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


Page 4

“The vehicle barriers aren’t going to do too much good in stopping the trafficking,” Begay predicts.

Other tribal officials say the O’odham supported construction of the barriers primarily to stop cattle rustlers from crossing the border from Mexico and raiding O’odham ranches. “The ranchers are the ones who really pushed for the vehicle barriers,” says Toto, the tribal chairwoman’s executive assistant.

The wide divergence of views on the vehicle barriers is a reflection of how the Tohono O’odham Nation and the Border Patrol perceive one another’s operations, generally.

Border Patrol officials insist that they fully cooperate with the tribe before undertaking any formal actions on the reservation. “Everything is done to ensure that the citizens of the nation are as informed as possible as to what our intentions are,” Soto says. “We take their considerations and merge them with our operations and come to an understanding before anything is done on the Nation.”

Tribal officials and traditionalists say the Border Patrol fails to fully understand the cultural customs of the O’odham and continues to disrupt life on the reservation, particularly since the 9/11 terror attacks. “Abuse of the people increased,” says traditionalist leader Ofelia Rivas. “The Border Patrol would hold them at gunpoint and sometimes run them off the road.”

In an effort to reduce tensions, the Border Patrol is distributing a recently produced video to the approximately 1,700 officers assigned to the reservation; it describes the unique customs of the O’odham, such as all-night wakes that — as vehicles come and go from a home — can easily be mistaken for drug-dealing operations. Border Patrol officials are also meeting regularly with community members and explaining what O’odham can do to improve their relations with law enforcement. They emphasize simple solutions, such as turning on the dome lights in their cars if they are pulled over by Border Patrol officers at night.

Even if tensions between the O’odham and the Border Patrol remain, there are early indications that stepped-up enforcement — particularly the deployment of several hundred National Guard troops in June 2006 — is beginning to have an impact on smuggling through the reservation. In the last three months of 2006, the Border Patrol arrested 27,800 illegal immigrants in the Tucson Sector’s Western Desert District, which includes the Tohono O’odham Nation. In the same period of the previous year, 30,000 arrests were made.

Soto says the decline in arrests is an indication that smugglers are slowly being deterred from using the reservation as a conduit for illegal immigration. But as arrests for human trafficking have declined, drug seizures have skyrocketed. The dichotomy, Soto says, can be easily explained: Far more manpower is being deployed across the reservation to stem the influx of illegal drugs.

“The extra eyes and ears that the National Guard is providing us is helping,” he says.

During the last three months of 2005, Border Patrol officials seized 88,000 pounds of marijuana in the Western Desert District. Seizures jumped to 123,000 pounds in the last three months of 2006, Soto says.

Marijuana isn’t the only drug being smuggled. One of the biggest busts on tribal lands last year involved Arthur David Pablo, 55, of Sells. Pablo was sentenced to 10 years in federal prison last July after pleading guilty to conspiracy to possess with the intent to distribute 406 pounds of cocaine, said to have a street value of about $14 million.

Many of the seizures have occurred on the western half of the Tohono O’odham Nation, where smugglers have recently stepped up operations, particularly through the area around Maneger’s Dam Gate. The drug activity has become so great that tribal officials have decided to close the gate.

Soto credits the increased drug interdiction and decline in arrests of illegal immigrants to more Border Patrol officers and the deployment of the National Guard, but it’s unclear how long the Guard’s help will last. Soto says the current National Guard operation is scheduled to end in 2008.

“The Guard has been helping us for years,” he says. “They will continue to help us for years to come, but not in the numbers that are presently on the border.

“What will happen when they leave? We don’t know.”

Still, smuggling is slowly rending the already faltering heart of one of North America’s oldest surviving cultures. In 2004, Tohono O’odham police reported that 111,264 immigrants entered the reservation’s borders, with 84,010 arrested by either the police or Border Patrol. “If this was happening in Tucson, or any other metropolis, a state of emergency would be declared,” the tribe said in a written statement.

The tribe’s 71 officers have been overwhelmed with border enforcement duties that are properly the responsibility of the federal government. The police department spends an average of $3 million a year — or more than half its budget — responding to immigrant- and drug-smuggling incidents.

Smuggling has impacted nearly every O’odham family. Brothers, sisters, mothers, fathers, aunts and uncles have been arrested for dipping into trafficking’s netherworld, or for getting tangled up in the urban-style street gangs that tribal police increasingly must deal with. There are at least 26 such gangs operating on the Nation, tribal police say; their graffiti can be seen on old adobes across the reservation.

Tribal chairwoman Vivian Juan-Saunders — who canceled two interviews scheduled with High Country News and did not respond to written questions submitted to her press secretary — has had two members of her family convicted of drug smuggling. Traditional leader Ofelia Rivas’ nephew, meanwhile, is seven years into an eight-year federal prison sentence for drug trafficking.

As its culture is being corroded by organized crime, the tribe’s desert landscape is being shredded. The O’odham — whose name means “the desert people” — have had their silence shattered and their solitude violated. Helicopters swoop low over the desert, floodlights shining on yet another monster truck packed with high-grade marijuana roaring down a dirt road on a high-stakes flight to suburbia. Wild vehicle chases end in crashes. There are shootouts.

And as hundreds of thousands of Mexicans try desperately to immigrate across the reservation, O’odham are regularly horrified to stumble across the twisted bodies of those who fail, dehydrated humans rotting under the 120-degree summer sun, ghosts where once there had been hope.

These are all now routine occurrences.

For traditionalists like David Ortega, trafficking has pushed the O’odham society to the brink of annihilation. Many of his people, he says, have lost touch with their historical teachings; at the same time, he notes, they are ill prepared to enter the mainstream American economy. Smuggling — which can garner a destitute O’odham a quick $3,000 to $5,000 for hustling drugs and/or immigrants just one time — is the best job opportunity many see, he says.

After more than a century of neglect, the federal government and tribal leaders finally have begun to address the poverty, lack of modern education, loss of traditional teachings and crippling job shortages on the Nation. But it’s a fledgling effort.

The casinos continue to provide crucial funds for education and job training. Gaming revenue, for example, financed the construction of the Tohono O’odham Community College, a widely acclaimed and fully accredited two-year college where about 300 O’odham attend classes.

And a recent water rights settlement with the federal government will bring 37,800 acre-feet of water to the tribe, increasing its annual surface water rights to 66,000 acre-feet. The “new” water comes from a portion of Arizona’s share of the Central Arizona Project, which diverts water from the Colorado River to central and southern Arizona.

The tribe will lease some of the water, substantially increasing its revenue. The CAP water will also allow a substantial boost in agricultural production on the reservation.

Though these are important steps, Ortega says that — with organized criminal smuggling syndicates rapidly corrupting tribe members — there needs to be far more money and effort put toward vastly improved education and job opportunities for O’odham youth.

And the improvements must come quickly.

“If these things are not done,” Ortega says, “we will be lost as a people.”


John Dougherty writes from Phoenix.

High Country News Classifieds