One Nation, Under Fire

Illegal drugs and immigrants pour across an open frontier. The government responds with helicopters and ATVs. And the once-quiet desert homeland of the Tohono O’odham Nation becomes a nerve-wracking police state.

  • Baboquivari Peak on the edge of the Tohono O'odham Reservation near Tucson

  • A cruiser from the Tohono O'odham tribal police sits on the Arizona side of the San Miguel Gate, one of five crossings that tribal members and illegal immigrants use to enter the United States

  • Harriet Toto, Tohono O'odham Nation


  • David Ortega, Mexican-born member of the Tohono O'odham Nation


Tohono O’odham Nation, Ariz. -- A five-strand barbed-wire fence is all that separates the United States and Mexico in this remote southeastern corner of America’s second-largest Indian nation.

On a warm Sunday afternoon in early January, no one from U.S. law enforcement is checking documents as people move back and forth at a crossing — really, just a steel cattle guard in a gap in the fence — known as the San Miguel Gate. There are no signs of Mexican border officials keeping tabs on the gate. Tohono O’odham tribal police are nowhere to be seen.

On this day, in fact, the only suggestion of government control is a Border Patrol officer, posted several hundred yards north of the gate. The officer does not stop a High Country News reporter in a Chevy Suburban (a vehicle prized by the border area’s smugglers) from driving southbound, on the dirt road leading to the gate.

Officially, only members of the Tohono O’odham Nation are allowed to pass through the San Miguel Gate. But no signs warn non-members against crossing. The biggest obstacles to traversing the border at the San Miguel Gate, it seems, are the six-inch gaps between the steel rails of the cattle guard there.

And once you’re in Mexico, the party begins.

Vendors from the northern Sonora towns of Altar, Caborca and Sasabe sell tortillas, white cheese, sodas, water, beer and tequila from the sides of vans and backs of pickup trucks. A Yaqui musician strums his guitar and squeaks out a tune on a harmonica, entertaining six O’odham folks jammed into a sedan, downing quarts of beer and eating tamales.

For decades, O’odham tribal members have used the San Miguel Gate to enter Mexico and shop at the weekend flea market rather than face a lengthy drive to purchase traditional foods (and, for some, liquor, which is not sold on Indian lands) off-reservation. The mood at the bazaar is light-hearted and friendly, at least until an Anglo reporter approaches and tries to strike up a conversation. The vendors are eager to sell their wares, but they are reluctant to talk about what else goes on at the market, particularly when the sun goes down.

“This place is out of control,” says Francisco Bennett, leaning against the side of a pickup truck from which an old man is selling food and beer out of a cooler. Bennett says he’s been coming to the bazaar for years to shop, party and socialize with his O’odham friends, who live on both sides of the border. Years ago, he says, families with young children would gather for the day and stay well into the evening.

But those relaxed weekends are long gone.

Bennett, who lives a few miles away in the ranching hamlet of Newfield, on the U.S. side of the border, says that now he won’t even come to the area at night. “There is smuggling of people, drugs, whatever,” Bennett says. “It’s very dangerous.”

For years, the stamped-down and trashed desert south of the San Miguel Gate has served as a final staging area for smugglers of both human beings and narcotics into the United States. Evi-dence of the crossing’s extra-legal use is everywhere.

Signs provide stark warnings to desperate would-be immigrants about crossing the Sonoran Desert, where snakes, scorpions, searing summer heat and sub-freezing winter nights are only a few of the lurking dangers. Two 55-gallon plastic drums filled with water are perched on stands just a few feet south of the border; a third drum, a reserve, sits upright on the ground. Nearby, a blue plastic wreath is draped over a steel cross with remnants of burned candles at its base. It serves as a sobering testament to the 342 men, women and children who perished attempting to cross through the Tohono O’odham Nation between 2002 and 2006.

Border Patrol officials say some smugglers simply drive or walk through the San Miguel Gate, hoping to penetrate far enough into the U.S. to deliver their goods, whether human or narcotic. Others fan out across the desert for miles on either side of the gate, slipping through the barbed-wire fence at the border and either bushwhacking their way across the desert or navigating serpentine trails through the Baboquivari Mountains, six miles to the east.

One of five such informal crossings along the 75-mile international border that marks the official southern boundary of the Tohono O’odham Nation, the San Miguel Gate stands in sharp contrast to border crossings in urban areas of Arizona. (At Nogales, Ariz., for example, a 15-foot-high steel wall divides the two countries.) For decades, these cattle crossings have provided the O’odham direct access to the tribe’s traditional lands — lands that once stretched far into Mexico, reaching Hermosillo to the south and the Sea of Cortez to the west.

Unlike the U.S., Mexico does not formally recognize traditional O’odham territory with reservation status and provides no special services to tribal members. As a result, for the several thousand officially enrolled members of the O’odham tribe living in Mexico, direct access to the United States — and the medical, educational and social services it provides — is essential.

For approximately 28,000 U.S.-based O’odham members, many of whom continue to follow traditional ways, unfettered migration into Mexico — to perform sacred ceremonies, to visit summer homes, to hunt and to collect herbs and plants — is a cherished part of life.

And O’odham in both countries, of course, have cross-border family ties.

But increased border enforcement in major urban areas along the border — particularly in San Diego and El Paso — has funneled drug and human smugglers to ever more remote locations. The Tohono O’odham Reservation now lies in the heart of the second-biggest trafficking corridor for drugs and illegal immigrants on the U.S.-Mexican border, according to Border Patrol officials. (Only Nogales, with its major port of entry for commercial vehicles, exceeds the reservation as a smuggling conduit.)

And with the smuggling come huge negative impacts.

Illegal immigrants not only face a dangerous trek through the desert; they must also deal with the possibility of being robbed, abandoned, beaten, kidnapped, raped, or murdered by their smugglers or rival smuggling organizations. And violence is on the rise; today’s smugglers often carry high-powered handguns and assault rifles. “In the past, most of the people that you arrested for smuggling were your ma-and-pa types, smuggling relatives,” says U.S. Border Patrol supervisory agent Jesus Rodriguez. “It’s no longer that. It’s organized crime.”

Narcotics smugglers have also zeroed in, and the lure of quick cash has enticed many O’odham, who are, in general, mired in poverty and have few on-reservation job opportunities. More than 100 tribal members were arrested on narcotics-related charges in 2003 and 2004, and relatives of tribal leaders are in prison after drug convictions.

Smuggling is also having a devastating environmental impact on the Sonoran Desert, where the O’odham have made their home for centuries. Thousands of vehicles — many stolen from Phoenix and Tucson — have been loaded with drugs and migrants and then driven across countless miles of the fragile desert that makes up most of the O’odham Reservation, which is about the size of Connecticut. A startling fact: More than 1,400 wrecked or abandoned vehicles were towed off the reservation in 2005.

Feb 27, 2007 11:09 AM

Hi John,

I really enjoyed your article. I am a contract archaeologist currently working at the San Miguel Gate monitoring the archaeological sites during the construction of the vehicle barriers. We are responsible for the archaeology across the entire span of the TO Nation along the border, but I have been working mainly between Papago Farms and the eastern boundary of the nation. I live in Tucson, but have been working at San Miguel since August, and will be out there on and off until the entire project is complete (indefinitely). I have had a wonderful time working on the TO Nation, and along the border. Working with tribal members, border patrol and national guardsmen and women has been a real pleasure. I thought that your article was very true to the situation. So many people seem to underestimate the issues along the border and on the reservation. The border is truly a unique atmosphere, both politically and socially. I think that the borderlands region that spans the TO nation is an even more distinct environment due to history with the landscape, and its geographic isolation. The isolation and openness of the desert in this area is strongly juxtaposed by the feeling of being watched constantly. We often see people on the south side of the fence spying on us through binoculars from hilltops. It is really interesting. At first glance, it looks like an open empty space, but the more time you spend there, the more you see signs of human activity (this ironically follows the lines of archaeology as well, which is why I'm really out there). I love the area, I love the desert, and I love the truth of the situation. 

Anyway... I'm passionate about this area, and the border in general. Thanks again for your article.


Oct 23, 2007 11:33 AM

For another perspective on what is happening on the border that cuts directly through the traditional territory of the O'odham please take a look at this website:

The website contains lots of information about traditional o'odham culture, history and current activism against the border.

In fact, earlier this summer, some of the workers building the border wall desecrated a traditional O'odham burial ground (the bones were subsequently re-buried by relatives).

I don't know if the above mentioned archaeologist was involved, but I know that there were archaeologists there.  These "archaeological" sites are sacred spaces and should not ever be desecrated.  

Anyways, take a look at this site for more info: 


Mar 06, 2008 11:46 AM

While I understand the tribe's desire to "keep doing what we've been doing for centuries"  in traveling back and forth across the border unimpeded,  I have to ask why they think they're the only people who would like to freely travel?    I am a person,  equal to any other person,   I would like to travel freely around the world without borders too.     But I can't,  because that's the world we live in.  

 Sorry,  I would love us to erase all of the borders.. but since that isn't happening nobody should expect special treatment just because their great grandfather was able to do this or that.     Wealthy Americans can't own slaves just because their ancestors did.      Religious groups can't kill people for human sacrifices just because their ancestors did.     People can't use drugs just because their ancestors did.    

 Tribes,  do you want to make a difference in the world or just take up space?   If you want to make a difference,   erase your tribal borders and penetrate the US government as US citizens,  quit clinging to a miserable,  doomed lifestyle inside of borders and help us as a world erase all of the borders.   You can't do that from your island,  but you can help from within the government.    

 But I guess then you would have to give up your "Thou" eh?  

Response to Anon 03-06-08
Jan 21, 2009 03:59 AM
Almost a year has passed since this article was written and that response was noted. Not much has changed for the better. The O'odham still struggle with serious educational and health problems, poverty and bigotry in our modern world. They do not "cling to a miserable doomed lifestyle" by choice as the ill-informed commenter seems to think. Many of the tribe's problems are the result of years of neglect and hatred by our "white" society and government.

Today, the State government is attempting to put another strangle-hold on more non-white groups by stripping the budget of educational funding - at every level. These neo-cons in Phoenix are determined to have the state return to the values of the 19th century, when most of us with "brown skin" were kept at the back gate, as maids and farm hands. Education is about the only way out of this mess, and we cannot blame those at the bottom of life's economical ladder for this disaster.

We took their lands and resources, and have only begun to "give" back some of the water we have taken. How wonderful of us!! We are seeing the shameful results of 150 years of hate and murder, yet you say "get off the island." Grow up - yes, we can make changes. But change comes very slowly and incrementally when education cannot be had at home, and schools are underfunded and ill equipped to deal with today's issues.

Instead of complaining about us, come and help in our schools and community for a year! It will open your eyes!
Mar 17, 2008 11:38 AM

Anonymous of 03/06/2008 misses the point spectacularly. "Make a difference in the world or just take up space?" is a profoundly silly and incomprehending question. The point is about freedom, inherent to all creatures, circumscribed by mankind. One of the best ways the TO can "make a difference" is to continue to practice their inherent freedom to cross an arbitrary and artificial border that they had no say in making.

Mar 26, 2008 05:28 PM

Great article, although it barely touches on the cultural pathologies that really are the cause of "pushing the O'odham society to the brink of annihilation."  The acceptance of criminal values, victim mindset, lack of work ethic, and general apathy are the reason the T.O.'s have such high crime and gang activity, high smuggling activity, high alcoholism rates, and even high diabetes rates.  There are only a handful of O'odham families who cross the Mexico/U.S. border for legitimate reasons on a regular basis.  Citing historical reasons for crossing an international boundary without being inspected is merely a cover for thousands of T.O.'s participating in smuggling. 

A true measure of the greatness of a country or society is if the numbers of people trying to enter greatly exceed those trying to leave.  That's why unemployed T.O.'s live in the U.S, not Mexico.  Life is better here.  That's also why we have, and need, borders around the United States.   


May 29, 2008 12:04 PM

Im just another Tohono O'odam,who takes a deep breathe and longs for the day, it would just all end.But know its not ending.,,Yup thats whats going on on the rez...I enjoyed your Article.

tohono o'odham, border, drugs
Feb 02, 2009 12:22 AM
Wouldn't all of this be made simpler if drugs were legalized, then taxed and managed like alchohol?

There's no reason to not acknowledge the arbitrary 'border' dictated by American history.
OK.....i am another O'odham, just surfin'
red man
red man
Apr 02, 2009 12:37 PM
  whooo! hey emma, glad you took a break from the crack pipe long enough to lay that "legalize it" rap on us.

I live out here on the border yes. I also have family, an O'odham community and household in "mexico". The vehicle barrier has not changed us so much. as a matter of fact I kept tellin them they were building it in the wrong place, it should of been placed 800 miles south between the seirra madres and the coast of guaymas to give the O'odahm people back our Traditional Land Base.
This article is so-so, at least the writer had the balls to actually talk to someone out here and not just some nutcase in tucson. thanks.
god bless.
red man replies
Apr 02, 2009 01:07 PM
Hey Red, alcohol's my drug of choice, largely because it's legal and I don't have to deal with criminals to get it. But I'm old now and probably wouldn't get the other stuff, even if it were legal, because it would probably be too expensive.

Bryan G.
Bryan G.
Sep 01, 2010 06:18 AM
I am not writing to complain about your nations stance on Illegals,Rather I would like to Thank Your people for their Get Tough way of dealing with them.I am a Part Time resident of Green Valley and Wisconsin and have personally seen what problems these people bring.How about this; Diseases!As natives know Disease has killed more Native Americans than Any other Item(Drugs Etc.)In wisconsin we have illegals also and now we have outbreaks of once controlled diseases.Please keep up the good work and good luck,Bryan G.Born in the USA
marie j
marie j
Dec 13, 2011 03:54 PM
the article i have read and the comments people have to and yes everyone has opinions and i have my own.First yes we do have alot of issues that need work on and yes not just some of our land is all we got and means alot to us natives.Yes you may see, read, and hear alot of bad and not lokking at the ones who are helping and making our nation a better place dont judge a book by its cover.And yes being spiritual and not beleaving at first,but when doing it you will relize how much power you can do to better your own communities.its not about taking our land its about working together to make the world a better place.stopping the viloence that is causing all of the issue with the border.its not just our people that are in on it.its the government to.So its your government thats needs working on not nation.Oodham himdag:be wise about the past,to make solutions for the Future......