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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

“Those guys are starting to annoy me,” says Nez.

“Yeah,” Scout agrees. “I want them.” He makes a call on his radio and reads out some coordinates. In 15 minutes, we hear the pulsing thwacks of a Blackhawk helicopter, which has flown out from Tucson and now heads over to the other side of the hill.

After several minutes, the helicopter disappears behind the ridge. We learn by radio that the two men have been caught and taken to headquarters in Sells.

“These guys were pretty beat,” says David Gasho, an officer on board. “They didn’t even try to hide.” The helicopter had landed on a flat patch of desert. The Customs officers inside the helicopter, Gasho relates, had simply waited for the two men to reach them. They had offered no resistance.

The men claim not to be smugglers, mere UDAs who got scared and ran when they saw the officers. But interrogated separately back in Sells an hour later, they quickly confess. The men, ages 24 and 22, say they’d been hired right off the street in Caborca, Mexico, some 60 miles south of the border, and had jumped at the chance to make $800 in cash for a few days’ work—a bonanza considering that top pay at the local asparagus plant is $20 a week.

Because the men confessed, says an O’odham police department sergeant, they’ll be prosecuted at the federal court in Tucson. As first-time offenders, they’ll probably get ten months to one and a half years in a federal prison. Then they’ll be sent back to Mexico. Chances are high that the seven smugglers who got away, including Bear Claw, will be back humping bales of marijuana in a matter of days.

Nez and Scout look beat, but they are smiling. It has been a good day, better than most. The officers can go for weeks at a time without making an arrest. Rene Andreu, the former resident agent in charge at the Sells office, speculates that Shadow Wolves capture no more than 10 percent of the drugs coming into the reservation. “In recent years, we’ve averaged about 60,000 pounds a year,” says Andreu. They all agree that they need greater resources.

It will take more than a few reinforcements, however, to have any real effect on drug traffic. The Shadow Wolves know this dismal fact all too well. Still, without their dedication and that of other Customs officials, smugglers would be bringing drugs over the border, as one officer put it, “in caravans.”

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