From Tracking to Teaching
U.S. Customs Unit Trains Officials in Former Soviet Bloc
By Walter Berry
Friday, September 13, 2002; Page A37
PHOENIX -- For three decades, a Native American unit known as the Shadow Wolves has used its desert tracking skills to help stem the flow of drugs across the Mexican border.
Now the Shadow Wolves, a part of the U.S. Customs Service, are taking their expertise to Eastern Europe in a U.S. effort to prevent the smuggling of nuclear, chemical and biological weapons.
Three members of the 21-person unit spent three weeks last month in Latvia, Lithuania and Estonia, training customs officials, border guards and national police in how to detect and follow those suspected of carrying weapons components. Other Shadow Wolves traveled to Kazakhstan and Uzbekistan earlier this year.
Kevin Carlos, a Shadow Wolves team member who went to the Baltics, said his foreign counterparts learned to search for footprints, broken branches and other clues.
"They all said they can now see the forest from a different point of view," said Carlos, a Tohono O'odham Indian who learned some of his tracking skills through deer hunting.
The overseas trips are part of an effort by the State Department, the Customs Service and other agencies to assist more than two dozen nations, most of them in the former Soviet bloc. The one-week training sessions consist of classroom lectures on tracking techniques and outdoor simulations.
"They basically teach them how to pick up foot signs," said Kyle Barnette, associate agent in charge of the Customs Service's Arizona district. "The terrain in the Baltics is very similar to the Arizona desert. There's a lot of rocky terrain, so our trackers adapt well."
The unit, headquartered in Sells, Ariz., consists of 19 men and two women, all Native Americans from nearly a dozen tribes around the country.
It began in 1972 with about 12 Tohono O'odham Indians under a program created by Congress to foster relations with the tribe and help patrol its Arizona reservation. The tribe's reservation shares 76 miles of border with Mexico.
"They have been a great asset," said Joseph Delgado, assistant tribal police chief. "They've helped us numerous times in everything from tracking down suspects in stolen vehicles to finding missing children. They assist us a lot."
But the unit's main mission is stopping smugglers hauling marijuana, cocaine or heroin on foot or horseback across the Mexican border.
Instead of relying on high-tech equipment, the Shadow Wolves track the old-fashioned way. They look for such clues as disturbed rocks or fibers left behind by a burlap bag, and work at all hours of the day or night.
Customs officials say the armed Indian trackers seize more than 70 percent of the drugs the agency finds on the 3 million-acre Tohono O'odham reservation. So far in the fiscal year that began last Oct. 1, the Shadow Wolves have arrested 400 smugglers and seized 96,000 pounds of marijuana, said John Martelli, one of the group's supervisors.
"It's their heritage. Those tracking skills have been passed on from generation to generation," Barnette said. "These people are successful at whatever they trail. They're the best I've ever seen."
© 2002 The Washington Post Company