Protecting the Desert, One Drug Bust at a Time
On remote stretches in southern Arizona's Sonoran Desert, drug smugglers map strategic jeep routes, which snake through the sand and brush. Physical artifacts of the criminal journey can be found at every turn on the Tohono O’odham Nation's land.
Gas cans are littered at checkpoints on the impromptu northbound highway and along a series of alternate corridors in case of necessary diversion. The supplies often go unused and sit stagnantly until blistering temperatures warp the plastic and allow the oil to ooze onto the ground.
Stolen pickup trucks often break down in the heat and are abandoned by their drivers, left to rust beside cacti in the arid badlands.
An elite Immigration Customs Enforcement (ICE) unit of Native American operatives known as the Shadow Wolves stalk these runners using traditional tracking techniques, aiming to make arrests and reduce the debris in their wake.
Shadow Wolves tracker Kevin Carlos, a member of the Tohono O’odham Nation who grew up hunting on and exploring his people's sacred environment, is particularly irked by the smuggler's treatment of the land.
"They have no care whatsoever to who owns the land or what the land they're driving over, all they care about is making it to their destination," he adds.
Carlos downplays the complexity of his methods, calling them "common sense." But the team can use details as small as a single thread of fiber or the positioning of a pebble to get on the right track.
And they often do. The Shadow Wolves are so successful that they've been invited to lecture customs officials, border guards, and national police in Kazakhstan, Uzbekistan, Latvia, Lithuania, and Estonia.
The tactical agents search for "signs," such as footprints or tire tracks, and attempt to establish when the subjects moved through based on animal tracks and the sun. Carlos says knowing the intricacies of the surrounding environment is key.
When nocturnal animal prints are found over tire tracks on a morning search, they know the "signs" are not fresh and that the smugglers were likely in the area earlier the previous evening. And when they find impressions from livestock, which rumble to waterholes at sunrise, over footprints, the agents know backpackers carrying dope loads are not too far off.
They can also refine the timeline by searching for the areas where smugglers may have stopped and taken a rest.
"If the sun is rising and these individuals wanna rest, someone's typically gonna rest in the shade, right?" Carlos says. "So once you get you to a shade tree and you see where all these individuals had sat down and it's in the sun area. . . you know OK well these guys obviously more than likely came early in the morning and they were sitting here in the shade, but now it's all sunny."
At points along the way, the traffickers attempt to misdirect their pursuers. When, for example, the sand meets hard ground or a paved road, they take advantage by using the untraceable surfaces to distance themselves from their previous tracks. At other places, they hop from root to root or rock to rock to avoid touching the soft sand. Many have taken to the more mountainous regions, where the rocky and rugged surfaces make the Shadow Wolves' job that much more difficult.
The teams also use a leap frog strategy, where an agent who finds a "sign" will radio another one a mile north and ask him whether he has found similar tracks. If he has, another agent will move up another mile and continue looking there. The routine proceeds until an agent to the north cannot locate the tracks. At that point, they know the smugglers are likely between the last spot and the one the agent is searching unsuccessfully.
That or the drugs have been loaded onto a pickup and are already bound for a nearby village or city. But, either way, Carlos will continue the hunt.
"This is the land of our people," he says, "and we'd like to leave it [as] pristine as possible for all our kids growing up and our grandkids as well."
Photos courtesy of ICE
Ryan Jacobs is an editorial intern at SIERRA magazine. A proud graduate of Northwestern University's Medill School of Journalism, he also reports for The Bay Citizen and previously contributed to the Point Reyes Light and Chicago Reporter, among others. Follow him on Twitter: @Ryanj899