By Sylvia Moreno
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, May 6, 2007
TOHONO O'ODHAM NATION, ARIZ. -- In an era of unmanned drones, night-vision goggles and wireless sensors, Sloan Satepauhoodle scours the desert along the Mexican border for drug smugglers in the old ways.
She is a tracker, a former Secret Service agent and customs inspector in Washington who traded in her desk and computer to work "intel" in the desert, employing sign-cutting -- or tracking -- skills once used by her Kiowa ancestors to hunt animals.
Satepauhoodle (pronounced SAY-paw-who-dle) roams this vast Indian reservation in a four-wheel-drive pickup, armed with an M-4 rifle and a .40-caliber semiautomatic pistol. Her job: to look for the tiniest sign that a smuggler has been around and then go after him.
A thread or a fiber on a branch in a thicket could mean a backpacker carrying burlap-wrapped bales of marijuana on his back bumped against the brush. Flat, smooth, shiny tracks indicate smugglers with scraps of carpet tied around their shoes to disguise their prints. A wide, flat indentation of the sand under a tree suggests that a smuggler set down his load of marijuana to rest.
Faint V-shaped lines embedded in a footprint? "Vibram boot. Some smugglers like them," Satepauhoodle said as she walked into a patch of choya cactus and greasewood trees in search of more. "Let me check it out."
High-tech has arrived at the border, but low-tech is very much in use by a special group of federal agents whose sign-cutting skills are being used in the fight against drugs. They are called Shadow Wolves, a small all-Native American group of drug interdiction officers that includes three women, including Satepauhoodle, 40. Her Kiowa name means "Kill the Bear" or "Fuzzy Bear," depending on the pronunciation and the context in which it is used.
Since 1972, the Shadow Wolves unit has worked for the U.S. government in the Tohono O'odham Nation, a reservation the size of Connecticut that straddles Arizona and Mexico and includes 75 miles of border. The tribe originally gave the U.S. government permission to post these officers on its land with the stipulation that they be at least one-quarter American Indian and enrolled in a federally recognized tribe. The original Shadow Wolves unit was all Tohono O'odham, but today more than half a dozen tribes are represented.
That stipulation is what attracted Satepauhoodle to the unit. She grew up in southwest Oklahoma, in the midst of Kiowa and Caddo tribal trust land, then attended Notre Dame University, where she was one of three Native Americans on campus. An American studies major, she thought she would pursue a career in research.
Her path into the Secret Service began at a recruiting booth at the 1990 National Conference of American Indians. She worked in intelligence for eight years in the Secret Service's protective division, then moved to the U.S. Customs Service as an inspector at Dulles International Airport. In 1999, she saw an interagency job posting for the Shadow Wolves unit, which was then part of customs.
It was both a job and a way to reconnect.
"I had been working for the federal government for 10 years and had never worked with Indian people, and here I would get to do such an interesting job with all Indian people," Satepauhoodle said.
She started in the special unit in July 2001, spending the first six months tagging along with seasoned colleagues who taught her the ancient art of tracking. She made her first drug seizure exactly a year after she started, following shiny carpet scuff marks for four hours through the desert until she found 300 pounds of marijuana wrapped in burlap, at a likely pickup point for smugglers.
"It was such a feeling of accomplishment," Satepauhoodle recalled. "I never had a feeling like that on any other job."
The 14-member Shadow Wolves unit now works under U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement and seized an average of 100,000 pounds of marijuana annually in recent years, in an area that has become the hottest marijuana-smuggling spot along the border. In the past six months, the Shadow Wolves have seized almost 50,000 pounds on the Tohono O'odham reservation.
Smuggling marijuana from Mexico through the reservation is an "epidemic," said Tohono O'odham Police Chief Richard Saunders, whose own officers seized almost 20,000 pounds in the past year. Not only is the reservation's location along the border a factor, but with many members of the tribe without jobs and living in poverty, there is incentive to accept money from smugglers to stash narcotics in their homes or to drive bales of marijuana to nearby Tucson, Saunders said.
"They are paid sometimes as much as $10,000 or $15,000 to haul several hundred pounds of narcotics and so they get hooked on that quick, easy money," Saunders said. "However, I'm telling the community that you actually have a greater chance of getting caught now than you ever had as a result of increased resources, networking with other law enforcement, intelligence-sharing and task force assignment."
That includes the Shadow Wolves who "play a critical part in our overall border strategy," said Rodney Irby, a special agent in the ICE Tucson office who helps supervise the unit. "When you combine what they do with what the Border Patrol does and what ICE investigations does, it's kind of a three-tiered-layer approach to border security."
But it is one of the lesser known, given the official and public focus on securing the U.S.-Mexico border to stop illegal immigration. ICE is currently recruiting Shadow Wolves to fill the congressionally authorized complement of 25 members, both to fortify the drug interdiction team and to keep up with requests from foreign countries that want their border guards trained in the art of tracking.
In recent years, members of the Shadow Wolves have trained border guards in more than a dozen countries, including Lithuania, Latvia, Tajikistan, Uzbekistan and Kazakhstan. This week, Satepauhoodle and the two other female members of the Shadow Wolves will be in Macedonia to train border police.
"I'm working in a job that's unique in the world. There's no other office that does what we do and how we do it," Satepauhoodle said. "Not only are we helping our country and we're America's front line, [which is] part of our mission statement, but also we're American Indians doing this on American Indian land. I feel like we're helping ourselves, as well as the country."