Two Indigenous women who were arrested by federal agents while attempting to block border wall construction in southern Arizona last week say they were chained and held incommunicado by the government without access to a phone call or lawyer for nearly 24 hours.
Nellie Jo David and Amber Ortega visited the Organ Pipe Cactus National Monument early Wednesday morning to pray at Quitobaquito Springs, a desert oasis that has become a flashpoint in the Trump administration’s ongoing effort to bulldoze its way through protected lands and stand up new sections of border wall. In order to mix concrete for the wall, government contractors have tapped into a desert aquifer that feeds into the springs, draining the only source of fresh water for miles around and slowly killing a sacred and ancient site of deep spiritual significance for the Tohono O’odham and Hia Ced O’odham people; David and Ortega are both Tohono O’odham and Hia Ced O’odham.
In an exclusive interview following their release from government custody, the two women described a baffling and terrifying ordeal in which they were bounced from one federal agency to another before being dropped at a private prison with no idea when they would be let out. “They didn’t read us any rights,” Ortega told The Intercept. “We both asked to speak to a lawyer. We were not given the opportunity to speak to a lawyer or make a phone call, and then we found out that it was a petty charge and that we shouldn’t have been arrested and detained to begin with, that we should have been given a citation in a week.”
Complaints filed in federal court in Tucson on Thursday show that David and Ortega were given misdemeanor charges of violating a lawful order of a government officer and violating a closure order; the area where their confrontation took place was closed to the public in October to allow for wall construction. The arrests were carried out by U.S. Park Service law enforcement personnel with support from the Border Patrol. The women were processed at a nearby port of entry before being driven to a private detention center more than 130 miles away.
David and Ortega were taken to the Florence Correctional Center, a medium-security federal facility owned and operated by the private prison corporation CoreCivic, following their arrest Wednesday morning and remained there until Thursday evening. They described being strip searched twice during their time at the facility. Both women were chained at the feet and waists “well into the night,” David told The Intercept. “We heard that they did that only because the Border Patrol or the Park Service or whoever handed us over didn’t give them any information, but they just agreed to house us,” David said. She added that detention center officials told the women that they had no authority to release them, nor did they have any information about their charges.
“We kept hearing that they were full and that they didn’t have any place for us, and so I guess for that reason we were left waiting,” she said. It seemed that part of the problem stemmed from confusion over the two women’s genders. “They thought that we were men,” David said, adding that detention center officials at one point prepared to move the pair to a men’s section. “They were going to put us in the men’s facility, and then I asked to use the bathroom and then they were just kind of like, ‘Oh shit, she’s not a man.’”
The two women spent much of the evening in a cold room with cage-like walls, waiting to be moved to their final location. Their shackles remained on while they waited, making it impossible to sleep. “There was a toilet, but it was really hard to use because we were handcuffed,” David said. “There was no soap available. There was no hand sanitizer available,” Ortega added — in a class-action lawsuit filed earlier this year, the ACLU accused officials responsible for the Florence facility of failing to provide basic safeguards for people in its care in the face of the Covid-19 pandemic. It wasn’t until the following morning, when they were moved to the cells that they had been waiting for, that the women said their shackles were removed and they were given access to basic hygienic items and allowed to use a cellphone.
“It was heartbreaking,” Ortega said. “Knowing that this is the process that migrants go through, that a lot of people go through.”
Ryan Gustin, a public affairs manager at CoreCivic, confirmed that David and Ortega were held at the Florence facility from 3:48 p.m. on Wednesday afternoon until 6:30 p.m. Thursday, and that their detention was requested by U.S. Park Police, the federal law enforcement agency with jurisdiction on public lands. Gustin said the claims that the women were chained and lacked access to soap or hand sanitizer were “patently false,” and that every detainee at the facility receives sanitary items and bedding.
As for the chains, Gustin said the women were placed in “approved restraints” according to policy, and that they arrived in restraints without any documentation that would allow detention center officials to determine the level of threat that they posed. Gustin confirmed that David and Ortega made no phone calls during their intake but added that “the holding cells have phones that they could have used had they made a request to do so.”
David and Ortega maintain that it was absolutely untrue that they had standing access to phones in their cells. They said they made multiple specific requests to speak a lawyer from the moment of their arrests Wednesday morning — those conversations were not facilitated until the following day. David added that she was “shocked” to hear CoreCivic push back on the fact that they were kept in chains. “They put the chains around our bodies and secured our hands and our feet,” she said, adding that there was simply no other way to describe it. “We were tired,” David said. “We had been out there early in the morning in the heat, and we were in those chains, high-security chains, well into the night, and they would not let us sleep.”
Why David and Ortega were transferred to a federal facility over low-level misdemeanors in the first place remains unclear. Calls and emails to Organ Pipe’s public affairs office were not returned.
With the 2020 presidential election nearing, the Trump administration has seized on federal lands in southern Arizona as a means to run up the total number of new border wall miles completed before voters head to the polls. In keeping with that goal, the Department of Homeland Security has focused its efforts on the state’s wildlife refuges, wilderness areas, and national monuments, using the post-9/11 Real ID Act to waive scores of federal laws designed to protect sensitive environmental and cultural spaces like Organ Pipe’s Quitobaquito Springs.
The costs of the race toward expansion have been severe. In early February, The Intercept broke the news that DHS had begun using explosives to clear the way for border wall expansion on Organ Pipe. By the end of the month, the Border Patrol was inviting members of the press to observe its explosives in action.
Laiken Jordahl, a borderlands campaigner at the Center for Biological Diversity and former Park Service employee at Organ Pipe, said the speed with which the government has pushed through the national monument after breaking ground last August has been staggering.
“I think a lot of people thought that this much damage couldn’t be done in a year, that the wall couldn’t go up and destroy Organ Pipe in just a year, and I so wish they were right, but the truth is that this place will never be the same,” Jordahl told The Intercept. “We can rip down the wall, we can employ mitigation measures and habitat restoration, but you can never, never piece back together these sacred sites that have been destroyed. You can never put back together the puzzle of cultural and natural history that make Organ Pipe so special.”
This year, water flow at Quitobaquito hit an all-time low, Jordahl explained, from an average of 30 to 45 gallons a minute down to just under six. “It’s slowed to a trickle,” he said. “The springs itself looks like a mud flat most of the time, the pond is just dried up — it’s just devastating.” At the same time, DHS contractors are pushing forward with the installation of a power grid to illuminate giant lights over the pristine desert habitat, a move that, along with the installation of towering steel walls, will drive away the migratory animals that have passed through the area for thousands of years.
With national security waivers in the DHS legal arsenal, the federal agencies entrusted to protect places like Organ Pipe and Quitobaquito Springs have been powerless to stop border wall expansion in southern Arizona, Jordahl said, as have the Indigenous stakeholders who would normally appeal to laws designed to preserve cherished and sacred cultural spaces. “They’ve really left Indigenous people with no choice but to put their bodies on the line to stop this project because they’ve silenced their voices in every other possible way.”
Nellie Jo David, an O’odham activist, addresses a crowd of protesters near the construction site of the U.S.-Mexico border wall in Organ Pipe Cactus National Monument on Nov. 9, 2019.
Photo: Kitra Cahana/MAPS for The Intercept
Praying, Crying, Singing
In southern Arizona, David and Ortega have been leading voices challenging the Organ Pipe project, drawing national attention to the existential danger it poses to Quitobaquito Springs. In November, on the 30th anniversary of the fall of the Berlin Wall, the pair rallied hundreds of people on Organ Pipe to oppose border wall expansion. Native resistance to the border wall has escalated and extended beyond Arizona in recent weeks, with members of the Kumeyaay Nation also blocking construction equipment and access roads in the Laguna Mountains of Southern California.
Both David and Ortega said that while they anticipated an increase in heavy construction near Quitobaquito last week, their decision to take direct action was not preplanned. “We just wanted to go out there and visit the springs and have some time,” David said. The two women parted ways soon after they arrived Wednesday morning, each going through their own process of communing with the land. “When we visit, we check the land, we look for anything out of place,” Ortega explained. “We were at the spring praying, crying, singing, and then we went on our separate ways.”
Ortega said she was approaching the base of a mountain when she heard the sound of construction trucks nearby. From different areas, the pair raced toward the commotion. “We just knew,” Ortega said. “We knew in our hearts that they were about to dig, so we stood in front of the construction truck.” She added: “We just knew we had to stop it in some way.”
For the better part of an hour, David and Ortega faced off against the construction vehicles and the contractors alone, as they waited for other border wall activists and media to arrive. “It was really last minute,” David said. “We didn’t have support at all, and we were really scared because we were just out there by ourselves.” Some of the contractors appeared confused, she said; others were visibly angry, including one contractor who she said swung the bucket of his front-end loader at them. “He just swung it around, like really macho, and he had this angry look on his face,” David recalled. “I just felt like he was fighting us with his machine.”
David managed to get inside the bucket of one of the machines, where she took a seat and refused to move. Across the road, Ortega attempted to block a second vehicle from digging into the earth. Eventually, Border Patrol agents and park rangers arrived at the scene. “There were so many,” David said. Around the same time, outside media started to show up. In a video from the scene, Ortega can be heard imploring the men to leave. “This is O’odham land,” she said. “This is a sacred area. You do not have permission to be here.”
The arresting agents approached David first, as she remained seated in the bucket of the front-end loader. “I put my head down because I didn’t want to see it,” she said. “I just stayed where I was in that bulldozer until I felt a bunch of hands grab my arms and then they lifted me up.” Ortega, who was on the other side of the road, said the words and actions of law enforcement felt contradictory. “They said that I had permission to leave, but they wouldn’t let me leave,” she said. The presence of so many men with guns near the springs left her shaken. “There was so many I couldn’t even count,” Ortega said. “It was really intimidating, and I was trying to explain that they were on sacred land, and it was not OK for them to be there in the way that they were with their weapons, and how violent it was, and how disrespectful it was to our people, to our land.”
Both women were handcuffed for the long drive from the border to the Florence detention center. As the hours ticked away inside the facility, they grew increasingly concerned. “We knew we had to have our initial appearance, but they were making it seem like we were there for the long haul,” David said. “We were getting really scared. We hadn’t gotten a phone call. We hadn’t been able to even tell our parents where we were, and they were giving us directions and clothing allocations.”
The following morning, the pair learned that they would be given an afternoon hearing and Ortega was eventually able to speak to a court-appointed attorney who informed her family of what had happened. It was well past midnight by the time they made it home.
Nearly a week later, the two women are still recovering from the ordeal, leaning on friends for support and taking measures to ensure that they were not exposed to Covid-19 as they plan their next steps in the defense of O’odham land.
Ortega described the struggle as intergenerational and said it will not end soon. “We come from a people that have had to fight to be recognized,” she said. “This isn’t over. This isn’t the end of the story. This has been an ongoing process and it’s another chapter.”
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