A Tribe Caught in Middle

Times Staff Writer

Hemmed in by tighter border controls in California and Texas, thousands of illegal immigrants and drug smugglers are flooding this vast Indian reservation southwest of Tucson, leaving chaos, crime and environmental destruction behind.

More than 1,500 immigrants tramp across the Tohono O’odham Nation every day, making it one of the busiest illegal entry points in the country. So far this year, 27,130 people have been arrested in this remote desert, nearly half the number caught in the much more populated San Diego area. At the same time, federal agents have seized a staggering 179,300 pounds of narcotics since October.

The sheer volume of criminal activity and law enforcement response has made some Indians feel they are living in a combat zone.


High-speed chases are so frequent, residents rely on police scanners to know when it’s safe to go outside. Burglaries are so common, people leave homes unlocked to keep doors and windows from being broken. Overhead, Black Hawk helicopters hunt drug runners, and on the ground, camouflaged agents prowl the bush.

“Our people fear for their lives,” said Vivian Juan-Saunders, tribal chairwoman. “Anywhere else this would be considered a crisis, but there is a double standard because we are Indians.”

The reservation, roughly the size of Connecticut, shares a 75-mile border with Mexico that includes 160 illegal crossing points. In 36 spots, there are no barriers at all, officials say. Elsewhere, the most formidable obstacles are three or four strands of rusty barbed wire.

“The Tohono O’odham Nation sits in the busiest corridor of illegal immigration in the nation,” said Border Patrol spokesman Andy Adame. “They are getting run over. The option is to let it go crazy or bring in the manpower to get it under control.”

The Department of Homeland Security announced a $10 million plan last week to help secure Arizona’s porous borders, now the main gateway to the U.S. for immigrants and smugglers. The money will fund hundreds of new agents, aerial surveillance drones and additional detention space. The reservation will get another 60 Border Patrol officers.

“The numbers are so striking that it’s hard to conceive of unless you see it yourself,” said Aurene Martin, Bureau of Indian Affairs deputy assistant secretary who recently visited the reservation. “I think this is one of those situations that has just fallen through the cracks. I don’t think there is anything racist about it.”

Many of the 11,000 residents here live in trailers or ramshackle adobe houses surrounded by the twisted saguaros and fragrant mesquite of the Sonoran Desert.

As more illegal immigrants cross, the residents are increasingly fearful of letting their children play outside. Tribal elders no longer gather ceremonial plants in the desert. Fences are going up and people are packing weapons.

Some Indians are forming armed citizen patrols, occasionally shooting over the heads of immigrants and smugglers to scare them off their land.

“We are armed and we will shoot them,” said Arnold Smith, 69, who lives a quarter-mile from the border in a trailer that’s been burglarized five times.

Smith sharpened his knife on a piece of soapstone.

“They use our pasture like a freeway; they cut our fences; they killed my 10-month-old mare,” he said. “If they are hungry, they will keep coming. It’s never going to stop.”

Border Patrol officers scour the roads and backcountry on horseback or all terrain vehicles. Heavily armed customs agents and Native American trackers pursue smugglers through the baking desert.

“People here want to feel safe and secure, and now it’s like a war zone,” said Richard Saunders, tribal police chief. “We are the front line for homeland security.”

The tribe is spending $7 million a year on border problems. They operate three casinos, but are hardly rich, with 40 percent of residents living below the poverty level.

The Interior Department has asked for $1.4 million to assist the reservation. And the Environmental Protection Agency is giving the tribe $50,000 to help recycle the estimated 6 tons of garbage left by immigrants last year.

Federal agents say the size of the reservation, its remoteness and lack of good roads make it difficult to patrol -- and tempting to cross.

The Tohono O’odham Nation sits in the middle of the Tucson border area, the busiest in the country. Last year, agents made 347,263 arrests; the next closest was the San Diego section, where authorities nabbed 111,515 illegal immigrants.

In just one morning earlier this month, Border Patrol officers caught 641 people on the reservation. They later removed 81 bedraggled immigrants hidden in a truck bed near the tribal capital of Sells.

Last year, 69 people died crossing Indian land. No one knows how many got through.

Roger Applegate, who heads the U.S. customs office in Sells, said his unit made up to 70% percent of all the drug busts in the Tucson area.

“It’s the most popular port of entry,” he said. “Last year we did 127,000 pounds of marijuana; this year we are at 103,000 pounds and we aren’t even halfway through the year.”

Applegate said smugglers had become bolder and more reckless. It’s not unusual, he said, to have drug runners speeding the wrong way down the highway with all their lights out. They will also drive straight at officers.

“I got here in 1998, and every year there is more dope,” he said.

The Tohono O’odham have lived in what is now Arizona and northern Mexico for more than 7,000 years. The Spaniards called them the Papago, or Bean Eaters, but the tribe changed its name in 1982 to Tohono O’odham, or People of the Desert in their native language.


Many residents recall Mexican migrants stopping by their homes for food as they headed north. They often chopped wood as payment.

“But as the years passed, it became more complicated,” said Manuel Osequeda, 43. “Now you have to deal with houses being broken into, vehicles stolen. I keep three rifles loaded at all times and carry a pistol with me. I stay awake at night to guard my family. My kids want to play outside, but you don’t know who is out there. A drug dealer? A child molester?”

Like many, he feels the tribe’s sovereignty is threatened not just by illegal immigrants but also by federal agents operating on Indian land.

“You go out and chop wood and a Black Hawk flies over; you hunt and the Border Patrol questions you,” Osequeda said. “We get tailgated every evening from the Border Patrol. We think twice about leaving the house; we ask ourselves if we want to put up with the hassle of being stopped.”

Tensions are so high that Oliver Smith responds to a quiet knock on the door by charging out of his careworn home with a loaded pistol.

“I never know who might be out here,” said Smith, whose land extends to the Mexican border. “I’m sick of going away and coming back with my doors off the hinges and the windows kicked in.”

Smith, 65, is a tough-talking Indian who patrols his thinly settled neighborhood three times a day, trying to flush out interlopers.

“I check my fence every morning -- it’s cut,” he said, as his pickup rumbled along a deeply rutted dirt road beside the border. “I check it at midday -- it’s cut. I check it at night -- it’s cut.”

He repairs what he can and moves on.

The desert here is littered with water bottles, backpacks and empty cans of tuna. Cars, abandoned by smugglers, sit among the cactuses.

“People ask why I don’t leave,” he said. “This is my home, and my heart is set here.”

Smith drove to the San Miguel Gate -- an opening as wide as a truck -- where cattle once crossed, separating Mexico from the U.S.

The Mexican government erected a 50-foot high red beacon here a few years ago. Border agents say its only obvious use is to show immigrants where to cross. There are no authorities on either side.

“The Mexicans come because it’s open,” said Smith, his gun on the dashboard. “The government never cared much for the Indian and they prove it here.”


The staging point for immigrants heading through the reservation is the Mexican town of Sasabe. The poor, windblown village of 3,000 sits just across the border from the even smaller Arizona town of the same name.

Every day, hundreds of immigrants -- packed in cattle trucks, water trucks and on the backs of pickups -- converge on the Mexican community. The trucks drive up dirt roads, stop, and everyone jumps out and makes for the nearby border.

Agents from Mexico’s Grupo Beta, the government’s migrant protection force, hand leaflets to immigrants warning of the dangers they face.

“It’s not my job to help them cross, only to give them information,” said one of the agents, who identified himself only as Manuel. “We tell them what can happen over there.”

He said 3,090 immigrants recently crossed in a single day.

Adolfo Ortiz and his wife, Nadia, tried and failed.

The Veracruz couple sat sunburned and exhausted in the Grupo Beta office. They had made it into the U.S., but Adolfo twisted his knee and the human-smuggler left them behind. They eventually got back to Mexico.

“I felt too close to death,” said Ortiz, 33, a baker. “I will never try it again.”

Most immigrants head for Phoenix, at least a five-day walk. Some arrange for cars to pick them up on the reservation.

On the outskirts of Sasabe, lines of immigrants led by stony-faced “coyotes” trudged along dirt roads heading north. Crouching among sharp thistle and ironwood, more than 25 men, women and children waited for the signal to move. It was nearly dusk, and still hot. A mother shushed her crying infant.

A desperate-looking man broke the silence.

“Mexico is too corrupt; it’s too hard to get a job -- that’s why we leave,” he whispered, as a smuggler stared balefully at him. “It’s frightening for us now because we don’t know what will happen. We don’t have a life here or a life there -- over the border.”

On the U.S. side, those who didn’t make it limped around a Border Patrol holding tent. Some showed off swollen and blistered feet. Most would undergo a background check in Tucson before being released at the border in Nogales.

“I will return; it’s very easy to cross here,” said a smiling Eduardo Juarez Ortiz of Monterey, Mexico. “We didn’t even need coyotes; we did it ourselves.”

Such talk disturbs Saunders, the tribal police chief.

He walked along a desert wash, looking with disgust at the acres of water bottles, bags, cans and human excrement left by the undocumented immigrants.

“This is the beautiful Tohono O’odham desert. We have respect for its beauty -- we rely on the desert plants for ceremonial purposes,” he said.

“Our people can’t pick the saguaro fruit; they can’t go for walks because they might run into smugglers. This is a disgrace to the people and land of the Tohono O’odham.”