A monumental danger


Southern Arizona’s national monuments have the uneasy reputation of being good places to smuggle drugs and immigrants. Bureau of Land Management law enforcement rangers routinely find trash bags of marijuana stashed beneath mesquite and paloverde trees, piles of muddy, discarded clothes and Dumpsters-worth of empty water bottles, painted black to make them less visible in the sun. They also apprehend immigrants traveling through the monuments and occasionally find the bodies of those who died in the desert. 

Smugglers choose the monuments because historically there have been fewer border patrol agents there. Beginning in the 1990s, border patrol began cracking down on illegal immigration in border cities. The result was to push people into remote parts of the desert, often into national monuments, parks and wildlife refuges. According to Krista Schlyer, a photographer and author of “Continental Divide: Wildlife, People and the Border Wall,” arrests of migrants on federal protected lands in Arizona rose astronomically between 1997 and 2000, from 512 to more than 110,000. In the border patrol’s Tucson sector alone in 2009, half of the estimated 270,000 illegal entries occurred on the Tohono O’odham Nation and forest service lands.

Once across the border, many migrants and drug smugglers come north through the Tohono O’odham Nation to Sonoran Desert National Monument, just southwest of Phoenix. “This is a place that’s still wild enough to move through,” said monument manager Rich Hanson. In recent years, though, Hanson has noticed fewer immigrants traveling through the monument. Instead, what he sees is trash from drug smugglers: harnesses to carry 40-pound bales of marijuana, cell phones, slippers to hide footsteps and discarded weapons. In 2010, an Arizona deputy sheriff was wounded and two drug smugglers were shot by a rival cartel inside the monument. The Vekol Valley, which runs through the monument from the border of the Tohono O’Odham Indian Reservation up to the suburbs of Phoenix, is a hotbed for drug-related violence. The violence prompted the BLM's chief ranger to propose closing the monument, a request that was denied because he couldn’t prove the violence had reached the level of “extreme danger,” as required by BLM policy (page 21 of this 2010 Government Accountability Office report has more detail).

Instead, the agency placed signs outside Sonoran Desert National Monument warning visitors to stay away from abandoned cars and backpacks, and informing them they may encounter criminals and smuggling vehicles speeding through the desert. The BLM discourages visitors from going to the southern portion of the monument, a popular rendezvous for drug smugglers and people hiking marijuana up from the border.

Perhaps because of a combination of this and the closure of popular off-road vehicle trails, visitation to the monument is down overall, especially in the portion south of Interstate 8, according to Hanson. He says there haven’t been any encounters between visitors and immigrants or smugglers in the past two to three years, and to his knowledge, no monument visitor has ever been hurt or killed. Still, he encourages people to be out of the monument by nightfall, when illegal activity picks up.

Earlier this year, the University of San Diego issued a report saying border violence is at the lowest its been in years, although violence has mostly subsided in cities, and drug trafficking continues to be a major source of violent crime.

Thomas Hulen, executive director of Friends of the Sonoran Desert National Monument, doesn’t like all the negative publicity. “Mostly what we hear in the news is the problems with smuggling,” he said, “and people are afraid to go down there because of this issue.” He doesn’t think people should be scared of visiting public lands, so his group is staging a series of hikes and trash clean-ups in the area designed to “show our elected officials and the smugglers we will not be intimidated and that we demand to access and enjoy our public land heritage,” according to a post on the group’s website.

This fall, participants in Friends programs have pulled out bunches of invasive buffelgrass, checked out petroglyphs in the Table Top Wilderness, hiked and picked up trash left by immigrants and drug smugglers. Hulen says many people that wouldn’t visit the monument alone feel comfortable going in a group. And while he’s never encountered a smuggler or immigrant and hikes unarmed, the group's events are attended by an armed BLM law enforcement ranger, to provide security.

Emily Guerin is an intern at High Country News.

This blog post has been updated; a phrase linking five bodies in a burned-out SUV to drug violence has been removed. Early reports did link the crime to drugs but later investigations found the crime was unrelated to drugs.

Photo of trash in Arizona desert and Sonoran Desert National Monument courtesy Flickr user lars hammar and rscottjones.

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