Shadow Wolves

Stopping drug trafficking from Mexico

by Lee Allen

In brightest day, in darkest night, no evil shall escape my sight, for I am the Shadow Wolf. -- U.S. Customs Patrol Officer Motto

The Sonoran Desert landscape south and west of Tucson is characterized by blistering hot summers, cool winters, scrub brush, sand and rocks. It is filled with plant and animal communities which, as naturalist Edward Abbey said, could be counted on to "stink, sting or stab." The ancestral home of the Tohono O’odham Indians – and today’s site of the tribe’s reservation – it has deep prehistoric and historic roots.

It is also the scene of a very modern drama—the battle against drug trafficking from Mexico into Arizona and the United States. On one side, there are the Mexican drug bearers – or, the "Mules" – who transport loads of illicit substances northward across the border. On the other side, there are a handful of Native American Customs Service agents – the Shadow Wolves – who call on traditional skills in tracking to follow and apprehend the Mules.

Tracking smugglers

"We’re wide open out here," says Customs Service Agent Rene Andreu, referring to the reservation. "Most of our apprehensions come in a specific corridor from Tucson to the U.S.-Mexico boundary, but the border spreads out over 150 miles – half of that on the reservation – and that’s a lot of real estate to keep track of."

"Drug seizures are up all along the border," said Roger Maier, regional Customs Service spokesman in El Paso: emphatically so in some spots. "Native American agents that patrol only the Tohono lands continue to set new records and, based on early 2003 accomplishments, this year will continue the trend. They’re the best in the world at what they do." In one five-day period, the Shadow Wolves made 15 marijuana busts, resulting in the seizures of pot worth more than $6 million dollars on the streets of cities in the United States.

It’s estimated that nearly half the $65 billion dollars worth of narcotics bought by Americans each year comes through Mexico. Much of the drugs flow across the international boundary through the reservation, near, or through, the reservation town of Sells, about 55 miles southwest of Tucson. "There’s a higher concentration of villages here," says Andreu. "Smugglers use inhabited sites as landmarks to travel by night, lining up on village lights and using them as way points rather than traversing in pitch-black desert darkness."

"There’s a continual supply of people willing to strap cargo onto their back and take on the dangers of the desert," says Maier. Mules, often impoverished young men, are available on the street corners in many towns south of the border. These human pack animals will tote a 50-pound burlap or sugar sack filled with dope over ten miles in two days – or on moonlit nights – in desert temperatures to reach a drop spot for their cargo, which may have a street value of $50,000 in the drug market.

IF the product makes it to market. Often it doesn’t, thanks to the Native American Shadow Wolves, who include two supervisors and 19 field officers, two of them women.

The Shadow Wolf unit is a one-of-a-kind amalgam. There’s "senior wolf" Bryan Nez, who calls on his experiences in more than a decade in the field to help train some of the newer members in the old ways of tracking. There are the younger agents, part of the computer generation, who return the favor by showing Nez how technological innovations such as motion detectors, heat sensors and night-vision goggles offer sophisticated new ways to track the smugglers.

Like Nez, most Shadow Wolf agents grew up in rural areas, where tracking game and livestock have long been part of daily life. Tracking skills have been handed down from generation to generation for centuries. "Older trackers can look at desert vegetation and tell you how recently a blade of grass has been touched by a human," Andreu says. "Officers here can track for hours and all of a sudden stop and say, ‘They’re in that thicket up ahead.’ It’s uncanny, but the old-timers can do that."

This tracking, in the ancient way, is often called "cutting sign" or "checking spore" by members of tribes such as the Sioux, Navajo, Lakota, Kickapoo and Chicasaw as well as the Pima and Tohono O’odham tribes. Shadow Wolves are children of the wilderness. They know how to read its subtle messages. They learned from their elders that it is possible to "hear" things that are silent and to "see" things that are invisible on a trail.

One of the new generation of agents compare the skill of tracking to playing a musical instrument. "You learn the rudiments, but it takes lots of practice before your skill level improves." These are lawmen and women who have learned to look for stories written on the ground.

Among the millions of mesquite bushes growing here, the keen eyes of the Shadow Wolves can spot a hair snagged on low branch, twigs bent or broken by a passerby, a single fiber strand left by a burlap sack. They can quickly discern faint footprints in desert dust, and they can ascertain if the prints belong to illegal immigrants or drug smugglers.

"Smuggler prints have deeper indentations," says David Scout, an Oglala Sioux who has been a Shadow Wolf for eight years. "Thicker imprints are the result of a backpacker carrying a 50-pound package of dope along with water and other supplies." Hoof prints of horses also give clues. Horses without riders have a slight sideways gait. Prints of animals carrying a rider are frequently in a straight line and are deeper, indicating a passenger with possible cargo.

Shadow Wolves have seen a variety of ruses employed by smugglers trying to create confusion. Smugglers have tried to hide their tracks by strapping pieces of carpet or foam rubber pads to their shoes to smear prints in the soil. The Shadow Wolves know that simple illegal border crossers tend to plod ahead in a straight line to reach a destination as swiftly as possible. They know that the smugglers, on the other hand, often zig zag through underbrush to create confusion. They use branches to brush away tracks, step in each others’ tracks to mask numbers, or even walk backwards to disguise travel directions.

Sometimes, the Shadow Wolves have found that, Mule "trains" will take advantage of northbound migrants who attempt voyages under moonlight. The smugglers run loads of dope just ahead of large migrant groups, who will obliterate tracks. The smugglers sometimes mix with groups of undocumented travelers to cover a passage.

However, the Shadow Wolves are so skilled at reading the stories of the trail that, given time, they can quantify the travelers, determine their destinations, and even identify a cargo. They can also read the timeline of footprints. "If they’re clean and clear, they were probably made recently," says Scout. By contrast, boot prints more than 24-hours old are often overlaid by minuscule tracks of tiny desert denizens who forage only at night. Close examination of the crispness of small, uprooted plants can indicate how long ago they were disturbed.

In the Shadow Wolves’ business today, as in times past, patience and persistence are as important as tracking ability. It requires a methodical and painstaking approach to ferret out footfalls, 36 inches at a time. Success requires constant vigilance with eyes to the ground, eyes on the horizon, and eyes in the back of their heads.

However, even with the skills of the Shadow Wolves, you still have to be in the right place at the right time. "Sometimes you get it, sometimes you miss," says one patrol officer. Still, says agent Andreu, "I’ll put my money on the Shadow Wolves and the use of ancient tracking skills to put a dent in border drug smuggling."

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