Heavy Traffic

The Tohono O'odham border crossing remains a hot spot in the drug war.

In the federal government's multi-billion dollar war on drugs, the U.S.-Mexican border that runs through the Tohono O'odham Indian Reservation remains an oozing wound.

Law enforcement officials report that the tribal police who patrol the area--which is located about 100 miles from Tucson--routinely confiscate 4,000-6,000 pounds of cocaine and marijuana bound for buzz-hungry U.S. customers each month. And that bulky catch does not take into account whatever caches of dope are intercepted by the Border Patrol, the FBI and U.S. Customs agents who also monitor the region.

Yet--in spite of all the overlapping lawmen--officials speculate that the multiple tons of drugs that are seized on the reservation annually represent only the tip of the proverbial iceberg.

"It's a major area for drugs entering the U.S.," says Walt Lamer, acting head of the Bureau of Indian Affairs Law Enforcement Division. "We've done an intense examination of the area. We have all those agents down there and it's still not enough to stem the flow of drugs."

Those drugs--primarily marijuana and cocaine--gush into this country like water through a net. And once the smugglers are north of the border, the illicit substances they have squeezed through the Tohono portal are distributed across the country. In fact, Lamar says, Tohono traffic has been traced as far north as the Blackfeet Indian Reservation in Northern Montana, where it played a major part in a recent sting operation that officials say is the biggest drug bust in all of Indian Country history.

It might seem like a leap that drugs flow from south of the border to the snow-capped peaks of Big Sky country, but Lamar says the unique layout of the Tohono border crossing makes it easy for enterprising Mexican drug lords.

"The reservation extends on either side of the border," he says. "There are a large number of folks who go back and forth every day."

The criss-crossing goes on, even though it is not supposed to.

Lawrence Seligman, head of the Tohono O'odham tribal police, says that there are at least 2,000 O'odham Indians who live in Mexico who are not recognized by the U.S. (see "Between Two Worlds," June 7). As a result, they live in gray cloud of citizenship that allows them to traverse a border that technically offers no legal point of entry.

Currently tribal leaders are working with federal officials in hopes of coming up with an arrangement similar to the one enjoyed by members of the Canadian Mohawk Nation. Even though those Mohawks are not residents of the U.S., the federal government allows them access into the country to visit their New York State-based cousins.

Seligman says the Mexican O'odham have yet to strike such a deal with the authorities, so the foot and vehicle traffic continues. He says issues of manpower and practicality make it hard to restrict the daily influx of Mexican Indians, some of whom may have drugs in tow. The 60 officers who make up his staff have their hands full patrolling a reservation that is 5,000 square miles and spreads across three Arizona counties. Now, because other federal agencies are clamping down on non-Indian sections of the Arizona-Mexico line, his department is doing double duty as a makeshift DEA patrolling its 75-mile piece of the border.

"The more pressure the Border Patrol and the INS put on other parts of the border near towns like Douglas, the more it pushes traffic out into what is called the 'western desert.' The problem is the western desert is perceived as a barrier, because it's a hostile environment, but it's not a barrier. If you squeeze the balloon over there, we feel it here," Seligman says.

"So we are confiscating 4,000-6,000 pounds of marijuana monthly, and you know what? It's not our job. Our focus is not working the border; it's serving our community. This takes us away from our community, but we can't ignore it," he says. "Our department has suffered as a result. We have limited resources and this eats away at our ability to serve the community."

His staff--like many BIA-subsidized police forces in Indian Country--operates on a tight budget. He says they are ill equipped to deal with the sophisticated and dangerous world of big-time drug traffic. Last year he nearly lost an officer who was run down by a van piloted by a desperate smuggler. Only the officer's bulletproof vest prevented his chest from caving in upon the impact.

Seligman has taken his message of frustration to federal authorities, including representatives of the Department of Interior. Tohono O'odham Tribal Chairman Edward D. Manuel has been alerting the media to the problem, including an op-ed piece in the Arizona Republic he penned last fall describing the bails of marijuana confiscated on his reservation. And Walt Lamar continues to lobby lawmakers in Washington in hopes of securing funding for drug enforcement all across Indian Country.

Meanwhile the traffic continues.

"You can sit on a hill out here and watch these guys radio each other from both sides of the border," says Seligman. "When the shift changes for the Border Patrol or for our officers, it's like watching the Oklahoma land rush out here as people scramble to get across."