Mexican Cartels Threaten Arizona's Sonoran Desert

The Sonoran desert, the most biologically diverse desert in North America, is in danger. The violence associated with the illegal drug trade between the Mexican drug cartels and the United States is well-known, especially to those living closest to the US-Mexican border. Stories of strife flood the news reports of such states as California, Arizona, New Mexico, and Texas. However, Arizona in particular has cause to worry due to the drug trade.

The Sonoran Desert and Ironwood Forest are two largely isolated areas of Arizona, and their remote locations have made them ideal paths for the cartels to smuggle drugs from Mexico into the US. Due to the immense size of the Arizonan desert, and the smugglers have need to create pathways; they plow the desert to make illegal roads without heed for the habitat they are destroying.

Additionally, the amount of waste left over by the smugglers is great. All along the paths that have been created through the desert, trash litters the ground and pollutes the environment. During a 7 two-week periods in which rangers made  attempts at finding and arresting the smugglers, over 24 tons of trash was collected—and that is only what they managed to find. Sometimes the land is deliberately polluted, as the smugglers will leave trash bags or water bottles filled with marijuana for the next smuggler to pick up.

The Arizona Bureau of Land Management has been making attempts to halt the progress of drug cartels through the desert, but their methods are scarcely an improvement. The Bureau has built miles of scrap-steel track barriers that cut across vehicle paths typically taken by the cartels. This tactic has been highly effective in stopping cartels from using those paths, but it is also costly and damaging in and of itself. The tracks also come dangerously close to Native American archaeological sites. Environmentalists have said of the situation that while the tracks are less damaging than the destruction of the cartels, it still harms the environment and is the “lesser of two evils.” This solution cannot prove to be long term, as building more and more barriers will only eventually harm the environment as much as the cartels themselves have.

Warnings have been issued to Sonoran Desert visitors of the cartel activity. The area has not been deemed unsafe enough to entirely close it down, but visitors are advised to stay away from abandoned cars and to not visit the landmark during the night. While there has been no report of violence between cartels and visitors in the last 2-3 years, tour groups have often arrived to their destinations only to find the remains of a smuggling encampment, sometimes even recently-abandoned. Rangers report that there has been a decline in visitors to the desert, and many visitors have now begun to carry guns with them for self-defense.

[AZ Central], [Green Chicano]