Tohono O'odham Nation "Shadow Wolves" Track Smugglers On Arizona/Mexico Border

Brian Bennett / Los Angeles Times

Kevin 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 Native American 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."

For more information on the Shadow Wolves, read the LA Times article HERE.

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