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San Manuel tribe teams up with deputies

In an unusual move, chairman turns to San Bernardino County sheriff's officials to rid reservation of crime.

June 23, 2008|David Kelly | Times Staff Writer

HIGHLAND — When James Ramos became chairman of the San Manuel Band of Mission Indians this spring, he inherited serious problems of violence and drugs on the reservation.

Tribal members had been linked to the Mexican Mafia, federal authorities had raided homes and the private security force had been criticized for being too lenient with some members.

Rather than deny or ignore what was going on, Ramos cracked down on crime, making it his priority.

He has asked the San Bernardino County Sheriff's Department to beef up patrols and visibility on the reservation. He has told members that no one is entitled to special treatment.

"We will hold people accountable for their actions," Ramos said, sitting inside the tribe's imposing headquarters. "Our people give the police the benefit of the doubt."

The tribe's cooperation with law enforcement stands in marked contrast to the animosity and distrust that have festered between the nearby Soboba Band of Luiseno Indians and the Riverside County Sheriff's Department.

Last month, deputies fatally shot three Soboba members in gun battles on the reservation near San Jacinto. Tribal Chairman Robert Salgado declared his tribe in a state of war while authorities called the reservation a caldron of illegal guns, drug abuse and violence.

Representatives of the two sides have been meeting behind closed doors for weeks, hammering out an agreement on when officers should enter the reservation, how they should treat residents and how they should communicate.

At San Manuel, Ramos' aggressive approach has earned him threats and round-the-clock bodyguards.

But lines of communication with law enforcement are open.

"We have a very good relationship with the tribe; it's the exact opposite of the Soboba situation," said Lt. David Williams, a San Bernardino County sheriff's deputy who works closely with the San Manuel tribe. "They are happy to have us patrol. The chairman asked us directly if we would spend more time on the reservation to show ourselves."

Deputies also take seminars in Indian law, focusing especially on the nuances of the federal Public Law 280, which gives California authorities the right to enforce local and state law on tribal land.

"They will ask us, 'Where does our jurisdiction lie? Where can we make an arrest? Where can we issue search warrants?' " said Richard Phelps, founder and chief executive of the Falmouth Institute, the Virginia company that conducts the seminars. "It's very complex, and I empathize with law enforcement on either side of an issue."

To avoid misunderstandings, local authorities often tread lightly on reservations, either by not patrolling or by responding only to 911 calls.

"The jurisdiction is so complex because you have Public Law 280 and state law and county law and tribal law," said Manuel Hamilton, vice chairman of the Ramona Band of Cahuilla Indians in Anza, in Riverside County. "It becomes a very difficult situation unless you have the cooperation of the tribe and key law enforcement people."

Ramos, 41, speaks with deputies each week to discuss potential problems or issues. He gives cultural presentations at the local sheriff's substation, even singing traditional songs for them.

"I tell them our whole creation story, how we would migrate from the valley floor to the mountains," he said. "From our standpoint, communication is always the key -- along with mutual respect."

In 2006, the Drug Enforcement Agency raided homes throughout San Bernardino County, including some on the reservation, as part of a crackdown on methamphetamine trafficking. They arrested four people, two of them Mexican Mafia members. Ramos got a restraining order against the father of one tribal member who was arrested, saying he felt his life was in danger.

The raids prompted questions within the 200-member tribe about what was happening on the reservation and why.

"I'm not saying crime is running rampant, but it's a problem," Ramos said. "We have spent a lot of time fighting for Indian gaming, and now we need to turn around and look at how our communities are developing."

Few tribal bands have developed as rapidly as the San Manuel.

Ramos grew up in a crowded trailer on the reservation, which clings to the foothills of the San Bernardino Mountains above Highland. There were only one or two paved roads; everything else was dirt. A hard rain could strand people in their homes for days.

"We used to have a tribal budget of $300 a year," he said.

That began to change in 1986 with the opening of a bingo hall. Then came a card room and, in 2005, a full-fledged casino. The 832-acre reservation is now dotted with sprawling mansions and luxury cars.

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