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Monday, March 22, 2004 - Page updated at 12:00 AM

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Illegal traffic disrupts reservation in Arizona

Los Angeles Times

TOHONO O'ODHAM NATION, Ariz. — Hemmed in by tighter border controls in California and Texas, thousands of illegal immigrants and drug smugglers are flooding this vast Native American reservation southwest of Tucson, leaving chaos, crime and environmental destruction behind.

More than 1,500 immigrants tramp across the Tohono O'odham reservation every day, making it one of the busiest illegal entry points in the country. So far this year, 27,130 people have been arrested in this remote desert. Federal agents have seized a staggering 179,300 pounds of narcotics since October.

The sheer volume of criminal activity and law-enforcement response has made some Indians feel as if they are living in a combat zone.

High-speed chases are so frequent that residents rely on police scanners to know when it's safe to go outside. Burglaries are so common that people leave homes unlocked to save doors and windows. Overhead, Black Hawk helicopters hunt drug runners while camouflaged agents prowl the bush.

"Our people fear for their lives," said Vivian Juan-Saunders, tribal chairwoman.

The reservation, roughly the size of Connecticut, shares a 75-mile border with Mexico. The most formidable obstacles are three or four strands of rusty barbed wire.

"The Tohono O'odham Nation sits in the busiest corridor of illegal immigration in the nation," said Andy Adame, Border Patrol spokesman. "They are getting run over. The option is to let it go crazy or bring in the manpower to get it under control."

The Department of Homeland Security this month announced a $10 million plan to help secure Arizona's porous borders, now the main gateway to the United States for illegal immigrants and smugglers.

The money will pay for hundreds of new agents, aerial surveillance drones and additional detention space. The reservation will get an additional 60 Border Patrol officers.

Many of the 11,000 residents here live in trailers or ramshackle adobe houses surrounded by the twisted saguaros and fragrant mesquite of the Sonoran Desert.

As more illegal immigrants cross, they are increasingly fearful of letting their children play outside. Tribal elders no longer gather ceremonial plants in the desert. Fences are going up and people are packing weapons.

Some Indians are forming armed citizen patrols, occasionally shooting over the heads of immigrants and smugglers to scare them off their land.

"We are armed, and we will shoot them," said Arnold Smith, 69, who lives one-quarter mile from the border in a trailer that has been burglarized five times.

"They use our pasture like a freeway. They cut our fences. They killed my 10-month-old mare," he said. "If they are hungry, they will keep coming. It's never going to stop."

Border Patrol officers scour the roads and backcountry on horseback or in all-terrain vehicles. Heavily armed federal agents and Native American trackers stalk smugglers through the desert.

"People here want to feel safe and secure, and now it's like a war zone," said Richard Saunders, tribal police chief.

Federal agents say the size of the reservation, its remoteness and lack of good roads make it difficult to patrol and tempting to cross.

In just one morning earlier this month, Border Patrol officers caught 641 people on the reservation. Last year, 69 people died crossing Native American land. No one knows how many got through.

Roger Applegate, who heads the U.S. Customs and Border Protection Office in the tribal capital of Sells, said drug smugglers have become bolder and more reckless. It's not unusual, he said, to have drug runners speeding the wrong way down the highway with their lights out. They also will drive straight at officers.

Many residents recall Mexican migrants stopping by for food as they headed north. They often chopped wood as payment.

"But as the years passed it became more complicated," said Manuel Osequeda, 43. "Now you have to deal with houses being broken into, vehicles stolen. I keep three rifles loaded at all times and carry a pistol with me. I stay awake at night to guard my family. My kids want to play outside, but you don't know who is out there."

Like many, he thinks the tribe's sovereignty is threatened not just by illegal immigrants but also by federal agents operating on Indian land.

"You go out and chop wood and a Black Hawk flies over. You hunt and the Border Patrol questions you," he said. " ... We think twice about leaving the house. We ask ourselves if we want to put up with the hassle of being stopped."

Saunders, of the tribal police, walked along a desert wash, looking with disgust at the water bottles, bags, cans and human excrement left by illegal immigrants.

"This is the beautiful Tohono O'odham desert. We have respect for its beauty. We rely on the desert plants for ceremonial purposes," he said. "Our people can't pick the saguaro fruit. They can't go for walks because they might run into smugglers. This is a disgrace to the people and land of the Tohono O'odham."

Copyright © 2004 The Seattle Times Company

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