Eye in the sky: CBP launches surveillance balloon in Nogales without warning

Eye in the sky: CBP launches surveillance balloon in Nogales without warning
Published: Jul. 6, 2022 at 9:45 PM MST
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TUCSON, Ariz. (KOLD News 13) - A watchful eye in the sky is putting some Southern Arizonans on edge.

Nogales officials say they were blindsided by the U.S. Customs and Border Protection (CBP) balloon that provides 24-hour surveillance.

Its sudden appearance over the city has some questioning what the cameras are capturing and how long it will be up.

“Would you want to have a blimp above your house?” asked Nogales Mayor Arturo Garino.

It can be seen from miles away. Hovering over Nogales, all you have to do is look up to see the 15,000 pound aerostat. Some say it’s a blemish on the landscape.

“A person in real estate mentioned the property they were going to sell didn’t sell because of the blimp,” Mayor Garino said.

Mayor Garino says his office has been fielding calls from concerned residents ever since the tethered balloon went up last week.

“It’s like [always the same] with the federal government,” he said. “They put up the blimp and then, ‘Oh, by the way, lets call the city and let them know.’ That’s what happened.”

On Wednesday, June 29, a CBP spokesperson released the following statement:

“U.S. Customs and Border Protection’s (CBP) Program Management Office Directorate (PMOD) has installed a 22-Meter Persistent Ground Surveillance System Aerostat in Nogales, Arizona. The installation began on Monday, June 20, and is located approximately one mile north of the International Boundary with Mexico.

The aerostat will be operational and manned by Border Patrol Agents 24 hours a day, seven days a week, to provide continuous aerial surveillance of the border. The aerostat is filled with helium and tethered to a Mooring Platform, which weighs around 15,000 pounds. The system includes day and night cameras to provide persistent, low-altitude surveillance, with a maximum range of 3,000 feet above ground level. Flying at this altitude allows Border Patrol Agents to maintain visual awareness of border activity in the United States for longer periods of time.

The United States Border Patrol (USBP) has successfully utilized technology assets such as this in the Rio Grande Valley Sector, Texas since 2013. An agreement with the Department of Defense is allowing the USBP to expand the number of aerostats across the southwest border. There are currently 17 systems that are scheduled to deploy throughout multiple sectors this fiscal year. This will be the first aerostat within the Tucson Sector’s area of responsibility. An additional Tucson Sector aerostat site has been identified near Sasabe, Arizona, which is tentatively scheduled to be deployed later in the fiscal year.”

A few Nogales residents, who didn’t want to be identified, told KOLD News 13 many people are “unhappy” about the surprise security system. They want to know if the cameras will be used to watch U.S. citizens and permeant residents.

“I remember when I was a child, [CBP] used to have helicopters, too,” said Joel Gonzalez. “All over Nogales; a helicopter coming by.”

Gonzalez is used to different CBP tactics. He says he supports efforts to secure the border.

“It’s a border town, you never know what’s going to happen,” Gonzalez said.

Mayor Garino says the tethered balloon is on private land. He hopes it is used to stop the flow of fentanyl and other drugs, but believes it could have been placed in a better location.

“That is not the highest peak we have and it is not close to the border,” said Mayor Garino. “They could have gone closer to the border, or even east or west of Nogales they would have been able to see along the border. When the federal government puts something up, it never comes down. I have asked - I don’t even know how many congressmen and women, the White House and the Vice President - to remove the concertina wire for three years and they haven’t done anything. So, I don’t expect it to come down. If it comes down, it’s probably going to be because of a storm.”

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