WINDOW ROCK, Ariz. - After two years of investigating and arresting those who illegally bring alcohol on the Navajo and Hopi reservations, federal prosecutors say it's time to use other approaches to tackle the problem.
U.S. Attorney for Arizona Paul Charlton said he thought his office, along with federal and tribal law enforcement officers, have done a good job of putting people who transport liquor to the northern Arizona reservations on the defensive. The third major bust in the past two years as a result of the "Operation Bootleg" investigation resulted in the arrest of 23 residents of the Navajo Nation last week.
And, Charlton said that Navajo police have noticed that liquor-smuggling activity has decreased each time an undercover operation was completed.
But now, it's time for new strategies.
"We're going to start focusing on the suppliers," said Charlton, referring to liquor stores just outside the boundaries of the Navajo Nation and to businesses that sell liquor in nearby Arizona cities like Flagstaff, Page, Winslow and Holbrook.
That promises to be a much more challenging task.
Prosecutors hope that they can impress upon public agencies like the Arizona Liquor Control Board to lift the licenses of those who sell alcohol with impunity to bootleggers.
They hope that their powers of persuasion can convince alcohol manufacturers to show corporate responsibility and not distribute huge amounts of liquor near reservation boundaries.
Prosecutors hope that they can prove cases in the future that liquor retailers and wholesalers have violated statutes by knowingly selling liquor to people who they know will illegally resell the alcohol on reservations.
But, for now, the U.S. Attorney's office can point to the arrest of more than 50 bootleggers during the past two years. The nearly two dozen people arrested last week during this leg of Operation Bootleg lived in the three largest communities on the Navajo Nation - Tuba City, Kayenta and Window Rock.
Those arrested for unlawful dispensing of intoxicating liquor were Sylvia Smith, 45; Frank Boone, 35 and Leo Sagoney, 41 of Kayenta and Cynthia Nez, 27; Louise Benally, 43; Ray Yazzie, 43; Nadine June, 52; Pauline Hurley, 51; Ernest Yazzie, 32 and Joe Ray Jr., 40 of Tuba City. Three other Tuba City men - Kevin Leslie, 39; John Nez Jr., 41 and Steward Nez, 39 - were arrested for selling alcohol in violation of their probation
Also, Lucinda Spencer, 29; Joyce Martinez, 52; Ruby M. Begay, 63; Charles E. Etsitty, 20; Leona Rose Lee, 33; Alfred Bennie Lee, 61; Christopher Haudley, 20 and Mary L. Foster Tom, 42 of Window Rock were arrested on the bootlegging warrant.
The undercover operation netted two others - Elvin Luna, 33 and Danette Yazzie, 27, both of Kayenta - for distribution of marijuana. Arrest warrants also have been issued for three other people, said Joe Lodge, an assistant U.S. attorney.
Navajo President Joe Shirley said the arrests were timed to coincide with the start of the Navajo Nation Fair and to show the tens of thousands of people who attend it that they are safe.
"I believe targeting bootleggers will reduce the cycle of violence bootlegging brings to the Navajo Nation from domestic violence to sexual abuse to murder," Shirley said. "Working together with the state, county and federal government, we will be successful targeting bootleggers and those in the surrounding communities who sell alcohol to those who unlawfully bring alcohol on Navajo land."
Alcohol has been cited as the primary factor in the soaring violent crime rate on the three-state Navajo Nation, the nation's largest reservation.
Lodge said that 40 percent of violent crime nationally on the nation's Indian reservations happens in Arizona's five northern counties and that almost all of that crime happens in Navajo and Apache counties, where most of the Navajo Nation is located.
During a press conference in Window Rock on Aug. 29 to announce the bootlegging arrests, Charlton cited three recent high-profile cases on the reservation which illustrate the ongoing problems with alcohol.
In the August 2001 carjacking and murder of two men near the community of Round Rock, one of the defendants, 25-year-old Gregory Nakai, admitted to being drunk at the time, according to court records. He was sentenced last month to seven consecutive life sentences. During Nakai's sentencing, U.S. District Court Judge Frederick Martone said that drug and alcohol problems on northern Arizona's reservations are "pernicious and almost unique in my experience."
In another incident last October, a Navajo man, Larry Wilson, who had a blood-alcohol level nearly five times the Arizona legal limit of .08, crossed the center line of U.S. 180 near Red Mesa in the Four Corners area while traveling 95 mph and collided head on with a retired California dentist and his wife, killing both instantly. Wilson was convicted of second-degree murder and sentenced to nearly 11 years in prison last month.
Two Navajo bootleggers, Anita McClellan and Violet Curley, were convicted of beating and kicking a woman to death in February 2001 and then celebrated by buying and drinking more 30 beers, according to court records. McClellan was sentenced to 17 years and Curley 13 years in prison earlier this year.
Roger Dokken, a longtime assistant U.S. Attorney and state prosecutor in northern Arizona, said studies indicate that half of the members of the Navajo Nation don't even drink at all, a percentage much higher than the national average.
"But among those who do drink, there's a problem of episodes of binge drinking and the complete lack of social control by those people who are around them," Dokken said.