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In advance of Trump’s wall, Arizona rancher invents system for detecting migrants

Glenn Spencer created a system of sensors, security cameras and drones on his ranch on the border with Mexico. But he hopes Trump will reinforce the border even more.
14 Oct 2016 – 04:57 PM EDT
“Secure the border first,” is one of the messages Glenn Spencer displays on his ranch, near the border with Mexico. Crédito: Fernando Hernández

HEREFORD, Arizona -- Glenn Spencer opens the door to his workshop in the middle of his 104-acre ranch on the border with Mexico. At 79, he seems a lot younger as he gives a firm handshake and hops on an ATV.

Spencer points to Mexico, just a quarter-mile away, and notes that 500 years ago Spanish conquistador Francisco Vázquez Coronado passed by here on his way north. That was long before documents were required to cross the border, long before the Border Patrol built an 18-foot steel fence along this stretch of the 2,000-mile border near the San Pedro River valley.

Aside from the fence, the landscape in this rocky part of the Sonoran Desert has seen few changes since the Coronado expedition. Near the fence, Spencer has put up three billboards that greet undocumented migrants crossing his part of the border. “Save the United States,” “Secure the Border First” and “God Bless America.”

An older border fence was only as tall as an average man, and migrants jumped over it easily. “This was the Wild West before. Every day, someone crossed,” Spencer recalled.

Spencer has dedicated his retirement fortune, his still boundless energy and his knowledge of engineering -- acquired during decades of work in the oil and gas industry -- to developing high-tech inventions to seal the porous border once and for all. Over the last seven years he’s spent nearly $1 million on a system of seismic sensors, which he claims is more precise and efficient than the one used by the Border Patrol.

He started the campaign in 2002, when he grew tired of battling Hispanic activists in California and declared whites had "lost" the state. He decided that moving the trenches to Arizona would be the best way to defend his vision of a national identity. So he bought a ranch from a U.S. military veteran frightened by the constant gunfire on what was then a smuggling route for drugs, people and money.

Detection Systems

In Arizona, he created two related entities: American Border Patrol, which reports alleged failures by the Border Patrol, posting videos of undocumented migrants crossing the border; and Border Technologies Inc., the company trying to market his inventions.

On this clear day, he's been awake since 3:30 a.m. Three of the employees in his workshop are trying to perfect SEIDARM, a Seismic Detection and Ranging system, which connects sensors to a software program that he patented last year.

Although he has attacked Univision and still believes that Mexico has a plan to reconquer the Southwest, Spencer loves the idea of showing off his system to Univision because he believes that Hispanics living in the United States support an impregnable border fence. He argues that a strong fence is a prerequisite for any effort to legalize undocumented immigrants already in the United States.

It would also help battle racism against Hispanics, he claims. “If you see someone on the street who looks Mexican, and you know for sure that he's here legally, your attitude would be much better,” he said.

Spencer starts his demonstration of SEIDARM in front of several computer monitors in his workshop. Walkie-talkie in hand, he directs two employees, Chad Knaeble and Mike Durham, toward a half-mile-long part of the border where migrants usually jump the fence. That's where Spencer has installed nine sensors that show up on one monitor as green points on a satellite map of the ranch.

When a sensor picks up footsteps, one of the green points turns red and a robotic woman's voice alerts to “People Red.” Another monitor shows security camera video of the two men walking across the brush.

Spencer claims his system has detected about 20 migrants on his ranch this year. The computer in his bedroom sometimes alerts “People Red” in the middle of the night. Unlike other border activists, he says he does not take justice into his own hands. He does not pack a gun, although his employees do, he says. Whenever he detects a crossing, he phones Border Patrol.

He claims that human smugglers try to avoid his ranch because the border there is impregnable. He's not afraid for his life, and adds that his murder would be counterproductive because it would generate a lot of publicity and strengthen demands to reinforce the border.

There's a Border Patrol outpost near his ranch where agents take 24-hour turns monitoring the San Pedro River, especially during Arizona's monsoon season, when its floodgates are permanently open.

Border Patrol spokesman Vicente Paco says Spencer's cooperation is welcome and that it has pushed other area ranchers to cooperate with the campaign “See something, Say something.” But he declines comment on his security system, saying, “What we know about him, we know from the media.”

The second part of Spencer's demonstration includes a BeBop, a drone that can take off automatically when a sensor sets off an alarm. He believes the BeBop could carry out more complex tasks in the future. “It can speak in any language and say 'You are violating U.S. laws.' It could even use facial recognition technology,” he says.

Spencer says he's promoted SEIDARM at technology and security gatherings, and has sought agreements with large corporations that usually win big contracts with the U.S. government. For now, he has made zero income from the system.

He believes the U.S. government put him on a “black list” because of his complaints about Border Patrol failures, and because of his ideas. He is convinced that both Republicans and Democrats have a plan to keep the border open because of “globalism” that “wants to do away with flags, with armies, with borders.”

He also had no luck trying to sell his technology to Kenya to protect elephants from poachers, or to Saudi Arabia to monitor its oil pipelines.

“I am on the edge of ruin. If I fail, I'll have to look for a job as a Walmart greeter,” he says. He's joking, but he doesn't hide his frustration. He has dedicated the last 14 years of his life to the border, and has grown distant from his daughters. He lives alone on the ranch, with two horses, four dogs and an occasional visit from some of his employees.

“That's my lifelong struggle. You know that you're right, but that your enemy cannot be defeated,” he says.

During the six hours of SEIDARM demonstrations, interviews and a tour of the ranch, Spencer talks on and on about his sensor system and his battle to protect the border. “I could talk about this for weeks,” he says.

His hopes are now riding on a victory by Republican presidential candidate Donald Trump. He believes SEIDARM would be a perfect complement to Trump's wall, although he does not believe that the business mogul will really build a wall.

“It's a fantastic marketing idea because people can visualize that better than a fence, but it would make no sense. Those who know border security best know that it's not wise to shut off the view of what's going on on the other side,” Spencer says.

"Go Trump"

Spencer flew over the Arizona border area in 2015 aboard an ultralight trailing the message "Go Trump" to make sure it would be visible from Mexico. He says he invited all the presidential hopefuls to his ranch to show them SEIDARM, but none came. The Trump campaign initially told him adviser Dan Scavino would visit, the rancher said, but he didn't show up.

He believes Trump wants to keep his distance because of all the negative "propaganda" about Spencer on the Internet. The Southern Poverty Law Center, which monitors hate groups, has described him as a “vitriolic Mexico-basher and self-designated protector of the border.”

Spencer sees himself as the perfect consultant for Trump's border plans. “I don't believe that any of his advisers knows as much or has read as much literature on the topic as I have,” he says.

If Trump loses, Spencer does not rule out turning his sights on Europe's migrant crisis, where he believes some countries will want to test his system for stemming the flow of refugees fleeing the war in Syria.

After the tour of his ranch, Spencer gets on his ATV to return to his chores. But before he says goodbye, we pass by the billboards that greet migrants. One of them includes a copy of the 1848 peace treaty between Mexico and the United States known as the Treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo.

He says he put it up because “it's the legal basis for this part of the United States where we're standing.”

There's also an empty stage that American Border Patrol has used to mark the Fourth of July in recent years – but not this year, because of a lack of funds.

“Donations have dropped exactly in the year that Trump has been grabbing all the public attention,” he says, sounding almost defeated. He hopes his crusade has not been in vain, he adds. “The good part is that maybe he really wants to solve the problem that we could not.”

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