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Arizona Tohono O’odham members caught in drug smuggling web

By Brady McCombs
Tucson, Arizona (AP) 7-09

Like so many Tohono O’odham tribal members lured into driving or storing loads of marijuana, Jenny Lopez got an offer from Mexican drug smugglers she couldn’t refuse:

If she’d drive a car loaded with marijuana across the U.S.-Mexico border and through the Tohono O’odham Nation to Phoenix, she’d get money to buy a car, two days in Puerto Penasco (Rocky Point) and some cash, a Tohono O’odham police report shows.

She got her trip to Rocky Point, but her car was seized and the promise of cash evaporated on May 10 when O’odham police stopped her north of the U.S.-Mexico border and found 145 pounds of marijuana in the cushions and back seats of her 1996 Dodge Intrepid.

Police arrested Lopez, 33, and her passenger, Lucy Ann Garcia, 41, after the two admitted to knowing about the drugs. The U.S. Attorney’s Office lodged felony drug charges that carry a maximum sentence of 20 years, although Lopez’s case was later dismissed.

On a poverty-stricken reservation intersected by one of the border’s busiest drug smuggling corridors, more tribal members are accepting similar offers – lured by quick, easy money and little threat of punishment, say tribal leaders.

The percentage of suspected drug smugglers arrested by Tohono O’odham police who are tribal members has increased 60-fold in the last two decades, said Sgt. David Cray, a 19-year veteran of the agency’s anti-drug unit.

Mexican drug smugglers “flash cash to them, and once they get sucked in, it’s hard to get out,” said Tohono O’odham Police Chief Joe Delgado.

Spurred by concerns about erosion of tribal culture and the decreasing quality of life on the Tohono O’odham Nation, tribal Chairman Ned Norris Jr. is openly discussing what he calls a crisis and soliciting more assistance from non-tribal agencies. That marks a dramatic shift from past tribal leaders who downplayed the issue.

“It’s important for us to get these kind of things out on the table and accept the fact that, unfortunately, we’ve got people within the nation that are bought into the business of smuggling,” Norris said.

Some tribal members and non-tribal law enforcement officials applaud the shift.

“There wasn’t a lot of openness to help from the outside,” said Anthony Coulson, head of the U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration’s Tucson office. “This is a whole new paradigm for us.”

But merely acknowledging the problem won’t make it disappear, say tribal members. Smuggling is deeply rooted and often a family affair, making tribal members more apt to ignore it than report it.

That’s a major reason it continues, said Edward Reina, Tohono O’odham Nation director of public safety.

“On all tribes, it isn’t just one family, we are all related,” Reina said. “Nobody wants to turn anybody in. If they do, they will not be part of the family.”

The core values and culture of the O’odham are under assault, some say, with so many tribal families involved in the smuggling.


“It’s a continuation of the genocide of our culture,” says tribal member Ofelia Rivas, an activist for O’odham rights and resident of the small border village of Ali Ak Chin, commonly called Menager’s Dam.

When Sgt. Cray began working on the Tohono O’odham police drug unit in 1991, an estimated 99 percent of people the unit arrested for drug smuggling were non-tribal.

Mexican drug smugglers carried drugs across the border, left them at a predetermined spot and drivers picked them up.

But as tribal police caught on and began busting them, smugglers started recruiting tribal members to store loads or drive drugs north.

Today, at least 60 percent of those arrested for drug smuggling are tribal members, Cray said. Through the first six months of 2009, 29 of the 45 arrests O’odham police made for smuggling drugs were of tribal members.

The jump is due to a surge in recruiting that stems from the growing number of Border Patrol agents on the Tohono O’Odham Nation and the recent construction of steel vehicle barriers that line most of the 75 miles of international border. Whereas police must have reasonable suspicion to pull over tribal drivers, they can question any non-tribal person driving on the reservation’s restricted areas, which include desert roads or routes south of Arizona 86.

There’s no shortage of willing drivers, tribal leaders say.

“There’s so much unemployment,” Cray said. “It’s easy to find a driver.”

The Tohono O’odham Nation’s unemployment rate is 26 percent, and the average income is $8,100, tribal officials say.

Smugglers offer $700 to $5,000, depending on the type of load, to tribal members to either drive a load or store drugs at their home or in a shed, Norris said.

“If you don’t have food on the table and somebody comes along and says drive 15 miles and make so much money, people are going to do it,” Rivas said.

Smugglers have been employing another tactic to expand their operations: getting romantically involved with tribal women and having children with them, said Delgado, the police chief. As fathers of tribal children, they cannot be kicked off the reservation and can more easily draw people into the smuggling.

The U.S. Attorney’s Office in Tucson takes all “viable” cases from the Tohono O’Odham Nation, said Lynnette Kimmins, chief assistant U.S. attorney in the Tucson office. “It’s got to be something that can be proved in court,” she said.

Of the 2,303 drug prosecutions from U.S. attorney’s Tucson office from fiscal years 2006 to 2009, 16 percent originated on the Tohono O’odham Nation, she said.

Chairman Norris has recently met with officials from the Drug Enforcement Administration, Immigration and Customs Enforcement and the Arizona Department of Homeland Security to get assistance in combating the smuggling.

Tohono police officers have been doing more outreach work in communities, including conducting open forums to talk about the smuggling.

“A lot of them are saying they are tired of this and they are reporting the violators,” said Reina, the tribe’s public safety director. “Without the communities’ involvement, we can’t do anything. They know everybody that does this.”