The Tohono O’odham Nation straddles the Arizona/Mexico border, where the Sonoran Desert’s drastic temperature shifts can be dangerous, but it’s an area where at any given time a drug smuggler or undocumented migrant is caught by something just as dangerous – a Shadow Wolf.
The Shadow Wolves, an elite group of Native American trackers, rely on centuries-old tracking skills on a daily basis while patrolling their portion of the 150 miles of border between Arizona and Mexico, a labyrinth of corridors and conduits allowing for illegal activity, and this stretch along the reservation proves to be one of the highest-risk entry points.
In the summer the Desert heat can hover between 110-120 degrees, and remains very dry with an annual rainfall of 10 inches. The winter season, those temperatures drop to freezing conditions. It’s a place where the sun beats down relentlessly, winds whip up grains of desert sand, and parched and dry are the passwords for entry. Noted naturalist Edward Abbey once said the terrain offered miles and miles of things that “sting, stick, stab, or stink.”
“Things are wide open out there,” said one law enforcement officer. It’s estimated that nearly half the narcotics bought by Americans each year comes through Mexico and much of the bulkier marijuana component makes its way across the international boundary through the reservation, at or near the town of Sells, Arizona. There’s a continual supply of transporters or “mules” willing to strap a 50-pound bale onto their back and take on the dangers of the desert.
The Shadow Wolves pride themselves on being one of those dangers, operating by the motto: “In brightest day, in darkest night, no evil shall escape my sight – for I am the Shadow Wolf.”
Created by an act of Congress in 1974, the Shadow Wolves celebrate their 40th anniversary on April 12. “While it was recognized that a drug trafficking corridor ran through tribal lands, this is a sovereign nation and you don’t just move in,” said Amber Cargile, Public Affairs Officer for Department of Homeland Security, U.S. Immigrations and Customs Enforcement. “When talking with tribal leaders about their lands being exploited by the bad guys, they said an office could be established on the Nation, but they wanted it staffed by Native Americans.”
Shadow Wolf John Bothof (Sioux) likes to tell the story about one of the original group of seven trackers, Stanley Liston, who epitomized the process of stealth. “He was so good he could sneak into a throw-down camp when the bad guys were sleeping, survey the scene, and come back out and tell waiting law enforcement officers that this guy is here and that guy is there and the dope is here. He got the nickname of Shadow Man because he could become a part of the scene without being detected and that title morphed into the Shadow Wolves.”
The wolf pack, once as large as 20-plus members, has been hit hard by the recession and subsequent budget cuts and is now down to about a dozen trackers who work in inter-governmental cooperation with the U.S. Customs and Border Patrol; the Bureau of Land Management; Homeland Security Investigations personnel; sheriff’s deputies in two adjacent counties, and the Tohono O’odham Police Department.
“There’s a huge federal footprint on tribal lands now that wasn’t there years ago,” says Angel Rascon, Assistant Special Agent in Charge of the Homeland Security operation in Sells. “Because of the sheer amount of traffic we see here on the Nation – different corridors run by different smuggling operations – several task forces come together to handle federal, state, and tribal issues.”
Politics notwithstanding, the two veteran supervisors of the Shadow Wolf unit, Kevin Cross (Tohono O’odham) and David Scout (Lakota Sioux) have their eyes trained on the desert and unexplained clouds of dust. “We don’t catch smugglers every day, but the ones that get away just make us want to catch them even more,” Scout said.
Although the desert is huge, certain smuggling corridors are used frequently. “But it’s not just a single corridor, a specific route they rely on,” says Shadow Wolf Kevin Carlos, “it’s a spider web of routes they can utilize to their advantage. This is obviously a lucrative business and those spider webs are owned and operated by an individual belonging to a particular cartel organization. The spotter in the mountains is the key because he can warn the smugglers to change their route. And if we take those ‘eyes’ out of the picture, a replacement will quickly arrive. It’s a challenge for us on the scouting end. We could take them down, all day long, but it’s like ants – they just keep coming.
“Marijuana is the big problem here,” Carlos added. “Hard drugs tend to be discovered more at Ports of Entry where it’s easier to hide small packets of drugs in a vehicle or on a body, but a 50-pound bale of sweet-smelling marijuana is hard to conceal.”
Over the years, the Shadow Wolves and smugglers have played a version of cat-and-mouse, as spotters sit in the mountains using binoculars and encrypted radio transmissions to guide the drugs in transit; while the wolves track “cut signs” to chase and apprehend the bad guys. Using traditional tracking methods, agents can look at desert vegetation and tell how recently a twig has been broken, a blade of grass trampled by a human, or how many smugglers there are and which direction they were headed.
Patrol members grew up comfortable with nature and innately know how to read the subtle messages. Knowledge that was passed down from elders shows the wolves that it is possible to hear silent things and see the invisible in the desert. The tracking skills have been likened to playing an instrument – once the rudiments have been learned, it takes continual practice before skill levels improve.
“Just because you’re Native American, you don’t always have inherent tracking skills,” says Bothof. “Over time, anybody can be taught the basics, but it takes on-going practice to keep the edge and retain what it takes to be a success.”
Former Tohono O’odham Police Chief Richard Saunders says modest technology improvements in the form of night vision goggles were getting underway about the time he retired. “What little we had in the way of equipment was a far cry from the bad guys who had lots of money and could afford the high dollar toys to avoid detection. But no matter how great the technology, you still need a physical body to respond to the sensor hits in the field – and that’s what the Shadow Wolves do well.”