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.

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