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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An hour later, Satepauhoodle and Garcia show up in a pickup, unload a pair of all-terrain vehicles (ATVs) and head up the hill. Scout and Nez drive to the other side of the hill and resume tracking.

Over the next two hours, neither Scout, Nez nor the officers in the ATVs pick up even a hint of the smugglers’ trail. It is now past 1 p.m., an hour after the end of the agents’ shift. Satepauhoodle and Garcia pack up their ATVs and drive home. But Nez is fidgety. “I just have a feeling they’re up there,” he says to no one in particular. Scout and Nez agree to go back to the ridge where the trail was lost and try again.

The slope of the ridge consists mostly of loose rock and small pebbles, and Nez and Scout notice some faintly discolored stones. These were probably turned over by a passing foot, revealing a damp, slightly darker side.

Thirty minutes later, Nez holds up a hand. We freeze. He and Scout creep forward, firearms at the ready.

“We found the dope,” Nez calls out, wiping his face with his handkerchief and summoning me to join him next to a large mesquite tree. I don’t see any drugs. Nez tells me to look more closely. Under the tree, obscured by broken branches and hidden by shadow, I make out a number of bales. The agents on the ATVs had driven right by this spot. “Smell it?” Nez asks, smiling. Oh, yeah.

A few yards away, more bales are stacked under another tree. I help Nez and Scout pull them into a clearing. There are nine in all, each wrapped in plastic sheets and duct tape, and stuffed inside a burlap sugar sack to form a three- by four-foot package. To carry the drugs, the smugglers had rolled empty sacks into rudimentary shoulder straps and fastened them to the bales to make crude backpacks. Scout calls in GPS coordinates to the office in Sells.

We sit on the bales and wait for reinforcements to come take them, and us, back to Sells. I ask Nez if he gets frustrated by the job. He answers no. “I like the challenge. But mainly I think about the young kids,” he says. “It’s satisfying to know that we are keeping at least some of the drugs from getting onto the streets and into the hands of children.”

As we are talking, Scout leaps up and sprints into some nearby bushes, his gun drawn. Nez jumps up and races after him. I see a quick flash of a white T-shirt and watch as Scout and Nez disappear into the mesquite and greasewood.

Minutes later, the pair returns. Two smugglers had stayed behind with the drugs. Nez and Scout had to let them go— the chances of a violent encounter were too high in the thick foliage, and Shadow Wolves officers are under orders to remain with any drugs their unit turns up.

Twenty minutes later, Nez points to a spot about 1,000 feet straight up, at the top of the ridge. The two smugglers are looking down at us. They scramble over the top and disappear.


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