Interior Secretary: Death Penalty for Drug Dealers Could Involve Tribal Communities

Secretary of the Interior Ryan Zinke on Monday with Edward D. Manuel, chairman of the Tohono O'odham Nation, and Delbert Ray, president of the Salt River Pima-Maricopa Indian Community.
Secretary of the Interior Ryan Zinke on Monday with Edward D. Manuel, chairman of the Tohono O'odham Nation, and Delbert Ray, president of the Salt River Pima-Maricopa Indian Community. Joseph Flaherty
President Trump’s call for the death penalty for drug dealers could extend to tribal communities, Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke said during an Arizona visit on Monday.

In a press conference at the Salt River Pima-Maricopa Indian Community, Zinke described how the Trump administration’s plan to crack down on drug traffickers could be carried out with federal law enforcement along with Native American tribal authorities.

“Nations are a sovereign, so it would have to be in coordination with the nations,” Zinke said in response to a question about Trump's call for capital punishment. “And the president has also identified not every drug dealer is a death penalty, but there are certain cases, no doubt, that would be. But a lot of it is nation-to-nation.”

Prosecutorial standards for suspected drug traffickers should be coordinated between federal officials and tribal authorities, Zinke said.

Zinke was flanked by several Arizona tribal leaders, including Stephen Roe Lewis, governor of the Gila River Indian Community, Edward D. Manuel, the chairman of the Tohono O’odham Nation, and Delbert Ray, president of the Salt River Pima-Maricopa Indian Community.

Also on Monday, during a visit to New Hampshire to address the opioid crisis, Trump said that “if we don’t get tough on the drug dealers, we’re wasting our time.”

“And that toughness includes the death penalty,” Trump added, describing how “some drug dealers will kill thousands of people during their lifetime. And they’ll get caught, and they’ll get 30 days in jail. Or they’ll go away for a year, or they’ll be fined.”

Trump's typical anti-immigrant invective and constant calls for a border wall have filtered into his rhetoric about America's addiction crisis. In his New Hampshire speech, Trump said that the gang MS-13 and sanctuary cities were contributing to the opioid crisis, while his border wall would "keep the damn drugs out."

Zinke seemed to echo the Trump administration's talking points on the opioid crisis during his remarks at the Salt River Community. He said that Drug Enforcement agents, working together with other federal agencies and tribal officers, "shall prevail" in the crisis.

"What I’ve seen is, almost always, the front line is too short," Zinke said. "We don’t have enough law enforcement on the border, we don’t have enough prosecutors."

He described his vision for a coordinated effort by various federal agencies, including the Bureau of Land Management and U.S. Park Police, intended to stamp out drug trafficking in Native American communities: "Among us, I think we can make a pretty big dent."

But Trump's policy proposals for fighting the opioid crisis have been roundly criticized for their punitive approach and an emphasis on strict enforcement, with echoes of the war on drugs.

American Civil Liberties Union director Jesselyn McCurdy said in a statement on Monday that "the draconian law enforcement provisions" from the White House are "unconstitutional and absurd." McCurdy said that the Supreme Court has previously rejected the death penalty for drug traffickers.

“This approach is also disturbingly reminiscent of the war on drugs, which set back American drug policy decades, and codified harm to black and brown people — laws we have just begun to reverse," McCurdy said in the statement.

For his part, Zinke called Trump's leadership on opioids "tremendous."

Zinke also described himself as an adopted member of the Assiniboine Sioux in his home state of Montana; the former congressman was adopted in 2015.

"I've seen the devastation of the great Sioux Nation because of meth, because of addiction," Zinke said. "It's an American issue across the board, but it tends to hit some tribes, some nations worse for a lot of reasons."

Zinke has been in Arizona for the past few days and toured the U.S.-Mexico border on Saturday with U.S. Customs and Border Patrol officers.

Although Manuel, the leader of the Tohono O'odham Nation, joined Zinke at the news conference on Monday, he wrote a letter to the secretary on Saturday that the nation is "formally opposed" to a wall.

"A fortified wall will have substantial negative impacts on the O'odham way of life," Manuel wrote.

The leaders of Native American communities stood behind Zinke as he addressed reporters, but didn’t deliver their own remarks. When asked what they discussed with Zinke in the group’s closed door meeting prior to the press conference, Delbert Ray of the Salt River Community didn’t elaborate.

“The only thing I’m prepared to say at this point is that we welcome the opportunity to be a partner in this issue which affects all of Indian country,” Ray told reporters. “So that’s all I’m willing to say at this point. We have other things that are in the works for our own community."
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Joseph Flaherty is a staff writer at New Times. Originally from Wisconsin, he is a graduate of Middlebury College and Columbia University’s Graduate School of Journalism.
Contact: Joseph Flaherty