A Forgotten Front in the Drug & Border Fights: Tribal Reservations

– Shannon Mizzi

American Indian reservations on the U.S.-Mexico border have seen some of the country’s highest increases in both drug trafficking and abuse.

As cartel violence throttles Mexico, a renewed interest in the border, human security, and the drug trade has taken hold in America. These complex, intertwined issues are at the heart of everything from debates on housing undocumented unaccompanied minors to major storylines on TV shows like “Breaking Bad.” Yet, while the issue has been thoroughly discussed, one angle remains curiously underexamined: the experience of American Indian communities along the U.S.-Mexico border.

Areas where American Indian reservations meet the Mexican and Canadian borders have seen some of the country’s highest increases in both drug trafficking and abuse. In a recent article in American Indian Quarterly, Asa Revels and Janet Cummings explore how this situation developed and what it means for members of the the Tohono O’odham Nation, whose Arizona-based reservation abuts the Mexican border for some 75 miles.

The Tohono O’odham reservation consists largely of mountains and desert — inhospitable terrain that is difficult to patrol, much to the delight of drug smugglers. Though the reservation’s size accounts for less than four percent of the total length of U.S.-Mexico border, between five and 10 percent of all marijuana produced in Mexico is transported through Tohono O’odham territory, according to Revels & Cummings. The U.S. government has designated the reservation as a “High Intensity Drug Trafficking Area,” with the amount of narcotics seized on the territory drastically increasing over the last 15 years. In 2008, roughly 201,000 pounds of marijuana was seized on the res; in 2009, marijuana seizures rose to 319,000 pounds.

Why the sudden increase? Perhaps counterintuitively, Cummings and Revels argue that one factor is the increased border security along the U.S.-Mexico border. Prior to the 9/11 attacks, there were several transborder entry points open only to Tohono O’odham people, an accommodation made in recognition of the native Arizonan population’s strong familial and social ties with O’odham living just across the border; after 9/11, these checkpoints saw their security resources retired to high-traffic areas, and smugglers saw the reservation crossings as opportunities for easier entry into the United States. Though security has since been enhanced at those reservation checkpoints that remain, O’odham who know the land are courted by drug smugglers to help them make it across the border.

The increase in drug trafficking has spilled over into almost every other aspect of reservation life. Where other racioethnic groups have seen a decrease in violent crime over the past several decades, American Indian communities have suffered from rising incidences of violence over the past 30 years. According to Revels and Cummings, "tribal law enforcement officials across the [United States] consistently report that most violent, personal, and property crimes on reservations relate to drug trafficking, drug abuse, and gang activity,” which “often lead to other indirect consequences such as accidental death, injuries, suicide, domestic violence, and sexual abuse."

The increasingly militarized nature of border reservations like that of the Tohono O’odham has fundamentally changed life in those communities: They are no longer peaceful or safe places to live, and not a single resident is unaffected by the realities and spillover effects of the drug trade. Homes are regularly broken into by smugglers and their affiliates. Residents are routinely searched by law enforcement, their movements restricted on their own land. Those who assist independent drug smugglers who are not attached to major cartels are at risk of being attacked by members of dominant drug cartels who want to eliminate competition and retain their near monopoly on the business. "The psychological burden this type of environment places upon individuals," write Revels and Cummings, "coupled with the constant sense of fear, is immeasurable."

If the problem is so widely acknowledged within the community, why is it slow to improve? Revels and Cummings outline a number of reasons, revealing that part of the answer lies in the complicated history between American Indian tribes and the U.S. federal government. Like most tribes in the U.S., the Tohono O’odham technically have complete sovereignty over their reservation. As part of this sovereignty, the reservation has its own law enforcement system which is not tied to state-level government and can determine its own punishments for minor crimes. Yet, reservation law enforcement officers are severely restricted compared to their to state and county brethren: They are not allowed to arrest non-Indians, they lose all enforcement powers when not on reservation property, and those who are detained must be quickly handed over to U.S. authorities. This makes things particularly difficult for Tohono O’odham officials, since the reservation is made up of several unattached land areas. It also leaves them reliant on federal and state authorities, who have far more access to the funding and technology necessary for capturing and deterring trafficking.

Even within the reservation, there is only so much ground tribal law enforcement agencies can cover with limited resources. Staffing of officers on reservations is only 20 to 25 percent of the levels attained in comparable US high-crime-rate areas. High levels of extreme poverty on the reservation — four times higher than the rest of Arizona — drive desperate residents to participate in drug trafficking to make money or spiral into substance abuse to numb the pain. “Smuggling can garner a destitute O’odham a quick $3,000 to $5,000 for hustling drugs just one time,” write Revels and Cummings, “and is often the best job opportunity available.”

It’s a paradox. The tribe’s resources are limited. They spend money to reduce drug trafficking, but don’t have enough to make a substantial improvement. With funds going to direct action along the border, little is left for the creation and improvement of social programs that may help the average resident. Some residents see drug smuggling as a quick way to help pay the bills, and so participate in the trade even as the tribe spends money to combat it.

Yet there are reasons to hope. Tribal revenues are up, which may allow for increased investment in education (which could help to combat poverty and reduce the attractiveness of drug trafficking). State, local, and federal officials are aiming to improve coordination with reservation law enforcement, the Border Patrol has introduced cultural sensitivity training for its officers, and new counter-trafficking measures grant O’odham officers access to advanced technological tools.

Revels and Cummings are optimistic about this upward trajectory, advocating further expansion of the legal capabilities of Tohono O’odham law enforcement, and a continued strong, but perhaps more respectful federal presence to reduce cross-border trafficking and protect vulnerable O’odham.

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The Source: “The Impact of Drug Trafficking on American Indian Reservations with International Borders” by Asa Revels and Janet Cummings, American Indian Quarterly, Summer 2014.

Photo courtesy of Wikimedia Commons