SIERRA VISTA — Glenn Spencer is a general fighting a one-man war.
It’s a war that, according to him, the American government doesn’t want but one he is duty-bound to wage.
His battlefield is the border and his soldiers are drones, guided by seismographs. He has an almost-fanatical drive to develop a cheaper, more-secure system to “lock down” the U.S.-Mexican borderland.
Spencer’s enemies are elusive, wily, and to him, alien. They are Latino border crossers, and whether they are children fleeing conflict, families seeking a better life, or suspected drug smugglers, it makes no difference to him. Spencer believes they constitute a threat large enough to warrant years of his life struggling to combat.
Fifteen years into the project, Spencer spends his time fine-tuning a drone system capable of snaring crossers. He claims his combative stance and skepticism about the U.S. government has alienated the U.S. Border Patrol, Customs and Border Enforcement, and his local congresswoman Martha McSally.
Any alienation might be well earned. The Southern Poverty Law Center lists Spencer as an extremist and the group he formed, American Border Patrol, as a hate group.
“I am fighting for my country and they call me a racist for it,” Spencer said. “It’s been effective. Nobody wants to talk to a racist.”
That fight, Spencer claims, has been a nonviolent one. His drone system (called SEIDARM) uses seismographs to listen for seismic tremors of human movement, then dispatches a drone to scan the landscape while a human operator identifies the person moving. Spencer doesn’t chase or confront anyone he finds crossing the border — and doesn’t report them to the Border Patrol, either.
“We won’t report to the Border Patrol, we report to the people,” Spencer said.
By that, he means that he takes photos and videos of the suspected border crossers and uploads them to YouTube and his website, in an effort to demonstrate the supposed ineffectiveness of the U.S. Border Patrol.
“We are a threat to (the Border Patrol’s) system, their entire operation, their big money bags. We are at war with their management.”
This front is but one part of Spencer’s larger conflict. He believes that the Border Patrol’s “digital border” of Integrated Fixed Towers — giant radar/thermal/camera towers that watch the southern border — are overpriced at best and a scam at worst.
The Border Patrol disagrees. The towers have been part of an ongoing effort to modernize the border, and include a system of unmanned aircraft as well. On the issue, the Border Patrol released a statement saying it listens to all citizen concerns and that its tower system remains effective in Arizona.
Spencer believes he is engaged in a feud with Border Patrol and that it led to a media blackout against him, quashing any sort of coverage of SEIDARM or the issues that he feels are important to the border and how it is managed. One such issue was Operation B.E.E.F. in 2009, his effort to document the types of barriers on the U.S. – Mexican border and provide photos of what it looks like in the more remote sections of the border.
He’s also tried to demonstrate his perceived uselessness of the IFT system by flying drones up to the cameras on the towers. When Border Patrol didn’t hunt him down, Spencer felt vindicated. He asserts that this proves his accusation that a number of the towers in Southern Arizona don’t actually work. He claims that nobody from Border Patrol called him back about his supposed muckraking.
“I feel an obligation to have covered this,” Spencer said. “I am a pain in the ass to the Border Patrol management. Who likes a watchdog?”
Spencer believes this one-sided antagonism has soured the chances of selling his SEIDARM system to the Border Patrol, which has been his end goal for the entirety of his project.
He boasts that with this system, President Trump would not need his wall. He has personally spent over $1 million on the project and the technologies he’s developed. Otherwise, the entire operation is funded from donations.
“The only customer we have is the U.S. government,” Spencer said. “Thus far, they’ve expressed no interest. We’re on a barebones budget.”
That’s because the results of the 2016 election have slowed donations by 60 percent, according to Spencer. With calls to build a wall, he feels that potential donors no longer feel his work is crucial. Spencer disagrees.
“My idea on the border has been right,” Spencer said. “CBP has been wrong this whole time. They are wasting taxpayer money and leaving the country unsafe.”
It’s this idea of a “locked down” versus “unsafe” border that pervades every element of what Spencer – and, by extension, American Border Patrol – does. It is the crux of a national argument that has pitted those calling for tougher borders, against those who would label the former racists.
“The idea that I would treat people differently because of their skin is wrong,” Spencer said. “There’s no evidence of that.”
There is plenty of online evidence that says otherwise. Spencer is an outspoken proponent of the theory of the Aztlan Reconquista — a conspiracy that claims Mexican migrants are the foot soldiers of a secret invasion of the American Southwest. Allegedly, this is done as a means of retaking the territories México lost in 1848 during the Mexican-American War. Latinos are a monolithic voting block that according to Spencer, will swing elections at the behest of the Mexican state.
“This is demographic warfare,” Spencer said. “Nobody wants to talk about it. They will vote how they’re told to vote.”
He has produced a documentary called Conquest of Aztlan, using quotes from government officials on both sides of the border to show that the U.S. government is complicit as well. The secrecy needed to conceal such a movement also has an explanation: Spencer suggests that part of the foundation of Hispanic culture is a reliance on deceit.
“I won’t say anything more: lying in Hispanic culture,” Spencer said. “That’s it, Google it.”
Doing so leads to pages of blog posts and anecdotal evidence on lying in Hispanic — typically Mexican — culture. Despite a lack of evidence, every hit on the first page makes a point of mentioning how lying is done to avoid difficult conversations, not maliciously – and certainly not for a secret Mexican invasion.
This imaginary threat is Spencer’s thin justification for his crusade — but that doesn’t phase him. In the meantime, he will do what he’s done for over a decade: keep fighting his one-man war, one drone — one Latino “suspect” at a time.
“We need to be more creative, more inventive,” Spencer said. “But first, we need to secure the border.”
For high resolution photos and a word version of the story go here.
Erik Kolsrud is a reporter for Arizona Sonora News, a service from the School of Journalism with the University of Arizona. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org