The Tohono O’odham Nation’s traditional land straddles the U.S.-Mexico border, which divides the tribe physically and spiritually. A USA TODAY NETWORK video production.

Joaquin Estevan belonged on both sides. He moved freely across the border, splitting his time between the United States and his tiny tribal village in Mexico. 

He needed to cross again in March, so he hitched a ride and bounced over five miles of desert to the San Miguel Gate, in a remote spot west of Nogales. There, members of the Tohono O’odham tribe are supposed to cross the international boundary between Mexico and Arizona.

A truck waited on the Arizona side to take him into Sells, the capital of the Tohono O’odham Nation. He walked to the gate and showed the Border Patrol agent his purple-and-gold tribal ID card, the piece of plastic that allowed Tohono O’odham tribal members like him to travel across the border.

So began the story that has spread north and south of the border, told in Facebook posts and private conversations. No one person seems to know everything, and versions of the story vary in their details. No official source will weigh in. But every account points to one inciting event: 

The Border Patrol agent turned Joaquin away. 

Joaquin moved west, to a spot where the agent couldn’t see him. There, he walked across the invisible line and knocked on the first house he found. He needed a ride. 

The occupant of the house agreed to help. They headed north, but were stopped by the same Border Patrol agent. The agent approached the window and peered inside. He recognized Joaquin. 

RELATED: Our Pulitzer Prize winning series documenting the border with Mexico

It is at this point that Joaquin Estevan was reportedly arrested and shuttled to Tucson, then Florence, where he would later say he kept to himself because he spoke only O’odham. He waited a few days until he was deported and dropped off in Nogales, Mexico. There, he wandered aimlessly through a city he didn’t understand.

A second story has spread just as fast as the story of Joaquin.

In this one, which began just a few days after Joaquin was deported, something similar happened to his brother, Ernesto Estevan.

Now, activists and tribal leaders have seized upon the incidents as what they say is the most obvious proof yet of the Border Patrol’s increasingly aggressive presence on O’odham land. They call it a violation of tribal sovereignty.

“Why would they want to pick up an O’odham that’s on his own land?” said José Martin Garcia Lewis, governor of the O’odham in Sonora, who said he met with Ernesto in Nogales. “That is our territory.” 

This account of the brothers’ deportations is based on interviews with a half-dozen O’odham border activists and leaders of the tribe’s Mexican population. Posts by a Facebook profile titled “O’odham in Mexico” and a letter written by a governmental group corroborate the interviews.

The brothers could not be reached to tell their stories. Since their deportations, people who know them said, they have returned to their small village of Cumarito. Tribal leaders have deemed the cartel-controlled region too unsafe to visit, and cell phone service fizzles in the mountains. 

Both Border Patrol and Immigration and Customs Enforcement declined to comment on whether the Estevan brothers had been arrested or deported.

The Tohono O’odham Nation did not respond to multiple requests for comment. But in June, tribal Chairman Edward Manuel visited the San Miguel Gate, where Joaquin told O’odham leaders and activists his story.

Manuel later told The Runner, a newspaper based on the reservation, that his government was investigating the apparent arrests.

He warned members of the Tohono O’odham Nation to be careful when crossing the border. 

A history of crossing the desert

The ancient O’odham were a mobile people. When the weather changed, entire villages moved, and that tradition held well into modernity. As late as the 1970s, Sonoran O’odham children awakened early in the morning and waited for school buses to carry them across the border.

Then came politics and drug wars and terrorism. Thick steel beams and thin wires of fence sliced across what was once barren O’odham land. Surveillance towers topped the mountains, sparking fears that people were being watched through the walls. Four-wheelers left deep grooves in the desert. Border Patrol trucks rolled into villages.

In June, one of those trucks turned and struck an O’odham man, who captured the impact on video. Border Patrol and the Tohono O’odham Nation both said an investigation of the accident, which rattled but did not seriously injure 34-year-old Paulo Remes, was underway. 

Cumarito — Kom Wahia in O’odham — sits just a few miles south of the border, but its people are almost entirely cut off from the tribe on the other side. Thousands of people are invisible in two countries: The Tohono O’odham Nation can’t help them, and the Mexican government doesn’t know, or acknowledge, they exist.

The accounts of the brothers’ deportations have deepened that divide. Both groups competing for control of the O’odham in Sonora have accused the Tohono O’odham Nation of ignoring Mexican members. Tribal leaders, the two groups say, chose cooperation with the United States over unity with their own people.

“It’s supposed to protect the sovereign rights of our tribal members. Both in the United States and Mexico,” O’odham activist David Garcia said of the tribe’s government. “But it seems to be for the past 20 years, that the Nation has really taken a backseat trying to do anything for our tribal members. Especially the ones that live in Mexico.”

The Mexican census counts about 300 indigenous O’odham in Sonora, but leaders say there are far more. Though no official count exists, one O’odham-led group is making its way through each indigenous community, counting people in tightly packed urban neighborhoods and far-flung tribal villages.

Its leaders expect to tally at least 3,000 people

Some of those people are enrolled members of the Tohono O’odham Nation, with the right to access services like tribal hospitals, housing and schools. But the tribe can’t send services — or dollars — across the border. To reach them, Sonoran O’odham members have to cross into United States.

“A lot of those people go back and forth,” said Reuben Naranjo Jr., a Tohono O’odham artist and scholar who studies the relationship between the O’odham and the governments that surround them. “We are one people, but the political and legal issues are a huge barrier.” 

So is the linguistic divide. Many Mexican O’odham elders — including Joaquin and his brother, Ernesto, according to people who know them — speak neither English nor Spanish. They understand only their native O’odham, making it difficult to function outside of their tribal communities. An activist who claimed to have spoken to Joaquin said neither brother could understand what was happening as their arrests barreled toward deportation. 

Many O’odham don’t carry passports or possess the paperwork to apply for them. Instead, they travel with their Tohono O’odham Nation ID cards, which allow enrolled members to cross into the United States.

There are no official points of entry on the Tohono O’odham reservation, which includes 62 miles of the border. But members are told they can use their ID cards to cross at the San Miguel Gate, which sits along a traditional O’odham route and crosses the border a few miles west of Sasabe.

Most of the people pass through the San Miguel Gate without issue, even after Mexican ranchers installed a second gate just south of the border. Cars can no longer pass through. Now, people have to walk.

But sometimes, O’odham activists and tribal leaders said, Border Patrol agents don’t recognize their tribal ID cards. Or they pull them aside for sudden searches. Or they call for backup or drug-sniffing dogs, forcing people to wait for hours as help makes it way from Sells.

“They make you wait,” said Nora Cañez, lieutenant governor for the O’odham in Sonora. “It would take you a lot of hours to come through.”

Arrested, lost, retrieved

Four months later, as the brothers’ stories spread among the O’odham, it’s still unclear what would have prompted Border Patrol to stop the brothers, or exactly how they moved through a confounding and overcrowded immigration court system. 

Ernesto, as the stories go, was arrested just a few days after his brother. He left Cumarito on a bicycle, bound for Sells. According to multiple interviews and a Facebook post, one Border Patrol agent waved him through the San Miguel Gate. Another stopped him near South Komelik, about 10 miles past the border.

Like his brother before him, Ernesto reportedly was processed through immigration, and deported into Nogales. The whole process took less than 24 hours. 

He wandered through the streets of Mexico. He had little money, no Spanish and nowhere to stay until a local recognized him as O’odham. The man took him to a shelter and started down a sprawling phone tree. Eventually the calls reached Jose Martin Garcia Lewis, the governor, who was in Caborca for the census. 

The governor drove to Nogales and found the shelter. He recalled that Ernesto, a relative on his mother’s side, seemed healthy. Ernesto told the governor that immigration treated him well, but there was never anybody he could talk to. Nobody could explain what was happening. He heard that a police officer from the Tohono O’odham Nation was on his way, but nobody ever arrived.

Then it was time to go home. Ernesto found a seat on a bus and headed east, toward Altar, where he could hitch a ride to Sasabe. Then he had just five miles home.

He wanted to walk.


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