June 5, 2002
Living at the end of the road, Tohono O'Odham man draws a line
BY JERRY KAMMER
Copley News Service
ALI CHUK, Ariz.--Ray Mattea lives in a tiny village at the end of the highway, at the end of the United States, at the beginning of one of the most intense
smuggling corridors in North America. He has a simmering feud with
several of his neighbors who, he says, ply the smuggling trade.
"We have been threatened so many times," said Mattea. He is 37, the
solidly built father of two small children. His mother-in-law wishes he
would take his family to the safety of Tucson, Ariz. But he is taking a
stand. Mattea speaks wearily but without apparent fear. He tells of
keeping a gun nearby as he sleeps. He remembers the words of the
smugglers, Mexican men who have married into the village.
"They say, "You're going to die. You better quit saying these things.
We're going to kill you. We're going to take you across the line and
you're going to have to deal with them on that side."'
"The line" here is the Mexican border, less than a mile away, over a
sandy road that twists through creosote and palo verde and saguaro
cactus and plastic water bottles tossed aside by illegal immigrants.
The road keeps going and improves on the other side, Mattea said. "The
smugglers graded it over there," he explains. "They even put in a whole
The smugglers have a lot of money to throw around, he said. They use it
to buy Tohono O'Odham assistants, some of whom sit in the mountains with
radios and with their eyes on the Border Patrol, which calls the work
"nursing a load."
In an economy that's flat-on-its-back poor, the work is often welcome.
In April, U.S. Customs agents shot it out at a home a few hundred yards
away from Mattea's small home with the big American flag in the window.
The aftermath of the man's arrest shows why Mattea and most of his
neighbors feel shoved against the wall in this village, whose name means
"Little Mountain Pass."
"He got bailed out, and he ran off to Mexico," said Mattea. The
excitement flared again when the man's father stalked through the
village with an automatic weapon." "He was saying, "Who snitched us
Mattea, who was once a tribal ranger and who now serves on a reservation
district council, said he wants the tribal police department to put a
station here. But with the police stretched thin across the reservation,
he has so far been unsuccessful.
Mattea said he has a good relationship with an agent from the Border
Patrol, which works the 76 miles of the international border that cuts
through Tohono O'Odham land. And he was hopeful when vigilance was
abruptly heightened in the aftermath of Sept. 11.
"There was a lot of action around here, a lot of Border Patrol coming
in, a lot of TOPD (tribal police) coming in here."
That cut the illegal cross-border traffic way back, he said. "But after
about two weeks, they all left," and the smuggling business got good