The Fall of an Arizona Border Wall

We met Kate Scott, founder and director of the Madrean Archipelago Wildlife Center, in the border town of Sierra Vista in Southern Arizona. Her chirpy demeanor contrasted with the subdued color of her orange-and-green winter coat. She had a California quail pinned on one side of her coat, her signature look in the Coronado National Forest. She drove us—three journalists from Mexico, Armenia, and India—to the park to catch the last vestiges of a failed attempt at a border wall.

The shipping containers first started to appear in August 2022, ostensibly to fill the gaps in the 30-foot steel border wall put up by former President Donald Trump along Arizona’s Yuma border. As a political stunt, then-Governor Doug Ducey ordered a 10-mile border wall to be constructed out of double-stacked shipping containers in the Coronado National Park in October of that year. 

According to state agencies, the project was mandated because of an apparent “influx of illegal migrants crossing the border.” Calling this influx an “invasion,” Ducey used his office to invoke an executive order that authorized the state of Arizona to build on federal land to “mitigate the disaster.” In total, 3.5 miles’ worth of the double-stacked shipping-container wall were completed, running through federally protected land in Arizona and the Coronado National Forest.

It was late January 2023 when we arrived, and by this time most of the 40- and 20-foot containers had been removed following a lawsuit filed by the federal government. The wall, according to the suit, was built on federal land and stood in violation of the federal Clean Water Act and the Endangered Species Act. These lawsuits from the federal government were filed in response to Ducey’s suit against the feds claiming that the Roosevelt Reservation, the strip of land where the containers were placed, came under Arizona state jurisdiction. 

We saw 4×4 pickup trucks, which Scott aptly anointed “Mad Max trucks,” plying the shipping containers out of the park, where the containers had been since late October. She warned us not to tread too close to the site for two reasons.

One, the park had officially closed it for the containers to be removed uninterrupted. And two, she said, they would recognize her coat—referring to employees of AshBritt, a Florida-based company specializing in disaster-relief work and contracted by the state of Arizona for both the placement and removal of the containers. As one of the environment monitors, Scott has had several run-ins with the contract workers on the site, whom she and others from the resistance have accused of harassment and intimidation.

Coronado National Memorial sign at the entrance of the National Park. Photo courtesy of Trilce Estrada Olvera

The Resistance

Just weeks earlier, in November 2022, on any given day between 40 and 50 protestors were standing in front of the earthmovers, demanding a stop to the “illegal wall.” The protestors came from wildlife, environment, and border humanitarian groups, joined by citizens with their dogs, placards, speaker phones, and musical instruments. Russ McSpadden, the southwest researcher for the Center for Biological Diversity, says the gathering grew organically from just a few people initially showing up and slowing down the work.

“We never let them build another stretch of the wall from that point forward,” he says. “The [contractors] would sneak in at night to work a few times before we realized it. But we started camping right in front of the machines and just locked the whole construction site down.”

The resistance movement spread through traditional word of mouth, and thus the crowd of local activists, artists, and concerned citizens grew by the day. Eventually they came to call themselves the Border Wall Resistance (BWR). For close to four weeks, protestors stood in front of the trucks and cranes day and night, camping even as winter arrived and temperatures dropped below zero. This was as much personal as political for people like Scott, who saw the container wall as an “incursion” on the Sky Islands—an archipelago of 55 mountain ranges along the United States–Mexico border.

This vast ecosystem of forests, grasslands, and desert all bundled together in this diverse landscape between the Sierra Madre in Mexico and the Colorado Plateau in the U.S. is home to the highest diversity of mammal species in the contiguous United States. The region also has 1,300 species of bees, 27 species of birds, mountain lions, javelinas, and oak trees more than 100 years old. On top of that, the Sky Islands are a critical migratory corridor for jaguars, ocelots, and bears.

Emily Burns, program director for Sky Island Alliance, one of the groups monitoring the environmental impact of the container wall, told The Border Chronicle in December 2022 that “there was no environmental review or planning or mitigation that was done.”

Weeks before Christmas, after the midterms, Ducey quietly stopped the construction and started withdrawing the wall. The whole debacle—placing and then promptly removing the containers over the course of six months—cost more than $200 million, all of which came out of the state coffers.

The National Forest Service has made an assessment for a remediation plan (for which Arizona is reportedly paying $2 million), but it has yet to be made public. 

With the destruction and death of so many plants and trees at the site, Scott says the impact of what she calls an “ecocide” will have to be studied long-term. A 200-year-old oak tree, she says, is in itself a habitat for so many species. “You have the birds living in it, you have those utilizing underneath it and within the bark. You take all that away and it’s devastating,” she says, considering how long it would take to rejuvenate the forest in this environment. “We’re in the desert.”

Beau Phillips, Erick Meza, Sheriff David Hathaway, and his wife Karen (from left to right), all members of the BWR movement, listen to Phillips talk about the project of refurbishing the shipping containers for housing. Photo courtesy of Trilce Estrada Olvera

The Approvals

While they faced some intimidation from AshBritt employees, the mostly white BWR protestors did not get into any hot water with the government over the course of their month-long protest. That’s in contrast to the treatment of Native activists like Nellie Jo David and Amber Ortega, who in 2019 were arrested by the feds for protesting the border wall, ordered by then-President Trump, that cut through the Tohono O’odham Nation. But unlike the container wall, which had no federal approval, the Trump wall in Tohono O’odham Nation had been granted all legal exemptions. These approvals were most recently reinforced in Texas by President Biden, who had told the media during his 2020 election campaign that “there will not be another foot of wall constructed in my administration.”

Approvals for a border wall go back to March 2020, when Homeland Security waived 26 federal laws in order to expedite the construction of border infrastructure in areas of high illegal entry to deter people from crossing and to prevent drug smuggling into the U.S. The waiver includes various environmental, natural resource, and land management laws, including the National Environmental Policy and Endangered Species acts.

In terms of environmental impact, the Trump wall is no better than Ducey’s shipping-container wall, if not worse per the report recently released by the U.S. Government Accountability Office.

Several activists and protestors who were part of the resistance say that victories are rare in fights against border militarization. The fall of the container wall might have been an easier win, but it is by no means any less significant. Nor is the BWR anywhere close to giving up their resistance on other frontiers. Scott plans to initiate another protest against the Biden-approved Trump wall in the Rio Grande, where shipping containers continue to be placed as an interim measure, along with a floating wall dividing the river in two. Elon Musk did a recent X (formerly Twitter) live on the so-called “border crisis” right in front of this container wall.

The federal government voluntarily dismissed its lawsuits after the state of Arizona agreed to pay $2.1 million for environmental damages. This came much to the disappointment of activists like McSpadden, who strongly believe AshBritt should be held accountable for its actions—and not allowed to get away with millions of dollars of Arizona taxpayer money.

“AshBritt didn’t have federal permits when they bulldozed an untold number of oak and juniper trees, destroyed grasslands, and tore through federally protected jaguar critical habitat in the Coronado National Forest,” McSpadden says. “They also damaged about two dozen desert streams, part of the watershed of the San Pedro River.”

To top it all off, he adds, unauthorized men working for the company guarded closures to block protests and the media, who were on public land legally.

Kate Scott, founder and director of the Madrean Archipelago Wildlife Center, watches the shipping containers being removed by trucks. Photo courtesy of Trilce Estrada Olvera

The Containers

The containers themselves are getting a fresh lease on life, soon to be repurposed as shelters for the growing unhoused population in Phoenix and Tucson, Arizona.

Beau Phillips, a former media marketing professional and one of the citizens who was part of the resistance movement, has been pushing to find investors to refurbish the 3,900 containers that are currently parked at the Arizona State Prison in Tucson as they get auctioned off online. He first announced his project, Boxes of Hope, to repurpose the containers for affordable housing and public art at a celebratory gathering at the forest for the Border Wall Resistance in April 2023, when several members reflected on their wins, losses, and the way ahead.

“If we can help a lot of people and make it a source of pride, this is a story that will be told nationally,” Phillips says. “If we can tell them that we took something that was an eyesore and cost $200 million and [say] ‘Look what we were able to do with it,’ Tucson will put itself on the map as an innovator and a leader.”

“I want to be a part of that story.”

Editor’s note: The documentary film A Wall Runs Through It was made with the support of Arizona State University and won the Student Production Emmy in 2023.

Makepeace Sitlhou is an independent journalist and researcher who has been working in the media and communications field for more than a decade in India. Other than India, she has reported out of Australia and Taiwan. Since late 2022, she has been in residency at the Cronkite School of Journalism and Mass Communication as a Hubert H. Humphrey fellow (Fulbright exchange program). She has been covering India, primarily its northeast region, for international publications, including YES!, The New Humanitarian, Vox, The Baffler, The Daily Beast, Nikkei Asia, The British Medical Journal, Vogue Business, Middle East Eye, Foreign Policy, The Juggernaut, Asia Times, The Washington Post, Al Jazeera, Fair Observer, Popula, BBC, Vice World News, Sojourners, and TRT World. Her work has been supported by organizations like the International Women’s Media Foundation, the Sarapis Foundation, Google News Initiative, the Center for Financial Accountability, National Foundation for India, Zubaan Books in collaboration with Sasakawa Peace Foundation, Heinrich Boll Stiftung, and Konrad Adenauer Stiftung. In addition to writing, Sitlhou has produced TV news and short documentaries for Al Jazeera and Vice, and hosted a podcast series for Suno India. She can be reached at
Trilce Estrada Olvera is an award-winning audiovisual journalist from Mexico City, living in Arizona. She specializes in creating documentaries and photojournalism stories that explore social justice and environmental issues. Her work has been featured in outlets such as NonDoc, Indian Country Today, and the Cape Cod Times. She earned a master’s degree in mass communication and journalism from the Walter Cronkite School of Journalism and Mass Communication of Arizona State University. She also received a NATAS Rocky Mountain Emmy Student Production Award for her documentary film about the U.S.-Mexico border. She speaks Spanish and English.
Hakob Karapetyan has been a journalist for 14 years. His experience covers online media and TV, and he has served as press secretary and head of the press service for the municipality of Yerevan—the capital city of Armenia. After a year of studying in the United States, he is currently engaged as a media expert at Yerevan Press Club.