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Indian 'Shadow Wolves' stalk smugglers on Arizona reservation

They work for the federal government — and also to protect sacred lands of the Tohono O'odham Nation along the border with Mexico.

November 21, 2011|By Brian Bennett, Los Angeles Times
  • Kevin Carlos follows hoof prints he suspects were left by drug smugglers. He's a member of the Shadow Wolves, a team of American Indians who stalk drug smugglers on the remote Tohono O'odom Nation reservation along the U.S.-Mexico border in Arizona.
Kevin Carlos follows hoof prints he suspects were left by drug smugglers.… (Brian Bennett, Los Angeles…)

Reporting from the Tohono O’odham Nation, — Kevin Carlos hates how the drug runners tramp through the ancient cemeteries and holy places he holds dear.

That peak up there, he says, speeding toward the reservation's border with Mexico. That's where the creator lives. His name is I'itoi, the elder brother. He created the tribe out of wet clay after a summer rain. Tribe members still bring him offerings — shell bracelets, beargrass baskets and family photos — and leave them in his cave scooped out of the peak.

But the drug smugglers don't know that. On their way to supply America's drug markets, they use these sacred hilltops as lookouts, water holes as toilets and the desert as a trash can.

So Carlos hunts them.

Carlos is a member of the Shadow Wolves, a team of eight American Indian trackers who stalk drug smugglers though the desolate canyons and arroyos of the Tohono O'odham Nation reservation.

"I like to think I am protecting not only the U.S. but my area as well, my home," he says.

The Shadow Wolves work for U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement, or ICE. To join the special unit, each officer must be at least one-quarter American Indian and belong to a federally recognized tribe.

The trackers spend their days traversing the most isolated parts of the reservation, an 11,000-square-mile parcel of land in southern Arizona that shares a 73-mile border with Mexico. The nation, as it is called here, is the size of Connecticut and populated by more than 13,000 tribe members — slightly more than one per square mile.

There are no street signs and few paved roads. On the state highway, it takes three hours to drive from end to end.

The Shadow Wolves walk ridgelines, ride ATVs and roll high-powered pickups over mounds of shale and through rutted washes. They've trained their eyes to read the desert's tells:

Fresh tire tracks shimmer in sunlight.

Old footprints are crisscrossed with insect trails.

Marijuana bales leave burlap fibers on mesquite thorns.

When the U.S. Border Patrol clamped down on crossings in an area east of the reservation five years ago, smuggling rings moved their routes to the forbidding 60-mile backcountry corridor that crosses Tohono O'odham lands. Two billion dollars worth of marijuana, cocaine and heroin have moved through the reservation since then, according to ICE estimates.

The Shadow Wolves use GPS locaters, high-powered radios and other modern tools, but it is their tracking skills and their feel for the hidden box canyons, caves and seasonal watering holes that make them formidable counter-narcotics agents.

"It takes patience. These guys think they are out in the middle of nowhere, scot-free," Carlos says. "Then we find them."

***

The morning sun is inching off the horizon when Carlos starts looking for fresh tracks.

His pickup is in low gear, going barely 2 mph. He is on a dirt trail that runs along the Mexican border. Anyone moving north had to cross this path. With the window down, he studies the ground.

The truck bears low, horizontal scratch marks from days on end of Carlos driving through thorny brush. Those, he says, are his "Arizona pinstripes."

His ancestors called themselves the "desert people," or tohono o'odham in their language. Carlos, 42, remembers the smoky flavor of his grandmother's stew simmered over an open fire and made from the meat of jack rabbits that burrow under mesquite trees. She lived to be 90 and showed him how to draw water from a barrel cactus and shake off the barbed needles of cholla buds and cook them to taste like asparagus.

Carlos stops, gets out and tracks a few scrapes in the sand. Smugglers had tied carpet to their shoes to hide their prints, but Carlos recognizes the marks.

"They came through late yesterday," he says. Overnight, a wood rat's tail left a groove across one print. They could be far away already.

For $500, a young man at the southern edge of the tribe's traditional lands in Mexico will strap a 40-pound bale of marijuana on his back and hike for five days through the badlands to Interstate 8 in Arizona.

Bandits sometimes lay in wait to steal the drugs, or to stick up illegal migrants for cash. Some thieves carry Beretta pistols. A few prefer machine guns.

"It's getting worse," says Carlos, as he weaves through the mesquite.

That night, a report comes in about a gunfight at the northern edge of the reservation. Five bandits with rifles had ambushed a group of 15 marijuana smugglers on foot.

***

In 1972, the U.S. Customs Service recruited seven Native American trackers from the Tohono O'odham tribal police to help officers chase smugglers on tribal lands and penetrate the closed society of the reservation. One of the first hired was Stanley Liston.

Liston was born in Sells, Ariz., the capital of the reservation, but grew up on ranchlands just south of the border. As a child, he learned to read the signs left in the desert by stray horses and cattle that slipped through his father's fence.

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