Mexican Transnational Criminal Organizations’ Exploitation of the Sonoran Desert and the Tohono O’odham Nation

Alejandro AhumadaAmericas, Blog, Public Diplomacy

Mexican Transnational Criminal Organizations’ Exploitation of the Sonoran Desert and the Tohono O’odham Nation

September 8, 2019 | Americas | Written by [molongui_byline]

The article below was published in the Spring 2019 edition of Active Measures, IWP’s student journal. 

This paper will discuss the Mexican Transnational Criminal Organizations’ (TCOs) use of the Sonoran Desert in order to smuggle illegal drugs across the United States-Mexico border, specifically between the Tohono O’odham Nation’s portion of the Arizona and Sonora borders.

Sonoran Desert

This section will cover the geographical, meteorological, hydrological, and anthropological characteristics of the Sonoran Desert. Purposeful omissions from the overabundance of information gathered will be discussed in the conclusion of this paper.

Geographical and Meteorological Characteristics

According to the Arizona-Sonora Desert Museum (ASDM)[1] (2018):

“(t)he Sonoran Desert as currently defined covers approximately 100,000 square miles (260,000 sq. km.) and includes most of the southern half of Arizona, southeast California, most of the Baja California peninsula, the islands of the Gulf of California, and much of the state of Sonora, Mexico.” Refer to Figure 1– The Sonoran Desert Region.

The Sonoran Desert is particularly interesting in its representation of all the world’s biomes[2]. Tundra, coniferous forest, temperate deciduous forest, grassland, chaparral, desert, thornscrub, and tropical forest can all be found in the Sonoran Desert[3]. Forrest Shreve, an internationally renowned botanist, divided the Sonoran Desert into multiple vegetative subdivisions[4]. The currently accepted subdivisions are the Lower Colorado River Valley, Arizona Upland, Plains of Sonora, Central Gulf Coast, Vizcaino, and Magdalena subdivisions[5]. The Lower Colorado River Valley and the Arizona Upland subdivisions occupy the Arizona-Sonora border region of the Sonora Desert. Refer to Figure 2- Subdivisions of the Sonoran Desert.

Lower Colorado River Valley. The Lower Colorado River Valley is the largest, hottest, and driest subdivision of the Sonoran Desert[6]. The landscape is composed of “mostly broad, flat valleys with widely-scattered, small mountain ranges of mostly barren rock”[7]. The temperatures in this subdivision can exceed 120°F (49°C), with surface temperatures approaching 180°F (82°C)[8]. There is “intense solar radiation from cloudless skies on most days” and very low humidity[9].

Arizona Upland. The Arizona Upland subdivision “contains numerous mountain ranges, and valleys narrower than those of the Lower Colorado River Valley subdivision”[10] . The Arizona Upland subdivision “is the highest and coldest part of the Sonoran Desert”[11]. The Arizona Upland is the only Sonoran Desert subdivision which experiences frequent hard winter frosts[12].

Hydrological Characteristics

Lower Colorado River Valley. The Lower Colorado River Valley subdivision follows the Lower Colorado River into the Gulf of California[13]. According to the ASDM (2018), the driest locations of the Lower Colorado River Valley average less than three inches of rain per year (76mm), where other localities have gone three years with no rain.

Arizona Upland. The Arizona Upland subdivision has two equal rainy seasons which can amount to a total of twelve inches per year on average[14]. The Gila, Salt, San Pedro, and Santa Cruz rivers flow through the north and northeast of this subdivision.

Anthropological Characteristics

The large territorial expanse of the Sonoran Desert encompasses many towns, cities, and native lands within it. The Tohono O’odham Nation and its issues with Mexican TCOs’ illegal drug smuggling will be the focus of this section.

Tohono O’odham Nation. According to the official web site of the Tohono O’odham Nation (2018), “(t)he lands of the Nation are located within the Sonoran Desert in south central Arizona. The largest community, Sells, functions as the Nation’s capital”. The Tohono O’odham Nation’s “(b)oundaries begin south of Casa Grande and encompass parts of Pinal, Pima and Maricopa Counties before continuing south into Mexico”. The Tohono O’odham Nation includes approximately 28,000 members, with a federally-recognized reservation of 4,460 square miles[15]. The Tohono O’odham Nation straddles a 75 mile-long portion of the Arizona-Sonora border, which accounts for almost four percent of the United States-Mexico border[16]. Refer to Figure 3-Arizona High Intensity Drug Trafficking Area.

Drug Smuggling Issues. The Tohono O’odham Nation is “increasingly becoming ground zero for the Border Patrol on the Arizona-Mexico border”[17]. The National Drug Intelligence Center (NDIC) (2010), a now-defunct intelligence agency whose responsibilities were absorbed into the Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA) in 2012, took notice of the issues arising in the Tohono O’odham Reservation. The NDIC (2010) observed, the Tohono O’odham Reservation as:

“a primary entry point and transit zone for illicit drugs and related criminal activity in the… region. Vast stretches of remote and sparsely populated desert on the reservation are mostly unprotected and difficult for law enforcement to adequately patrol. As such, it is expected that Mexican DTOs[18] will expand their use of tribal lands to facilitate cross-border drug smuggling operations”.

According to the Tohono O’odham Department of Public Safety (2017)[19], “(f)rom 2002 to 2016 the Tohono O’odham Police Department and US Border Patrol working together have seized on average over 313,000 pounds of illegal drugs per year”. This has led the Tohono O’odham Nation to spend an average of $3 million annually for nearly two decades; all the while spending approximately 60% of its police force’s time on border-related issues[20]. This is supported by seizures statistics of the Lukeville and Sasabe Ports of Entry (POE)[21], the POEs to the west and east, respectively, of the Tohono O’odham Nation. Between 2004 and 2008 Lukeville POE seized 19,000 kilograms of marijuana, Sasabe POE seized less than 2,000 kilograms, while the Tohono O’odham Nation seized more than 416,000 kilograms in the same time period[22]. According to the DEA (2017), Mexican TCOs exploit not only the vast remoteness of the Tohono O’odham Nation but the “highways that connect the reservation to major metropolitan areas”[23]. However, Mizutani (2013) states the United States federal government attributes 30% of the drug trafficking between 2004 and 2009 to have been committed by Tohono O’odham Nation members[24].

Composition of Mexican TCOs smuggling through the Sonoran Desert. The Sinaloa Cartel[25], and its subsidiaries like the Guzman-Loera and the Zambada-Garcia Organizations, control approximately ninety percent of the drugs that cross the border into Arizona[26]. The Sinaloa Cartel maintains “cell heads in Phoenix, Arizona to oversee the distribution of illegal drugs in the region”[27]. The cell heads “also coordinate the transportation from Phoenix to various U.S. cities where cell heads are responsible for receiving and distributing the shipments in each city”[28]. The Sinaloa Cartel employs different methods of smuggling, from the basic backpack, to concealing illegal drugs within produce, using drones, catapults, even to the use of their infamous tunnels[29].


The Tohono O’odham Nation’s population was split by the 1853 Gadsden Purchase between the United States and Mexico[30]. However, the line in the sand didn’t prevent its members from coming and going for sustenance, employment, and even practicing their religion[31]. After the 9/11 terrorist attacks, the proactive stance taken by the United States Government began hindering the easy access of members to their lands within the United States[32]. Mizutani (2013) notes the difference of the Tohono O’odham Nation and the Pascua Yaqui Tribe which gives an “Enhanced Tribal Card (ETC)” to its members[33]. According to Mizutani (2013), the ETC “…allows registered members of the tribe to cross the border without a passport…”[34]. However, “…issuance of this ID does not fully enable all Yaqui people to visit the other side of the border”[35]. Furthermore, “(t)he Yaqui people of the Mexican side do not receive benefits from this ETC system” and “…individuals with Yaqui identity reside on the U.S. side yet are not eligible for tribal enrollment…”[36]. To compound the issue, there is no equivalent for Tohono O’odham Nation members that are living in Mexico, essentially isolating Tohono O’odham Nation members in Mexico without access to their families, religious ceremonies, and their federally recognized lands.

President Donald J. Trump’s call for a wall between the United States and Mexico in order to prevent illegal immigration and illegal drug smuggling is a deeply personal and impactful matter for the Tohono O’odham Nation and its members. The already difficult passage between the United States and Mexico for Tohono O’odham Nation members in Mexico will become an almost impossible exercise. Enrollment in the ETC program, as the Pascua Yaqui Tribe has done, will alleviate the travel challenges to an extent. However, as there is no equivalent documentation in Mexico for its dozens of recognized indigenous groups, the problem will require a transnational solution. But, an important matter to also consider is Mizutani’s (2013) research showing that 30% of the drugs seized on the Tohono O’odham Nation between 2004 and 2009 were smuggled by Tohono O’odham Nation members[37]. This issue is exacerbated by the 31.6% unemployment on the reservation (AZDHS, 2018).

Possible Courses of Action and their Ramifications.  The current emphasis on southern border security raises many potential “fixes” with minimal efforts to understand the long history of the region and the long-standing effects that may rise. The following are possible courses of action and their ramifications that take into consideration the geographical, historical, and cultural factors.

Port of Entry Aboard the Tohono O’odham Nation. The Tohono O’odham Nation is currently flanked by the Lukeville and Sasabe POEs, to the west and east respectively. However, there is no legal POE across the border from Mexico into the United States on the Tohono O’odham Nation. The construction of a POE close to the Papago Farms area could be used as a centralized location for only tribal members to enter for tribal affairs. This POE could be used to develop the infrastructure further and help create jobs as well. However, a POE in this area may draw illegal smuggling from those claiming Tohono O’odham Nation membership living in Mexico.

Enhanced Tribal Card for Tohono O’odham Nation. Implementing an Enhanced Tribal Card (ETC) for Tohono O’odham Nation registered members, in conjunction with a POE aboard the Tohono O’odham Nation, or in its own right, will increase legal traffic in and out of the reservation. This will lead to a decrease in unemployment and the impetus of Tohono O’odham Nation members to assist Mexican TCOs in their drug smuggling.

Tribal recognition in Mexico. The recognition of tribal affiliations in Mexico is currently not practiced. However, if there is to be an ETC to be given to Tohono O’odham Nation members in the United States then members in Mexico would also require ETCs. However, if ETCs are given to one tribe then the Mexican government would need to increase its recognition, preservation, and assistance to the indigenous peoples of Mexico.

Use of Tohono O’odham Nation members as Auxiliary Reservation Police Officers. The issue of unemployment on the Tohono O’odham Nation is a key factor leading members to participate in drug smuggling. Tohono O’odham Nation members who are unable to secure work on or off the reservation could be extended the opportunity to work as Auxiliary Reservation Police Officers to assist with securing the border with Mexico. The Tohono O’odham Nation would be able to decrease the smuggling into its tribal lands and gainfully employ its members by offering the opportunity to qualifying volunteers.

Status Quo. The current state affairs, while unpleasant and potentially dangerous, retains the sovereignty of the Tohono O’odham Nation. The Tohono O’odham Nation has had to bear the brunt of countless man-made changes to their tribal lands. The possibility of cutting off tribal members living in Mexico from their religious sites in Arizona will only inflame the members of the reservation and create an easily avoidable issue. The building of a wall crossing the 75-mile long border it shares with Mexico will further isolate its members from their lands.

Ramifications. Mexican TCOs will find innovative ways to penetrate the United States’ and the Tohono O’odham Nation’s security to export their products. The addition of a POE could potentially give Mexican TCOs a centralized point to blackmail or threaten tribal law enforcement in order to cross through. Also, Mexican TCOs could use ETC carrying Tohono O’odham Nation members in Mexico to continue smuggling their drugs.


Mexican TCOs will exploit every weakness in the drug interdiction efforts of US law enforcement entities. Exploiting the high unemployment rates and below-poverty-line members of the Tohono O’odham Nation will continue. The issue of preventing illegal smuggling by these members may not be as simple as providing gainful employment. The current border system exacerbates an environment ripe for criminality by not providing lawful Tohono O’odham Nation members entry into their lands in the United States. Walton (2018) reports that on February 15, 2018, 48 pounds of cocaine and 204 pounds of methamphetamine all worth over $1 million were seized at the Nogales POE, 40 miles east of the Sasabe POE. Though the problem is exacerbated by tribal members aboard the Tonoho O’odham Nation, illegal smuggling continues to be strong in other areas of the Arizona-Sonora border. Ultimately, this issue may become another status-quo matter which will not reach a resolution one way or the other.

[1] Arizona-Sonora Desert Museum quote attributions will be abbreviated to ASDM.

[2] ASDM.

[3] Ibid.

[4] Bowers, 1988; ASDM.

[5] ASDM.

[6] ASDM.

[7] Ibid.

[8] Ibid.

[9] Ibid.

[10] Ibid.

[11] Ibid.

[12] Ibid.

[13] Encyclopedia Britannica

[14] ASDM.

[15] About Tohono O’odham Nation.

[16] Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA) 2017 National Drug Threat Assessment (NDTA); National Drug Intelligence Center (NDIC), 2010.

[17] Todd Miller, “Ground Zero: The Tohono O’odham Nation”, North American Congress on Latin America (NACLA),

[18] See footnote 1.

[19] Tohono O’odham Nation’s YouTube video quoted its Department of Public Safety.

[20] Tohono O’odham Department of Public Safety, 2017.

[21] Arizona has six land POEs on the US-Mexico border (CBP, 2018). They are, from west to east, San Luis, Lukeville, Sasabe, Nogales, Naco, and Douglas (NDIC, 2010). The most trafficked is the Nogales POE (DOT, 2018).

[22] NDIC, 2010, pp 6.

[23] Pp 139.

[24] pps 174-175

[25] According to Steller (2011), the last remaining “true” cartel is the Sinaloa Cartel.

[26] NDIC, 2011, pp 4.

[27] DEA, 2017, pp 2.

[28] Ibid.

[29] Ibid, pps 6, 7, 80, and 112.

[30] Tohono O’odham, 2017, YouTube video.

[31] Ibid.

[32] Ibid.

[33] Pps 172-173.

[34] Mizutani, 2013, pp 172.

[35] Ibid.

[36] Ibid.

[37] Pps 174-175.