Tribal Drug Warfare
As drug violence in northern Mexico spins out of control and the U.S. state of Arizona pushes forward with its controversial crackdown on illegal immigrants, tensions have never been higher on America's southwestern border. A third nation in the region, the Tohono O'odham reservation, hasn't escaped unscathed either.
Tohono O'odham territory straddles the U.S.-Mexico border and is ideal for smugglers, with only a cattle fence separating the two countries. As the U.S. government built up security on the rest of the border during the 1990s and especially after 9/11, the cartels have increasingly targeted the relatively insecure passage through the reservation, where around 65 tribal police officers are responsible for patrolling a territory the size of the state of Connecticut. Between 5 and 10 percent of marijuana produced in Mexico is now smuggled through the reservation (about 1,000 to 2,000 tons of pot per year), according to the U.S. Justice Department, and the insular nation has been forced to invite in federal drug enforcement agents. (The St. Regis Mohawk reservation in upstate New York plays a similar role for the Canadian marijuana trade.) The trade has been a windfall for some tribe members, who can earn $2,000 from the cartels for a 45-minute drive across the border, as a smuggler told McClatchy Newspapers.
The smugglers are getting into the harder stuff as well. In May, tribal police arrested nine Tohono O'odham members after a five-month investigation during which undercover agents purchased 250 grams of cocaine. The number of tribe members arrested on drug charges has increased 60-fold over the last two decades. The smugglers, mainly from Mexico's Sinaloa cartel, employ guides to shepherd them across the border. Most families in the area report having had at least one relative imprisoned on drug offenses, according to the New York Times.
The reservation is also a popular crossing spot for illegal immigrants, with often deadly consequences. In July alone, 44 migrants were found dead on Tohono O'odham territory. Tribal leaders also complain of the trash left in the desert by migrants passing through. Nonetheless, the Tohono O'odham council passed a resolution this summer condemning Arizona's new immigration law, believing it would lead to discrimination against people of color in the state -- regardless of what nation they come from.
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