- The Washington Times - Friday, March 21, 2008

TOHONO O’ODHAM INDIAN RESERVATION, Ariz. — The alert sounded in John Bothof’s patrol truck shortly after midday. Somebody had stepped on the side of a road. Somebody whose footprints suggested he was up to no good.

“See how deeply the rim of the shoe sinks into the sand?” said Mr. Bothof, a Lakota Indian from the Black Hills of South Dakota, crouching by the print with his partner, Carol Kirkpatrick, a Navajo from northern Arizona.

“It means he had a load,” the track reader said. “Probably a backpack full of drugs.”

The prey revealed itself. It was time for wolves to go on a prowl.

The Shadow Wolves is a unique tracking team of American Indians employed by the Department of Homeland Security to hunt the drug and human smugglers who move through this remote area in droves.

A dozen of these trackers operate in the entire country. They are members of different tribes who have learned and preserved the ancient skill of reading the earth’s private diary.

They have been working on this sprawling reservation southwest of Tucson since the early 1970s, intercepting loads of illegal drugs from Mexico.

Now that border security has moved to the forefront of the national agenda, their job has taken on more urgency and importance.

The radio in Mr. Bothof’s truck spewed a steady torrent of coded traffic. The Wolves were gathering into a pack.

“There are probably six of them. We have got a good count,” said Gary Ortega, a Tohono Indian and a 10-year veteran of the unit, whose voice crackled into the cabin like a thunderbolt.

But the smugglers also have revealed a degree of experience and sophistication: They did not cross the road in one place.

Soon their tracks brought more bad news. It has been about 12 hours since they crossed, in the dead of night and ahead of an approaching rainstorm that they knew would wash away at least some of the tracks.

In 12 hours, the traffickers already might have reached their destination. Then again, smugglers usually avoid moving in pitch dark because flashlights are likely to reveal their presence to aerial surveillance.

So the six may have camped overnight, cutting their head start perhaps by more than half.

The Wolves paused to ponder a plan of attack, then began their hunt.

It was an eerie display of an ancient craft bolstered by modern technology, of a nearly forgotten tribal skill making a stunning comeback, and of good feverishly trying to outpace evil.

Mr. Bothof made a sharp U-turn, gunned the engine and headed about 10 miles north, toward the village of San Luis, where lay a parallel dirt road.

“We want to see if they’ve crossed this one, too,” he said. “If yes, they’ve gone north. If, on the other hand, they have not, then they are somewhere between the two roads.”

With the village in sight, the truck slowed to a crawl. Earth reading is always painfully slow: inch by inch, every tuft of sun-parched grass, every gnarled branch of cholla cactus.

“Some smugglers are good, very good, at what they do,” said Sloan Satepauhoodle, a Kiowa Indian from Oklahoma who has been with the Wolves for seven years. “But the earth registers everybody’s presence. You just have to learn to see these signs.”

They make shoes out of old carpets and tie them over their boots in the hope of rendering footprints less visible. They sweep behind themselves when crossing roads. They try to step on grass rather than sand or follow animal trails in the expectation that cattle will soon destroy the prints with their hooves.

But the grass will register abuse, the prints made by ribbed hiking boots will peek from under hoofprints, and carpet shoes still leave tracks, which just look different.

“Sooner or later, they will brush against a cactus and leave a fiber from their clothes on its thorn,” Miss Satepauhoodle said. “Or a mesquite tree will get in the way, and a tiny branch will get broken. To us, it tells the story.”

Inch by inch, yard by yard. So far, the road showed no sign of human activity, but miles of it still lay ahead.

Other Shadow Wolves patrols were conducting similar inspections to the east and west in the hope of narrowing the search area before a final pounce.

“They may already be in one of their safe houses on the reservation,” Mr. Bothof said. “Let’s just see if they lead us to it.”

Poverty is widespread in Tohono O’odham, where unemployment stands at more than 40 percent and per capita income does not exceed $8,000 a year. That makes cooperation with drug cartels attractive to some residents.

Safe houses along the border are usually where Mexican drug cartels hand over the merchandise to their U.S. counterparts, who load it onto trucks, vans and sport utility vehicles and move it to urban centers.

Officials said the cartels sometimes send in small planes, which fly at night, their lights extinguished, and land on dry lakes, where drugs are unloaded quickly onto waiting pickups.

If they sense danger, smugglers often hide their loads in the desert, preferring to face arrest as illegal immigrants. They know subsequent deportation will allow them to return for their goods later and finish the job.

“These ‘mules’ don’t get paid if the dope doesn’t get to its destination,” Miss Satepauhoodle said.

Step by step. Inch by inch. Gunplay is rare. All bets are on patience and attention to detail.

The ramshackle Indian village of Nolic came into view from behind palo verde trees. “It has several abandoned houses we need to check,” Mr. Bothof said.

The noose tightened a notch, although the Wolves were not certain whether the tracks would lead to the smugglers or just to their load.

The radio crackled with a Border Patrol report that a group of up to 40 illegal migrants was detected in the area.

Three suspects caught by the Wolves in the morning with a total of 1,250 pounds of marijuana already were sitting sullenly in windowless cells at Immigration and Customs Enforcement headquarters in Sells.

More were to come. If not today, then tomorrow. Once they zero in on their prey, the Wolves rarely let go.

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