'Shadow Wolves' Patrol the Desert Border

audio Listen to Part One of Howard Berkes' report.

audio Listen to Part Two.

July 5, 2001 -- The border between Mexico and Arizona is a hot and desolate region dotted with spiny cactus, mesquite and rattlesnakes. Despite the harsh conditions, the area has become a well-traveled route for drug smugglers.

U.S. Customs Service tracker points out tracks to NPR Correspondent Howard Berkes
U.S. Customs Service tracker points out tracks of suspected drug smugglers to NPR Correspondent Howard Berkes in the desert near Tucson, Arizona.
Photo: Cindy Carpien, NPR

It's also the ancestral home of the native Tohono O'Odham people, who live in scattered settlements west of Tucson, some close to the border.

In the first of two reports on Morning Edition, NPR Correspondent Howard Berkes and Producer Cindy Carpien visit border residents who say drug smugglers shatter the peaceful isolation of their desert homes.

Smugglers are blamed for stealing cars and breaking into homes as they haul 50-pound bales of marijuana 20 miles or more out of the desert to a paved state highway. The Tohono O'Odham Nation Police say they spend so much time arresting drug smugglers and confiscating marijuana, other police work is ignored.

The Tohono O'Odham isn't the only community on the front lines of a boom in drug smuggling. Like other regions in the Southwest, they have asked the federal government for help. In part two of the report on July 6, Berkes reports that members of the Tohono O'Odham and other Native American tribes are using traditional tracking skills to intercept the smugglers within the reservation.

Click on the link to view the photo gallery
Bales of marijuana seized from smugglers. View the photo gallery to get more about the Shadow Wolves.

A unique unit of U.S. Customs Service officers known as the "Shadow Wolves," made up solely of Native Americans from 10 different tribes, patrols remote regions north of the Mexican border. Smugglers try to mask their tracks by walking on rocks and bushes, attaching carpet squares to their shoes and hiking among groups of illegal immigrants.

But the Shadow Wolves are adept in the traditional skills of "reading" tracks, and even use the angled shadows of early morning light to find smugglers and their caches of drugs. The unit is responsible for a third of the Customs Service drug seizures in Arizona.

Web links to learn more:
The Tohono O'Odham Nation
U.S. Customs Service
A Web photo gallery of the Shadow Wolves