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Gangs Overwhelm Remote Navajo Nation Town

Robin Lester, Sandra Henry and Grace Shonie sell fry bread at the Piñon flea market. They say they are fed up with the lack of law enforcement.
(Photo by Laurel Morales- KJZZ)
Robin Lester, Sandra Henry and Grace Shonie sell fry bread at the Piñon flea market. They say they are fed up with the lack of law enforcement.

In recent months two rival gangs have overwhelmed a remote town on the Navajo Nation. The community epitomizes the desperation many Navajo people feel due to the lack of adequate law enforcement.

Piñon, Arizona sits right in the middle of the Navajo Nation, a reservation the size of West Virginia. The dusty town is only accessible by dirt roads and has no police station or jail.

At the local flea market, Grace Shonie and her daughter make and sell fry bread under a large blue tarp.

“When you call the cops they never show up,” Shonie said. “And it takes three to four hours before they come down. You’ll be dead by the time they get here.”

Shonie’s daughter Sandra Henry has had more than one brush with violence. She and her 11-year-old son recently stopped at Bashas', a local grocery store, for chips and soda after school.

“He wanted to stay out in the vehicle so I left my truck parked out there,” Henry said. “But just when I walked in they locked down Bashas and they said there was a shooting out there. And I said ‘wait my son’s out there!’ They’re like, ‘no you can’t go out there.’ I’m like, 'oh my God. My son’s sitting in a truck and this guy’s shooting around Bashas'' ... It was scary!”

Henry said a local finally tackled the shooter. She and her son left before police could get there. Another time Henry and her husband pulled over to help someone they thought had car trouble. It turned out to be a truck full of teenagers with guns.

“My husband’s like, ‘hey are you OK? You need help?’” Henry said. “This one guy’s like (makes sound of cocking gun). That really freaked me out. We ended up hiding and running around our vehicle, while those people shot at us.”

Everyone in Piñon has a story.  Several Navajo elders came to a recent community meeting to hear what was being done about the violence.

“Piñon is the most dangerous place on the reservation,” said an elderly Navajo woman who was too fearful of gangs to use her name. “In early days, it wasn’t like this, but right now it’s scary to go places. I stay home I do rug weaving.”

“Everybody knows how thinly stretched out we are,” said Sgt. Gary Grandson, who can’t help but laugh.

There's one officer for every 130 square miles of the sprawling Navajo Nation, a total of 210 officers.  And, as violence has increased,  more police have handed in their badges. The Navajo Police Department has lost almost 100 officers in the last five years -- a third of its police force. 

Grandson said gang members seem to know where they are all the time.

“They have access to scanners,” Grandson said. “They have people who look out for them.”

Gangs are an import from the big cities, Grandson said. Young people leave the reservation, go to Phoenix or Los Angeles, get involved in gangs there and bring them back to their Navajo communities.

With 50 percent unemployment on the reservation, the easiest way to make money is to sell drugs or bootleg alcohol.

“We have meth,” Grandson said. “We have marijuana. And we are starting to see heroin out in our area and, of course, alcohol.”

Grandson said they need more officers and more prosecutors. Right now, the area prosecutor is on leave. Jail space is limited, so the best they can do is arrest someone and hold him for 24 hours. So Grandson said it comes down to the families.

“The bottom line, there’s not a lot for the kids to do,” Grandson said. “I mean, we don’t have facilities available to the kids where they can go for basketball something simple like that or a library center.”

Mother of five Sandra Henry said that’s a poor excuse.

“Most of the time you gotta do things with your kids as they’re growing up,” Henry said. “Go haul wood, take them camping, go herd sheep, go after the cattle, the horses. There’s a lot of things to do on the rez.”

The Navajo Department of Corrections Director said the Piñon police substation is in the design stage, but the tribe still lacks funding to build it.

Laurel Morales was a Fronteras Desk reporter in Flagstaff from 2011 to 2020.