Container Wall

Container Wall Construction and
Protest on the U.S. Mexico Border

Mikal Jakubal
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.

 

A brightly colored line of double-stacked shipping containers wends across the oak grasslands toward an orange-hued hillside at sunset.
The container wall on December 9, 2022 looking east at sunset toward Coronado National Memorial. Mexico is on the right, the U.S. on the left. Only 3.5 miles of the 10-mile proposed barrier was built before repeated protests permanently halted construction on December 6th.
A line of double-stacked red, blue and orange shipping containers snakes across the oak grasslands of the US-Mexico border in Arizona. Alongside the wall of containers is a muddy construction road.
The container wall looking westward. Uprooted trees, mud piles, obstructed wildlife migration and dirt-blocked streams are just a few of the environmental violations done in the name of this political stunt by AZ Governor Doug Ducey.
Four men are on top of a double-stacked line of multicolored shipping containers. Two are on the platform of a wheeled extension lift that used an extendable steel arm to raise the platform up to the top of the containers so workers can get up and down. In the foreground is dry brown grass. In the background, behind the wall of containers, are sparsely vegetated mountains against a gray-blue sky.
AshBritt workers installing razor wire atop the containers on December 9, 2022. Since the protesters' main concern was the environmental damage caused by the placement of additional containers, they made the decision to ignore the razor wire installation on existing containers.
A silhouetted figure uncoils large loops of razor wire atop a shipping container.
A worker uncoils razor wire atop the container wall.
One worker in a welding helmet tack welds a steel plate to cover the gap between two shipping containers while a second worker looks away from the bright welding arc.
On December 9, 2022, contractors weld steel plates to cover gaps between the shipping containers to prevent people from walking through. People can easily climb over the containers, but these gaps are the only route for animals migrating on north-south routes from the Huachuca Mountains to the lowlands in Mexico. After the December 13th snowstorm, tracks of animals walking back and forth trying to find a way through the barrier were easy to spot.
A line of double-stacked shipping containers forms a wall along the U.S.-Mexico border. Next to it is a low barrier made of welded railroad rails. Short chunks of rail are welded into X shapes and then horizontal pieces of rail are then laid across them and welded.
The container wall, barbed wire fence and vehicle barrier from the Mexican side of the border, looking west, on January 10, 2023. A barbed wire cattle fence and a series of widely spaced concrete monuments were the only border demarcation across much of the southern border until 2008 when these "Normandy barriers" were built, mostly out of old railroad rails. These still allowed water and wildlife to cross unimpeded.
A double-stacked line of shipping containers alongside a muddy dirt road in a snowstorm.
The container wall in the snowstorm of December 12, 2022.
A high up landscape view of a vast oak grasslands with a bright sunburst through clouds. A thin line of colored shipping containers can be seen bisecting the landscape.
The Arizona borderlands west of Coronado National Forest as seen from Montezuma Pass, looking westward. The previous day's snow had mostly melted from the lowlands except in the shadow of the container wall, leaving a thin white line.
Looking into the distance along the border wall. To the far left, a concrete obelisk with the number "103" stands in the grass. Next to it is a barbed wire cattle fence. Center frame is a 3-foot tall barrier made from welded railroad rails. To the right is a line of double-stacked shipping containers. A shiny new roll of concertina wire loops down from the top of the containers.
Four iterations of the U.S.-Mexico boundary. Boundary Monument 103, one of 276 such monuments spread irregularly along the border from the Pacific to the Gulf Coast. This one dates from the Gadsden Purchase of 1853. The barbed wire cattle fence was, for a century, the only barrier to travel. The welded-rail vehicle barrier was built in 2008. The container wall will be the shortest lived of all the barriers.

Protesters Shut Down The Wall

A person stands silhouetted with fist in the air atop a shipping container topped with razor wire. The sky is sunset pinks, yellows and oranges.

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.

In the foreground, are large coils of razor wire. In the background, slightly out of focus, are seven trucks and a small gathering of workers standing between the trucks, talking. Behind them is a brown mountain range.
Coils of razor wire at the container wall staging area on December 10th, 2022. Workers showed up in their trucks, but never left the staging area because nearby protesters were ready to continue to blockade any further wall construction.

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.  

Photo shows a double-stacked shipping containers with razor wire on top. Along the lower container is a white banner with red and blue painted lettering that says "Re-envision No More Division". On the left, a barefoot protester climbs down the small gap between two containers.
Ethan Bonnin climbs down from the container wall after hanging a banner at Camp Ocelot on December 18, 2022.

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.

Four people gather in chairs around a small campfire at dawn, with magenta clouds to the east. Nearby in the shadows, shipping containers are stacked up to form a wall along the US-Mexico border.
Dawn at the container wall protesters' camp on December 9, 2022. Construction crews arrived and removed container 462, the last one in the line, and all of their equipment, taking it to a staging area a short distance away.

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.

A large yellow excavator enters the photo from the right as the sun flares next to the bucket at dawn. Past the excavator, there is a line of double-stacked shipping containers next to a dirt road.
After a week of nonstop protesters' blockades, the contractors remove their heavy equipment from the construction site at dawn on Friday, December 9, 2022.

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.

Workers load a blue shipping container onto a flatbed trailer. The yellow grapple arm of a large piece of heavy equipment protrudes into the frame from the right while a worker arranges chains below it. The container has a protest sign still taped to it that says "Don't buy Ducey's $100 million lie".
Container 462, the last in line along the container wall is removed by workers on the morning of December 9th, 2022 after protesters effectively stopped construction for a full week prior.

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.

A line of heavy equipment and pickup trucks drives away along a dirt road next to a double-stacked line of shipping containers.
Contractors leave with their equipment on December 9th, 2022 after giving up any further attempts at constructing the container wall.
Aerial view of snow covered shipping containers and snow covered mountains in the background. Across the foreground is the shipping container border wall with razor wire on top. Between the wall and the rows of containers is a collection of snow covered tents and vehicles at the protesters' camp.
Camp Ocelot and the contractor's staging area, looking north to the Huachuca Mountains from the Mexican side of the container wall on December 13, 2022.

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 dirty snowman made from found large snowballs and branches for arms holds a protest sign that reads "$100 million political stunt". Behind it is a shipping container with additional signs saying "Tear down the wall," "this wall must fall," " Ducey's junk yard legacy."
There was just enough snow to make a "snow-protester" on December 13, 2022 after the previous night's snowfall.

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. 

A small campfire from above. Five sets of legs and feet are seen from above as people warm their feet.
Protesters at Camp Ocelot warm their feet by the fire on the morning of December 13, 2022 after a freezing night.
Two people, a man and a woman stand next to a small table in front of a tree at night. The table is illuminated with several small battery powered LED lights. The woman is preparing food on a small portable cook stove.
Two protesters at Camp Ocelot prepare a meal in the makeshift kitchen on December 10th, 2022. Within days of being established, donations of food and camp supplies were provided by supporters
Two women are sitting in camp chairs at night with a camp fire in the foreground. The one on the left has a N95 face mask and a headlamp. They are holding a piece of white poster paper across their laps and are dressed warmly. The woman on the right is holding a small paint brush and painting a slogan in black paint on the posterboard.
Painting protest signs at Camp Ocelot on December 16, 2022.

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.

Aerial view of snow covered shipping containers arranged like a walled city, with snow covered heavy equipment parked inside.
The shipping container fortress with heavy equipment locked inside, watched by 24-hour guards. Camp Ocelot is yards away, just out of the lower edge of the frame.

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. 

A protester with binoculars stands atop a sunlit shipping container at dawn. In the shadow below is a collection of snow covered tents and vehicles.
Camp Ocelot after the night's snowfall, December 13, 2022. Russ McSpadden scans the horizon with binoculars. Temperatures before dawn were in the high teens.

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. 

A group of people stand in a circle on a dirt road. Behind them is a long line of double-stacked, multi-colored shipping containers. There are some signs and banners taped to the containers. In the foreground is a broken up oak tree lying on its side in the dirt. The sky is overcast and gray.
The closing protest rally at Camp Ocelot, December 18, 2022. Afterward, camp was dismantled and victory declared. In the foreground is one of the scores of oak trees torn from the ground with heavy equipment by wall contractor AshBritt.
A woman with dark brown hair gives an emphatic speech during a protest. One hand is facing forward and the other is up by the side of her head. She has an intense expression on her face. Protesters and signs can be seen out of focus in the background.
Protest organizer Kate Scott of the Madrean Archipelago Wildlife Center gives an impassioned speech to the assembled protest rally on December 18, 2022.
A row of double-stacked shipping containers winds across an open landscape, paralleled by a dirt road. The first two shipping containers in the image are a blue one on top of a yellow one, the colors of the Ukrainian flag. On the yellow container is a hand-lettered poster that reads "Ukrainians for border justice!" The blue and yellow containers are in color and the rest of the image has been digitally desaturated to emphasize the flag-like color scheme.
A Ukrainian border activist made the connection between the container wall and the Russian invasion. Click for story. Photo December 31, 2022.

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.

An aerial view of rolling hills covered in brown grass and oak trees. A dirt road winds through the landscape. Clouds of dust billow as a caravan of trucks hauling shipping containers traverse the road. In the distance, the dust lingers and spreads out over the valley.
Forest Road 61, the main haul road out of the container wall area, looking east on January 22, 2023. The dust kicked up by the constant truck traffic spreads out and lingers in the San Rafael Valley.

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.

 

A very large, 8-wheeled, beige military tractor rig with a trailer rolls to a dusty stop with a yellow shipping container on the back. A worker in an orange vest directs the driver with hand signals.
One of AshBritt's container hauling rigs arrives at the staging area to unload. This yellow container was brought from where the wall is being dismantled a mile and a half or so to the west. Once unloaded from this trailer, it will be loaded onto a smaller trailer towed by a large pickup truck to a storage yard 50 miles away.
In the foreground, a blue shipping container sits on a trailer. It has the words "bad floor" spray painted on the side, a reference to why the container was rejected by shipping companies and sold as surplus. In the background a large forklift is kicking up dust as it loads a shipping container onto a flatbed trailer.
"Bad floor" is likely a reference to why this container was sold by the shipping company as surplus.

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.

 

Two rows of multi-colored shipping containers are seen from above. At the end of each row is a large forklift. The one on the left has just picked up a container, stirring up a large dust cloud.
Forklifts move containers around the staging area on January 12th, 2023.

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.

A dusty roadside scene. A "road closed" sign faces the camera while the last end of a shipping container on a trailer leaves the scene to the left, its wheels kicking up dust clouds.
A shipping container on a trailer passes the closure boundary on Coronado National Forest Road 4781, January 12, 2023.

The View From Mexico

A scene at dawn with an orange sky and dark foreground. A few trees are silhouetted to the right and a short line of double-stacked shipping containers catches the first glow of morning. To the left of the containers, lights on heavy equipment illuminate a large yellow excavator and large truck as a shipping container is loaded on to it.
Dismantling work as seen from Mexico, dawn,January 10, 2023.
At dawn the sky is red, pink and purple. To the left in the background is a grassland with oak trees and mountains in the distance. In the center of the frame is a line of double-stacked red shipping containers. To the right of that is a barbed wire fence and a vehicle barrier made of welded railroad rails. At the left edge of the containers is a shadowed human figure against the skyline, hands in pockets looking at the camera.
A private security guard came over to investigate what I was doing at dawn. I explained that I was just taking pictures and would stay out of their way, over in Mexico "on my side of the border." This would be the only interaction I would have with any workers all day. January 10, 2023
A close up of a worker wearing red and black gloves attaching a large steel clip to the hole in the lower corner of a red shipping container.
An AshBritt employee attaches a special hook, called a rotating lifting lug, to to a shipping container along the U.S.-Mexico border in preparation for it being dragged to a nearby loading area. Seen from Mexico on January 10, 2023.
The steel arm of a large excavator lifts one shipping container off the top of another one with two large chains. The container appears to be about to tip over, but is in fact held securely by the chains. A worker in a yellow vest walks nearby.
After being dragged up the slope from the edge of Copper Canyon and onto more level ground, the containers are unstacked. While this looks precarious, the chains are holding the container securely and there is another excavator (not visible) simultaneously lifting the other end. January 10, 2023.
A scene of mountains and open grasslands with scattered oak trees. The low, steel-rail vehicle barrier between the U.S. and Mexico runs up and down rolling hills in the middle of the scene. Atop a low ridge in the middle of the scene is a stack of shipping containers, part of the container wall being dismantled. There are two large pieces of heavy equipment being used to move containers around parked next to the containers.
The west end of the container wall on January 10, 2023 seen from Mexico. In the far distance, the east end of the container wall can be seen. The distance is deceiving, with around a mile and a half of containers remaining to be removed at this point.
Two workers in high-vis yellow vests point toward each other as they discuss the job. Behind them are two shipping containers stacked on top of one another. An out-of focus chain cuts diagonally across the frame in the foreground and there are shadowed, forested mountains in the background.
Two AshBritt employees discuss plans during the dismantling of the container wall along the U.S.-Mexico border on January 10, 2023. Photographed from Mexico.
A worker in a high-vis vest gives a hand signal to the operator of a large excavator that is lowering a shipping container onto a giant flatbed trailer. The trailer is towed by an 8-wheel, yellow military tractor vehicle.
An AshBritt employee signals the excavator operator as a container is lowered onto a flatbed trailer, as seen from the Mexican side of the border on January 10, 2023. Once dismantled and moved away from the border, the containers are loaded onto these two giant rigs and hauled to the staging area to the north. There they are loaded onto gooseneck trailers pulled by large pickup trucks and taken to the storage yard near Whetstone, AZ on state highway 90, about 50 miles away.
A 6' concrete obelisk with the number "103" embossed near the top stands amidst dry grass. Behind it is a barbed wire fence and a low steel-rail barrier. In the background, slightly out of focus is a line of red shipping containers.
Monument 103, part of a system of similar monuments demarcating the U.S.-Mexico border on January 10, 2023. The containers in the background were part of the container wall less than two weeks ago but are now awaiting transport out of the area. Soon enough, the containers will be only a memory and no longer blight this enchanting landscape.
Photo shows a green agave plant in the foreground. Three types of fence — a barbed wire fence; a vehicle barrier made from welded pieces of railroad track; and the container wall made from double-stacked shipping containers — form three parallel lines into the distance along the U.S.-Mexico border.
Three iterations of border barrier, December 18, 2022.
Photo shows a green agave plant in the foreground. Two types of fence — a barbed wire fence and a vehicle barrier made from welded pieces of railroad track — form three parallel lines into the distance along the U.S.-Mexico border. To the right is a large yellow excavator parked next to some shipping containers.
After the container wall, January 10, 2023.
A broad landscape view into a mountainous desert landscape at dawn. The sky is a deep purple-blue, while the low mountains and grasslands in the middle ground are a light brown. In the foreground, looking down from the ridgetop view, the landscape is covered in scattered oak trees. In the lower right is a bare square area illuminated by floodlights. In it are vehicles, forklifts and stacks of shipping containers.
The container staging area at dawn on January 27th, 2023 as seen from near Coronado Peak, looking into Mexico. The container loading and staging area is illuminated to the right. The last four dozen or so stacks of containers to be removed from the container wall can be seen on the left. The lights of the heavy equipment already at work moving containers mark the western end of the remaining segment of wall.
A giant truck painted in military green camouflage speeds by hauling a trailer with a dull red shipping container on it. It's moving fast, kicking up dust and shows motion blur from the slow shutter speed. In the foreground is a vehicle barrier along the U.S.-Mexico border made of railroad rail welded into X patterns with cross braces. Along part of the road is a line of double-stacked shipping containers that the truck is speeding out from behind.
One of the last containers is hauled out to the loading area after being dismantled from the container border wall on January 30, 2023.
A worker, dressed in a dark gray sweatshirt and lime green hi-vis vest reaches for a double chain hanging in the air a few feet away. The worker is holding on the the rusty metal of a shipping container with gloved hands. He's facing away, so only his back is visible. The background behind the chain is in dark shadow.
A worker with AshBritt, the container wall contractor, reaches for a chain that will be used to un-stack the two containers he's hanging on to. January 27, 2023.
Two large yellow excavators on tracks in a grassy area with oak trees. The one on the right has a massive hydraulic oil leak, evidenced by a spray of brownish fluid spraying from the top of the excavator digging arm. The fluid is running down the arm and pouring onto the ground, creating a puddle of oil on the soil.
One of contractor AshBritt's excavators used for loading containers on trucks springs a giant hydraulic oil leak, shutting down work on what was supposed to be the final day of container wall dismantling. The crew left after this, making no effort to clean up the oil puddle soaking into the soil. January 30, 2023.

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.

The Aftermath

A view looking down a dirt road into the distance. In the foreground are large, dark stains from a large spill of hydraulic fluid into the dirt.
As of this photo, February 7, 2023, AshBritt's large hydraulic oil spill from the previous week had not been cleaned up.
A hand holding a blue metal cup after scraping up a scoop of oil saturated soil from the ground beneath the cup.
As of February 7, 2023, the oil spill had not been cleaned up and had saturated deep into the soil.

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. 

A stack of cut logs sits on the edge of a wide, recently graded dirt road.
Emory oaks that were in the way of the container wall were uprooted with heavy equipment and tossed aside by AshBritt workers. After the containers were removed, the branches were hauled off and the trunks were cut into short lengths and left stacked along the road.

Coda

A shipping container sitting atop loose dirt with graffiti spray painted in white that reads: "Filled with riches Plunder of your lands I know no borders But you, mi amigo You must not cross the wire"
Graffiti on the Mexican side of the container wall.

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.

A photo of the U.S.-Mexico border area. The 30' tall border fence, consisting of rusty-orange square steel tubes with gaps fills the frame to the right. The rest of the frame shows the vast landscape along the border in the distance. A shadow of a person wearing a backpack is cast against the wall, but the person is not visible in the photograph.