Cowlic, Arizona, is little more than a collection of a few dozen ramshackle homes. It has no paved roads, and centers around a small, stone-and-brick Catholic church known for its festive December celebrations of the Virgin of Guadalupe.
Yet the border wall President Donald Trump wants to build could have a big effect on the little village on the Tohono O’odham Nation in Arizona, and residents like Pam Pancho and Rosanna Manuel.
The village of 135 sits about 12 miles north of the Mexican border in one of the country’s most active and troublesome smuggling corridors.
Last year, for instance, gunfire erupted just outside Cowlic when a Border Patrol agent tried to shoot two marijuana backpackers throwing rocks at him. (No one was injured.)
Arrests of undocumented immigrants — often with extensive criminal histories — and drug “mules” in or near the village are common.
The corruption that flows across the border often affects tribal members’ lives.
Pancho works with special-needs students at Baboquivari Middle and High School on the reservation. She has lived on family land in Cowlic for 27 years.
Like most tribal members, she’s not involved in crime and smuggling and has no criminal record. But she is well-acquainted with the problems that leave many other residents vulnerable.
They’ve never given her trouble, though.
Her biggest beef is not with the border-crossers, but with the officers who frequently hassle her and other people in town, “trying to act like heroes,” she said.
She has caught Border Patrol agents peeping into neighbors’ windows. Residents out for a walk get stopped and asked for identification, mistaken for migrants. She’s watched officers arrest migrants on her property, and felt compelled to allow a warrantless search for drugs in her home a few years ago.
“They disrespect the O’odham,” she said of the officers. “We don’t want them here.”
Pancho’s modest home is clean and tidy but too small for all her possessions. Nearly every free space on the floors and walls is taken up with furniture, photos of relatives, artistic sculptures that Pancho made, American flags, and Western décor.
She’s done ranching work for her family and held a number of jobs over the years, living in metro Phoenix for a time.
She came back to raise her two children in the home. They’re grown now, and moved out a couple of years ago. That’s given Pancho a bit more free money; she had just purchased the home’s first air-conditioner and had yet to unbox it.
Her neighbor, Rosanna Manuel, has lived her entire life in Cowlic. She, also, was not bothered by the smugglers and migrants from Mexico.
They were her partners and clients.
Last month, Manuel was sentenced to five years in federal prison for her role in the kidnapping of four migrants.
When she’s released, she’ll likely be back in Cowlic.
By then, things could be very different on the reservation.
WORD OR NO WORD, TOHONO O'ODHAM DON'T WANT A WALL
Would a giant wall really benefit the Tohono O’odham people, somehow slowing the illegal and unwanted border-crossing traffic on their land? Tribal members don’t want it, that’s for certain.
“Over my dead body,” Verlon Jose, the Nation’s vice chairman, said in February about the prospect of the Trump wall. He had borrowed the line from former chairman Ned Norris Jr., who told the press the same thing in 2007 at the prospect of a border wall.
“There’s no O’odham word for ‘wall,’” tribal leaders claim.
Actually, there is an O’odham phrase that means wall, according to published O’odham-language dictionaries: It’s ki:t’ab.
And a ki:t’ab, or something like it, could be just what the reservation needs — because the smuggling scene on the reservation is out of control, and has been for more than 20 years.
It’s destroying the tribe.
Hundreds of O’odham members have been busted in the past two decades for their direct or indirect smuggling activity. The tribe has a total population of about 28,000, but only about 10,000 live on the reservation, and of those, census data shows, more than 1,100 are children younger than 6.
In some of the smaller villages, authorities and members say, all the families have been corrupted.
Tribal members are arrested, serve a term of probation or prison, then return to the reservation and start their criminal activities anew.
The crimes may require punishment, but they’re often understandable. O’odham people are some of the poorest in the United States, earning an average of less than $9,000 a year.
On the other side of the border is a multibillion-dollar industry that needs their help.
Cartel cash is very tempting.
Adding to the problem is that O’odham youth may be introduced to street-gang culture that persists on the reservation, potentially making them even more susceptible to border-related crime.
But the problem is actually worse than all that. The O’odham reservation is ground zero for one of the greatest humanitarian crises in the United States.
Since 1999, according to pro-immigrant activist groups Humane Borders and No More Deaths, at least 2,871 bodies of migrants or smugglers have been found in the deserts of southern Arizona.
Of those, about 41 percent were discovered on the O’odham reservation. Yet its border with Mexico comprises only 20 percent of Arizona’s total 362 miles of border. At least two dozen bodies were found on private or federal land just north of the reservation, according to a Humane Borders map.
Without question, the wall also would have negative impacts that the tribe hates.
A wall would finish off the division of the ancient O’odham lands that began with the signing of the Gadsden Purchase in 1853, for instance. It would impede the access of animals and people across an area that they have used for thousands of years.
Very few people who know history or have visited southern Arizona want to see President Trump’s “big, beautiful” wall erected along every ecologically sensitive mile. Polls show that even most people in Arizona, a state arguably more affected by border problems and illegal immigration than other states, stand against Trump’s version of the wall.
However, the question of more fencing, with larger walls where appropriate, remains very much on the table for most conservatives — and even some liberals.
When Homeland Security Secretary John Kelly visited four of Arizona’s border sheriffs earlier this year, naturally, the three Republican sheriffs seemed unopposed.
But even the Democratic sheriff of Santa Cruz County, Tony Estrada, voiced support for a wall along some stretches of the border.
Nevertheless, the most politically charged place to put a wall would be along the 62-mile stretch south of the reservation. But that may be where the need is the greatest.
THE KIDNAPPING: FOUR PEOPLE WANDERING THE DESERT
In mid-January, three Guatemalans — two women and one man — and one Mexican woman spent several weeks wandering the southern reaches of the reservation after crossing the border illegally.
They were among the thousands of people who have tried to smuggle themselves into the United States already this year.
Walking through the vehicle barriers that line the O’odham border with Mexico had been the easy part. But the four became hopelessly lost.
On January 31, the group was on the verge of dying from exposure and dehydration.
They emerged from the brush near Sells, a town of nearly 3,000 and the capital of the T.O. Nation.
Just south of State Route 86, on Indian Route 19, is the reservation’s grocery store in Sells, a Bashas’.
On a corner of the parking lot, entrepreneurial tribal members set up outdoor grills and sell carne asada tacos and other food to the workers in businesses in Sells. It’s one of the more popular places in town, especially around lunchtime.
To the four desperate migrants, it must have looked like paradise.
At random, they approached one of the vendors, Francisco Ruelas-Penas, and begged for help.
Ruelas-Penas gave them burritos and sodas, and said he knew “someone he trusts” who could help them, according to court records.
He called Rosanna Manuel.
Fifteen minutes later, a blue SUV pulled up to the corner.
Manuel drove the group about 10 miles south to her property in Cowlic. There, she told the migrants to get inside a one-room building, which they did.
She locked the heavy wooden door from the outside.
ABOUT 2,000 TOHONO O'ODHAM STILL LIVE IN MEXICO
Of course the idea of a border wall disgusts the O’odham people.
A wall would physically separate the O’odham in Arizona from about 2,000 O’odham who still live in Mexico. It would be only the latest humiliation in the sad story of European conquest over native tribes.
For thousands of years, the O’odham have lived and worked in an area that ranged from what is now Casa Grande to the Gulf of California. Then came the Spanish invasion, Mexican rule, and the U.S. war with Mexico, which resulted in the Gadsden Purchase and the artificial borderline drawn through the O’odham’s ancestral lands.
The borderline does have an upside for the O’odham, arguably: The United States gave (in fits and starts) the O’odham a truly massive piece of land to run as a sovereign Indian state. On the Mexico side, O’odham have no reservation or special rights.
A barbed-wire fence was installed on the reservation’s border in the 1930s to keep cattle from crossing into Mexico. It was the main border marker until about 20 years ago, when life for the O’odham took a sharp and unwanted turn.
Ramped-up border enforcement in the 1990s, combined with more fencing and walls on the border in other places, funneled much of the smuggling traffic onto the more-remote, less-defended reservation.
Sometimes, in some areas, the place is hopping with local and federal police, the ubiquitous green-and-white Border Patrol trucks, ATVs, helicopters with searchlights, blimps, drones, an elite smuggler-hunting unit called Shadow Wolves, and BORSTAR rescue vehicles.
But at most times, and in most places, of this vast, near-wilderness zone, the smugglers and migrants have it all to themselves.
The reservation “is such a remote area that there is virtually no chance of detection by law enforcement,” the Phoenix head of the Drug Enforcement Agency, Doug Coleman, told a Congressional subcommittee in 2012.
The Secure Fencing Act of 2006 supplied money to install vehicle barriers on the O’odham border. Before those went up, smugglers drove across the border into the reservation with impunity. Thousands of destroyed — usually stolen — vehicles were found on the reservation.
Many tribal members didn’t — and still don’t — like the barriers, but the consensus is that they’ve been effective.
That is, they allow the passage of people and animals, but not vehicles.
Now, members have to contend with the possibility of Trump’s planned border wall. The executive action signed by Trump days after he took office in January calls for a physical structure to be built the entire length of the U.S.-Mexico border. But he flip-flopped on his plan to make Mexico pay for the wall.
Congress has been unwilling to scrape up the cash for the wall, estimated to cost nearly $22 billion. The administration is pushing ahead with designs for the wall. Trump himself even suggested putting solar panels on the wall to help recover costs.
O’odham leaders and members, meanwhile, have engaged in a public-relations campaign to defeat the idea.
They’ve appealed to a generally friendly news media over the issue, and invited President Trump to the reservation. (He didn’t go.)
In March, members picketed the Tucson office of Senator John McCain in protest. The next month, T.O. Nation activist and member David Garcia spoke briefly about the issue at the United Nations in New York City for the 10th anniversary of the U.N.’s Declarations on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples.
The Center for Biological Diversity and Arizona U.S. Representative Raul Grijalva sued the federal government in April, alleging that the feds have already failed to conduct proper environmental studies for heightened security apparatus on the border. They also express alarm about Trump’s January executive action.
Unless Trump is impeached, though, it’s plausible that a wall plan — in some form — is likely to move forward under his administration.
O’odham leaders vow to halt any construction with a Standing Rock-style protest and civil disobedience. The National Congress of American Indians, which helped organize the Standing Rock pipeline protest in North Dakota last year, is promising to help the T.O. Nation fight the wall.
Tensions of late also resulted last month in tribal members closing a border road to the Border Patrol. It was reopened after a day of negotiating, according to Judicial Watch.
In the long run, resisting more physical structures and enforcement could have a significant downside for the O’odham people and Mexican migrants.
If more fencing or a wall go up in some of the easiest-to-cross border areas in Arizona, but not on O’odham lands, more smugglers and migrants would be pushed onto the reservation.
The result might be more corruption and death.
STATISTICALLY, SOME OF THE SAFEST AREAS IN ARIZONA
I drove across much of the reservation in the past few months for this article, examining border areas and villages, and chatting with numerous tribal members.
Pam Pancho was among several people who advised me not to intrude on villages at night. She said she was surprised I came “all the way out here,” because it could be dangerous and “some families are mean.”
In scoping out border areas, I took consolation from the fact that, for non-migrants, the deserts of southern Arizona are some of the safest areas in the state, statistically.
Fear of the border areas has been whipped up for years by Republican politicians like former Pinal County Sheriff Paul Babeu. The 2002 murder of Organ Pipe National Monument Ranger Kris Eggle and the 2010 murder of rancher Robert Krentz seemed to support the idea that some of southern Arizona is a no-man’s-land best avoided.
However, the Pima County Sheriff’s Office, charged with investigating crimes in rural areas just east of the T.O. Nation, reports very few crimes in any remote desert area its deputies cover. The agency noted only one violent crime reported in the desert between the reservation and Interstate 19 in the past six months. The victim was a migrant who had been assaulted and robbed near Sasabe in February.
The Tohono O’odham Police Department, which has about 70 state-certified officers total, is responsible for investigating crimes on the reservation. Although the department refused to release any information for this article, violent crimes on the reservation involving visitors or tourists are sure to make the news — and none have, at least in recent years.
On the other hand, for migrants and smugglers who have an incentive not to contact law enforcement for any reason, the risk of falling victim to a crime is extreme.
On one border road I visited, near the San Miguel Gate west of Sasabe, a Border Patrol agent later found an injured, bloody Honduran man. He told agents he’d been shot three days prior in Mexico before squeezing through the upright steel poles that serve as vehicle barriers.
As I reported in January, I did see something very unusual on the Mexican side of the border in my travels.
At the end of Indian Route 19, south of the border in Mexico, are fields of dust, wildcat dirt roads, weeds, and thickets of mesquite. A small hut with a porch a few hundred yards south of the vehicle barriers is the only visible structure.
At 4:30 p.m. on January 28, two beige, military-style Hummers rolled up to the hut, their beds full of armed men in camouflage. They hopped out near the hut and formed a cordon around the area, holding assault rifles at the ready.
Other men then unloaded large cases or duffle bags from the Hummers and moved them into the hut with handcarts. They drove off a few minutes later, never showing concern for the Border Patrol van parked just north of the border.
Mexican authorities, not to mention O’odham leaders, refused to comment on the activity, which suspiciously resembled a drug load being planted for later smuggling across the reservation.
“That was the cartel,” said an O’odham food-cart vendor at the Bashas’ parking lot in Sells when asked about the men in camo.
'I'VE LIVED IN TOWNS BEFORE. I'D RATHER BE HERE'
The place names of the villages of the inner O’odham are exotic and beg for exploration: Topawa, Gu Oidak, Ali Chuk, Itak.
To a cynical city dweller, the locales appear depressed and despondent.
Dilapidated homes are standard, as are structures without roofs or four walls that seem like ruins. Poverty, alcoholism, and drug use are rampant among the population.
Gang-type graffiti scrawled on walls across the reservation seem more appropriate for an inner-city setting, creating an aura of lawlessness and delinquency.
Tribal members invariably talked of their great love for the peacefulness and solitude of rural life, and the attempt to adhere — at least somewhat — to traditions of old.
Their property in Gu Oidak — also known by its English name, Big Field — is in the reservation’s south-central area. The half-dozen homes and cemetery in the vicinity are surrounded by miles of rolling desert plains and arroyos, often covered in a fine sand locals call “moon dust.”
The couple declined to give their names. “We don’t do much. We just get by with what we can, when we can.”
A long drive down miles of dirt roads and sandy washes from Big Field took me to the village of Kupk. There, I met another tribal member who was friendly enough but also declined to give his name.
Similar to Pam Pancho, the man, who appeared to be in his early 60s, said he moved back to the reservation some years ago following various life paths in other parts of the state. He lives in a two-room home that appears to have been constructed partly with found materials.
With the help of his brother, he is building a new home for himself — not much bigger — a few hundred yards away. The new dwelling is still just a shell, but the man hopes to live his remaining years in it, following the himdag — the O’odham way of life.
It’s a gorgeous spring day, and no vehicles drive by during the 45-minute chat. He doesn’t have any kids, he said, but he hopes some of his nieces and nephews who live in the Tucson area come out to visit — and catch the bug he now feels for the land.
“It’s quiet — you don’t got no neighbors to bother you,” he said. “I want to spend the rest of my life here.”
But there’s potential danger even in ultra-rural Kupk, he acknowledged.
Although the village is about 15 miles from the border, cartel smugglers and migrants pass through regularly — about twice a month these days, he said. The traffic has slowed noticeably since Trump was elected, he said, and he’s seen more Border Patrol activity this year.
“You see them all with their backpacks — you know they’re doing something, they’re hauling. I don’t want them here,” he said. “I try to avoid that. I’m going to feed the little fuckers when they come through here, because I know they’re hungry. I know they’re thirsty, and I hope they just keep going. A lot of them are so tired, so weary, they just want to go back home.
“There should be more security — but not a wall.”
He’s never heard of O’odham members being attacked by smugglers, he said. But a few years ago, “a lot” of cartel people came into Kupk and tried to bully his uncle into letting them stay in his house. They offered his uncle money.
It was hard for the uncle to resist, he acknowledged.
“There’s no jobs, nothing,” the man said. “They tell you to do something, they pull out the money. It’s an easy thing to take.”
When I mentioned I planned to continue on backroads north to Pisinemo, the man said, “the villages you’re going to go by, most of them are into it. That’s their easy money. It’s just sad.”
THE KIDNAPPING: ROSANNA MANUEL WANTED RANSOM
Rosanna Manuel and an unidentified man held the three women and one man for two days in Cowlic, slipping food and drink under a crack in the door to their makeshift cell, federal court records state.
The migrants were given a cellphone and told to call their relatives. The kidnappers wanted $6,500 from each person. In return, they promised to drive the migrants to Tucson or Phoenix.
“We didn’t know if they were going to kill us — we didn’t know what to think,” one of the migrants later told a judge in a recorded statement. “There were a lot of things that signaled that there were other people that had gone through this in there and not just us. There was no light, no water, there was not even a can where we can use the restroom. They treated us like animals. The lady just thought about the money and not our lives.”
The migrants negotiated the ransom down to $200 each and had some money wired to Manuel’s niece, who then paid Manuel. The niece wasn’t charged with a crime.
Court records also describe in detail the plight of Manuel, who — like too many other O’odham — has experienced a life of personal tragedy, poverty, alcoholism, and repeated crimes.
“The government acknowledges that she has had a difficult childhood,” an assistant U.S. attorney wrote to the court in May. “Her [diagnosed] depression is poorly served by the lack of resources available on the Tohono O’odham Nation.”
Manuel’s court-appointed federal public defender, Jon Sands, noted that the 42-year-old woman had lived her entire life in Cowlic with her siblings and single mother as a “chronically unemployed” alcoholic. Her extended family were all diabetic, and many had committed suicide or served time in prison, records note. She was helping to raise her three grandchildren because her daughter was in jail.
“It is undeniable as far as Indian Country is concerned that there are unique historical and cultural factors which continue to resonate,” Sands wrote.
Prosecutors allowed her to plead guilty to the reduced charge of transporting illegal aliens for profit, and as mentioned, she got five years in prison.
Ruelas-Penas’ jury trial is scheduled for August.
Manuel, clearly, has been corrupted by the cartels. Prosecutors in her case noted in court paperwork that her smuggling history extends back to 1998.
On at least three occasions, she’s been suspected of, or prosecuted for, smuggling migrants and engaging in conspiracies to transport hundreds of pounds of marijuana through the reservation.
COOPERATION WITH DRUG CARTELS, FEDS SAY
The Manuel case is one of many examples of how T.O. Nation members sometimes cooperate with drug cartels.
At the Homeland Security Investigations office run by Erik Breitzke in Sells, more than half the investigations involve tribal members.
Brietzke tried to downplay the figure, saying that the reservation comprises the largest population of his coverage area, which runs from Sasabe to the Yuma city line.
Still, a change for the worse has undoubtedly taken place.
In 2009, an official with the Tohono O’odham Police Department told the Arizona Daily Star that in 1991, essentially all of the people arrested for smuggling on the reservation were non-tribal members. By 2009, 60 percent of them were tribal members, according to Sergeant David Cray.
The reservation’s police department and tribal leaders declined to be interviewed and, in fact, refused to release any information or statistics for this article.
In another recent case involving tribal members, 10 were arrested in February for allegedly bringing food and supplies to cartel scouts hiding in strategic locations on the reservation. The scouts camp out for weeks at a time when drug shipments are planned, scoping law-enforcement personnel with binoculars and phoning their cartel contacts if trouble is coming.
Three of the 10 — Nicole Havier, Fawn Eveningstar Manuel, and Jackie Ann Garcia — had records for marijuana smuggling on the reservation.
Court paperwork makes clear that the conspirators had the help of unindicted family members in various villages.
“It’s a much bigger social issue than a wall,” said a non-tribal-member educator at one of the local high schools.
She could not give her name because she was not authorized to speak to the press.
“I don’t know the answer, but I am hugely respectful of what our O’odham community is saying,” she said.
Local schools partner with the Border Patrol to explain to kids how not to get involved in gang and cartel culture.
Elders in the community have long been concerned, but a lot of residents in their 20s and 30s now express fear for the safety of the younger generations, the educator said.
“They’ll tell you that [they] know that there’s a problem, and they know their children are being affected by it, and they know it’s unsafe,” she said.
“There’s just a lot of things at stake when you even think about building a wall here,” she said. “It plays into so many levels of what I would call disrespect.”
Others on the reservation are adamant.
“It’s not going to happen,” Devans Chavez of Sells said about the wall. “We’re going to fight.”
Chavez’s family runs small cattle ranches near the border and has relatives on the Mexico side who work with him, allowing the cattle to drink from water sources south of the border during drought years on the reservation.
He worries how he would continue to work and visit with his Mexican relatives if Trump’s wall goes up. He worries it would affect deer hunting, which supplies his family with meat during the winter.
Yet according to some experts, the wall could help the impoverished tribe, too.
Art Del Cueto, vice president of the National Border Patrol Council and a host of the popular podcast Green Line, advocates treating the T.O. Nation like other border areas and putting up barriers similar to the tall fencing seen in places like Nogales and Naco.
Del Cueto said he believes the O’odham reservation is “trafficked more than other areas” on the border, and that statistics such as the percentage of corpses found on the reservation support his theory.
“If they put more significant barriers in other areas and they ignore that particular area, it’s doing a major disservice,” he said. “It would funnel the traffic [onto the reservation].”
Del Cueto said more needs to be done for the T.O. Nation, and to help fight illegal immigration and drug smuggling.
“The people that live out there — they deserve better,” he said.
ACTIVIST: 'ITS ABSOLUTELY A CONCENTRATION CAMP'
In the mid-2000s, some tribal leaders opposed the addition of vehicle barriers along the border and were skeptical they would help.
Now, leaders credit the barriers as instrumental in achieving an 84 percent decline in the number of undocumented immigrant apprehensions on the reservation in the past 10 years, from about 51,000 in 2008 to 14,000 in 2016.
“The most significant reduction came with the implementation and completion of the vehicle barrier,” the brief states.
The same brief criticizes the Trump plan, saying “a wall simply won’t work.”
But 10 years from now, maybe tribal leaders will be boasting of another marked reduction in human or drug smuggling — either because of Trump’s wall, more fencing, or more security measures in general.
Not that O’odham activists like Ofelia Rivas would ever be caught praising border barriers and more boots on the ground.
On a fence in front of her home in the village of Ali Chuk, about a quarter-mile north of the border, a sign warns Border Patrol agents keep out unless they have a warrant.
“It’s absolutely a concentration camp,” Rivas said of the current border-enforcement scene. “It’s a violation of our human rights.”
Rivas is concerned about the possibility of Trump’s wall, but remains focused on the 15 Integrated Fixed Towers approved for the T.O. Nation as part of the $700 million Arizona Border Surveillance Technology Plan, which calls for 52 total towers. The towers are packed with radar and high-tech cameras that Rivas believes will invade her privacy.
“We are completely under 24-hour surveillance if these towers go up,” she said, adding that she is furious at tribal leaders for allowing the plan to move forward. “We just need to change our system of government, so the people can see that we have strong leadership. … The first thing is to remove the Border Patrol from our land.”
PAM PANCHO FEELS SADNESS FOR ROSANNA MANUEL
Pam Pancho said she never heard the commotion of the undocumented immigrants breaking out of Rosanna Manuel’s property in the village of Cowlic.
The Manuel family lives on the south side of the village, and while everyone in the village knows each other,
Pancho said she isn’t close with them.
Still, she felt some sadness that her neighbor had been involved in something so serious.
“She was a good lady,” Pancho said.
But she knew Rosanna Manuel was a problem drinker.
“People get rowdy,” she said. “We stay away from the families that abuse alcohol.”
Pancho opposes Trump’s border wall mainly because she believes it will be a waste of taxpayer dollars.
“You will always have bootleggers and drug dealers,” she said. “If it does go up, it’s going to come down. Just as other walls have.”
THE TRIBE FINALLY RESPONDS
“At no point has the Nation considered a fortified border wall to be a viable border security solution, as it will permanently impact cultural, religious and domestic practices. In addition, a wall makes no sense, as border crossers have shown using tunnels, ladders and even catapults to overcome the walls and fences that already exist at many points along the border.
“The Tohono O’odham Nation firmly believes that substantive change will only come with comprehensive immigration reform, and a lowering of U.S. demand for illegal narcotics. In the interim, the Nation will continue its extensive efforts to ensure the safety and security of its members and the United States, and will continue to work with local, state, and federal partners to find constructive ways to address border security issues.”