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Nowhere to Run

Arizona's Tohono O'odham Indians are dirt poor. Some thought smuggling marijuana was the way to strike it rich. Yet it's only adding to the misery.

January 08, 2006|Don Bartletti

The door to the giant warehouse near the Tucson airport swings open, and a musty-mint blast slaps me in the face like a big, soft mitten. The odor is instantly recognizable: It's pot. Lots and lots of pot.

Inside, neatly stacked bales of marijuana stand like faceless chessmen--the evidence from a game of extremes played out every day along the nearby Arizona-Mexico border. Anthony Coulson, the Drug Enforcement Agency official in charge there, says that as much as 20% of the marijuana brought into the state of Arizona during the last year has been discovered in one location: the Tohono O'odham reservation, where a confluence of abject poverty and the opportunity for a fast buck have come to torment the Indian nation.

In 2000, according to the DEA, some 50,800 pounds of marijuana were seized on Tohono land. By last year, the figure had soared to 192,225 pounds. Other authorities put the number even higher. More and more Tohono themselves, meanwhile, have been caught up in the drug trade. "Young Indians," says Coulson, "carry it over to drop houses" from which the pot eventually finds its way to the streets.

While Indian tribes in other places have hit the jackpot with a lucrative gambling trade, the Tohonos' casino in Tucson has generated little revenue for the reservation residents, and 50% still live in poverty, more than 40% are unemployed and misery abounds. Young people see little in their futures. The day I arrive, 17-year-old Jared Antone is discovered hanging by a rope from a horse trailer, an apparent suicide. The next afternoon, I join his aunt, Verna Enos, at her sister's ranch. Inside the house, in Jared's bedroom, a candle burns on the floor. "We took the bed out to let the spirits escape," Enos says. Outside, near the horse trailer, she struggles to lift her face toward a twilight sky laced with rose-colored clouds.

On a map, the Tohono O'odham Nation sits like a clenched fist between Tucson and the Mexican border. The U.S.-Mexico boundary is a thin, 70-odd-mile bracelet across the wrist. Near the southeast corner of the reservation are the twin gulches of Sasabe, U.S.A., and Sasabe, Mexico. A gas station and a stylish port of entry are the main attractions on the Arizona side. On the Sonora side, a crucifix towers over a migrant's tiny chapel. Lighted at night, it's a beacon in the desert for another unstoppable diaspora that ebbs and flows.

The border here is so flimsy and porous that it defies belief. No wonder that illegal immigrants--many carrying drugs in burlap sacks as a means of paying for their passage--stream across.

One spot, called the San Miguel Gate, is a 20-foot-wide cattle grate. No door, no lock, no guard. Except, that is, for 66-year-old Olivario Listo Enos. He patrols by himself in his dirty Dodge pickup. "At night when my hounds bark, or in the day when dust rises in the south, I grab my guns, jump in my truck and outsmart 'em," Olivario says. "A blast or two over the hood and they stop. When they freeze, I give 'em a choice: 'Your women, your drugs or your keys.' "

Smugglers, he says, always leave the keys. Olivario keeps them in a Ziploc bag, and on this day he shows off 11 vehicles left on his property. "When the Border Patrol comes, they knife the tires so the smugglers won't come steal the cars back," he explains. "When the vehicle department in Tucson declares my cars 'abandoned,' I sell 'em for hay to feed my cattle and working horses."

Most every family, it seems, has been touched by drugs, including some of the reservation's most elite. In September, Tohono O'odham police stopped a 1996 Chevrolet Lumina for speeding and discovered six bales of marijuana under a blanket in the trunk. The driver, 39-year-old Nicholas C. Juan, was arrested and now awaits trial. He is the brother of Vivian Juan-Saunders, the Tohono chairwoman.

He isn't the first member of the chairwoman's family to be caught drug-running. Her sister, Mary Juan, was arrested in May 1999 by U.S. Customs officials after they discovered 15 bales of marijuana stashed in her Pontiac Grand Prix and in a shed on her property. Mary had once been a tribal judge. She was convicted in federal court and spent a year and a day in jail. She's out now, raising her three grandkids--her daughter-in-law, busted with her six years ago, moved off the property.

I find Mary on a parcel that has been in the family for four generations. Standing outside her small, brown stucco house, she withholds her reasons for marijuana smuggling behind a nearly expressionless face. "It's better not to bring up the past," she says. "It makes me think it's happening all over again." As she talks, she wipes a tear from her eye.

When I tell Coulson, the DEA agent, that Mary's place doesn't look like that of a drug dealer, he isn't surprised. "There's little collective wealth from drugs in evidence on the reservation," he says. "Drug running is not enough to get the Tohono out of poverty--but just enough to kill them."

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