Effective enforcement forces illegal immigrants onto tribal lands, badlands
ALI CHUK, Ariz. — Ofelia Rivas stepped between the guide cables of the vehicle barrier-style fence and stood just inside Mexico.
A U.S. Border Patrol agent drove down a ridge and parked about a football field away, watching to see what she would do next.
What Rivas did was illegal.
No American — not even this lady who lives in the last house, on the last rutted road in the last Tohono O'odham Indian reservation village on the American side — is allowed to cross the border onto U.S. soil without going through an officially designated port of entry.
But Rivas, demonstrating how easy it is to cross the border there, stepped back through to the American side.
The brief moment of civil disobedience occurred naturally to a woman who posts a sign outside her home, telling lawmen that they better have a warrant before they step onto her property.
“We want people to know that we're one people on two sides of a border,” Rivas, 59, said of the Tohono O'odham tribe. “All we want to do is live in peace, but they've disrupted it. Everyday life is now a spiritual and psychological struggle.”
In the end, the Border Patrol agent didn't do anything. Neither did the spotters along the ridgeline — men border agents say were likely low-level lookouts for Mexico's Cártel de Sinaloa. Their job is to watch the border watchers and track the syndicate's drug mules as they walk through the village.
Ali Chuk villagers told a Tribune-Review investigations reporter that they had seen these smugglers toting AK-47s moved past them. They're so heavily armed because they fear bandits working in “rip crews” will ambush the caravans hauling marijuana, methamphetamines and other drugs through the valley.
Border Patrol agents try to match their firepower with M-4 military rifles and shotguns.
A Tribune-Review special investigation found 96 human coyotes smuggling undocumented immigrants were caught on Indian lands across the U.S. southern border and convicted during 2013 and 2014. Three each were arrested on the Ysleta del Sur Pueblo in Texas and in Arizona's Gila Rier Indian Community. All the rest were detained on Tohono O'odham territory.
Only 27 of 96 coyotes caught on tribal land were American Indians, but nearly all the Indian smugglers had substance addiction problems, probation documents showed.
That problem is repeated across the borderlands as methamphetamine production shifts south of the border and cheap shipments of “Mexican Super Meth” flow north, U.S. Homeland Security officials told a Trib investigations reporter.
Eight of those American Indian coyotes lived in Ali Chuk, a village of 161 people within a Tohono O'odham tribe that counts about 27,000 members in the United States and several thousand more in Mexico.
Beyond rampant rates of substance addiction, the Tohono O'odham suffer high unemployment and increasing gang activity.
Tribal members concede they're struggling with a smuggling problem and lack the ability to police all of their sovereign territory — four vast but non-contiguous slabs of the Sonora Desert in the United States that, if combined, would be the second largest American reservation and about the size of Connecticut.
Some elders and the tribal government in Sells, Ariz. — more than an hour's drive north from here — favor a robust federal response to border incursions, overriding opposition like Rivas' to a border fence, highway checkpoints, an influx of law officers patrolling the area and aerial drones.
Tribal officials didn't respond to messages asking to discuss the issues.
Critics on the reservation have attacked the Tribal Council's partnership with the federal drug and immigration agencies for “militarizing” the Tohono O'odham's 75-mile-long border with Mexico.
Rivas and others on the reservation blame increasingly effective federal interdiction efforts in California, west Texas and Arizona cities such as Yuma and Nogales for pushing illegal immigration deeper into unpopulated badlands, including long stretches of mountain and desert in Tohono O'odham territory.
Cut off from water and shelter, undocumented aliens can die from thirst in the summer and cold in the winter.
Ali Chuk, Rivas points out, has a large lake, complete with its own mountain lion that sleeps in a grotto above the water. Bodies continue to be discovered nearby because thirsty immigrants are forced to circumvent a village filled with Border Patrol agents.
Border Patrol declined comment.
Border Patrol Nation
Mike Wilson, 65, a retired soldier, former Presbyterian lay minister and Tohono O'odham member, displays his Fort Bragg, N.C., memorabilia in his Tucson living room “just to mess with my liberal friends.”
He thinks conservatives advocating tight border control should realize that the ongoing flood of federal agents onto Indian land hasn't been good for anyone.
“I understand their mission ... But that doesn't deny the moral injuries and deaths that accompany those policies. That would be true anywhere in the U.S., but it's especially true in Indian country,” he said.
For a decade, Wilson has left water jugs in the desert so illegal immigrants wouldn't die during their passage — a humanitarian effort that drew sharp rebukes from tribal leaders. He said top tribal officials not only have become addicted to anti-poverty funding from Washington, but the cash spent to stop the drug and human trafficking.
Beyond casino shifts, the only jobs in Tohono O'odham territory are in a federally funded government bureaucracy, Wilson said, and American taxpayers have unwittingly created an Indian “socialism on steroids.” All the free housing, anti-smuggling spending and bloated government combines to “buy silence,” he charges, not only from tribal members but liberals who refuse to take on tribal leadership.
“Because of political correctness, greater white society isn't holding the (tribal) Nation accountable for what it's doing,” Wilson said.
“This is especially true on the left. They're politically against the Border Patrol policies. They take a high moral stance about immigrants dying in the desert. But when it comes to addressing the Tohono O'odham government's complicity in that, they're silent.
“To not hold me morally accountable tells me that I'm not your moral equal. That's paternalistic and racist.”
Nation officials in Sells and their media representatives in Tucson didn't return messages seeking comment.
Some of the Tohono O'odham aren't sitting silent on a joint plan by tribal elected leaders and the federal government to install a ring of integrated electronic towers designed to locate and shadow illegal immigrants – and residents — moving onto and through the reservation. Called a “virtual fence,” it buttresses a steel barrier built after the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks.
The surveillance towers will require generators in remote areas to power them, access roads to reach them, and federal agents to service the equipment and locate the suspects that they track.
Some of the proposed towers and trails encroach on sites sacred to the Tohono O'odham, said Rivas. But Border Patrol told tribal audiences that the project will slash the number of agents needed on Indian land.
“They like to give us promises. ‘The towers mean a smaller Border Patrol footprint.'...We always have heard promises like that,” said Rivas.
Border Patrol declined comment.
Wilson said these towers are merely symptoms of deeper problems – a Tohono O'odham community too divided or complacent to fight Washington for its own sovereignty, and a federal security state that uses fears of illegal immigration, narcotics and terrorism to justify the erosion of civil rights. He believes a precedent is being set that will be applied to other federally-recognized tribes.