This clip from the first season of National Geographic’s reality show Border Wars (2010–present) shows an introduction to how surveillance technology plays a large role in the daily Department of Homeland Security’s work on the U.S.-Mexico border. In an episode focusing on Nogales, Arizona, we are introduced to the camera tower networks that “scan nearly every inch of the border” and lights that bathe the border in “2 million kilowatts of light,” only to be one-upped by smugglers who have learned how the system works. In response, DHS roll out “another of its weapons,” a mobile surveyor, as well as a predator drone to provide aerial support from operators 50 miles away. Through this coordination of technology, the smugglers are forced to leave behind their packs of marijuana, which the audiences is informed can have a $300,000 street value.
As the series has previously received criticism for its normalization of military tactics and propagandistic alignment with the patrol officers, the show also relies heavily on the aesthetics of surveillance to enhance its entertainment value. Throughout the series technology is celebrated and shown repeatedly as beneficial, effective, and a major asset to saving lives. While Border Wars heavily showcases the newest technology in the field, it discards any contextual or historical knowledge. For example in earlier portions of the episode, narration mentions how “Nogales, Arizona, and Nogales, Sonora, share the name, but little else,” erasing the intertwined history of the region.
I am struck by this duality of a land that is watched and made highly visible while simultaneously being silenced and hidden through the erasure of history and representation of the pursued to a landscape of statistics. Individuals are visually dehumanized and decontextualized by aerial vantages and infrared light, and are instead transformed into the moving targets of “the hunt.” What does it really mean to view a digitized version of the border? As the show calls it an “imaginary line” in its opening sequences, how does technology feed into this visual construction? The drone’s visual product—a monochromatic pixilated screen—has become synonymous with sinister, illicit, or subversive behavior, visually affirming the importance of the Department of Homeland Security’s booming surveillance industry.