Indian Reservations Grapple With Drug Trafficking

Indian Reservations that straddle the border between US and Mexico, or the US and Canada, are prime targets for drug traffickers. Host Michel Martin finds out why, and what authorities are doing to fight the problem with Ed Reina, Director of Public Safety with Tohono O'odhamNation. In 2010, the Justice Department reported that five to 10 percent of all marijuana grown in Mexico makes its way through the lands of this Indian tribe. Host Michel Martin also speaks with Tim Johnson, Mexico Bureau Chief for McClatchy Newspapers. He has done extensive reporting about drug trafficking through Indian country into the United States.

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MICHEL MARTIN, host:

Next we focus on drug trafficking through Indian country. The 2010 National Drug Control Strategy says that Indian reservations that straddle the border between U.S. and Mexico and the U.S. and Canada, are prime targets for drug traffickers because they are remote and often lack the policing they need to combat it effectively.

We turn now to Ed Reina. He joins us now from the Tohono O'odham Nation where he is director of public safety. The reservation is located in southern Arizona on the U.S./Mexico border.

In 2010, the Justice Department reported that 5 to 10 percent of all marijuana grown in Mexico makes its way through the tribal lands of this Indian nation. And also with us from Mexico City, is Tim Johnson. He's Mexico bureau chief for McClatchy Newspapers and he's done extensive reporting about drug trafficking through Indian country in the United States. And I welcome you both and I thank you both so much for being with us.

Mr. TIM JOHNSON (Mexico Bureau Chief, McClatchy Newspapers): Thank you.

Mr. ED REINA (Director of Public Safety, Tohono O'odham Nation): Thank you. I appreciate this opportunity.

MARTIN: Director Reina, if you'd start by telling us, when did you start to realize that there was this problem with drug traffickers using the Tohono O'odham Nation's lands for trafficking purposes? How did this start to become clear?

Mr. REINA: There had always been a problem, but probably in the mid 2000, 2005, the U.S. government started closing down the areas along the border, such as San Diego, Texas, et cetera and they created a funnel effect, which increased the transport of drugs and human cargo through the Tohono O'odham Nation. Since we are a sovereign nation, there wasn't any concerted effort at that time to secure our borders. So those strategies occurred outside in California, Texas, et cetera, then Arizona became the funnel for a lot of the transport of illegal drugs.

MARTIN: Can you give us a sense of a scope of the problem? Like, how many times a week you think there are crossings, for example? How much do you think is moving through? Could you just give us any sense of the dimensions of it?

Mr. REINA: Well, just using the number of people that come through, and right now we estimate it may be 150 or so a day. As far as the marijuana, which is the major drug that comes across, this fiscal year not ending, this for 2009 we have over 38,000 pounds that are seized. Now this is just the Tohono O'odham police department. We estimate that Border Patrol seizes probably five or six times that amount.

MARTIN: I'm just trying to wrap my head around 150 people a day crossing through the land. So I'm thinking that this would lead to, first of all, there's got to be some environmental degradation that goes with that. There's got to be other effects. But what are some of the other effects on the community. For example, are people from the community being induced to participate? Are they being, you know, asked to participate? Are they being forced to participate? What affect is it having on the people?

Mr. REINA: Unfortunately, that is one of the aspects of it. People are through various means induced to participate by offering substantial amounts of money to transport or store, within their communities. On occasions, some are forced to, through threats. So we do have the drug cartels that are making their way through the Tohono O'odham Nation either through developing relationships with the people or making threats to the people. Certainly a lot of damage. Our Wildlife, our natural environment, our sacred sites, these are overrun and certainly restricts the cultural practices that the people do do.

MARTIN: Tim Johnson, let's bring you into the conversation. You've reported on this extensively. Could you just pick up the thread here from director Reina, and just tell us a little bit about what you've observed first in the Tohono O'odham Nation, the impacts on that community. And, also, let's just broaden it out from there. I'd like to know if other tribes and nations are experiencing this as well.

Mr. JOHNSON: Yeah. I was up there, most recently, at the end of May and the beginning of June. And it's I was really struck by the fact that the this is a large the tribal lands of the Tohono O'odhams, you know, is about the size of Connecticut. And the border actually is about 75 miles. And along most of that border, there's what they call coral fencing. That means you can walk through it livestock can walk through it, but vehicles can't get through it.

So, you know, when you talk about this illegal migrants and drug smugglers through there, they're coming through in all sorts of ways. But a lot of times they're just walking through with backpacks filled with marijuana. And you see a lot of bicycles abandoned because it's not just desert, it's also tracks. And so, you know, you just see litter and all kinds of stuff there along the border. And it's a lot of people and a lot of stuff moving through.

MARTIN: And before we go back to Ed Reina, Tim Johnson, is this happening elsewhere? Are other is elsewhere in Indian country affected by these a similar phenomenon?

Mr. JOHNSON: It is. The same funneling effect that happens on the southern border also happens on the northern border, particular the St. Regis Mohawk Reservation in upstate New York. This reservation is only a couple of hours away from Ottawa and Montreal. So for drug trafficking purposes it's an ideal place to use as a pipeline for drugs. And it's different up there because what's coming through is marijuana, but it's also ecstasy coming from Canada and then cocaine moving from the U.S. into Canada.

And up there, the reservation is on both sides of the border for the Mohawks. And they use it summer and winter. In the wintertime, you go across the St. Lawrence Seaway on snowmobiles, and they can transport a lot of drugs that way. And I think it's even more severe up in that area rather than in Arizona because you see that on the reservation there are a number of people with mansions and so forth and no really explainable source of riches. It's a lot of drugs moving through that reservation.

MARTIN: So it's both the northern border and the southern border.

Mr. JOHNSON: It is. It is.

MARTIN: Okay. And Ed Reina, finally, a thought from you, what do you think it would take to improve the situation?

Mr. REINA: It's going to take a lot of effort and partnering within the Tohono O'odham Nation within our health and human services organizations and the federal agencies. If you look at it from a prevention and intervention aspect, not just law enforcement. But law enforcement, what we're doing is partnering again with the federal agencies, also with some of our county agencies in the state to assist us.

MARTIN: Are you feeling can I ask how you - before I let you go, are you feeling optimistic about this or not?

Mr. REINA: Well, certainly we have to feel optimistic about it because we can't let it get away from us. We're optimistic that things will change. We're seeing a more collaborative approach from the federal agencies that we're hopefully will improve. Certainly with 600 agents out here, we can certainly develop a more defined strategy to address it.

But, remember, the agent border patrol only has immigration authority. They do the enforcement authority, which is left to Tohono O'odham PD. So we're the ones that have to investigate any of the assaults that occur on these whether they're just migrants trying to cross or the illegal drug smugglers that are assaulted or killed out here.

That is up to Tohono O'odham Police Department to investigate. That's why we have only 50 or so agents on the road or officers on the road. The rest are criminal investigators that take quite a load to handle all these 150 or so people that come across our nations on a daily basis. And we investigate all the deaths that occur. And we estimate probably 80 a year that occur out here.

For a small department, that's quite a load. We handle - criminally, about 60 percent of our efforts are directed to border-related incidents. So you can see how much that leaves to protection of our communities for all the other issues we have to deal with domestic violence, assaults.

MARTIN: I see. Well, thank you for that. Tim Johnson, a final thought from you. What are the authorities saying particularly on the U.S. side? Because you obviously cover both. Do they feel that they are getting a handle on this or not?

Mr. JOHNSON: Well, it's a matter of great concern. It's been mentioned in both the National Drug Intelligence Center report this year and in the White House Office on National Drug Control Policy, so both are looking at this with a lot of concern.

You know, another factor is the economic factor. It's just very - I mean, there's a certain appeal if you have high unemployment on a tribal lands. And everybody there knows that you can earn $2,000 for a 45-minute drive in your pickup truck by carrying marijuana off the reservation into Tucson or into Phoenix, which isn't very far away.

Now, if you don't have a job, you know, you can be tempted by that kind of offer.

MARTIN: Tim Johnson is Mexico bureau chief for McClatchy Newspapers. He joined us from his office in Mexico City. Ed Reina is director of public safety with the Tohono O'odham Nation. He joined us from his office there. And I thank you both so much for speaking to us.

Mr. JOHNSON: You're welcome.

Mr. REINA: Thank you.

MARTIN: And tomorrow we're slated to speak with Gil Kerlikowske, President Obama's director of the Office of National Drug Control Policy. Today he has released new survey results on America's fastest growing drug problem for those aged 12 and older, prescription drug abuse. If you have any questions for the nation's drug czar, we'd like to hear them. Please go to our blog at the TELL ME MORE page of NPR.org.

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