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Can a Chili Pepper Secure the Border? Ask DRS Technologies

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A recent article from Nathan Hodge on Wired.com caught my eye. He reported that defense technology contractor, DRS Technologies has developed a system of infrared surveillance cameras for border security between U.S. and Mexico. There are three different camera systems to choose from, named, Chili, Jalapeno, and Habanero. Hodge contends that the marketing of such equipment to the Department of Homeland Security "pushes the boundaries of taste."

When I read his article, it not only pushed boundaries, it pushed every button in my being. Should a defense contractor, seeking U.S. taxpayer dollars, blatantly use racially insensitive terms to market border security cameras? Is DRS clueless, inept or racist?

Would other ethnic groups be offended if similar terms were used to describe them? These were my immediate thoughts. I decided to calm down and do some investigating. I called DRS Technologies directly.

I was able to speak with Senior VP of Public Affairs and Communications for DRS, Richard Goldberg, in New Jersey. I asked him about the infrared cameras and the companies' reason for naming them, Chili, Jalapeno and Habanero. He said they were descriptive tags. The surveillance cameras all use heat-sensor technology and the spicy names refer to their respective "heat" sensor capability. Seems plausible, seems innocuous.

I asked a few more questions, "Are the systems being marketed for use at the border between U.S. and Mexico?" He responded by saying the systems are in use all over the world, but would not admit, for security reasons, that the technology was being marketed specifically for the U.S.-Mexico border. Lastly, he made a point to tell me that the DRS company believes in diversity. I did not ask him any questions regarding this issue, it was volunteered. I was almost waiting for him to tell me he had a few friends that were Mexican. According to DRS, the names Chili, Jalapeno, and Habanero were in no way chosen to demean a group of people, and any notion otherwise would be considered ridiculous.

I respect DRS Technologies for taking the time to answer my questions and I partially believe their answers. I say partially because the explanations don't quite fit. DRS is absolutely trying to sell their infrared cameras named after Mexican spices for use at the border. Even if the DRS spokesperson won't admit it, it is irrefutable.

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Their recent ad is proof (see photo Courtesy of Nathan Hodge). The glossy ad appears in a copy of Government Security News. There is an image of the U.S.-Mexico border along with information about the infrared camera technology. The tag line says "Tourist or terrorist?" The word terrorist straddles the Mexico side of the border while "Tourist" is over the U.S. side. If this is a mistake or oversight it is inexcusable.

There has never been a terrorist threat from Mexico or it's neighbors to the south, never -- not one. Why put such a provocative statement on a border security system advertisement if it is not true? Are the terms used to describe the U.S.-Mexico border surveillance cameras, Chili, Jalapeno and Habanero also provocative marketing? Can the camera named Jalapeno tell the difference between a terrorist or tourist if there are no terrorists?

A look through other DRS promotional material clearly identifies a marketing strategy for the U.S. Border Patrol and U.S.-Mexico border security. This statement is from a DRS brochure: "Selected DRS security capabilities are already deployed on critical military installations, along the U.S.-Mexico border ..." They know they are trying to sell the cameras with "hot" names for use at the border. The U.S. Border Patrol is clearly one of their clients.

People at the U.S.-Mexico border suffer gross injustice and hardship on a daily basis. Migrants from Mexico and Central America, as well as points south, are dying in U.S. deserts and mountains by the thousands. People are being rounded up in raids by racist sheriffs in Arizona. Legal residents and U.S. citizens along the American Southwest are being marked as criminals and terrorists because of the color of their skin.

Most national media report about the drug wars south of the border but not the human and civil rights violations on the U.S. side. As a Mexican-American, I am offended by the terms Chili, Jalapeno and Habanero to describe surveillance equipment clearly marketed for U.S.-Mexico border security. If it is not intentional then it is simply stupid and insensitive. If CRS has no intention of stoking racial animosity, they should remove the incendiary and salacious claim of terrorism at the Mexico border from their advertisements.

Mexico is our neighbor, friend and ally -- not a terrorist threat. They should rename the infrared surveillance equipment or not market it for use at the border. If they are truly a diverse company, they should remain respectful to all regions of the United States as well as our neighbors. Let's see if they do.