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Border & immigration

Tohono O’odham feel squeezed by gangs, Border Patrol

Members fear smugglers, but enforcement can lead to abuses, they say

The Tohono O’odham Nation is under siege by smugglers and gangs, according to a story in Monday's New York Times.

With tougher border security to the east and west, more smuggling traffic is being forced through the reservation, and local residents are paying the price.

A long-insular tribe of 28,000 people and its culture are paying a steep price: the land is swarming with outsiders, residents are afraid to walk in the hallowed desert, and some members, lured by drug cartel cash in a place with high unemployment, are ending up in prison.

“People will knock on your door, flash a wad of money and ask if you can drive this bale of marijuana up north,” said Marla Henry, 38, chairwoman of Chukut Kuk district, which covers much of the border zone.

The Border Patrol is pointing to the increase in arrests as a sign that their efforts at enforcement are working.

Federal officials describe the rise in drug seizures on the reservation as a sign of growing success on what had long been a vulnerable section of border. Barriers and surveillance have forced most of the smugglers to enter on foot rather than in vehicles and spend hours or days sneaking through the reservation, making them more vulnerable to detection, said Agent Robert Gilbert, chief of the Tucson sector of the Border Patrol.

But some tribal members wonder whether it's worth the price.

Ned Norris Jr., tribal chairman, said he's even been stopped and questioned.

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“Quite frankly, the people are getting sick of it,” he said of the heavy outside presence. But he added that the smuggling was beyond the tribe’s ability to control.

“I hope in my lifetime we can go back to the way it used to be . . . where people could go and walk in the daylight on our own land.”

Others claim the attention by the media and Border Patrol hide a more sinister situation.

Brenda Norrell reported on her blog Narcosphere that tribe member Ofelia Rivas told her the Times reporter "tried to twist my words."

"I said, 'Are you going to write about all the Border Patrol abuses on the O'odham and that the American government waived all protective laws to justify all these violations?' I told him of the right of the O'odham to remain sovereign.

"I told him, 'The O'odham are endangered by these policies including our language and entire culture. Do not write anything that will further endanger my people.' "

What's your take?

How much is too much when it comes to border enforcement? Are the O'odham tribal members right to object to the government's tactics? Or are Border Patrol actions justified by the dangers posed by drug and human smugglers? Let us know your solution to the border issue in the comments.

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Border Patrol efforts have forced smugglers onto the Tohono O’odham Nation near Sells.

On the Web

New York Times: In Drug War, Tribe Feels Invaded by Both Sides 

Narcosphere: Shame on the New York Times: Green Light for Border Abuse