Twenty-one members of the Mescalero Apache Tribe are facing federal or tribal charges following an 18-month investigation into methamphetamine trafficking on the reservation.
The investigation, launched in May 2014, yielded criminal charges against a total of 34 individuals, including 13 non-Natives. Spearheaded by the federal Drug Enforcement Administration and the Bureau of Indian Affairs, the investigation initially targeted a drug trafficking organization led by a member of the tribe. It later expanded to include two other drug trafficking organizations that allegedly supplied methamphetamine for distribution on the reservation.
Eighteen defendants, including five members of the Mescalero Apache Tribe, were charged in six indictments and a criminal complaint filed in the U.S. District Court for the District of New Mexico. Sixteen additional tribal members are charged in criminal complaints approved by the Mescalero Apache Tribal Court.
The charges come after a spike in violent crime “caused by users of methamphetamine,” U.S. Attorney Damon Martinez said during a press conference Monday. Methamphetamine has a “disproportionate devastating impact” on tribal communities, accounting for as much as 40 percent of violent crime on reservations.
The investigation, designated as part of the Justice Department’s Organized Crime Drug Enforcement Task Force, was one of the first to utilize wiretaps in Indian country. More than 10 kilograms, or about 22 pounds, of methamphetamine was seized over the course of the investigation.
Drug-related crimes have taken a toll on this 720-square-mile reservation in south-central New Mexico, said Danny Breuninger, president of the Mescalero Apache Tribe. Located about two hours north of El Paso, Texas, and the Mexico border, the reservation supports a population of about 5,000 people.
“The feds are not disclosing the origin of the drugs, but I think it’s safe to say that more than likely they originated in Mexico,” Breuninger said. “Meth has been here for the last 10 years and it has gradually, progressively become worse, to the point where now it’s affecting quite a number of our young adults and teenagers.”
Breuninger said the reservation is plagued with instances of violent crime and suicide, as well as other health issues, including birth defects traced to women using meth while pregnant. He believes the federal investigation went into high gear following the brutal beating of a 13-year-old girl on the reservation several years ago.
“Two male subjects were high on meth,” he said. “The girl survived, but she’s still recovering from her injuries. That was the kind of catalyst that sent a strong message to federal officials that we have some very serious issues in respect to meth use among our young population.”
The reservation is reeling from the indictments – and the long-term effects of meth, Breuninger said. He said the drug has “poisoned and devastated” the tribe.
“I think the investigation and the arrests have been a wake-up call for a lot of our members,” he said. “But as far as the effects of the drugs, we’re like any other Indian nation today. We’re struggling to maintain our culture, language and identity, and this influence is coming in and attacking us.”
Meth is at the root of a “no-win” situation that is much bigger than the Mescalero reservation, Breuninger said.
“I look at other reservations across the country, and we’re all facing this as a group,” he said. “It’s in big cities, small towns and villages. Mescalero is certainly not immune.”
The tribal members indicted on federal drug charges of distribution of methamphetamine are Alvino L. Saenz, 49; Glen Joel Lester, 38; Wallace Rice Jr., 44; Lorenzo Y. Saenz, 51; and Rona Antone Morin, 44. Alvino Saenz and Lorenzo Saenz were arrested on December 11. Rice is in state custody on unrelated charges. Lester and Morin have not been arrested and are considered fugitives, according to information from the U.S. Attorney’s Office.
Thirteen additional tribal members are charged in tribal court with conspiracy and possession of methamphetamine.
Assistant U.S. Attorney Terri Abernathy of the U.S. Attorney’s Las Cruces, New Mexico, Branch Office is prosecuting the federal cases, and Mescalero Tribal Prosecutor Alta Braham is prosecuting the tribal cases. When reached by phone this week, Braham declined to comment on the case