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O'odham police bust coke-smuggling ring

Crackdown is called largest of its kind by tribal authorities

Tohono police take down cocaine smuggling ring
Anonymous law enforcement photo of law enforcement officers from Tohono O'odham Police, Bureau of Indian Affairs and the FBI executing warrants at homes in Sells on Saturday morning that resulted in the arrest of 10 people in connection with a cocaine smuggling ring.

Tohono O'odham police arrested nine tribal members and one other person Saturday in connection with a cocaine smuggling ring.

Officials are calling it the largest drug enforcement operation in the Tohono O'odham Nation's history.

The early Saturday morning sweep of seven homes in Sells marked the culmination of a five-month, multiagency investigation that was led by the Tohono O'odham Police Department, said U.S. Attorney's Office spokesman Wyn Hornbuckle.

It was the first time tribal police officers have executed federal warrants on the Tohono O'odham Nation, said Dennis Burke, U.S. attorney for Arizona.

Tribal police recently completed training given by the U.S. Attorney's Office and the Bureau of Indian Affairs that certified officers to investigate and make arrests on federal charges, which are stiffer than tribal charges.

Burke called it a watershed moment for drug enforcement on the Tohono O'odham Nation, which stretches across 75 miles of U.S.-Mexico border and is one of the busiest drug smuggling corridors in the country.

"At the end of the day, what this says is: 'Dealing drugs on Indian country is not a safe haven,' " Burke said.

Eight of the 10 arrested face federal charges of possession with intent to distribute cocaine. If convicted, those eight would each face a maximum penalty of 20 years in prison.

Two others were arrested on state and tribal charges. Two more people whom police couldn't find Saturday are wanted on federal intent to distribute cocaine charges.

Officials now plan to interview the suspected drug smugglers in an effort to gather more information about where the drugs are coming from, how they're being smuggled north and who they are connected with south of the border.

"It will lead up the chain one way or another," Burke said.

During the investigation, which began in December, undercover agents made 39 cocaine purchases weighing a total of 250 grams from targets of the probe, authorities said.

During the Saturday sweeps of the homes, officers seized two guns (an assault rifle and a pistol), 10 vehicles, nearly 45 grams of cocaine, four computers, two big-screen TVs and marijuana and ecstasy, Hornbuckle said.

Burke credited the leadership of Tohono O'odham Nation Chairman Ned Norris Jr. to make the investigation happen.

In recent years Norris has expressed concern about the increase in the number of tribal members being lured into drug smuggling by offers of quick, easy money and little threat of punishment.

The percentage of suspected drug smugglers arrested by Tohono O'odham police who are tribal members has increased sixtyfold in the last two decades, tribal police say.

"The illegal actions by a select number of individuals have put the entire community at risk," Norris said in a news release. "We will not tolerate this unlawful behavior, and we will not tolerate the violence that accompanies it."

Suspects face array of charges

Eight tribal members, all of Sells, were arrested on federal charges of possession with intent to distribute cocaine:

• Eric James Escalante, 32.

• Terrance Keyonnie, 30.

• Christopher Cody Lewandowski, 26.

• Lawrence Michael Lopez, 36.

• Aleron Sean Martinez, 27.

• Mary Lou Moristo, 51.

• Vivian Sila, 50.

• Ronna Widener, 24.

Two others were arrested on state and tribal charges:

• Augustine De La Rosa, 26, (non-tribal member) arrested on outstanding state warrant.

• Jeremiah Antone, 19, arrested on tribal charges of marijuana possession.

Contact reporter Brady McCombs at or 573-4213.

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