Border Tribe In Midst of Drug Smuggling 'Crisis'

The San Miguel Gate. i i

hide captionThe San Miguel Gate is a traditional point to cross between the U.S. and Mexico for Tohono O'odham members who have family on both sides. The Border Patrol allows only tribal members to cross at three such gates on the Tohono O'odham Nation. Otherwise, members would have to drive hundreds of miles to visit family.

Ted Robbins/NPR
The San Miguel Gate.

The San Miguel Gate is a traditional point to cross between the U.S. and Mexico for Tohono O'odham members who have family on both sides. The Border Patrol allows only tribal members to cross at three such gates on the Tohono O'odham Nation. Otherwise, members would have to drive hundreds of miles to visit family.

Ted Robbins/NPR
Seized marijuana. i i

hide captionBorder Patrol Agent in Charge Pete Hermansen stands next to seized bales of marijuana wrapped in burlap with straps carried by smugglers from Mexico through the Tohono O'odham Nation.

Ted Robbins/NPR
Seized marijuana.

Border Patrol Agent in Charge Pete Hermansen stands next to seized bales of marijuana wrapped in burlap with straps carried by smugglers from Mexico through the Tohono O'odham Nation.

Ted Robbins/NPR
U.S.-Mexico border fence. i i

hide captionThis barbed wire fence marks the U.S.-Mexico border on a remote section of Tohono O'odham land, and smugglers cross easily here. Building something more substantial would cost tens of millions of dollars, the Border Patrol says, and would simply slow the smuggling, not stop it.

Ted Robbins/NPR
U.S.-Mexico border fence.

This barbed wire fence marks the U.S.-Mexico border on a remote section of Tohono O'odham land, and smugglers cross easily here. Building something more substantial would cost tens of millions of dollars, the Border Patrol says, and would simply slow the smuggling, not stop it.

Ted Robbins/NPR

This year, law enforcement agencies expect to seize as much as 800,000 pounds of marijuana crossing one stretch of border in southern Arizona that runs through the Tohono O'odham Indian Nation.

That's $1 billion worth of pot, and the Drug Enforcement Administration estimates that only about 20 percent of what's coming across is caught.

There's a new push to intercept more of the contraband, but it's a huge challenge. The terrain is rugged, it's sovereign Indian land, and some tribal members are working with Mexican drug cartels. The problem has become so acute that tribal leadership, long reluctant to talk about the matter, is addressing it directly.

"We are in a crisis," says Ned Norris, Tohono O'odham Tribal chairman. "We have too much drug activity ... we have too many of our people that are being bought into that system."

Indeed, over the past five years, tribal members have been involved in 30 percent of all drug cases presented to the U.S. attorney in the region.

The Tohono O'odham Nation is a smuggler's paradise. It's huge: roughly the size of Connecticut. It's sparsely populated with small villages spread far apart. And it's crisscrossed by hundreds of back roads and thousands of footpaths.

"At any one given time, you probably could smuggle a battleship through there," says Tony Coulson, special agent with the DEA in Tucson.

What makes matters more difficult for law enforcement is the fact that the O'odham nation has members and nine villages on the other side of the border in Mexico. And, because federal agents must respect the tribe's rights, members move freely through simple iron gates, the kind you would find on any ranch.

Most tribal members cross back and forth from Mexico for legitimate reasons. They visit friends and family, go shopping or to the doctor. But some use the easy access to engage in illegal activity. According to tribal police, smugglers routinely approach tribal members, looking for help shipping drugs north to major cities.

"Backpackers bring it across or vehicles bring it across, bring it to a certain location, or take it to the village and stash it somewhere," says Sgt. David Cray with the Tohono O'odham Police Department. "Then the local will pick it up from there and take it to Tucson or Phoenix."

While he doesn't condone the activity, Norris says the temptation to get involved with smuggling is great. Poverty is widespread, and unemployment is the norm for the Tohono O'odham.

"You wave five grand in somebody's face and say, 'All I want you to do is drive this vehicle from this point to this point, and here's $5,000 to do it,' " says Norris.

The tribe wants more federal money for local enforcement, jobs and drug treatment programs. While Norris wants the Border Patrol to stop Mexican cartels from controlling tribal land, he acknowledges that many tribal members resent the presence of hundreds of armed Border Patrol agents.

That resentment makes it difficult for the tribal police as well. Cray says that when people know about smuggling, they're unlikely to talk. Paraphrasing tribal members, he says, "It might be my cousin, it might be my brother-in-law ... I'm not going to come to you and tell you, 'Hey I'm going to testify against this guy.' "

But Norris is talking about the epidemic of drug smuggling on his land.

"I have an obligation," he says. "And unless we start talking about it and accepting the fact that we are in a crisis, then nothing's going to be done about it."

Comments

 

Please keep your community civil. All comments must follow the NPR.org Community rules and terms of use, and will be moderated prior to posting. NPR reserves the right to use the comments we receive, in whole or in part, and to use the commenter's name and location, in any medium. See also the Terms of Use, Privacy Policy and Community FAQ.

Support comes from: