HOGBACK, New Mexico (Reuters) - A brutal triple slaying in this remote corner of the vast Navajo reservation brought home what experts have seen coming for years: an explosion in crime on tribal lands linked to the cheap, potent and highly addictive stimulant methamphetamine.
"Meth is the biggest scourge," says Francis Bradley, the chief of police for the Hualapai reservation in northern Arizona, located on the high desert flanking the south rim of the Grand Canyon.
"Alcohol is a big issue, too. But when you look at meth, it has a far more devastating effect."
In 2001, the Indian Health Service, the U.S. agency that treats Indians and Alaska natives, recorded 2,980 emergency room visits and paramedic calls on reservations related to the drug, which is also known as speed, crank, ice, crystal and glass.
By 2006, that number had mushroomed to 8,873.
"Alcohol continues to be a bigger destroyer of lives than meth," said James Stone, acting director in IHS's division of behavior. "But meth makes more of an impact because of the, frankly, wild behavior it triggers."
The savageness of the Hogback slayings in November 2005 provided an all-too-vivid illustration of that. The three victims, all tribal members, were each shot multiple times -- one 14 times. The government alleges the four suspects, also tribal members, were meth dealers bent on revenge. All four await trial in Albuquerque on first degree murder charges.
Last year, in the wake of the Hogback killings and other signs of the impact meth was having on reservations, the Bureau of Indian Affairs surveyed tribal law enforcement agencies across the country about drug threats on their lands.
Three quarters identified meth as their No. 1 problem and linked it to a rise in domestic violence, assaults, burglaries and child abuse and child neglect.
"So people are not only destroying their own lives by using this illegal substance, but they're perpetrating new crimes, primarily violent crimes," says Chris Chaney, the deputy director of the office of justice services at the bureau. "That's the even more tragic story. It's drawing in innocent victims."
SPILLOVER FROM OUTSIDE WORLD
The meth problem isn't confined to Indian lands. The drug has been identified by the U.S. Drug Enforcement Agency as the greatest threat to small-town America.
One reason: Unlike heroin and marijuana, meth is easily manufactured using common chemicals found in household products or over-the-counter medicines.
First-time users of the drug, which can be smoked, snorted or injected, experience a long-lasting high and feeling of euphoria and excitement. But long-term use often leads to a dramatic and devastating deterioration in the user's physical and mental health, characterized by anxiety, psychotic behavior, risky sexual behaviors and violence.
But while its use in the general population is falling, it appears to be rising in the 500 Native American tribes from Alaska to New England.
Experts say a number of factors -- including the long use of hallucinogens like peyote for rituals and herbs for medicines by the tribes as well as a more recent problem of alcohol abuse -- help account for the rise in meth use.
In addition, many reservations are located in remote, rural areas. As a result, they are places of underemployment, grinding poverty and reliance on government assistance, where residents live in aged mobile homes or poorly constructed conventional houses.
The bureau's Chaney said there was also evidence that meth dealers are now specifically targeting Indian communities.
"They know that on many reservations there are high levels of substance abuse already," he says. "So some drug cartels figure they can move in and take advantage of that addictive behavior and replace whatever the substance being abused -- alcohol, marijuana or something else -- with meth addiction."
To combat the problem, the bureau has asked for an additional $16 million in its 2008 budget to battle the rise of methamphetamine on reservations. But Dirk Kempthorne, the U.S. Secretary of the Interior, which oversees bureau, earlier this year warned that the problem was approaching crisis. "It has the potential of wiping out an entire generation of Native American youth," he said.
I bet it does.