CU:WI I-GERSK, Mexico (Reuters) - Just as he drove his pickup truck north over the U.S. border, Indian community leader Julian Rivas heard the rasp of automatic weapons fire, then three bullets ripped into the cab and tailgate.
“I just carried on driving ... and I didn’t go back to my village in Mexico,” he said.
Rivas, a member of the Tohono O‘odham tribe, whose ancestral lands straddle the Arizona-Mexico border, is among tribe members from villages in Mexico who say they are being driven out by an influx of violent Mexican smugglers.
The tribe, whose name means “Desert People,” numbers around 24,000 people. Their lands extend from Casa Grande, south of Phoenix, to an area of remote desert north of Hermosillo, the capital of Mexico’s Sonora state, and members cross back and forth through informal “gates” in the border.
In recent years, members in Arizona have increasingly been caught up in the fallout from drug and human trafficking through the sovereign Tohono O‘odham nation, which lies on one of the most active smuggling corridors on the U.S.-Mexico border.
South of the line, in Mexico, tribe members have long been squeezed by a lack of jobs and services, and the number of villages has dropped to nine from 45 in the mid 19th century. Remaining residents complain they are now being harassed by heavily armed Mexican smugglers who have muscled into the area.
The shooting incident, in October last year, together with threats from the armed Mexican newcomers, they say, is forcing already dirt poor residents of the isolated villages to abandon their traditional lands and way of life and flee north of the border.
”The drug trafficking and the violence that comes with it is the last straw for us,“ said Rivas, the community leader of Cu:wi I-gersk, a village in Mexico, who now lives in Tucson, Ariz. ”It is what might finally kill off the communities on the south.
The Tohono O‘odham have lived in the Sonora Desert for centuries before the United States and Mexico existed, speaking their own language, living off the land and following beliefs centered on the natural world.
U.S. border police say the rugged strip in northern Sonora is used by Mexican drug cartels to stockpile hundreds of tons of marijuana, which they run over the line in trucks, on horseback or on foot. Last year alone, the Tucson sector Border Patrol seized 440 tons of the drug.
While tribal lands are safeguarded by the sovereign status of the nation in Arizona, villagers south of the line complain they have suffered land invasions from Mexican ranchers for decades, and now have the smugglers themselves moving into traditional tribal villages of adobe and timber-framed homes to stage drug loads and migrants.
Rivas, 57, said he had lodged complaints with authorities in the Sonora town of Caborca, alleging land invasion from Mexican settlers. He believes the attack on his truck was an attempt to intimidate him by Mexicans who moved to the village, and use it to stage drugs and migrants.
Tribal members, who traditionally harvest saguaro fruit and grow squash, Indian sweet corn and beans, say marauding security squads for the drug gangs roam freely through the ochre patchwork of lands, guarding drug loads and escorting them up to the border line.
While driving over a maze of dusty back trails between Sonoyta and El Sasabe, Mexico, this correspondent was stopped, questioned and searched by a group of six men dressed in camouflage fatigues, toting assault rifles, and wearing drug trade amulets -- an experience which tribal members say is increasingly common in the area.
“Sometimes they dress as soldiers, other times they just come with guns into the traditional villages, which they want to take over for themselves,” said tribal elder Ofelia Rivas, during a visit to Cu:wi I-gersk, which lies a few miles southeast of Lukeville, Ariz.
Following years of grinding poverty and neglect, the impact of the illegal cross-border trade on the once thriving village of Cu:wi I-gersk is stark.
Resident Gregorio Ortiz, 69, remembers a time when more than a dozen families lived in the village -- whose name means “Rabbit Falls” in O‘odham -- planting crops in the sandy desert soil and traveling to Arizona each year for seasonal work on farms.
Now he is the last O‘odham there, a caretaker for 13 empty adobe and timber-framed houses, several of which are now in ruins, the bare ribs of saguaro cactus and mesquite poles poking through sagging roofs and bowed mud walls.
Ortiz lives opposite the dusty square from the church and a newer home with pickup trucks and a tall satellite dish outside, and Mexican neighbors that he is afraid of.
“Everybody knows what they do, but nobody wants to say,” he said speaking in O‘odham through a translator, glancing nervously over his shoulder at a group of men standing out in their yards.
Some tribal members say they would like the nation’s authorities in Arizona to do more to help members in Mexico. But while it is concerned at the situation, the tribal government in Sells, Arizona, said it is limited in what it can do to help those living south of the border.
“The tribal government can’t go in and do anything in that country,” said chairman Ned Norris. “We have to establish a relationship with the relevant authorities, but that’s a long, drawn-out process ... That doesn’t happen overnight.”
Ortiz says his last hope is that ramped up security on the U.S.-Mexico border -- where the Border Patrol is building a vehicle barrier -- will make life so difficult for the smugglers that they will eventually leave.
“It used to be that people would come back and forth with nothing to stop them, and nothing to be afraid of. That’s what I would like to see again.”
Editing by Eddie Evans