They work for the federal government — and also to protect sacred lands of the Tohono O'odham Nation along the border with Mexico.
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. (Brian Bennett, Los Angeles Times / April 13, 2011)
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.
"In the 1970s there were very few border patrol. We were the only people chasing drugs on the reservation," said Liston, now 73 and retired. He lives in Santa Rosa on the reservation.
Liston could walk into a campsite where smugglers were sleeping, count their weapons and walk out without being noticed.
Customs officers started calling him "the shadow man," and his fellow trackers "the shadow wolves."
Back then, if smugglers were caught, they usually dropped the dope and ran. The game turned deadly in 1985. A Shadow Wolf named Glenn Miles, on patrol alone, was shot and killed with his own gun on the border.
To expand their numbers, the Shadow Wolves began hiring trackers from other tribes. One of the new recruits was an Oglala Sioux from South Dakota named David Scout.
Scout, 38, grew up on the Pine Ridge Indian Reservation in South Dakota. His great-great-grandfather was a U.S. Cavalry scout and one of the first tribal police officers to patrol Pine Ridge in the early 1900s. When Scout married into the O'odham tribe, he moved onto the reservation and grew closer to other tribal members.
Scout and Carlos learned from Liston and the other old-timers to be persistent, follow only fresh tracks and look for the deep prints left by feet carrying a heavy load. Most important, they learned how to cultivate the families who have lived here for generations and are distrustful of federal authorities.
Scout loves that every day on the job is different.
"This is my office," Scout says in his truck as he pats the bench seat, jostling his rifle. "Some people dread getting up every morning and going to work. I don't. It's a cat-and-mouse game. I want to get these guys."
He circles the village of Kaka, a dozen dun-colored houses built around a small whitewashed chapel. In a few of the backyards, packed earth has been raked into neat rows that look like corduroy. He passes a fence made of hubcaps, spare tires and mesquite trunks. A camper shell has been spray-painted black, and a sign on the fence says: DO NOT ENTER WITHOUT A LAWFUL SEARCH WARRANT.
"These folks are involved," Scout says. He looks for fresh tire tracks, but the grooves he sees have been dimpled by rain. He keeps driving.
In the last decade, Scout has seen the Shadow Wolves dwindle from 21 to eight. They used to have enough Wolves to patrol the reservation 24 hours a day.
"Now all they have to do is wait for us to leave the area and they move," Scout says.
"We are down to bare bones," says U.S. Special Agent Rodney Irby.
Irby oversees the Shadow Wolves and about 30 ICE agents out of a low-slung building at the end of an unmarked driveway on the edge of Sells. With his oval belt buckle and mustache that twists up at the edges, Irby looks the part of the Western lawman.
He explains how bureaucrats have struggled to fit the Shadow Wolves onto a flow chart. The team has bounced from the Customs Service to the Border Patrol to ICE (which now includes the Customs Service). No new trackers have been hired in more than five years. For the last two and a half years, the U.S. Office of Personnel Management froze hiring while it studied whether it was legal for the unit to fill its jobs with Native Americans only.
On Nov. 7, the office decided that the special job requirements for the Shadow Wolves can remain in place and hiring can resume. The number of positions has yet to be decided.
Carlos suddenly appears in the doorway to Irby's office.
"There's a vehicle chase right now," he says, a radio crackling in his hand. Carlos turns and heads for his truck. He speeds out of the gate.
Carlos pulls off the highway when he sees a tribal police cruiser. The officer says he was chasing a blue pickup, but it veered off the road and tore through shrubs and cacti.
The officer said the pickup's vanity license plates weren't marked Veteran or Diamondbacks, like most in the area. They were Freedom plates.
"That's not from around here," Carlos says.
A minute later, Carlos is blasting through stubby cactus clumps at 50 mph. Tribal police race behind.
Suddenly, sun glints off metal through a thicket up ahead. A blue Dodge pickup is stopped nose down in the pebbly slope of a ravine. The engine is still running. Carlos grabs his M-4 carbine. Tribal officers skid to a stop behind him.
Carlos and a police officer warily approach the tinted windows, guns drawn. The cab is empty except for black plastic tarp on the seat, burlap fibers on the upholstery and air fresheners that do not mask the smell of marijuana.
Carlos scrambles into the ravine and looks for prints. He sees toe holes heading up the far bank and splashes of sand on the top, which suggest that someone took off in a hurry. He finds a red baseball cap under a creosote bush. There are other tracks, too many, and he loses the trail. The driver and the dope are gone.
"At least we got the truck," Carlos says, his weapon slung over his back, and his chest heaving from his sprint into the desert.