March 15, 2007

The Shadow Wolves

Fascinating look at a group of Indian trackers who are employed by the US Customs office. The article first came out in 2003 but it is timely and interesting reading. From the Smithsonian Magazine:
Shadow Wolves
An all-Indian Customs unit—possibly the world's best trackers—uses time-honored techniques to pursue smugglers along a remote stretch of the U.S.-Mexico border

On a brickoven hot morning somewhere southwest of Tucson, Arizona, U.S. Customs patrol officer Bryan Nez holds up a hand in caution. Dead ahead lies a heavy thicket, an ideal spot for an ambush by drug smugglers. Something has rousted a coyote, which lopes away. Nez keeps his M16 trained on the bushes.

“Down, now,” he whispers. We crouch on the hot, sandy desert floor. My heart is pounding, and I fully expect smugglers to step out of the bushes with guns drawn. Instead, Nez whispers, “Hear it?” I can’t at first, but then I detect a faint buzzing. In seconds, a dark cloud of insects swarms by not a dozen feet from us. “Probably killer bees,” says Nez, getting up and moseying on. False alarm.

Nasty insects seem the least of our problems. The temperature will soon top 107 degrees. We’ve been out on foot for an hour tracking drug smugglers, and large moon-shaped sweat stains form under the arms of Nez’s camouflage fatigues. He carries a Glock 9-millimeter pistol in a vest along with a radio, a GPS receiver and extra ammunition clips. On his back is a camel pack, or canteen, containing water; Nez will wrestle with heat cramps all day.

But the 50-year-old patrol officer doesn’t have time to think about that. We’re following the fresh tracks of a group of suspected smugglers he believes have brought bales of marijuana from Mexico into Arizona’s Tohono O’odham Nation reservation.

A full-blooded Navajo, Nez belongs to an all-Indian Customs unit, nicknamed the Shadow Wolves, that patrols the reservation.The unit, which numbers 21 agents, was established in 1972 by an act of Congress. (It has recently become part of the Department of Homeland Security.) “The name Shadow Wolves refers to the way we hunt, like a wolf pack,” says Nez, a 14-year veteran who joined the U.S. Customs Patrol Office of Investigation in 1988 after a stint as an officer with the Bureau of Indian Affairs and the Navajo Police Department. “If one wolf finds prey, it will call in the rest of the pack.” What makes the Shadow Wolves unique is its modus operandi. Rather than relying solely on high-tech gadgetry— night-vision goggles or motion sensors buried in the ground—members of this unit “cut for sign.” “Sign” is physical evidence—footprints, a dangling thread, a broken twig, a discarded piece of clothing, or tire tracks. “Cutting” is searching for sign or analyzing it once it’s found.

Nez relies on skills he learned growing up on the Navajo Nation reservation in northern Arizona, and he cuts sign like other people read paperbacks. Between October 2001 and October 2002, the Shadow Wolves seized 108,000 pounds of illegal drugs, nearly half of all the drugs intercepted by Customs in Arizona. The group has also been invited to Latvia, Lithuania, Estonia, Kazakstan and Uzbekistan to help train border guards, customs officials and police in tracking would-be smugglers of chemical, biological and nuclear weapons.
What makes this article especially interesting and timely is that members of this group are over in Afghanistan right now tracking terrorists. From the Sunday Times Online:
Sioux trackers to hunt Taliban
An elite group of native American trackers is joining the hunt for terrorists crossing Afghanistan’s borders.

The unit, the Shadow Wolves, was recruited from several tribes, including the Navajo, Sioux, Lakota and Apache. It is being sent to Tajikistan and Uzbekistan to pass on ancestral sign-reading skills to local border units.

In recent years, members of the Shadow Wolves have mainly tracked drug and people smugglers along the US border with Mexico.

But the Taliban’s resurgence in Afghanistan and the American military’s failure to hunt down Osama Bin Laden - still at large on his 50th birthday yesterday - has prompted the Pentagon to requisition them.

Robert M Gates, the US defence secretary, said last month: “If I were Osama Bin Laden, I’d keep looking over my shoulder.”

The Pentagon has been alarmed at the ease with which Taliban and Al-Qaeda fighters have been slipping in and out of Afghanistan. Defence officials are convinced their movements can be curtailed by the Shadow Wolves.

The unit has earned international respect for its tracking skills in the harsh Arizona desert.
Very cool! I have read stories about people who track and their abilities are downright spooky. Here is the website for The Shadow Wolves. Posted by DaveH at March 15, 2007 8:11 PM
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