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Shadow Wolves

An all-Indian Customs unit possibly the world's best trackers uses time-honored techniques to pursue smugglers along a remote stretch of the U.S.-Mexico border

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Nez stops and points to a patch of desert near my foot. “See that square shape and those fine lines you’re almost standing on?” he asks, directing my attention to some nearly indeterminate scratches in the sand. I hastily step back. “That’s where one of them took a break. That mark is where he rested a bale of dope. I’m guessing we’re a couple of hours behind them, because you can see that spot is in the sun now. This guy would have been sitting in the shade.”

The tracks continue north into an open area, cross a powdery road, then head off toward another thicket. Nez observes that the smugglers probably crossed here during the night; otherwise they would have avoided the road or at least used a branch to cover their tracks.

Fortunately, they didn’t. “There’s our friend Bear Claw,” Nez says, referring to a man they’ve been tracking whose footprint looks like a bear’s. “And over there? See the carpet shine?” To hide their tracks, smugglers will tie strips of carpet around their feet, which leaves a slight sheen on the desert floor. I can just barely see what he’s talking about.

These footprints are fresh, says Nez. “We look for fine, sharp edges on the imprint made by the bottom of the shoe, and whether the wall is starting to crumble.” Tracks of animals, bugs or birds on top indicate a print has been there awhile. But “if the animal or insect track is obscured by a footprint as it is here, then the tracks are recent.” Also, says Nez, after a few hours “there would be twigs or bits of leaves in them.”

He moves to another set of tracks. “This one is a female UDA,” he says, using the acronym for undocumented alien, a person who entered the country illegally. Nez has deduced the hiker’s sex and status from the lightness of the print (the person is not carrying a bale) and its shape. “The footprint is more narrow, and there are more steps because she has a shorter step than the men,” he explains.

UDA tracks are more numerous than smugglers’. In the first place, there are a lot more of them. Then, too, if they get separated from their guides or are abandoned by them, UDAs can wander in circles for miles, lost and looking for water. In summer, when temperatures can hit 118 degrees, many die. Between January and October 2002, seventy-six UDAs died from the heat in southern Arizona alone. Shadow Wolves officers carry extra water and food for their almost daily encounters with them. (When they do meet up with UDAs, they call the Border Patrol or just let them go.)

We push through some scrub, and Nez points to a broken bush I hadn’t noticed. “Someone stepped on it. Look at the direction it’s bent.” He steps on the bush, and sure enough, it points like an arrow in the same direction as the tracks.

A few minutes later, Nez draws my attention to a branch of a mesquite tree. Squinting, I finally make out a single, dangling thread. “That’s a fiber from the sugar sack they use to carry the dope in,” he says. “And here,” he points a foot farther, “see where this branch has snapped? One of these guys plowed through here. Look at the break. See how the wood inside is fresh and moist?” As a broken twig ages, the wood darkens and the sap thickens. The smugglers cannot be far ahead.

Now Nez pays even closer attention to the tracks. He is looking for “shuffle” marks, which would show that the quarry knows they are being pursued. “Shuffle marks indicate that they’ve stopped to turn around and look behind them,” says Nez. “That’s when you move off the tracks and come up the side of them.”

Thirty minutes later, we find ourselves at the base of a steep incline. At this point, Scout drives up in his pickup truck. In contrast to Nez’s easygoing manner, Scout looks serious and taciturn. He says he thinks the smugglers have holed up somewhere up the hill, waiting for dark before they move. Scout radios Al Estrada, his supervisor in Sells, who says he’ll send two more Shadow Wolves—Sloan Satepauhoodle, a Kiowa from Oklahoma (and one of only two women in the unit), and Jason Garcia, an O’odham who grew up here.

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