Skip to comments.Smugglers pathway: Dealing with the border
Posted on 08/14/2002 6:28:34 AM PDT by Tancred
Smugglers pathway: Dealing with the border Mon Aug 12, 3:14 AM ET
Tim Steller , ARIZONA DAILY STAR
Smugglers are endangering this border village and much of the Tohono O'odham Nation by tempting residents with cash for helping move people and drugs, residents say.
The creeping corruption has even overcome some children, who have dropped out of school to join the smugglers' payroll as spies, said resident Ray Mattia.
"These kids get paid a lot of money to watch the roads for them. They sit on the mountains over here," Mattia said, waving to a range east of this village, which is about 100 miles southwest of Tucson.
The same temptations that have co-opted some Menagers Dam residents are available across this vast reservation west of Tucson, which has a 75-mile border with Mexico, said residents and law-enforcement officers. It is the hottest area in Arizona for illegal border crossings, and marijuana seizures are at a record pace on the reservation this year.
Apprehensions of illegal entrants made by the two Border Patrol stations that serve the Tohono O'odham Nation nearly doubled in the first six months of this year over the same period last year, rising from 34,522 to 60,270.
Marijuana seizures way up
In the first nine months of this fiscal year, U.S. Customs Service agents working on the nation have seized more marijuana than in all of last fiscal year, 94,956 pounds compared with 76,285 pounds last year.
"That is a hotbed of activity out there," said Kyle Barnette, associate special agent in charge of customs' Tucson office.
Increases in smuggling activity anywhere create an increased demand for certain services from local residents, said Carlos X. Carrillo, assistant chief of the Border Patrol's Tucson sector. Smugglers are willing to pay locals for stashing illegal entrants or drug loads in their houses, for driving people or drugs across the border or into the interior, and for spying.
Unemployed people are especially vulnerable to the suggestion, Carrillo said. The Tohono O'odham Nation has an unemployment rate of about 25 percent, Chairman Edward D. Manuel said. It also suffers from social ills such as alcoholism, he said.
"There's a lot of people who are willing to do anything - money is the issue," said Wilbert Thomas Sr., a rancher in Vamori, a village about 60 miles southwest of Tucson, who has been overrun by border crossers. "They want the easy money."
A cash incentive
In the most recent marijuana-smuggling case to come out of Menagers Dam, two local men said they were planning to split the $500 they were to be paid for stashing 320 pounds of marijuana in a house, according to a criminal complaint filed against them June 6. One man, Tony L. Mattia (a distant cousin of Ray) said on a financial affidavit that he has nine dependents and hasn't worked since 2000. The other man, Felix F. Aguila, said on a financial affidavit that he hadn't held a job since 1972. Both have pleaded not guilty.
On July 28, Border Patrol agents arrested two Sells residents who were transporting five siblings, including three children under age 9, in the trunk of a Dodge Stratus, according to a criminal complaint filed against them. The driver, Leigh C. Miguel, told agents she was to be paid $800 for the trip, and front-seat passenger Norman J. Johnson said he was expecting to make "beer money," the complaint said. They too have pleaded not guilty.
Teen took up with smuggler
Young women in Menagers Dam have faced temptations beyond money, said resident Katherine Moreno, 64. Smugglers have professed their love, then moved into the village with the women, then used their houses for smuggling people or drugs, she said.
One 18-year-old village resident, Trinette Buterbaugh, took up with a young smuggler from Mexico two months ago, then disappeared across the international line, said her grandmother, Juanita Mattia, who is Ray's aunt.
"She left her newborn baby," said Mattia, 72.
The last time Buterbaugh was seen in Menagers Dam, she was in a pickup that came north up the 3/4-mile, sandy road that connects the village to Mexico, then turned back, apparently checking the road for law-enforcement vehicles, Juanita Mattia said.
"As a community council, we tried to kick these smugglers out, but that didn't work because they have people who will defend them," Ray Mattia said.
What has convinced smugglers to move to the Tohono O'odham Nation and adjacent lands is the focus that the Border Patrol has put on other Southern Arizona corridors, near Nogales, Douglas and Naco, Carrillo said. The "west desert," as the patrol calls the area between Sasabe and Yuma County, is comparatively unguarded.
"You've got some Border Patrol presence, but not a lot, and some of our presence but not a lot," said Barnette of customs agents. "The smugglers have just been taking advantage of our weaknesses."
Vast area to patrol
The Tohono O'odham police have 48 of their 71 officers assigned to patrol the reservation, an area the size of Connecticut, acting chief Richard Saunders said. The department has tried to avoid becoming an enforcer of immigration laws while at the same time responding to community calls about illegal entrants or drug smugglers.
To Ray Mattia and other residents of Menagers Dam, the nation's police haven't been patrolling the western parts of the reservation enough.
"I feel there's no protection here," Mattia said. "We either go to the Border Patrol or protect ourselves."
Saunders told a hearing in Gu Vo last week, "We're doing the best we can with the limited number of people we have."
He and the nation's director of public safety, Richard Clifton, noted that officers may be doing work there that residents don't notice, and that residents do not always learn the results of investigations in their areas.
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The solution, tribal chairman Manuel said, lies in improving roads and fences along the international border on the Tohono O'odham Nation.
"We're trying to get Border Patrol to deploy on the international boundary so they can deter the drug smugglers and illegal aliens that are coming through," Manuel said.
The Border Patrol is limited not just by its numbers but also by the fact that the international boundary established in 1854 cuts across traditional O'odham lands.
System of informal crossings
Under federal law, agents can make tribal members go to the official ports of entry at Lukeville or Sasabe, rather than crossing the border through unofficial border gates on the reservation. But for years agents have allowed tribal members to pass through the gates after questioning them on their tribal status and travel plans, agents said.
"It's up to the agent's discretion to use a little common sense," said Edward "Bud" Tuffly, president of the Border Patrol agents' union local in Southern Arizona.
Tribal members working for the smugglers have taken advantage of that informal system, Ray Mattia said.
"They would come to the border, drop all their people (illegal border crossers) off, come through, and have their people walk around," Mattia said.
Saunders, the nation's acting police chief, said tribal members make up a small minority of smugglers working on the reservation, most of whom are from Mexico or other parts of Arizona. Of 138 drug arrests his department has made since the beginning of the year, 35 were of tribal members, he said.
Role of tribal members unclear
What's unclear is how many of the nation's approximately 17,000 residents have helped smugglers. The main police forces arresting smugglers of people and drugs on the nation are federal agencies, and they said they do not keep records of how many tribal members are among the people they arrest or prosecute.
Even if they did, that figure might be misleading because a traffic stop of a vehicle containing illegal entrants does not necessarily lead to a prosecution or even an arrest.
"We'd stop tribal members all the time with 10 or 15 people in the car. We'd call Border Patrol, and they wouldn't do anything. They would say the U.S. Attorney's Office won't prosecute," said Joseph A. Patterson, a former tribal police officer.
Patterson said he was fired in June 2001 after he punctured the tires of a vehicle parked at Little Tucson, in an effort to keep people-smugglers from using it.
"There are a whole lot of people stopped down there with illegal aliens who over the long run are not prosecuted for smuggling," said John M. France, who was the patrol agent in charge of the Border Patrol's Casa Grande station from October 1995 until February last year.
Limited number of prosecutions
Casa Grande agents patrol much of the Tohono O'odham Nation.
France, who is now the deputy chief of the patrol's Detroit sector, said the reason for the limited prosecutions was that federal prosecutors had such large caseloads they could accept only strong cases.
"The U.S. Attorney's Office vigorously prosecutes alien- smuggling cases," said office spokeswoman Camilla Strongin. But she acknowledged each case is accepted or rejected on its own merits.
During the first five months of this year, the U.S. Attorney's Office in Tucson filed 144 alien-smuggling cases. Over the same period, agents of the Border Patrol's Tucson sector apprehended 187,583 people. That's one smuggling case per 1,303 apprehensions.
Sudden change in lifestyle
Residents of the tiny, isolated villages that dot the Tohono O'odham Nation say they know when a neighbor has gone to work for smugglers, with or without an arrest. Involvement tends to run in families, and it often becomes apparent through their activities, said Delma Garcia, of Hickiwan, a village in the northwestern reservation.
"Every few months someone will be driving a new car - and they don't have a job," Garcia said.
Some face threats
To those residents who aren't co-opted by money, the smugglers issue threats. In the days after April 7, when U.S. Customs Service agents seized 8,500 pounds of marijuana from a Menagers Dam home, a man came into town from Mexico waving a rifle and threatening residents whom he suspected of informing. His targets included 64-year-old Katherine Moreno, she said.
"I told him to go back and tell these mafia people to hurry up and do something before I shoot them," Moreno said.
She and other O'odham who speak out about smuggling among their own people say they are breaking with O'odham custom by airing their complaints. But they hope it is to a productive end.
"A lot of stuff is happening here, and people are not acknowledging it," Ray Mattia said.
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