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Shadow Wolves: Native American Trackers Step Up Border Roles

Tim Gaynor - Reuters News Feb 4, 2007

Harold Thompson, an ICE (Immigration and Customs Enforcement) Shadow Wolves agent, guards bales of marijuana he discovered while tracking undocumented immigrants in the Sonoran desert near Sells, Arizona, February 1, 2007. The Shadow Wolves, an elite group of Native American trackers that use skills handed down from the ancestral hunt is being tapped to play a larger role in securing the United States' borders. Picture taken February 1, 2007. REUTERS/Jeff Topping (UNITED STATES)

Native American trackers to step up border role SELLS, Arizona (Reuters) - An elite group of Native American trackers that use skills handed down from the ancestral hunt is being tapped to play a larger role in securing the United States' borders.

Little known outside law enforcement circles, the Shadow Wolves have hunted drug and human traffickers on a lonely stretch of the Arizona-Mexico border southwest of Tucson since the 1970s.

In an age of unmanned aerial surveillance drones, video cameras and electronic sensors on the borders, the 14-member unit uses age-old "sign cutting" techniques to follow foot, horse and vehicle trails for miles across the cactus-studded wastes of the Tohono O'odham nation for U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement.

"These skills go back generations, but with all the high-technologies they are still producing fantastic results," Alonzo Pena, the ICE special agent in Arizona, said Thursday.

Now the U.S. immigration agency plans to train more American Indian trackers to help secure part of the United States' porous border with Canada. The 4,000-mile stretch crossed by marijuana and cigarette smugglers has received less government attention than the southwest border with Mexico.

The Shadow Wolves agents come from eight Native American nations, including the Tohono O'odham, Navajo, Kiowa, Sioux and Omaha tribes. The new tracking unit comes amid a drive by the Department of Homeland Security to ratchet up security at the land and sea borders and airports.


The Shadow Wolves were founded in 1972 to help the former U.S. Customs Service track intruders over a 75-mile (120-km) stretch of border in the Tohono O'odham nation, and swiftly gained fame for their stealth and relentlessness.

Trackers have been known to handcuff their quarry while they sleep in darkened camps on lonely backtrails and can even track smugglers who bind carpet to their shoes to smudge out their tracks.

Earlier this week, a team of Navajo and O'odham agents pursued a group of "carpet walkers" north of the Mexico border to a small village near Sells, southwest of Tucson.

Working fast, they followed barely visible scuff marks across the damp, loamy earth, and picked up on trail of tiny fibers snared from their burlap rucksacks by spiny mesquite trees.

The hunt led them to a cinderblock ranch house 25 miles (40-km) from the international line, where agents arrested four people and impounded 970 pounds of marijuana from a shed and nearby creek.

A Kiowa agent said it was evidence of the usefulness of ancient tribal skills. "Even though you have all the technology available to you, you have to rely on these ancient techniques ... It's still relevant, and this is the reason why," said Sloan Satepauhoodle, pointing to 25 reeking marijuana bales she was guarding in the remote desert wash.

Group members are also set to take their skills overseas to train border police in the arts of tracking in the European nations of Croatia and Macedonia in April and May, according to Pena.

Kevin Carlos, the supervisor of the group, is also keen for the members to pass on their time-honored skills.

"It's a great thing that we are able to go and help other countries," Carlos said.

"They think the United States and the civilized world doesn't use any of these ancient techniques, but we do ... and it makes us very proud."