I was reading through an article at Borderland Beat on the massacre of some 300 migrants in 2007 by the Capos drug cartel, when I came across this interesting bit:
I was in Altar when the kidnappings occurred. When I asked taxi drivers and drivers of vans why there was so much cruelty, kidnappings with no ransom requests, his response was simple and unanimous: the narcos were dispatching "mules" and they did not want migrants wandering around because they bring "heat" to the area.
The "burreros" are men - teenagers mostly - working as drug mules. They carry 20 kilograms of marijuana on their backs and are released into the desert, with the guidance of a coyote and trusted operative of the local kingpin.
They walk two nights through the desert of Arizona, until they reach the U.S. base, the Indian reserves of the Tohono, an autonomous territory within the United States. From there, the drugs are transferred onto trucks that will travel by road to the cities of distribution.
When narcos are going to transport an important load of marijuana, they don't want migrants wandering the desert. Migrants attract the attention of the border patrol, and that generates losses for narcos. And narcos hate losing. That is why they want the desert to themselves. For this reason, that terrible February, about 300 migrants were kidnapped.(Underline added). This apparently became an issue of interest in 2010, as I have found various articles from then on the subject, including from the New York Times and NPR. Despite the attention, the Tohono reservation has actually increased in importance as a smuggling route. This June 2013 ABC News report indicates:
The Tohono O'odham Nation, a Native American reservation about the size of Connecticut, is located in the Sonoran Desert, about 60 miles south of Tucson, Ariz., right on the U.S. border with Mexico.Although the common thread in the foregoing articles is one of the tribe being helplessly caught in the middle, that is not necessarily so. McClatchy D.C. reports:
Here, there is no barbed-wire high fence, but open desert, with only a vehicle barrier meant to stop cars but not people.
It is an area where the U.S. government has the fewest resources and the widest open space to patrol, making it a hot spot for Mexican drug cartels and human smuggling operations.
... "The Tohono O'odham Nation is one of our most problematic areas," Arizona Commander Jeffrey Self of the U.S. Border Patrol told "Nightline". "The narcotics smugglers have moved up into the mountainous area. There is not a lot of access."
While border-crossing apprehensions in Arizona are down 43 percent from two years ago, it is a different, more complicated story on the Tohono O'odham Nation. Drug seizures on the reservation are steadily climbing -- nearly 500,000 pounds of marijuana was seized last year, a number that has nearly doubled since 2010. Recently, Tohono O'odham police seized $1 million worth of marijuana in just one week.
... In the Tohono O'odham Nation is "The San Miguel Gate," an area on the U.S.-Mexico border considered to be sacred by the Tohono O'odham. It is the only place where Native Americans can freely walk across the border, but there, the only thing separating Mexico and the U.S. is a low fence guarded by a lone border patrol agent and a light pole powered by a generator.
Verlon Jose, a Tohono O'odham tribal leader whose family has lived on the reservation for generations, and other members of his tribe talked to "Nightline" at "The San Miguel Gate." Jose acknowledged that the Gate carries a myriad of problems.
"Drugs come through here, migrants come through here," he said. "We see harassment from individuals who are moving contraband north, moving migrants north. Homes broken into, vehicles broken into. It's gotten more aggressive."
Jose's cousin Francine Jose lives in a remote part of the reservation and estimated that her house is broken into about once a month by people crossing the border illegally. There is no cell service inside her house so she can't easily call for help -- according to authorities, the police response time to her house can take up to 45 minutes -- and she said the border crossers who walk across her property know it.
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.And this article from the Examiner reports on a GAO that hints at problems with a lack of cooperation from Reservation authorities.
"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.