As Border Crackdown Intensifies, A Tribe Is Caught in the Crossfire

By John Pomfret
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, September 15, 2006

ALIR JEGK, Ariz. -- Elsie Salsido was breast-feeding her baby when Border Patrol agents walked into her house unannounced this summer. "Are you Mexicans?" they demanded.

Salsido's four other children cowered on the bed of her eldest, a girl in second grade. Night had fallen on this village on Arizona's border with Mexico, nestled in a scrubland valley of stickman cactuses hemmed in by mountains that look like busted teeth. The agents explained their warrantless entry into Salsido's house as "hot pursuit." They said they were chasing footprints, she recalled, of illegal immigrants sneaking in from Mexico, just 1,000 feet away. But the footprints belonged to Salsido's children -- all Americans.

As the United States ramps up its law enforcement presence on the border with Mexico, places like Alir Jegk, a village of 50 families in south-central Arizona, are enduring heightened danger, as they are squeezed between increasingly aggressive bands of immigrant and drug smugglers and increasingly numerous federal agents who, critics say, often ignore regulations as they seek to enforce the law.

Alir Jegk's experience is complicated by the fact that it is on the second-biggest Indian reservation in the United States, belonging to the Tohono O'odham, or Desert People, who hunted deer and boar and harvested wild spinach and prickly pear in this region before an international border was etched through their land in 1853. Now, the Tohono O'odham Nation occupies the front line of the fight against drug and immigrant smuggling -- costing the poverty-stricken tribe millions of dollars a year and threatening what remains of its traditions.

"We have the undocumented and drug smugglers heading north and law enforcement heading south. We're smack in the middle," Vivian Juan-Saunders, chairwoman of the tribe, said in an interview at the tribal headquarters in Sells, Ariz. "We are being squeezed."

In testimony to the U.S. Senate, the tribe's vice chairman, Ned Norris Jr., described a "border security crisis that has caused shocking devastation of our land and resources."

About 11,000 Tohono O'odham live on a 2.8 million-acre reservation, the size of Connecticut, with a 75-mile-long border with Mexico. A rickety four-foot-tall, three-strand barbed-wire fence delineates the border, which is punctuated by 160 trails and four cattle crossings. For decades the nation saw little or no illegal traffic from Mexico. The main movement was members of the Tohono O'odham who live in the Mexican part of the reservation trickling into the United States for health services in Sells.

In the mid-1990s, however, the Clinton administration cracked down on illegal crossings in San Diego and El Paso. Instead of stopping illegal immigration and drug running, however, the operations simply rerouted traffic through the deserts of the Southwest. And in Arizona, Tohono O'odham land, bisected by State Highway 86 -- an easy link to Phoenix to the north and California to the west -- became ground zero.

The flow of drugs and undocumented immigrants through the reservation has caused a host of problems. Juan-Saunders estimated that about 1,500 illegal immigrants cross reservation land each day, depositing on average six tons of trash. Some well-traveled knolls have been renamed "Million Backpack Hill" because of the refuse.

The tribe routinely devotes more than 10 percent of its budget to coping with the crisis. Annually, Juan-Saunders said, the 71-member Tohono O'odham Police Department spends $3 million on problems related to illegal immigrants and drug traffickers. The reservation pays an additional $2 million each year to provide emergency health services for undocumented travelers. Since 2002, 315 crossers have died on the reservation's land, including, this year, a 3-year-old boy and an 11-year-old girl.

The Tohono O'odham are a poor nation, with an average per capita income of $8,000 a year, well below the U.S. average of $23,000 and the Indian average of $13,000. Forty percent of the families on the reservation live below the federal poverty line, and unemployment is at 42 percent. Juan-Saunders said an increasing number of nation members are sucked into the drug- and immigrant-smuggling business.

Two of Juan-Saunders's relatives have been arrested on drug-related charges, tribal officials said. And in Alir Jegk, drug smugglers have plied Elsie Salsido's sister with so many narcotics over the years in their attempts to turn her into a mule that the woman has never been the same, residents say.

"The pressures have dramatically increased on the tribe over the last five years," said Robert A. Williams, a law professor at the University of Arizona who works as a judge in the tribe's courts. "The community is fairly well isolated, so they are very vulnerable to coyotes [immigrant smugglers] and drug runners. We've seen signs of gang activity coming from L.A. and Mexican gangs coming up."

Fifteen years ago, the nation, invoking its limited sovereignty, barred the Border Patrol from the reservation because its agents harassed the population, said Eileen M. Luna-Firebaugh, an expert on American Indian policy at the University of Arizona. But that policy changed after drug and immigrant smuggling skyrocketed, although the tribe was always more focused on narcotics, she said.

The tribe is home to the Shadow Wolves, a storied, largely Indian unit of U.S. Customs and Border Protection that uses ancient tracking techniques to chase down drug smugglers. But after the creation of the Department of Homeland Security, the Border Patrol has run the Shadow Wolves and has shifted their focus away from drugs and toward immigrant smuggling, prompting several senior officers to quit.

Nonetheless, under Juan-Saunders's leadership, which began in 2003, the tribal council has welcomed more federal law enforcement. It has allowed the Border Patrol to establish two permanent facilities on its land. It recently agreed to the construction of a 75-mile vehicle barrier, costing more than $1 million a mile, to replace the wobbly fence.

The tribe has complied with Border Patrol wishes to close one traditional gate connecting the American side of its land to the Mexican side. It has also recently consented to allow the National Guard to operate on the border, on the condition that the Guard repairs roads and "respects the people and the laws of this land," Juan-Saunders said.

Winning that respect, however, has not been easy. Tribal members are routinely harassed by federal agents, Juan-Saunders said. "They cross property without asking. They enter homes without knocking," she said.

In March, Juan-Saunders was driving her 8-year-old son in her Jeep, going 45 mph in a 55 zone, when she was ordered to pull over by a Border Patrol officer. She stopped by the side of the road, and the officer leapt out of his vehicle and pointed his gun at her. "Now I know what my constituents are experiencing," she said.

Juan-Saunders acknowledged having mixed feelings about ceding more of her nation's sovereignty to federal agencies. "But we are in dire straits here," she said.

Chuy Rodriguez, a spokesman for the Border Patrol in Tucson, said relations between the Border Patrol and the tribe are "getting better and better over time."

"There's a lot more dialogue with folks in positions of power," he said. He said that Border Patrol community relations officers make regular visits to the reservation and that his agency has established a process for complaints. Tribal representatives instruct Border Patrol agents about the tribe and its traditions.

"We can't go into anyone's property," he said. "We have to get someone from the Tohono O'odham police to come. However, if it's hot pursuit, it's a different story."

Back in Alir Jegk, Margaret Garcia, 68, and an older neighbor, Francisco Garcia, sum up the pressures facing the tribe.

Margaret Garcia, who lives in a two-room shack with, at last count, 19 cats and six dogs, said she awoke late one night to discover that Border Patrol agents, with shotguns and night-vision goggles, had established an observation post in her yard.

Francisco Garcia, on the other hand, used to live in Mexico. He was kicked out of his village by drug dealers, so he moved to the American side of the line. "I didn't want to die," he said.

"A long time ago there was no one but us," Margaret said. "It was peaceful. When the cactus was ripe, my daughters would go out with a stick to harvest the fruit. Now if we go out, the Border Patrol follows us. Everyone is a suspect."

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