On summer nights, the Pueblo of Zuni, in western New Mexico, looks like any other place in rural America. Kids run and play near the streets as twilight deepens. Dogs lounge in yards or chase trucks. There aren’t many stores, but some people sell popcorn or slushees out of their houses.
It seems incongruous in this setting to see a car pulled to the side of the road and surrounded by the flashing lights of a half-dozen Bureau of Indian Affairs drug enforcement vehicles and local police. But it’s about to get more common, now that the BIA has set up a High Intensity Drug Trafficking Area (HIDTA, pronounced HI-duh) on New Mexico’s Indian lands.
In many ways, Indian country is a magnet for drugs. Part of that has to do with the remoteness of reservations, and the slimmer chance, in theory, of getting caught. Limited economic opportunities can also make the drug trade attractive on a local level. And Mexican cartels consider reservations to be prime real estate. They bring in their purest meth, for example, if they think it’s going to a reservation.
“They see the casinos. They see Indians getting free money from the government,” says Edward Thompson, Navajo, a special agent out of the BIA in Albuquerque. “They want people addicted on their first hit.”
The sobering fact is that on pueblos and reservations, where families and communities are so cohesive, even small amounts of drugs can wreak havoc.
A Zuni police officer inspects drugs found during a traffic stop just outside Zuni Village, including “bindles” of cocaine packaged for sale.
Thompson helped start the New Mexico HIDTA several years ago, based on the Navajo Nation’s highly successful Drug and Gang Unit. He says it’s going to take strength in numbers – a function of tribes working together – to push back against drug trafficking organizations and the destruction they bring to tribal communities.
“The risk is to the future generations,” Thompson says. “We’re not going to have culture, traditions, dances, songs.” He worries about the kids he meets on reservations who are stoic and hardened because of parents and grandparents addicted to drugs. He wants kids to be able to grow up like he did, playing war in ditches and riding horses, and “not worrying about people coming up to me and asking me to get high or drunk.”
Congress created the HIDTA program with the Anti-Drug Abuse Act of 1988. There are 28 areas across the country where the program has recognized exceptional problems with drugs and drug trafficking. A handful of other HIDTAs – in Washington, Arizona, Oklahoma, North Carolina and New York – overlap with reservations and involve some tribal collaboration. But the upstart Indian Country Drug Task Force in New Mexico is the first to focus exclusively in Indian country.
“The idea is to get the tribal officers oriented into working with the drug task force, which is not only enforcement and investigations, but also prevention,” said William McClure, Salish Flathead, the special agent in charge for the BIA’s Office of Justice Services in Albuquerque. “The goal is to empower the community and the tribes to be more independent and to eventually work the drug cases without relying on the federal agencies.”
Albuquerque-based BIA officials have formally teamed up with six Indian communities: the New Mexico pueblos of Zuni, Ohkay Owingeh and Pojoaque, the Ysleta del Sur Pueblo out of Texas, the Jicarilla Apache Tribe in New Mexico, and Ramah Navajo, a non-contiguous section of the Navajo Nation in New Mexico.
Until now, the pueblos and tribes have often lacked the resources to tackle drug problems on their own. The BIA has more resources, such as K-9 units, GPS technology and extensive legal and technical training. But the BIA, with limited drug agents across Indian country, hasn’t had the manpower to bring those resources to bear against the drug trade that’s wrecking reservation communities.
Through the New Mexico HIDTA, the BIA has conducted seven operations so far among the pueblos and tribes that have signed on to the task force. The BIA brings its vehicles, drug dogs and high-end technology. Pueblo police host the agents and provide some of their own officers. Together they spend two, 12-hour shifts out in the community, educating community members, receiving tips, and scanning the highways for signs of drugs. So far they’ve confiscated 251 grams of meth, about two and a half ounces of marijuana, 30 grams of cocaine and 10 grams of prescription pills. That wouldn’t be a remarkable haul for even one night in a big city, but it’s significant on Native lands.
During one recent bust, on a Friday night just outside the Zuni village, officers initially stopped a suspect for a cracked windshield. They were thrilled to find 22 grams of coke, some of it packaged for sale, and about a half-ounce of marijuana.
“No, it’s not the motherload,” said BIA Special Agent Charles “Sammy” Carroll, Choctaw and white. “But in these small communities, that was going to go to some kids. Obviously he has already sold some. He’s got a pocket full of money.”
Eventually, the plan for the task force is to transition to bigger busts.
“The concept behind this is to work in the communities from the inside out, identify low-level street dealers and move out,” said McClure. “Some of these networks have been linked to the cartels in Mexico.”
Suspects busted during a task force operation will face charges under both tribal and federal law, which may send a stronger message to other would-be drug traffickers than tribal charges alone. Early indications are that the communities recognize and appreciate the difference. Aunties and grandmothers are occasionally pulling the officers aside, thanking them and giving away tips about other drug activity nearby.
Ivo, a BIA drug dog, alerts on drugs found in a suspect’s vehicle during a traffic stop.
Community outreach is a sizable part of what the task force does. Aside from traffic stops that lead to searches for drugs, the officers talk with community members and even take the drug dogs into schools for show and tell. During end-of-shift briefings, the officers’ tallies are only partly about the drugs they found.
Lyle Benally, Navajo, a BIA officer and canine handler out of Ute Mountain Agency, had a favorite bust from the night at Zuni.
“Out of all the calls we had, it was the only call we went on where we got a thank you, two loaves of bread, red chile stew and a warrant,” he said.
Between stops, the BIA and pueblo officers acted like any other officers, taking breaks to eat and trade stories and jokes. After the cocaine bust, the BIA officers poked fun at Zuni for harboring users of cocaine, which has been displaced by more modern drugs like meth in most of the rest of Indian country.
“Next time we come out here, you’re all going to have mullets,” one of the BIA officers quipped.
Carroll thinks that kind of camaraderie will serve communities well, especially in areas where the same roads serve multiple Indian nations. “Out here, Ramah Navajo’s problems are Zuni’s problems, and Zuni’s problems are Ramah Navajo’s,” he said.
McClure said he hopes to see participation grow as pueblos and tribes warm up to the idea of collaborating. “Right now, we’re still working with some of the tribes to contract,” he said. We tell them, even if you’re not formally signed up with us, but you see you have an issue, we will have our task force members come up and address whatever issue that is.”
He said the Pueblo of Okhay Owinge, north of Albuquerque, signed on to work with the HIDTA after the BIA sent up Carroll’s Criminal Highway Interdiction Team, dubbed “the CHIT,” for a two-day operation there.
“The communities supported it so much that they asked us to come back,” McClure said. And it’s a good thing for the program when that happens: “Without the support of those participating tribes, we wouldn’t get anywhere.”
BIA agents and Zuni police search a suspect’s car during a traffic stop just outside the Zuni village.