Union Tribune

June 16, 2002

Tribal lands at border turned into 'war zone'


SELLS, Ariz. Much of the human and narcotics contraband that used to
flow north through San Diego, El Paso and Nogales, Ariz., now goes
through the Tohono O'odham Reservation.

The Indians, whose Connecticut-size reservation is home to about 23,000
people, have been stunned by the intensity of the assault, which is
scarring their communities and the desert around them.

"They're being overrun by illegal aliens. They're being overrun by drug
smugglers. And they're caught in a war zone," said Judge Pogo Overmeyer
of the Tohono Nation Courts.

Homes burglarized by illegals, deadly car wrecks caused by reckless
smugglers, drug runners brandishing weapons as they demand help from
local people this is daily fare on the reservation, Overmeyer said.
She noted that Tohono O'odham police reported seizing 33,000 pounds of
marijuana during the first four months of the year.

During the same period, the police located 1,877 vehicles that smugglers
had abandoned on the reservation. One of the busiest smuggling routes
through the reservation begins about 25 miles to the west, where taxis
finish a 15-minute run from the Mexican town of Sonoyta by depositing
passengers at a flimsy border fence.

The path then slices through Organ Pipe National Monument, where U.S.
Park Ranger Jon Young was fuming in late May about off-road damage
caused by seven abandoned vehicles he had inventoried during an
overflight. Young said he spends much of his time retrieving such
vehicles, which typically are stolen in Phoenix or Tucson, driven across
the border to be loaded with immigrants or drugs, and brought back north
through roadless areas of Organ Pipe.

"They'll drive the vehicle as far north as they can and then abandon the
vehicle and walk out," Young said.

Young spent much of the next day dealing with a surprise he found near a
sport utility vehicle abandoned about 20 miles north of the border, near
Highway 85, the main road to Phoenix. He uncovered 514 pounds of
marijuana neatly wrapped in 23 bundles and stashed in the brush.

"The (natural) resource damage these guys cause is huge," said Young,
adding that smugglers have made Organ Pipe "a constant battleground."

He ticked off an estimate of the damage the smuggler had clawed into the
desert before two of his tires got punctured and he bogged down in deep
sand: hundreds of destroyed creosote and sage plants, dozens of battered
mesquite and palo verde trees, and several trampled saguaros, the
solitary cactus symbol of the Sonoran Desert.

"With the kind of rain we get or don't get it will take 100 or 200
years to repair this damage," Young said.

The human toll can be devastating. Just last week, Border Patrol
officials said 14 illegal immigrants died while crossing into the United
States along this border region.

The expansion of smuggling here has taken a toll on the Mexican side of
the border, too.

In a Sonoyta office building two blocks from The Good Samaritan taco
stand, Ignacio Bojorguez wistfully recalled the tranquillity of the days
before smugglers rushed to the area to avoid the heightened U.S.
vigilance elsewhere.

He was elected as part of a city council ticket that promised to fight
the crime the robberies and assaults that the smuggling operations
drag into town.

"We have seen with sadness that they have taken away the town; the bad
guys have won," Bojorguez said