Shadow Wolves

Tracking the drug war, 36 inches at a time.

In brightest day, in darkest night, no evil shall escape my sight, for I am the Shadow Wolf. -- Patrol Officers' motto, U.S. Customs

On the Tohono O'Odham Reservation west of Tucson, in a squat brick HQ, against the backdrop of some scrubby desert hills and a $20 billion high-tech drug war, the Shadow Wolves of U.S. Customs are lacing their boots. They are the service's last remaining Native American unit. They are a holdover from a legislated time (the early '70s) of progressive hiring. And to prep for another day of stubborn work, these weathered O'odhams and Pimas and members of other "off-brand" tribes are cracking jokes, fussing with flack vests and nibbling on fruit, anything to pass the minutes and get to the good part, which is the part where they get to head out and hunt for footprints, signs of backpacking Mexican drug smugglers creeping north.

First, though, there's a recitation of last year's numbers--the unit, with just 19 officers, accounted for nearly a third of all dope seized (some 90 tons in total) by the 400 or so Customs people in the state. And then a clean-cut, dip-spitting special agent presents a situational update to the group.

"OK," he begins, "first off, we're getting hit real good out west, both weed and coke. Second, some of these mopes are really fighting back, so be aware. And third, when we roll out of here, don't use the Chevron or the Shell"--a directive meant to keep any reservation lookouts from noting a suspicious number of lawmen gassing up.

It's the height of the fall weed harvest, a gray November morning, and senior Shadow Wolf Bryan Nez, 48, motors south in an unmarked pickup, aiming to sweep the rutted back country between Mexico and the reservation's lone artery, east-west 86. He is a dark-haired and caramel-skinned Navajo with 12 years on the job and a build that resembles a pile of sandbags full of rocks. His beat--the country's second largest res--is a Connecticut-sized desert tract that includes some 70 miles of international boundary marked by little more than a five-wire fence.

He passes free-roaming paints and rib-thin longhorns. He skirts sagging trailer homes featuring killed cars in trashed yards. He holds forth on the O'odhams' pandemic poverty, which has lured some 80 percent of the tribe, Nez guesses, into the Mexican drug game. To the east, the Baboquivari mountains rise up like busted teeth. To the west, intermittent spans of scabland and not much else to look at until he veers onto a remote dirt byway lined with greasewood. And now, suddenly, he's on the job and eyeing the ground. Which is to say, at a speed of 10 miles per hour, to a soft-rock radio tune, this hulk-shouldered and cammo-clad low-tech tracker has commenced to nudge us forth with his head out the window.

It's warm now, just three hours into a 12-hour shift, and Nez needs to contort like this, though it riles old rodeo pains in his neck, because it's the best way he knows to cover big country and study the ground. And because despite the vast array of gadgets and gewgaws strung along the border maybe a day's walk south, having a sharp-eyed Shadow Wolf study the ground like this is still the best way anyone knows to locate where a group of Mexican smugglers might have tread.

PART OF WHAT MAKES THE Shadow Wolves so indispensable here has to do with the region's deadly heat, which debilitates things like infrared sensors and smart-nosed dogs. And part of it has to do with the region's far-flung geography, which discourages the sort of fixed towers and manned gates you might find in a place like, say, San Diego. Mostly, though, it's the anachronistic skills--as ancient as any mankind's got--kept alive by the Shadow Wolves themselves.

Most, like Nez, grew up on reservations where hunting game or tracking livestock were daily rituals that got passed down. Most, like Nez again, are former soldiers or standout police. Some are good enough with a long gun to knock a man down at 800 meters. Others are good enough on a horse--a common conveyance before the unit got ATVs--to ride down and rope a smuggler on the run. At least one has developed enough stealth to tap a surprised smuggler on the shoulder before taking him down. It doesn't hurt, when it comes to motivation, that at least half the unit, the half-dozen or so O'odham members, regards stopping smugglers on the res as a prideful act of homeland defense.

Such desert smuggling, of course, is nothing new--people have been doing it since there's been a border to smuggle stuff across. But only in the last half century has it turned so dramatically to dope, and only in the last two decades, with the hardening of Florida's coastal ports, has so much narco traffic (as much as 70 percent of all U.S. drug imports) been funneled across our nation's southwestern edge. Add in the passage of NAFTA (more traffic of all kinds), an influx of Colombian coke (most of it now comes through Mexico) and a general increase in the wealth of the Mexican cartels, and you get the sort of evolutionary arms race the Shadow Wolves find themselves in now.

Not only have the smugglers taken to fighting back--with ever more firepower--against beefed-up enforcement schemes that now grab two-thirds of the drug war's budget, but they've taken to fine-tuning their basic approach. Fifteen years ago, the loads were bigger and generally came over in cars and trucks. These days, in response to increased scrutiny, the loads are smaller, more numerous and more often shouldered across the desert by groups of human mules. These mules, recruited from the streets of Mexico's grimmest towns, typically get assigned a single veteran coyote to lead them across, at night, with little more then the faint glow of Phoenix to guide them north, plus maybe a bindle of coke to keep them going or a dime bag of personal-use pot to ease their pain.

If they make it--if they manage, after several days of walking, to reach highway-side stash sites and get picked up--they'll earn between $200 and $2,000 and will send their hallucinogenic cargo barreling on, in dark-windowed vehicles, captained now by Indian drivers, toward urban demand centers in the heartland and on the coasts. If they're caught, it's no big loss to the drug lords as the mules are easy to come by and the dope is cheap to grow.

To the 12,000 or so on-site members of the Tohono O'odham, or "desert people," however, the drug game's impact has been dramatic. The res is littered with trash (on any given night some 300 smugglers and illegals might cross the nation). The local clinics are packed with addicts. And due to the nation's sick economy and hard-to-guard flanks, not even the Shadow Wolves hold out much hope for near-future change.

THE GROUND SLURS WOOZILY past. Nez jounces, on extra-thick tires, between the tiny villages of Cowlic and Topawa where many smugglers are said to live and where, when I go to indicate a certain house, Nez says "Don't point" because he doesn't want to see a gun barrel pointed back at us. Some jackrabbits flush before us. And every now and then, when Nez's minutia-minded focus notes something I've invariably missed, he taps the brake, leaves the truck idling and bustles out to check on some prints. What he is doing is known as "cutting sign" or "checking for spore." What it looks like, to an outsider, is a man hunting for a lost contact lens without kneeling down. And what it turns up, in this case, is a speculative moment when my eyes see nothing much while Nez's eyes see a whole family.

"Got a crossing here," he says, dully, pointing at some faint impressions in the dirt. "See, that one's a female, real small and narrow. And this boy here, he's tired, barely picking up his feet. Over here, probably got a child running to catch up. These two are a couple staying together; see how it's always her and him, her and him?"

If the impressions suggest women and children or if they appear shallow and unburdened, then they probably involve undocumented aliens, which don't concern him, Nez says, as the Shadow Wolves only chase smugglers while the Border Patrol, a division of the Immigration and Naturalization Service, gets stuck chasing the simple illegals. To tell if the impressions have born much weight, he follows them up. Compares his prints to theirs. Makes some deductions. Are they digging in more than he is? Are their strides shorter in a way that might suggest a shouldered load? When they come to an obstacle--a hanging limb, say--do they dodge it nimbly or crash on through?

Along a nearby fence he spies more marks. He checks for places where they, whoever they are, might have rested a load--weave of burlap backpack in a rectangular print--or dragged a load under, or caught some burlap fibers on a barb. You can tell a lot, Nez says, by how a "body" crosses a road. Illegals, with little to lose and little to hide, might just trudge ahead unevasively. Smugglers, on the other hand, might brush their tracks out with leafy branches; walk backwards to imply they're headed back south; redraw a truck's tread marks to make the road look undisturbed; go so far as to cross with a pole-vault pole, pogo stick or unfurled roll of cloth.

Most, however--most with enough smarts to be concerned--use scrap carpet pieces wired around their shoes, pieces that leave only the faintest "shine," like some hummingbird's dust-up, to indicate "carpet people" on the move. Keep that shine between you and the sun, Nez says, and the angle of light will work in your favor and you can track them in a way that, for my money, boggles the mind.

"Anyone can be tracked," Nez assures. "Even at night, even over rocks. There's always one asshole who screws it up, one guy who kicks pebbles or scuffs his heels, and so he's the guy you look for, the one guy who will always help you out."

The sun bleeds down. The dry air cools. Nez eats "Navajo steak" sandwiches (baloney and bread) kept free of any mayo that might turn in the daytime heat. "You have to love just being out here," he says at one point, as if to explain his tolerance for all this slow driving. At another point, he coasts up to a lonely headstone girdled by a plain white fence.

Here, Nez says, is the spot where O'odham officer Glenn Miles took two bullets and died, an unsolved case. The year was 1987. Miles, recently remarried and off the booze, was one of just three officers on that night's patrol when he saw something suspicious off in the brush. He called in his intention to check it out. He never called back. Thirty minutes later, Shadow Wolves Al Estrada and Robert Antone, both O'odhams, found Miles' dropped flashlight, next to his body, still beaming out. One theory holds that Miles jumped some smugglers who managed to pull his gun. Another, much maligned, holds that Miles had demanded a bribe.

The first round blew through his hand, a defensive wound, as if he'd tried to shield his face. The second did some bad things to his back. The follow-up found three sets of tracks that crossed the border six miles south.

"After that," Nez says, "you got a different feeling when you tracked. Really, you always knew that something like that could happen, that those people were out here, but after Glenn, you knew it just a little bit more."

"So are you thinking about Glenn's killers now?" I ask.

Nez grins and says something I'm not sure I believe. "Not really," he says. "No, really I'm just thinking it's about time we got back out there and caught you a load."

There's a story written on the ground. It's not Hollywood. It's not mystical. It's a logical pursuit of evidence over a large portion of real estate.

--Ab Taylor, retired tracker

WITH HIS DASH LIGHTS TAPED over to foil snipers and help him see out, and with a small magnetic light affixed to his left rocker panel to show him the ground, Nez cuts the "drag road," named for the way the Border Patrol drags it with towed tires to prep it for sign. Later he comes upon a young Border Patrolman in a truck.

"You all out cutting it too?" the patrolman asks, and Nez nods. "You're Customs, right?" he says, and Nez, all slouched down and weary, mumbles a few words before rolling on, as before, only now with some bemused chuckles--what if we'd been bad guys?--and some more frequent stops to rub his eyes. Which is about when, amid some eye rubbing and infectious yawning, he cuts the sign that justifies his meanderings and wakes him up.

It's the cusp of the shift change. It's a bad time to start a follow-up if you need sleep, which Nez says he doesn't, as the Shadow Wolves code demands he stick on any fresh trail for as long as it takes. He knows it's a fresh trail because they've knocked down these tiny leaves and if you crush them between your fingers, the pulp is still moist. He knows they're smugglers and not simple illegals because they've sprinkled dirt on the road to cover their tracks; because they've tramped the road's edge as if cogitating on how to cross; because they've marched single-file to obscure their numbers; because the prints indicate "some big boys here," an all-male group; and finally because, not far off, he locates the tell-tale weave of burlap in a rectangular print.

"Here's where they rested," Nez coos. "Ooo boy, we can work this; feel that rush?"

To close the time-distance gap he hustles back to the truck. Calls in his GPS coordinates on a secure channel scrambled with a code changed every month.

"Yeah, I got some sign here, three or four bodies headed north, OK for me to follow up with this reporter?" The radio rages with static. Despite several attempts, Nez doesn't get a clear answer back. "At night, we're usually not supposed to do this," he says, "but I guess if no one says anything ... ." He looks me over. "Do you know anything about a shooting a gun?"

I lie.

"OK," he says, drawing his Glock, "if anything goes down, I'm going to pass you my sidearm. Safety's in the trigger, see? If you need to drop somebody, you put two in the body, one in the head--that's the no-confidence drill, in case they're wearing armor. You got it? All clear?"

I lie again while Nez bangs a clip into his M16, shrugs on his Camelbak--in the summer he might down 100 ounces of water in less than a mile--and trots out to lead the way, off through the brush and into the night on the heels of three or four possibly armed smugglers muling, most likely, some 30 to 60 pounds of fresh bud each. For illumination, he's got a heavy black mag-light. For backup, if he needs it quickly, he's got nothing but me.

We focus down and in. The rest of the world fades. In time, the prints we're following grow so well-known, they take on familiar personas (the leader, the wanderer, the one who pronates). Which is why, I've learned, at least one federal agency likes to pull back its trackers just before capture, to guard against any sympathy-born reluctance to act. Still, sympathy or no, it's impossible now to forget some of the more worrisome episodes from the unit's violent past.

There was the time the Mexican army, in cahoots with some smugglers, fired on officer Eric Gano, an O'odham, and pinned him down; the time a fleeing suspect opened up on officer Stanley Liston, another O'odham, and riddled his prowler with holes; the numerous times, over the years, that officers have seized guns or ammo dropped by smugglers on the run. Are we headed for more gunplay now? And if so, what would it mean to catch a bullet here in pursuit of these drugs?

The answers aren't easy, but when Nez turns off his light and squats to listen, I squat too and realize that despite the drug war's dubious efficacy, what we're doing now feels charged by a thrilling sense of purpose, a sense that we're on the verge of taking action, doing something righteous and challenging and concrete.

Far ahead, some dogs are barking and we can hear the tiny mosquito whine of officer Harold Thompson, another Navajo, winging in on his ATV. What Thompson is doing is thinking like our smugglers and leap-frogging our ICP (Initial Commencement Point). That is, he's anticipating their destination and jumping in to cut the next road north so that he might gain ground on our bodies while we make certain they haven't holed up in between. For Thompson to do his thing, however, he needs a description of the relevant tread IDs.

"Yeah," Nez murmurs into his handset. "We got an egg in an egg on one of the heels, we got another with some fine-line running Ws and another that looks kind of like a tennis shoe." And then, for my benefit, he points out more sign: a broken joint of cholla--dropped off someone's pant leg?--in a cholla-free flat; a scattering of chewed sunflower seeds; a plastic agua jug; a can of frijoles; a swarming mob of obviously disturbed ants.

If we get close enough, Nez whispers, we'll smell their b.o. or their cigarettes or even a last meal on their breath. If they're nervous, we'll see spiraling pivots from where they glanced back. If they're on to us, we'll see their strides lengthen, a definite run. If they're looking to hide, their tracks will probe the thickets. If they've got security in tow, all we can do is blend our tracks in with the ones we're following and pray against ambush from behind. As for booby traps, Nez says, he's not too worried--he's never seen one yet.

What he has seen--or at least heard of--is the recent failure of our country's two biggest manhunts (the one for Eric Rudolph and the one for Jason McVean), both of which might be over by now, he imagines, if they'd only called in the Shadow Wolves first thing. "Put us on that Rudolph before everyone messed up his tracks, and he'd be doing time now, guaranteed."

Which isn't what's in store for the men we're following, the radio soon reports, as it seems they've already made the highway and gotten picked up, beating us to that east-west vein of asphalt not far from the "Monkey Ranch" where some banana-eating smugglers once got pinched. If we'd caught up to them, Nez says, he would have gone in aggressive, brandishing his weapon and screaming, in his limited Spanish, for the smugglers to get down. Some might have run. At least one would have been chased, assuming none stayed to fight, in which case Nez would have had to slug it out, shoot it out, or back off and wait for help.

Is he bummed about missing this load? Does all the dope still crossing the res--it's been estimated that the Shadow Wolves only nab about 10 percent--make him mad? Does it frustrate him that, despite all his efforts, drug purity has only gone up while drug prices have only gone down?

Nez sighs and waits a beat before echoing the unit's most weary standard ("At least it's job security") and then shrugging through a speech about how he tries, as well as he can, not to let that stuff bother him. Because the work is just too exciting. And the pay is just too good (at around $60,000, he's making three to four times the reservation average). And anyway, the unit catches just too many smugglers, he thinks, for it not to matter.

"Besides," Nez continues, a bit too brightly, "even if we take it a little personal when they beat us, at least we know they'll always be back."

Twenty years ago I read a study that said the average drug trafficking organization could lose 90 percent of its product and still be profitable. -- Robert Stutman, retired special agent, U.S. Drug Enforcement Agency

WITH MORNING COMES CHAOS and a smear of long hours wherein all personal needs and reflective moments get swamped by the zest of the hunt. It starts with some dime-dropping intelligence and a white Ford Bronco full of baby clothes and dope. Three endless shifts later--shifts full of mad pursuits, multiple busts (one of which involves a flying-tackle takedown by two of the unit's newer recruits), and so much desert sign cutting that it's hard to imagine a place where a Shadow Wolf hasn't tramped--there's a wee-hour rendezvous back at headquarters where all hands get assigned to one of two groups.

One will work a "Trojan horse" in which four Shadow Wolves in a seized Dodge Durango drive off to meet a smuggler named Mondo, said to be sitting on a load and expecting a food drop in the thickets of Fresnal wash. The other, with me included, will track up a bunch of backpackers said to be en route to a Topawa stash house.

The stash house, however, proves empty. And so we're left with little to do until later that morning when we're called in to help beat the bushes for Mondo who, having been captured, cuffed and thrown in a pickup, has now managed to escape.

After 30 sleepless hours, though, our bush-beating leaves much to be desired. And it's not long before the details we're looking at start to blur. We see footprints behind our eyelids. Our faculties grow more and more mossy until I admit exhaustion and Nez, in a fog of distraction, admits that sometimes the spirits still guide him, the hands of dead people like his grandfather or Shadow Wolf Glenn Miles still "notching" him on the shoulder as he tracks.

Just now, in fact, he has to admit that he can't quite explain his every intuition, just that at times he senses something's out there by the absence of something else. A certain lack of bird-song, perhaps, or some game trail weirdly free of fresh spore. Maybe some crickets go silent. Maybe some ravens take flight, without clear reason, from a distant palo verde. Or maybe he just notices that, hey, the boggy prints we're following fall atop some wispy centipede tracks, meaning that, since it's morning now and the centipede's nocturnal, these prints have got to be fresh.

Though their freshness won't matter, of course, if they prove to be the featureless footfalls of yet another officer's mud-clogged treads. Though if they prove to be the mud-clogged-treads of Mondo--now grandly known as "the escaped federal prisoner"--then Omaha Ed will be off the hook for letting him run. And Doug The Gun Queer will get his cuffs back. And Rene The Resident Agent In Charge can stop this manhunt, which has scrambled dozens of lawmen, along with a hovering Blackhawk, to flush the brush and help keep this "incident" from becoming, in Shadow Wolf Duder's words, "the turd in the punchbowl" that taints two days' success.

Several hours pass. The manhunt swells--they're here from the Department of Public Safety and Tohono O'odham PD, the Border Patrol and the FBI, the National Park Service and the Bureau of Indian Affairs--and the wash area, all dense scrub-brush and spindly trees, fills with more and more misleading spore. Add in the squelching radios and the roaring chopper, and you have the exact perfect conditions, Nez fumes, for Mondo, a wiry and "probably coked up" Mexican smuggler, to disappear.

So should we quit?

Nez gives an incredulous shake of the head before floundering on, with increasing slowness, to investigate yet another line of mud-clogged treads. In doing so, in moving so slowly, he's hoping to avoid confusion, hoping to stick on one trail at a time by adopting a far less aggressive technique. It's the sort of technique one might learn, say, at a search and rescue workshop. It stresses a methodical approach to finding each footfall, 36 inches at a time, and what it means is that if Mondo's hunkered down and hiding, we might not have the wherewithal to spot him until our last few steps.

And so when Nez sends me off to cut sign solo, I can't help thinking of how much I must look, in my borrowed cammos, like any other border-based narc. Except I don't carry a gun or wear a vest. And no matter how much Nez tells me that I'm a good tracker--and that, as it happens, this is pretty much how they train the new recruits--I can't help wondering what it says about the drug war to have a civilian like me pressed into service like this.

Also, I can't help wondering about what a coked-up smuggler's pawn like Mondo might be capable of in a fight. If he's a repeat offender, he'd be fighting to avoid some serious jail time, especially when compared to a first-timer who might only do a year for 70 pounds or less, so glutted are Tucson's courts with heavyweight arrests. On the other hand, I've heard, there are those load-losing "mopes" who might welcome arrest and beg for their paperwork, anything to prove they haven't crossed bosses who might otherwise make them dead.

But Mondo, in Dougie's handcuffs, has all the proof he needs. And so it's assumed, by the way he fought capture--it took three officers to pin him down--that he's done time before. Either that, or, Nez reckons, he's still stoned.

We search in ever widening arcs, with other searchers crashing all around us. Later we gather back by the road where Mondo made his break. It's a spot now surrounded by parked pickups, battered quads and purse-lipped Shadow Wolves all grumpy about how stuff like this just doesn't happen to them and how, additionally, bringing in all these outsiders just makes things worse.

The Chickasaw Warrior, who's tall, tattooed and fond of wrap-around shades, has an opinion. "This whole big fuss, it's not because Mondo's some killer desperado, it's just because if he falls in a puddle and drowns in our handcuffs, we're liable."

Would it help to call in more trackers from the FBI?

The Chickasaw Warrior makes a face. "The FBI? Shit, the FBI couldn't track a menstruating elephant through a snow bank. Shit, what the FBI should do is call on us. You know, forget Mondo; if we had a hundred more Indian trackers, we'd be catching every smuggler on the res. Problem is, then they'd send the dope over somewhere else, so there's your catch."

There's some nodding agreement, a general shifting of feet, after which one Shadow Wolf takes me aside and reminds me of the obvious. "Hey, we're not supermen here." And then before we all disperse--some of us to get back to searching and some of us, namely me, to mull over the great gobs of federal resources called in to catch just one unarmed man--there's a moment when Nez gets contemplative and puffs his cheeks.

"It's a real war out here," he says. "America has no idea, but that's what it is. I mean, can you imagine what the public would think if they saw all these Indians running around with all these guns?"

OVER THE NEXT FEW DAYS, the hunt for Mondo never fully stops--the thought of finding him remains a constant. The back-to-back shifts tend to blur. I crash a few hours, spend another 36 in the field. Crash a few hours. When I see Nez again, he confides, "I don't want to do this forever." I ride along on one last shift.

It's a shift that features a cholla thorn that pierces my boot heel, and a found message, scratched in the dirt, that translates into "Fuck you narcs." It's a shift that earns me my very own Shadow Wolf patch in honor of my days in the field. And, finally, it's a shift that, in the end, offers up no new insights other than the fact, born out by the past week's stats--15 busts along with the seizure of two tons of pot, 57 pounds of coke and seven cars and trucks--that a big part of what keeps these drug warriors going is something I'll call a state of cognitive disconnect.

On the one hand they know, intellectually, that there remains an irrepressible community of domestic drug users with plenty of access to cheap and potent dope. On the other, they've got an evidence room so heaped with loads that it's hard to believe they haven't made it just a bit harder for the average user to score.

But as for me catching some last glimpse of big-picture meaning, all will have to wait. That's because not long after we motor forth, a hard rain swamps the highway and flash floods fill the lows so that nothing much gets observed until the next morning when I finagle a gunner's-seat reservation fly-over in a gleaming Blackhawk.

The rotors lift us up. The earth recedes. The horizon gapes. The sky settles around us like a great gray hangover. And the overall effect is that my fly-over, out of Tucson, makes me sick, but also shows me the border--as trafficked as ever--from a whole new vantage, a vantage that, I've been told, most Shadow Wolves don't often get to glimpse.

And what that does is show me that the desert's been erased, wiped clean of all footfalls by last night's rain so that if I didn't know better, if I hadn't walked the walk and studied the minutia with the drug war's best. I might have thought they'd never been out there in the first place.