Thursday, December 13, 2012

A monumental danger

Southern Arizona’s national monuments have the uneasy reputation of being good places to smuggle drugs and immigrants. Bureau of Land Management law enforcement rangers routinely find trash bags of marijuana stashed beneath mesquite and paloverde trees, piles of muddy, discarded clothes and Dumpsters-worth of empty water bottles, painted black to make them less visible in the sun. They also apprehend immigrants traveling through the monuments and occasionally find the bodies of those who died in the desert.  Once across the border, many migrants and drug smugglers come north through the Tohono O’odham Nation to Sonoran Desert National Monument, just southwest of Phoenix. “This is a place that’s still wild enough to move through,” said monument manager Rich Hanson. In recent years, though, Hanson has noticed fewer immigrants traveling through the monument. Instead, what he sees is trash from drug smugglers: harnesses to carry 40-pound bales of marijuana, cell phones, slippers to hide footsteps and discarded weapons. In 2010, an Arizona deputy sheriff was wounded and two drug smugglers were shot by a rival cartel inside the monument. The Vekol Valley, which runs through the monument from the border of the Tohono O’Odham Indian Reservation up to the suburbs of Phoenix, is a hotbed for drug-related violence. The violence prompted the BLM's chief ranger to propose closing the monument, a request that was denied because he couldn’t prove the violence had reached the level of “extreme danger,” as required by BLM policy (page 21 of this 2010 Government Accountability Office report has more detail). Instead, the agency placed signs outside Sonoran Desert National Monument warning visitors to stay away from abandoned cars and backpacks, and informing them they may encounter criminals and smuggling vehicles speeding through the desert. The BLM discourages visitors from going to the southern portion of the monument, a popular rendezvous for drug smugglers and people hiking marijuana up from the border...more

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