Monday, November 30, 2009

Mexican pot gangs infiltrate Indian reservations in U.S.

In keeping with a recent theme to the blog posts, I offer a second chapter to my earlier post regarding crime on Native American reservations, this Wall Street Journal article on how Mexican marijuana growers have taken up shop on the more rural Native American reservations. According to the article, tighter border control has lead Mexican drug dealers to move closer to their prospective customers. Until recently, their favorite hiding places were national park lands and national forests. While this is still a growing trend (the article states that officials raided pot “grows” in 61 national forests in 2009 up from 49 in 2008), drug enforcement is finding an alarming increase in major marijuana operations on Indian land. In Washington State, more than 225,000 pot plants were seized on Indian land in 2008, a ten-fold increase from 2006.

The Mexican drug cartels are picking Indian land for a few simple reasons: it’s closer and cheaper to produce their product and get it to market, many reservations have a sizeable itinerant population that includes migrant agricultural workers, and reservation economies are so bad many Indians, as well as illegal migrant workers, are getting paid to tend the crops. The police chief of the Warm Springs Indian Reservation (located in central Oregon, the reservation is 1,000 sq. miles over half of which is forested, with a population of around 3,700), stated that the cartel operating on the reservation was paying its "tenders" up to $2,000 a month. As the article points out, these payments have created an economy in these rural areas where few employment opportunities exist. Last year, Warm Springs law enforcement confiscated 12,000 pot plants, with an estimated value of $10 million dollars. Given the median annual salary of most rural Native Americans is $6,667, the drug jobs could be considered extremely desirable employment.

Photo: pot “grow” on tribal land in Washington

Perhaps the most important aspect for the cartels is the extreme rural nature of many reservations accompanied by a dearth of law enforcement. For example, the Colville reservation in north central Washington covers 1.4 million acres, has a population of around 5,000, but only 19 tribal police officers. On the Yakima reservation in south central Washington (2,185 square miles with a population of around 31,000), drug runners are believed to have planted hundreds of acres of marijuana and have even begun running weapons back to Mexico. The gunrunning from tribal lands in Washington has become so prevalent, Washington now ranks fourth in the Nation behind Texas, California, and Arizona, respectively.

Photo: Tribal lands are often so rural, helicopters must be used to get to the “grows.”

The article offers no answers. Answers may be more difficult to find than the marijuana. Is more federal involvement needed? This could create serious problems with jurisdiction and tribal sovereignty. Is the answer simply more money? More money for tribal law enforcement and better tribal economies would certainly help but these reservations are so vast and so rural, the cost of enforcement may exceed the benefits of that enforcement. Would legalizing marijuana perhaps be the answer? It may bring these cartels out into the open, or perhaps the legal market would destroy the need for these illicit operations much the same way the end of prohibition was the death knell of the rumrunners.

No comments: