'Shadow Wolves' track drug smugglers the native American way

An elite team hunts drug traffickers in the Southwest using generations-old techniques.

Gary Ortega slowly maneuvers his Silverado 4 x 4 down a two-rut road euphemistically called the Rose Bowl. As he does, he leans out the window, searching the dusty terrain for telltale signs of smugglers.

After a couple hours of jolting across the desert floor, which has his passenger's teeth chattering even though it's 110 degrees outdoors, Mr. Ortega stops abruptly and bolts out. He's hit pay dirt – fresh footprints of what may be "mules" (drug smugglers) – carrying bales of marijuana from Mexico into the US.

He squats next to the tracks in a sandy area that will become a raging river when the monsoons hit in a week or so. For now, though, the soft sand serves as a sort of CSI Arizona: evidence, in the form of footprint patterns, that reveals a great deal to his well-trained eye.

Ortega is a member of an elite group of native American trackers called the Shadow Wolves. The team, made up of 12 men and three women, tries to ferret out drug smugglers sneaking across tribal lands in the southwestern US.

Though created by Congress in 1972, the Shadow Wolves have become an increasingly integral part of the nation's overall border security strategy in the wake of 9/11 and as narcotics traffickers try to find more remote backdoors into the US. The unit patrols the sparsely populated 5,000-square-mile Tohono O'odham Nation, which includes 72 miles of border on the reservation in Arizona and another 68 miles that stretches west to Organ Pipe Cactus National Monument and east to Sasabe.

In an era of night-vision scopes, aerial surveillance, and other elements that make up "virtual fences," the Shadow Wolves rely on ancient tracking skills, known as "cutting for sign," that have been passed down for generations. By analyzing footprints, fractured foliage, remnants of clothing or burlap snagged by the thorns of the ubiquitous cacti, the trackers have been successful in confiscating illicit drugs.

So far this fiscal year, they've nabbed more than 50,000 pounds of marijuana, the predominant drug transiting the reservation. For the past several years, they've seized about 60,000 pounds of marijuana per year. Members of the unit have been flown around the world, including to Croatia, Uzbekistan, and Poland, to teach others their tracking techniques.

"The Shadow Wolves are very valuable in our overall strategy to combat smuggling on the southern border," says Alonzo Peña, special agent in charge of the US Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) office in Arizona. "Being of native American descent ... they are able to develop a deeper rapport with tribal members living on the nation. This has proven to be very successful in developing intelligence concerning smuggling trends and methods used by drug and human smugglers."

To be on the team, members must be at least 25 percent native American. Ortega is one of two Shadow Wolves from the Tohono O'odham tribe. He speaks the language and is well-respected on the reservation. He was a policeman there for four years before becoming a Shadow Wolf in 1998.

A strapping young man, he is tense as he focuses on the footprints beside him. "These are probably just illegals crossing," Ortega says, as he points to what look like three distinct sets of footprints. He thinks the group probably trekked north across this wash around 6 a.m. on this day because their footprints overlay hoof marks made earlier in the morning by nomadic cows. The cattle, Ortega points out, come for water at a nearby hole twice a day – once at sunup and again at sundown. "We use everything like that to our advantage," he says.

Ortega follows the tracks back south, through heavy patches of jumping cholla and spindly trees. The tracks are more pronounced where mesquite trees provide shade from the searing sun. Ortega compares the depth and shadows of the tracks here with others he'd come across that were probably at least three days old.

Those were fainter and smoother. The newer tracks, he notes, have darker areas where the traveler has kicked up soil beneath the surface that hasn't yet been dried out or bleached by the sun. Nor has the ever-present wind here, always generating dust devils, leveled the ridged patterns made by the soles of the traveler's shoes.

Ortega marches alongside the prints, matching one set step for step. By doing so, he can gauge how fast the travelers are moving. He can also tell if they are carrying a load. He demonstrates by comparing his prints to those of the traveler. The average "mule" apprehended weighs about 150 pounds. Ortega weighs a little more than 200 pounds. If the toe print of the smuggler is deeper than his, it suggests the traveler is bearing a heavy pack.

It turns out the toes aren't digging in. And the cacti surrounding the prints haven't snagged bits of burlap – the wrap for bales of marijuana. Moreover, he notes, the travelers didn't try to conceal their prints as they crossed the road, as drug smugglers often do – sometimes wrapping their sneakers in carpet to confuse the Shadow Wolves. The signs tell him these are just illegal immigrants – nine men and two women – making their way to the US.

Ortega reports the crossings to the US Customs and Border Patrol, which is responsible for apprehending illegal immigrants. Then, he goes back to looking for more signs of smugglers.

The Shadow Wolves work every day, in shifts at night and during the day, and travel the old back roads of the reservation. Had these footprints belonged to drug smugglers, Ortega would have called in other members of the team. When they find a sign, they work as a pack, which is how they got their name. One will leapfrog two miles ahead on a set of prints and another two miles in front of that until they catch their "prey."

The Shadow Wolves haven't been involved in any violent confrontations. Mainly it's a "friendly man's game," Ortega says. But it is becoming more dangerous. In fact, drug cartels in Mexico know how effective the Shadow Wolves have become and have issued death threats against them. But because of the remoteness of this area, and the money involved, they continue to send contraband across the reservation.

Many of the vehicles the Shadow Wolves find abandoned on tribal lands are equipped with snap-on tarps to hide them from aircraft, cut-off switches for the lights, and night-vision equipment. The smugglers are frequently armed with military-style automatic weapons.

The Shadow Wolves are finding on average 250 SUVs per month, vehicles that have been stolen in the Phoenix area and used to pick up the drugs that have been stashed throughout the reservation. They're often hidden in the houses of tribal members, and the smugglers increasingly pay young people here to work as guides.

Most of the smugglers the Shadow Wolves catch are bit players in the drug trade – "mules" hired by the cartels to ferry the contraband across the reservation. Still, five ICE agents are assigned to work with the Shadow Wolves, and take over the investigations after an apprehension has been made. "They try to take it to the next tier of the organization with the ultimate goal to dismantle the network," says Ortega.

Then, for the native American trackers, it's back to another set of footprints, in hopes of fulfilling their official motto: In brightest Day, In Darkest Night, No Evil Shall Escape My Sight, For I am the Shadow Wolves.

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