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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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On a brickoven hot morning somewhere southwest of Tucson, Arizona, U.S. Customs patrol officer Bryan Nez holds up a hand in caution. Dead ahead lies a heavy thicket, an ideal spot for an ambush by drug smugglers. Something has rousted a coyote, which lopes away. Nez keeps his M16 trained on the bushes.

“Down, now,” he whispers. We crouch on the hot, sandy desert floor. My heart is pounding, and I fully expect smugglers to step out of the bushes with guns drawn. Instead, Nez whispers, “Hear it?” I can’t at first, but then I detect a faint buzzing. In seconds, a dark cloud of insects swarms by not a dozen feet from us. “Probably killer bees,” says Nez, getting up and moseying on. False alarm.

Nasty insects seem the least of our problems. The temperature will soon top 107 degrees. We’ve been out on foot for an hour tracking drug smugglers, and large moon-shaped sweat stains form under the arms of Nez’s camouflage fatigues. He carries a Glock 9-millimeter pistol in a vest along with a radio, a GPS receiver and extra ammunition clips. On his back is a camel pack, or canteen, containing water; Nez will wrestle with heat cramps all day.

But the 50-year-old patrol officer doesn’t have time to think about that. We’re following the fresh tracks of a group of suspected smugglers he believes have brought bales of marijuana from Mexico into Arizona’s Tohono O’odham Nation reservation.

A full-blooded Navajo, Nez belongs to an all-Indian Customs unit, nicknamed the Shadow Wolves, that patrols the reservation.The unit, which numbers 21 agents, was established in 1972 by an act of Congress. (It has recently become part of the Department of Homeland Security.) “The name Shadow Wolves refers to the way we hunt, like a wolf pack,” says Nez, a 14-year veteran who joined the U.S. Customs Patrol Office of Investigation in 1988 after a stint as an officer with the Bureau of Indian Affairs and the Navajo Police Department. “If one wolf finds prey, it will call in the rest of the pack.” What makes the Shadow Wolves unique is its modus operandi. Rather than relying solely on high-tech gadgetry— night-vision goggles or motion sensors buried in the ground—members of this unit “cut for sign.” “Sign” is physical evidence—footprints, a dangling thread, a broken twig, a discarded piece of clothing, or tire tracks. “Cutting” is searching for sign or analyzing it once it’s found.

Nez relies on skills he learned growing up on the Navajo Nation reservation in northern Arizona, and he cuts sign like other people read paperbacks. Between October 2001 and October 2002, the Shadow Wolves seized 108,000 pounds of illegal drugs, nearly half of all the drugs intercepted by Customs in Arizona. The group has also been invited to Latvia, Lithuania, Estonia, Kazakstan and Uzbekistan to help train border guards, customs officials and police in tracking would-be smugglers of chemical, biological and nuclear weapons.

At home, the Shadow Wolves unit is responsible for the 76 miles of border that the reservation shares with Mexico. It’s a difficult task for fewer than two dozen officers, and the events of September 11 have only made things worse. Beefed-up security at Arizona’s designated border crossings— Nogales and Sasabee in the east, tiny Lukeville in the west—has pushed smugglers, both on foot and in trucks, toward the remote and less guarded desert in between. Now, day and night, groups of eight to ten men move north from Mexico toward the insatiable U.S. market, each individual carrying upwards of 40 pounds of marijuana on his back. Funded by Mexican drug lords, the smugglers are often better equipped, better funded and more numerous than the Shadow Wolves, with lookouts on neighboring mountains armed with night-vision goggles, cell phones and radios capable of delivering encrypted messages to direct smugglers away from law enforcement vehicles.

Violence between pursuers and pursued has been minimal. Until recently. In April 2002, a group of officers was making an arrest near Ajo when a smuggler tried to run down Shadow Wolves agent Curtis Heim with his truck. Heim, only slightly injured, shot the smuggler, who survived the wound but was arrested, his drugs confiscated. (That bust brought in a whopping 8,500 pounds of marijuana, which could have sold on the streets for an estimated $8.5 million.) This pastAugust, Kris Eggle, a 28-year-old park ranger at the OrganPipeCactusNational Monument, just to the west of the reservation, was shot and killed by a Mexican fugitive he was pursuing.

Today’s hunt got under way at 6 a.m., two hours after Nez’s shift began, following a radio call from fellow Shadow Wolf Dave Scout, 29, an Oglala Sioux who had discovered fresh tracks eight to ten miles from the unit’s headquarters in the Indian village of Sells while patrolling in his truck.

But now, at midmorning, and an hour after our encounter with the bees, we are still following the trail. The desert stretches endlessly in every direction. Paloverde trees, mesquite and dozens of cactus species, especially saguaro, barrel and prickly pear, dot the steep mountains and hills, plains and valleys. At 2.8 million acres, southern Arizona’s Tohono O’odham Nation reservation (pop. 11,000) is fourfifths the size of Connecticut. There are no cities on it, only small and widely scattered villages.

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