Authorities recently seized an old yellow school bus full of marijuana on the Tohono O’odham reservation in Arizona, USA Today reports. The 1,867-pound load was worth about $1.8 million on the street. The newspaper says the case “reflected the increasingly brazen tactics being used by Mexican drug traffickers who have overrun parts of this desolate, 2.8 million-acre reservation.”
Driven away from well-traveled border crossings by the tight security after the Sept. 11. 2001, terrorist attacks, some drug traffickers have turned to lightly patrolled Indian reservations. By car, foot and plane, they are sending unprecedented waves of marijuana, methamphetamine and other drugs through the Tohono O’odham reservation. The villages that are home to about 14,000 Tohono O’odham ranchers, potters, and weavers are among stops in a smuggling pipeline that has used reservations in New York and Montana as staging areas for distributing drugs.
Drug traffickers’ use of reservations has frightened residents and has led to calls for the U.S. government to beef up patrols on Indian lands. Tohono O’odham officials estimate they and the Border Patrol stop only about 25% of the loads that pass through here. Reservations “are serving as a (drug) pipeline to major (cities) like Chicago, New York, Miami and Seattle,” says Tom Heffelfinger, the U.S. attorney in Minneapolis. He recently led a meeting in South Dakota at which a dozen federal prosecutors and officials of he U.S. Bureau of Indian Affairs discussed problems with drugs on reservations.
Tohono O’odham officials say traffickers have corrupted their people and polluted their land. Smugglers have left a stream of garbage and abandoned vehicles across the reservation. Since January, tribal police say they have recovered more than 2,500 cars or trucks left by smugglers.
Scott Burns of the White House Office of National Drug Control Policy, says the Tohono O’odham nation’s problem with smugglers is a “disturbing hole” in U.S. efforts to keep drugs from flowing from Mexico. “I would characterize the situation as terrible,” he says. “It’s going to take substantial resources to deal with it.”