Indian reservations on both U.S. borders become drug pipelines

SELLS, Arizona — Like any young man on the Tohono O'odham Indian reservation on the border with Mexico, Clayton Antone can reel off the going rate for smuggling a load of marijuana into the U.S.

"You get $2,000 for a 45-minute drive," Antone said.

The Mexican and Canadian shiny pick-up trucks and late-model SUVs outside the homes of unemployed Indians on the reservation suggest that some have acted on the math.

Traffickers in Mexico and Canada increasingly are using Indian reservations along the borders as conduits for bringing marijuana, Ecstasy and other illicit drugs into the U.S. The drug gangs take advantage of weak and underfunded tribal police forces and the remoteness of tribal lands, and they find that high unemployment rates and resentment of federal law enforcement agencies make some young native Americans ready allies.

Drug seizures on the tribal lands have risen sharply. In 2005, law enforcement agents made 292 seizures totaling 67 tons of marijuana. By 2009, they tallied 1,066 seizures totaling more than 159 tons.

Cocaine also is moving in. On June 11, the U.S. attorney for Arizona indicted nine Tohono people on trafficking charges, ending a five-month probe in which undercover agents made 39 buys totaling over 250 grams of cocaine.

The U.S. Justice Department is closely watching on two reservations where it says the problems are most acute: the St. Regis Mohawk Reservation in upstate New York and the Tohono O'odham Reservation in Arizona.

As much as 20 percent of all the high-potency marijuana grown in Canada each year is smuggled through the St. Regis Mohawk Reservation, according to the National Drug Intelligence Center's 2010 drug threat assessment report.

Drug gangs smuggle 5 percent to 10 percent of all the marijuana produced in Mexico through the Tohono O'odham Reservation in Arizona, it adds.

The Mohawk reservation includes about 20 miles, or half a percent of the 3,987-mile U.S. border with Canada (not including Alaska), while the Tohono O'odham tribal lands take up about 75 miles, or 4 percent of the 1,933-mile border with Mexico.

The Tohono O'odham Police Department employs some 65 officers, yet they must cover a sprawling Sonoran Desert reservation the size of Connecticut. Roads are good, but communities are far apart.

"It takes an officer at least two hours to respond in some cases, depending on the locale," said Timothy Joaquin, a tribal council member on the security committee that oversees public safety issues.

Compounding problems, the tribal population is only 27,000 — really a large extended family. Those involved in the drug trade aren't distant neighbors but a friend's cousin, or one's own relative, and loyalty runs deep.

"I know people who actually go to Mexico and bring the drugs across," said Antone, who works at the Tribal Youth Council, which helps young people find jobs, and he doesn't condone the smuggling he sees around him. "Everybody knows who's doing it."

Those involved know the back roads and trails better than do the Border Patrol agents who police the reservation for illegal migrants and smugglers. They're also familiar with when the agents take breaks, change shifts and use sniffer dogs at the checkpoints on the three roads leading out of the tribal area.

Tohono smugglers send spotters out to the Border Patrol checkpoints to see when it's safe to pass along the route.

"They'll send the message, 'There's no K-9. Come on through,'" Antone said.

Joaquin, the council member, said a trip around tribal land suggests that something doesn't quite add up.

"You think, 'how can somebody who's not employed afford such a good vehicle?'" he said.

At one village, Al-Jek, less than a mile from the border, where a special type of fencing allows the passage of livestock and people but not vehicles, Angelita Castillo said a few hamlets are deeply involved, such as nearby Pisinemo.

"Some of us who are here, we try to keep away from it," Castillo said.

The trafficking is in people as well as drugs, and the Tohono O'odham reservation pays dearly. Mexican migrants leave trash strewn across the desert, break into homes in search of food, receive treatment at the tribal health services clinic and impose a burden on tribal police. The tribe has paid for autopsies for more than 50 migrants found dead on its land.

"They find tons of trash that these individuals leave behind, backpacks and clothes. They've stolen so many bicycles," said Frances G. Antone, a member of the Tohono legislative council who's distantly related to Clayton Antone.

Legal experts say Washington bears some blame for what has happened.

"The quality of law enforcement on all tribal lands is generally weak," said Kevin Washburn, the dean of the University of New Mexico law school in Albuquerque. "It is primarily a federal responsibility, and the federal government's commitment has been weak.

Roughly 2,500 miles northeast, severe environmental pollution and economic dislocation have afflicted the 22-square-mile St. Regis Mohawk Reservation in upstate New York.

"The Mohawks basically had their traditional economies destroyed by General Motors and Alcoa polluting the land with PCBs," said David Stoddard, a spokesman for the tribal government.

Three foundries and plants that the companies operated, beginning in the 1950s, have become Superfund sites to clean up polychlorinated biphenyls, or PCBs, a contaminant that's gotten into mothers' milk on the reservation.

Each year, federal agents say, as much as a billion dollars of hydroponically grown marijuana and other drugs move through the reservation, which straddles the St. Lawrence Seaway. Some drugs, particularly cocaine, are smuggled north.

"Multiple tons of high-potency marijuana are smuggled through the St. Regis Mohawk Reservation each week by Native American (drug trafficking organizations)," the drug threat assessment report said.

In warmer weather, smugglers use speedboats and Jet Skis to zip across the river, turning to snowmobiles when the river ices over in winter.

Montreal is a 90-minute drive, while New York City is a straight shot down Interstate 87.

Amid new busts on the reservation, Sen. Charles Schumer, D-N.Y., proposed last December that 10 years be added to the term of any drug trafficker if they use Indian lands. The proposal hasn't yet become law.

The smuggling trial of Russian emigre Andrey Nevsky, a left-handed pro boxer, last month in Albany, N.Y., brought new testimony that the reservation was a major transshipment point for tons of marijuana headed south.

Prosecutors said smugglers who brought vehicles full of marijuana down I-87 used "blocking" vehicles to break traffic laws on purpose to distract police and protect the smugglers.


National Drug Threat Assessment 2010


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