RENEE MONTAGNE, host:
We'll spend the next few minutes on the border that separates Mexico from Arizona. American law enforcement agencies expect to seize a billion dollars worth of marijuana this year along that part of the border. And that's only about 20 percent of what's being smuggled, says the Drug Enforcement Administration.
There's a new push to seize more but it's not easy to do. Not only is the terrain rugged by the drugs are crossing a sovereign Indian nation, and tribal members are working with Mexican drug cartels to move the dope. NPR's Ted Robbins has that story.
TED ROBBINS: Border Patrol agent Pete Hermansen stops his truck in the driveway of an abandoned church four miles north of the Mexican border.
(Soundbite of truck door closing)
ROBBINS: Hermansen is the agent in charge of this area. We walk away from the church toward an arroyo. He's looking down, and after 20 yards or so he sees footprints in the dirt.
Mr. PETE HERMANSEN (Border Patrol Agent): The way you can tell their direction of travel is you see the dig of the toe, and you'll see how that's a heavy toe dig. That person could've potentially been running or carrying something heavy on their back.
ROBBINS: Then Hermansen sees tire tracks, probably a pickup truck.
Mr. HERMANSEN: We had a group that came out, loaded something into a vehicle, and came back. And generally when we see that type of activity it's narcotics.
ROBBINS: This is a daily occurrence on the Tohono O'odham Nation.
Mr. NED NORRIS (Tribal Chairman, Tohono O'odham Nation): We are in a crisis. The O'odham Nation is in a crisis.
ROBBINS: Ned Norris is tribal chairman.
Mr. NORRIS: We have too much drug activity; we have too much human cargo activity. We have too many of our people who are being bought into that system.
ROBBINS: For years until now, tribal leaders have said drug trafficking involved a few bad apples. But they can no longer deny the numbers. Over the last five years, tribal members have been involved in 30 percent of all drug cases presented to the U.S. Attorney. A search of federal court records over just the second half of last year shows 79 people prosecuted from tribal lands on marijuana smuggling charges.
The Tohono O'odham Nation is a smugglers 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.
Tony Coulson is with the DEA in Tucson.
Mr. TONY COULSON (DEA): The phrase that we've used - which I know, you know, that Border Patrol would cringe at - but that any one given time you probably could smuggle a battleship through there.
ROBBINS: Since 1994, federal border policy has pushed smuggling away from urban areas along the southwest border and funneled it here into the desert. But tension between the tribe and the federal government goes back much further, to 1854, when the U.S. acquired this land in the Gadsden Purchase.
No one asked the Indians where the new border should be. It cut right across ancestral lands. Nine O'odham villages remain in Mexico.
(Soundbite of crunching)
ROBBINS: Pete Hermansen stops again at the San Miguel gate as a tribal member crosses from Mexico to the U.S.
Mr. HERMANSEN: They've been here since time immemorial and these crossing points are ones that they've always used, so we've held those open for them.
ROBBINS: Lone Border Patrol agents monitor traffic here and at two other gates. They've kind of swinging metal gates you might find on a ranch. This ease of access keeps tribal bonds intact. It also fosters illicit bonds. David Cray is a sergeant with the O'odham Police Department.
Mr. DAVID CRAY (Sergeant, O'odham Police Department): And on the weekends, the smugglers come up and they meet with the O'odhams on that side - and they offer them that job. You know, I want to ship some marijuana to Phoenix or Tucson. And they make arrangement - backpackers or a vehicle, bring it across, take it to a certain location, take it to this guy's house, take it to the village and stash it somewhere. And then the local will pick it up from there and take it to Tucson or Phoenix.
ROBBINS: It's all for money. Tribal chairman Ned Norris says the temptation is great on a reservation where poverty is widespread and unemployment is the norm.
Mr. NORRIS: You wave five grand in somebody's face and say all I want you to do it drive this vehicle from this point to that point. That's all you have to do, and here's $5,000 to do it.
ROBBINS: Norris wants more federal money for local enforcement, jobs and drug treatment programs. At the same time, he wants the Border Patrol to stop Mexican cartels from controlling tribal land. He acknowledges many tribal members resent the presence of hundreds of armed Border Patrol agents.
(Soundbite of crunching)
ROBBINS: Border Patrol Agent Pete Hermansen chambers around in his M-4 rifle.
Mr. HERMANSEN: Better to have it in my hand if we need it than not.
ROBBINS: Smuggling on tribal lands is not limited to the U.S. side. We're like 20 yards from the border and right on the other side, on the Mexican side, is a ranch.
Mr. HERMANSEN: And that ranch is well known to us for smuggling of aliens, smuggling of narcotics. We'll set up observation posts up in the hills here and watch the activity of that ranch on a daily basis.
ROBBINS: Of course, the Border Patrol has no jurisdiction in Mexico. In fact, the Indians have no authority on their ancestral land in Mexico, so the cartels use it with impunity, even in broad daylight.
Unidentified Man #1: Yeah, 31-5-6, you know, I'm just letting you know that there's a group about maybe three-quarters of a mile west of the gate and possibly get ready to cross.
ROBBINS: We're now on an access road between the remote ranch and the San Miguel gate, listening to agents who've spotted a group of crossers.
Unidentified Man #1: There's two, they're turning on the north side.
ROBBINS: By the time we get to where the crossers were spotted, a Mexican army humvee with two soldiers is also there. They've been patrolling recently as violence on the south side has increased.
Mr. HERMANSEN: (Spanish spoken)
ROBBINS: We're colleagues in the war on drugs, Hermansen tells the soldier, and we drive away. As for the crossers, just footprints in the dirt.
Back at Tribal Police Sergeant David Cray's office, you can smell bales of marijuana through the walls. Shipments are seized every day but law enforcement is just making a dent, largely because lots of tribal members know what's going on but no one wants to talk.
Mr. CRAY: It might be my cousin, it might be my brother-in-law, it might be somebody. I'm not going to come to you and tell you, hey, I want to testify against this guy. A lot of times it's just an anonymous phone call.
ROBBINS: If they don't want to talk to their own police, they sure don't want to talk to a reporter. Airing problems in public is frowned upon in O'odham culture - even when federal agents and Mexican drug cartels are involved.
Tribal Chairman Ned Norris.
Mr. NORRIS: I don't necessarily want to talk to news people myself, but my job requires me. I have an obligation. 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.
ROBBINS: Even the Border Patrol says more fencing and more agents won't stop the drug trafficking on this vast Indian nation - not without cooperation from the Tohono O'odham. Their name means people of the desert. No one knows the land like they do.
Ted Robbins, NPR News, Tucson.
(Soundbite of music)
MONTAGNE: This is NPR News.
NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by a contractor for NPR, and accuracy and availability may vary. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Please be aware that the authoritative record of NPR's programming is the audio.