Container Wall Construction and
Protest on the U.S. Mexico Border
February 20, 2023
In what was arguably the weirdest episode in the already convoluted history of barriers and politics along the U.S.-Mexico border, then-Governor of Arizona Doug Ducey (GOP) defied federal officials and created a makeshift border barrier in late 2022 out of double-stacked shipping containers.
Approximately 3.5 miles of the “container wall” was constructed before being halted by protesters. Several weeks later, the same out of state contractors were paid to dismantle and remove the containers, for a total start-to-finish project cost of nearly $200 million. This is an overview of those events as I saw them unfold.
In January of 2021, shortly after taking office, President Biden fulfilled a campaign promise by issuing an executive order pausing any further construction of the 30-foot tall “Trump wall” being built along the U.S. – Mexico border.
On August 12, 2022, Arizona’s then-Governor Doug Ducey, a staunch pro-Trump Republican, issued Executive Order 2022-04 “Securing Arizona’s Southern Border”. The document contains a fear-mongering list of supposedly dire threats to the citizens of Arizona, from increases in migrants and asylum seekers to terrorists and drug smugglers crossing the border through gaps in the unfinished barrier.
The document directs the Arizona Department of Emergency Management (DEMA) to “immediately initiate operations to close the gaps in Arizona’s southern border wall.” Florida-based contractor AshBritt, Inc. began double-stacking standard 40-foot long shipping containers that day and completed the task about a week and a half later.
In a direct challenge to the Biden administration, Ducey ordered DEMA to construct 10 miles of shipping container wall on federal land managed by the Coronado National Forest despite being told by the Forest Service that doing so would be illegal. At the same time, the U.S. Bureau of Reclamation, the federal agency that manages the land where the Yuma barrier was built, was ordering Ducey to remove the containers which had already been placed there.
On October 21st, Ducey filed suit against the Bureau of Reclamation, U.S. Forest Service and the U.S. Department of Agriculture, asking a judge to decide on a specious claim that the lands along the border were, in fact, under state jurisdiction and not federal.
Three days later, on October 24, 2022, in direct contravention of Forest Service orders, AshBritt began installing containers on the public lands of the Coronado National Forest, a short distance west of the Coronado National Memorial.
Protesters Shut Down The Wall
After nearly a month of observing the frenetic pace of construction, on November 20, 2022, a small group of nearby residents and environmental activists organized a protest at the construction site. Once protesters arrived, work stopped for the day and no more containers were placed.
The second protest took place on November 29th, where work was similarly halted. The protesters had received an inadvertent tipoff from one of the security guards: operations weren’t allowed to continue if anyone was within 100 feet of the equipment.
When the protesters arrived, AshBritt employees called the Cochise County Sheriff. The two officers who showed up made it clear that they were not going to arrest protesters so long as they kept it civil. Once again, no containers were placed.
For a good overview and photos of these initial protests, The Intercept has a very detailed story
The next protest on December 2nd saw workers become more aggressive toward protesters, but they eventually backed down and ceased operations without anyone being hurt. As their organizing slowly gained steam, protesters were able to stop construction with a road blockade on December 5th.
The construction crews typically worked from 6 in the morning until 3 in the afternoon. Up until this point, protesters had been arriving in the morning to demonstrate, going home for the evening once workers had left.
Later that night, unbeknownst to protesters, AshBritt sent their employees back to work. When protesters returned the next morning, they found that a long strip of land had been scraped flat and stacked with containers overnight.
The activists made an impromptu decision to maintain the protest through the night. A simple camp was established at a wide, flat area at the end of the line of containers. When workers arrived in the wee hours, protesters again prevented further work. With protesters established on site, no work was attempted on December 7th or 8th.
I arrived at camp on the evening of the 8th after reading about the protests in a tweet from Russ McSpadden of the Center for Biological Diversity. “The Center” as it is known, monitors environmental issues in the area and has filed two lawsuits against the container wall. I wasn’t able to get detailed directions to the camp, but with a National Forest map and the knowledge from a news story that the barrier was being built somewhere west of Coronado National Memorial, I was able to find it in the maze of dirt roads just before dark.
The protest camp on the night of the 8th consisted of six people, a couple of tents, a few vehicles and a small fire pit. Mere yards away, a security guard sat in his truck guarding AshBritt’s heavy equipment.
By standing near the border fence just across the dirt road, it was occasionally possible to pick up a single bar of cell coverage, but the camp was mostly isolated from communication. This meant that in the event of a rapid protest mobilization during the night, being able to call in supporters and legal observers was unlikely. The small group would be on its own.
At one point during the evening, a man drove up in a private vehicle and, bafflingly, inquired about a “concert” here. Ethan, one of the protesters who would become an anchor for the camp, asked if he was law enforcement. “Yes,” he answered.
This was the Cochise County Sheriff’s Operations Commander. He had apparently come to believe that an earlier drum circle promoted on a local Facebook group was a “concert” that would draw crowds of drunk people who might cause trouble. I’m not so sure I believe that story, but he also didn’t have any real reason to make it up. He could just as easily have shown up in official capacity to monitor whatever was happening.
He, like the other officials from the Sheriff’s office, reiterated that they weren’t going to arrest anyone so long as there was no violence. We all had the feeling that he meant no violence on the protesters’ part. Luckily, it was never put to the test.
Before dawn the next morning, December 9th, a warning shout went up and everyone rose and dressed quickly as workers arrived in their pickup trucks. The protesters were able to establish fairly quickly that the contractors weren’t going to try to work. It had become obvious that activists were not going away and that no more earth moving or container placement would be possible under these circumstances, so they intended to move their equipment to a larger staging area about a mile to the east. They asked the group not to obstruct them.
They had also been instructed to remove the single, unstacked container from the end of the line, claiming that it was a safety hazard because people had been climbing up on it. The protesters, predictably, had no objection to the container and equipment being removed.
Once the workers and equipment had vacated the site, the decision was made to follow them and reestablishing camp at the staging area. This site would soon be named Camp Ocelot after the elusive and endangered cat that occasionally migrated through this area from Mexico.
Over the next week and a half, between three and ten people would occupy Camp Ocelot around the clock. A trailer was brought in, tents set up and a shared kitchen built. Food, water and other supplies poured in. Many people came for the day or spent one night, with an estimated 150 people passing through camp over the course of its existence.
A mid-December snow storm dropped several inches of snow and brought temperatures that dropped into the high teens at night. I remained in camp for most of this time to photograph, except for two forays to town to get camera equipment and catch up on obligations I’d left behind.
Camp was sandwiched between the container wall along the border to the south and rows of shipping containers in the staging area a few yards to the north. When workers moved their equipment to this site, they rearranged the containers into a “fort” of sorts, rolling the machinery into the center and then shutting everything in with more containers. The site was watched round the clock by security guards who mostly sat in their trucks for their 12-hour shift.
The general feeling in camp was that the removal of the heavy equipment signaled a permanent, if unspoken, end to construction. Democratic Party gubernatorial candidate Katie Hobbs had won the election and would be taking office on January 2nd. While not committing to removing the containers, she had promised to cancel the contract and stop construction.
More importantly, she would most likely cancel Ducey’s lawsuit against the feds that attempted to claim state jurisdiction over the strip of land along the border known as the Roosevelt Reservation. [She did in fact quickly withdraw the suit.] This would remove even the flimsy legal cover Ducey claimed for recklessly violating federal environmental law. Further, the muddy conditions and upcoming Christmas-New Years holiday period made it impractical to try to continue work. The protesters had won.
By the second week in December, with victory all but formalized and the stress of camp wearing on people, a public rally was called for December 18th. After the rally attended by about 50 people, there was an easy consensus to dismantle camp, get much needed rest and remain vigilant against any attempts at further construction.
The Container Wall Comes Down
In late December, as part of the USDA and DoJ lawsuit against then-Governor Doug Ducey and the State of Arizona, a stipulated agreement was reached, with Ducey agreeing to have the containers removed promptly. This was done as an amendment to the existing container wall construction contract between the State of Arizona and Florida contractor AshBritt. They would now be getting paid nearly as much to remove the containers as they had been paid to place them.
Throughout the several weeks of the dismantling operation, the normally quiet roads through the Coronado National Forest and surrounding rural residential areas became a dangerous and dusty racetrack as AshBritt’s contracted truck drivers plowed through the area with reckless disregard for safety. One driver had her car sideswiped while parked on the roadside and many other people were nearly run off the road.
Residents notified the Santa Cruz County Sheriff, who sent deputies out one day to issue tickets, but the drivers largely continued their dangerous habits, indifferent to other road users. The Coronado National Forest law enforcement, fully aware of the situation was nowhere to be seen.
Shortly after the wall’s removal was announced, the Coronado National Forest announced a closure order that would prohibit anyone except AshBritt employees from being in the area during the dismantling process. The closure area was approximately 1/4 mile wide and 4 miles long, including the entirety of the container wall and a short stretch along the border on either end. After considerable badgering (largely by me), the USFS allocated one viewing day per week for the press, but everyone had to stay inside a small enclosure near the staging area, unable to see the actual work of dismantling the wall.
They also granted “volunteer” status to five people representing local environmental groups who wanted to observe and document the operation, but this access was revoked the next day after AshBritt employees lied to Forest Service officials, saying that the activists had been blockading the dismantling process. The workers even went so far as to name a prominent environmentalist as one of the blockaders, despite him being verifiably in Tucson at the time.
Lying to law enforcement about people obstructing work was a pattern for AshBritt employees throughout the entire wall saga. Despite this, the Forest Service consistently conceded to the wishes of AshBritt and refused to allow environmentalists, the press or the public to observe, monitor and document the dismantling process.
Not to be deterred, I was able, along with members of local environmental groups, to gain access to the border area near the container wall by going through a ranch in Mexico. I would ultimately make three trips into Mexico to document the dismantling process. I also made use of drone photography and placed a hidden timelapse camera where it could record the easternmost end of the barrier being removed.
The View From Mexico
Video above: timelapse of the final days of the container wall shot with a hidden camera. The the contractor, AshBritt, did not want any photos or videos, so the Forest Service closed the area for them.
Despite the containers and all equipment being gone, the Coronado National Forest extended the closure, first until February 13th, and then again until March 31st, ostensibly for “public safety”. The Forest Service truly does not want the public to observe what they’re doing. This lack of transparency is unacceptable for a public agency overseeing public lands.
There is currently a planned victory celebration on April 2nd, 2023 at the former Camp Ocelot site, so hopefully the closure will be lifted by then. (I will update this with photos and text from the event.)
The protest network that coalesced around the container wall did more than stop the destructive monstrosity in its tracks, it built the foundation for a movement that is ready and willing to take up the fight again should any attempt be made by this or any administration to continue constructing a wall across this amazing landscape.
Filled with riches
Plunder of your lands
I know no borders
But you, mi amigo
You must not cross the wire
Shipping containers are built to cross borders, not block them.
According to the U.S. Department of Transportation’s statistics for 2022, almost 470,000 rail cars and shipping containers filled with goods entered the U.S. from Mexico through land ports. This does not include all the container ships or cargo jets arriving in the U.S. from Latin America and other places from which immigrants and asylum seekers also hail. That seems to be the point of this graffiti: money, cheap goods and raw material can flow freely from poor countries to rich ones, but for most human beings this is a freedom they can only dream of.
Anyone working in the field of border justice will ultimately be forced to grapple with policy questions around immigration, drug smuggling, cross-border trade and other issues. None of it is easy, but all policy proposals must begin from a place of humanity and compassion. They must acknowledge the injustice of a system that allows frictionless international trade in a country’s resources while it’s people are told to stay behind barbed wire and walls.
Even the best-intentioned efforts to right injustices will fail unless they recognize that no matter how tall your walls or impressive your firepower, you can never secure a border. You can only secure a country. And you can’t secure a country without a just and secure world.
The paths humans have used to traverse this landscape are well worn and ancient, shaped by topography and the availability of water. It is the walls and wire that have temporarily intruded in a most arbitrary and unnatural way. People will be walking these paths long after the walls are gone.