is becoming more and more normal at the border. The use of military, or quasi-military, autonomous technology like robo-dogs and AI-powered surveillance towers legitimizes the connection between immigration and national security, and the growing push toward the criminalization of migration through increasingly hard-line tools. People on the move are presupposed to be criminals unless proven otherwise.