Last year, Leo and Raven Mercado’s Peyote Foundation in Kearny, Arizona was battling government officials over their right to grow and possess peyote cacti for religious purposes.
The Mercados, their friends and their cacti had been subjected to years of harassment, including seizure of peyote, arrest, political persecution, and brutality. Still, they had built a network of Native American Church members, entheogen experts and spiritual seekers who helped make their rural Arizona homestead into one of a handful of sacred sites of refuge for peyote cacti.
Peyote is classified as a hallucinogen, but it is not generally considered a recreational drug. Peyote has been used medicinally and religiously in North America for several hundred years before being criminalized in the United States in the early 1900’s. In Canada, it is completely legal to grow and use peyote.
Current US laws purport to guarantee special groups of citizens the right to use peyote. Yet in many states, possession of any amount of the cacti for any reason is considered a serious felony, comparable in judicial penalty to that for large-scale marijuana cultivation.
Peyote raid, 1995
The Mercados know about the war on peyote only too well. In 1995, a group of armed Pinal County authorities descended on the Mercado’s home, machine-guns in hand, and confiscated 1,000 plants (see CC#13).
They also terrorized the Mercados and their children, leaving their home a shambles. International protests convinced the county attorney to return the Foundation’s plants, but many of the cacti had died.
Since then, Mercado has been subject to ongoing persecution, including the seizure of a sacred “grandfather” cacti. When he demanded return of the cacti, he became involved in a tug of war with the new county attorney, who had made his predecessor’s return of peyote to Mercado a campaign issue.
Last year, Mercado lost a court fight to have the grandfather cacti returned. A local judge ruled that the Mercados were not protected by Arizona and federal laws that allow peyote possession for spiritual purposes.
“We do not believe that these courts are capable of rendering fair decisions,” Raven said. “The core issue is that the government is trying to tell us what our spiritual beliefs are. We accurately state that we are religious users of this plant. We are members of the Native American Church and are fully covered by both state and federal religious freedom laws, but the government will not believe it.”
Bona fide religion
Raven explained how after Leo challenged the county’s right to confiscate the grandfather peyote, the county hired a Navajo Indian politician who was an alleged member of the Navajo Native American Church to testify against the Mercados.
“He has never met us, never asked us what our spiritual practices are, never talked to our friends or ceremonial partners,” Raven said. “But he has the temerity to come here and tell us, as if he is an expert witness on the state of our hearts, that we are not bona fide members of a church. He tells the court that we aren’t good enough to be members of the church, that he knows who is and isn’t qualified to participate in this holy sacrament. And the county judge takes his word for it.
“We have ceremonies with Native American Church members and we share sacrament with them. But the judge ruled that Leo had no right to possess his grandfather peyote button.”
Raid and destruction
Apparently empowered by the judge’s ruling against the Mercados, the Pinal County Multi-Jurisdictional Narcotics Task Force came to the family’s home on January 8, 1999, to serve an arrest warrant because Leo was in alleged arrears on a child support payment.
Leo Mercado said that he shares joint custody with his ex-wife and that she did not ask the government to collect child support from him.
“A child support warrant isn’t usually served by the Narcotics Task Force,” Mercado said. “This was not about child support. They came with a team ready to dismantle the Foundation and steal our sacrament.”
Officers handcuffed, arrested or detained the Mercados, their eight-year-old son Moses, and several Foundation volunteers. They then declared that the entire property was under seizure, even though they had no warrant for a search of the property. A warrant was later obtained, but Mercado says that the timing records on the search and seizure forms indicate that most of the seizures took place without legal authorization.
The Mercados and their friends were forced off the property at gunpoint, and were not allowed to seek legal counsel or notify allies. They were denied access to their home and belongings, even though this meant that Moses was forced to stand shivering in the night air dressed only in t-shirt and pants.
Leo was taken to jail. While he was scraping together the child support payment, members of the Native American Church were contacting Pinal County authorities to advise them that the Foundation was a bona fide church and that they would take control of the peyote, which is authorized by law.
Officials refused to even acknowledge evidence of bona fide peyote use, and the next day began to destroy the gardens where Mercado grew cacti. According to Raven, officers drove trucks over the sacred tipi and fireplace sites, then ripped 11,323 plants from the ground, threw them into trucks, and drove away. Agents also confiscated or mishandled numerous other items having absolutely nothing to do with peyote, Raven said, including family photo albums, sacred Huichol art, textbooks, clothing, sanitary napkins, money, sleeping bags, crystals and prayer devices.
“Our home, ceremonial sites, sacred gardens and personal possessions were crushed and destroyed by this raid,” Mercado said. “It is most unfair because the police get to come here, steal everything precious to us, run us off our own land, destroy what we love and hold dear, and we have no recourse since they haven’t charged us with anything. Unless they do, we will never get our day in court so that we can go up through the court system and establish that we are legal users of peyote.”
Why did authorities choose to conduct the raid?
“The current district attorney thinks peyote is a recreational drug,” Mercado said. “He obviously has no idea about anthropology or ethnobotany. It’s anything but recreational. Our use of peyote is no more recreational than a Catholic going to confession. Seizing cacti as if they are illegal is like seizing bread and wine used in communion.”
Mercado bemusedly explains that the county prosecutor apparently suspects the Foundation is making money selling peyote.
“It’s really laughable that they came in here apparently trying to accuse us of racketeering, like the Foundation is a criminal enterprise through which we sell peyote and make a living,” Mercado said. “We are a church living on shared resources and community values. They seized all the money we had, about $117. They even took two dollars out of our donation jar. That’s all we have. The food we eat is donated. The wood we use in ceremony we cut at the river. We live on faith and prayer.”
As the Mercados await news on whether the government will return the Foundation’s precious cacti and Leo’s computer, they rely on the peyote religion for strength.
“They can file charges any time. They can come back and threaten us with guns, rip us from our children. We always have lived under threat and terror. But we believe in a spiritual world that somehow governs what happens here,” Raven explained.
“Somehow, in all this suffering, Creator is bringing about a higher consciousness. Our family is growing. People are turning against the drug war. We will go through hell in the short term, but in the long term, we have our hearts fixed on the sacred Huichol land of Wirikuta, where sweet dreams and justice prevail.”
Moses, Leo’s eight-old-son, is growing up with nightmares and learning to distrust his government.
“I feel bad about what those men did to my family and the cactus,” he said. “I wanted to tell them to stop hurting us, but I was scared. I get scared whenever I see them, because all they do is hurt things.”