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Cocopah tribe backs federal directive to remove shipping container wall in Yuma

Representatives with the Cocopah Indian Tribe say they support a recent move by the federal government directing Arizona to dismantle a wall of shipping containers in Yuma. Governor Doug Ducey ordered the containers be placed along a section of the border near the Morelos Dam earlier this year. Now some 120 containers lay double stacked on a Bureau of Reclamation road there to create a makeshift wall.

Some of those containers are on the road in the Cocopah reservation. 

“The containers are on Bureau of Reclamation land, to the east of that is tribal land,” said Paul De Anda, the tribe’s director of public safety. “The roadway belongs on federal government property, but we have access to it because it’s within the sovereign boundary of the tribe.”

Jacklynn Gould, regional director of the Bureau of Reclamation,  sent a letter to Arizona officials this month saying the containers were placed without authorization, and trespassed on federal land.

“The key thing for us is what the Bureau of Reclamation wrote, and they made it very clear that where they’re situated is in violation of the federal government," De Anda said. 

Tribal authorities also use the road regularly. De Anda estimated with the addition of the containers, only about 20 feet of it is usable now. Cocopah Emergency Manager Mike Fila says his department worried heavy machinery used for the makeshift wall would cause integrity issues to the road itself, and emergency vehicles could be prevented from passing through.

“Before the shipping containers showed up, the two lane road was a two lane road,” he said. “The first concern was that it’s a highly trafficked road that’s used by first responders to respond to emergencies that are on the border.” 

Tribal representatives laid out those concerns in an email to the governor’s office and other Arizona officers in September, but received no response. The tribe says it was also not consulted by Ducey’s office ahead of the shipping containers being placed.

A separate plan was announced by the federal government earlier this year to fill some gaps in the border wall built by former President Donald Trump’s administration, including along the Yuma stretch with shipping containers. In her letter, Bureau of Reclamation Gould asked Arizona to “work with Reclamation, in consultation with the Cocopah Indian Tribe, so that Customs and Border Protection’s project may proceed without unnecessary delay.” 

Alisa Reznick is a senior field correspondent covering stories across southern Arizona and the borderlands for the Tucson bureau of KJZZ's Fronteras Desk.