Border Watch: Shadow Wolves patrol Tohono O'Odham reservation
Reporter: Sergio Avila
TOHONO O'ODHAM NATION, Ariz. (KGUN9-TV) - The battle against drug smugglers along the border is getting more sophisticated every day. Both law enforcement and the criminals they're hunting use the latest technology to try to stay one step ahead. But since the early 1970's, an elite group of Immigration and Customs Enforcement officers have been ancient tribal techniques to track smugglers.
They're called the Shadow Wolves; they prey on criminals who use the Tohono O'odham Nation to bring their illegal contraband into the country. The pack of elite hunters were formed in 1974 and are an integral part of protecting the 5,000 square mile Tohono O'Odham Nation--an area roughly the size of the state of Connecticut.
David Scout has been tracking smugglers in the area for nearly two decades. With his M-4 rifle by his side, Scout admitted to 9 On Your Side work has been getting more dangerous lately.
"Probably within the last ten years I've seen a lot more of the suspects that we apprehend at work, they're carrying a lot more weapons. Personally I don't think it's for law enforcement but there's always that underlying factor, you never know," Scout said. Since the shooting of U.S. Border Patrol agent Brian Terry, Scout said smuggling activity on the reservation has skyrocketed.
"That's always going to happen because when something like that happens of course what the government is going to do is we're going to shut that area down and let them know that we're not going to stand for what's occurring out there," Scout said.
KGUN9 News was invited to spend a day with the Shadow Wolves as they hunted down human and drug smugglers. These officers are highly trained to spot anything unusual in the terrain. Scout is methodical while driving his truck down well known smuggling routes. In some areas speeds rarely get over ten miles per hour.
"Basically what we're doing right now is looking for any disturbances, anything that doesn't look natural," Scout said. These tribal tracking techniques have been around for ages. The Shadow Wolves don't just look for footprints, barbed wire can snag burlap sacks used to carry drugs. Broken branches and knocked over vegetation can also guide them to the criminals.
As the search went on, Scout found a pair of booties made of blankets. Smugglers typically use the makeshift shoes to hide their tracks. They also ride horses packed with drugs among grazing cattle to blend in. These officers are trained to find anything and can tell if a track made by an animal is unnaturally deep.
Slowly Scout drove through the desert and suddenly he stops, throws his truck in reverse and peers out his window, glaring at what only looks like sand to the untrained eye. Scout opens the door and searches the area.
"Here's the shoe, right there," Scout said as he drew a circle in the sand around a seemingly invisible print. Just by looking at it, he knows it's at least a few days old, and that whoever left the print is long gone.
Back in the office KGUN9 News spoke to the Shadow Wolves' supervisor, Assistant Special Agent in Charge Rodney Irby. 9 On Your Side asked him if it's difficult to keep smugglers from trying to recruit tribal members.
"The socioeconomic reality out here is there is high unemployment and tribal members have always been vulnerable to coercion by the organizations to help them facilitate," Irby said.
The border on the reservation has almost no infrastructure so it's a target for drug gangs. Large steel poles alternating from taller to shorter are in place to keep vehicles from driving in to the reservation.
The U.S./Mexico border actually cuts the Tohono O'Odham reservation in two. Tribal members are allowed to drive back and forth freely through specified gates. At these gates there is no port of entry, no fence, and no cameras. The Border Patrol has an agent posted at the gate 24 hours a day looking for anything suspicious.
Law enforcement like the Shadow Wolves are all over the reservation. Seeing several groups of patrol vehicles while driving is common.
KGUN9 News' hunt with the ShadowWolves turned up empty but their office in Sells has been very successful. So far this year they've seized 6,040 pounds of marijuana. Last year they nabbed more than 32,000 pounds.
Scout told 9 On Your Side the Shadow Wolves are the best fit for the reservation. Each member is at least 25% Native American.
"Just being Native American gives me an advantage to be able to communicate and relate to the people," Scout said. The heritage, he added, also gives these men an even greater sense of pride to keep the reservation safe.
"I like to do my part you know in protecting the United States from merchandise or narcotics coming through and I try to do my part in keeping that stuff off the streets," Scout said.
The Shadow Wolves currently have 11 members. According to Irby they're getting ready to start recruiting to expand their operations.