Navajo Nation bootleggers targeted by feds

Published July 31, 2008

Albuquerque, New Mexico (AP) A tribal officer walking around the two-bedroom home in Many Farms on the Navajo Nation spotted 12 boxes of malt liquor stacked in the closet. Around the corner in the living room, there were three empty boxes.

It’s illegal to sell or drink alcohol on the reservation, but tribal officials say that doesn’t stop bootleggers from setting up shop and selling alcohol at highly inflated prices to tribal members.

“I think a lot of them have been well established throughout the years, and they’ve been making money on the side as far as bootlegging goes,” said Navajo police Sgt. Wallace Billie.

Billie estimates there are at least a hundred bootleggers on the reservation. A dozen were arrested July 12 as part of a joint investigation by Navajo police, the FBI and the U.S. attorney’s office in Arizona.

U.S. Attorney Diane Humetewa during July announced the arrests as part of a four-month investigation into bootlegging, which officials say fuels violent crimes on the reservation. The hope is that the investigation will help curb child abuse, domestic violence and homicide cases on the reservation, she said.

“We’re committed to these ongoing investigative activities and using our federal resources to put an end to what we see as a hugely contributing factor of violent crimes,” she said at a news conference in Flagstaff, Ariz.

The Navajo Nation has limited resources to catch bootleggers or other criminals, with fewer than 375 officers covering the reservation’s 27,000 square miles. Members of the tribe’s Drug and Gang Unit took part in undercover operations to catch bootleggers.

Navajo President Joe Shirley Jr. said there are 3,000 to 4,000 alcohol-related arrests on the reservation each year. Tribal officials have said that about 40 percent of adult Navajos have an alcohol problem.

“I’d like to believe one of these days we’re going to be free of it,” Shirley said.

Previous investigations by the FBI and Navajo police have rounded up methamphetamine dealers, and Humetewa said tribal police and prosecutors subsequently reported a decrease in property crime and assaults.

Of the violent crimes referred to Humetewa’s office by Arizona tribes, about 99 percent involve alcohol or drugs, she said.

Six of those accused of bootlegging over the weekend are women and six are men. They range in age from 32 to 69. Bootleggers often haul cases of malt liquor, beer, wine and cheap booze from towns bordering the Navajo Nation and sell it out of their homes or vehicles and at flea markets, Billie said.

“A lot of people don’t have transportation on the reservation,” he said. “We have a lot of foot traffic that is coming into these individuals’ places to purchase the liquor.”

While Navajo police can charge bootleggers under tribal law, the chances an offender will be sentenced are slim because the reservation lacks jail space. Conviction on a federal charge, on the other hand, carries a maximum penalty of a year in prison and a possible fine of up to $100,000.

Billie said the effort to catch bootleggers isn’t over.

“There’s more out there,” he said. “There’s a whole lot more.”

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