Shadow Wolves dwindle; some cite frustration with Border Patrol
WASHINGTON (AP) — Since 1972, the Shadow Wolves, a specially trained unit of American Indian federal agents who patrol 76 miles of the Arizona border in the Tohono O’odham nation, have been celebrated for their ability to track and stop drug smugglers.
The unit, which combines modern law enforcement techniques with tracking skills handed down through generations, once stopped nearly 100,000 pounds of illegal drugs a year from being smuggled through the desert Indian reservation on the U.S.-Mexico border.
But things haven’t been the same since 2003, when the unit was moved from the now-defunct U.S. Customs Service to the Border Patrol in the wake of the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks.
Under the Border Patrol, the Shadow Wolves say, they are confined to seven-mile patrol areas and haven’t been able to do the in-depth investigations that made them so successful at catching smugglers.
Their frustration has caught the attention of Congress.
“It’s kind of like Border Patrol has kept the Shadow Wolves’ hands tied to where they can’t do the job they were put out here to do,” said Marvin Eleando, who retired in 2004 partly out of frustration after 27 years with the Shadow Wolves. “It seems like they’re just trying to discourage officers to retire or quit.”
Created by Congress in 1972 to foster relations with the Tohono O’odham nation and help it patrol its borders, the unit has shrunk from 22 agents to 16 since 2003, mostly because of retirements.
House lawmakers say they’re concerned for the future of the Shadow Wolves. After hearing complaints, Reps. John Shadegg, R-Ariz., and Mark Souder, R-Ind., who chairs a government reform subcommittee dealing with criminal justice and drug policy, introduced and passed a bill last month that would move the unit to Immigration and Customs Enforcement.
Under ICE, the Shadow Wolves would be able to focus more on investigations, Shadegg said.
“This is a unit that was phenomenally successful at interdicting drugs and at border security,” Shadegg said in an interview. “Man-to-man they were dramatically more effective than any other unit on the border.”
But Chuy Rodriguez, a spokesman for the Border Patrol Tucson sector, said it is unclear whether the Shadow Wolves have been less effective in recent years.
The statistics for the amount of drugs confiscated by the unit before 2003 include cases in which other law enforcement agencies helped the Shadow Wolves, Rodriguez said. The unit this year has seized 20,744 pounds of drugs, unassisted, he said.
“I don’t think that’s an accurate statement to say we’re hampering their ability to do their job,” Rodriguez said.
The Shadow Wolves began as a unit of about a dozen Tohono O’odham Indians who brought special tracking skills to the border enforcement effort. The tribe’s desolate, cactus-strewn border with Mexico is heavily trafficked by drug and human smugglers.
The Shadow Wolves now include Indians from several tribes. They analyze the footprints and clothing fibers left by smugglers, able to tell whether a track was left by a man carrying a backpack loaded with marijuana or by a parched migrant lost in the desert heat.
In recent years, the unit helped train Eastern European customs officials in a U.S. effort to prevent the smuggling of nuclear, chemical and biological weapons.
The Shadow Wolves were moved to Border Patrol after the Department of Homeland Security was created.
Eleando said children growing up in Indian Country looked up to the Shadow Wolves “just like the Code Talkers,” Navajos who transmitted secret information during World II in their native language.
But Eleando said that the Shadow Wolves were a bad fit for Border Patrol from the start. Border Patrol imposed their rules and rank system, which some Shadow Wolves considered a demotion.
Eleando said that in addition to being confined to certain regions of the border, Shadow Wolves were prevented from paying informants and other practices, causing the agents to lose sources.
Shadegg said he is still looking for a senator to sponsor his bill to move the unit, but said the legislation now has the blessing of several administration officials. He also hopes that the Shadow Wolves can thrive so their work can be replicated on the northern U.S. border.
Eleando said that under ICE, the Shadow Wolves will have more flexibility.
“I feel it will help change things and put the Shadow Wolves back on track,” he said.
Support Local Journalism
Support Local Journalism
Readers around the Lake Tahoe Basin and beyond make the Tahoe Tribune's work possible. Your financial contribution supports our efforts to deliver quality, locally relevant journalism.
Now more than ever, your support is critical to help us keep our community informed about the evolving coronavirus pandemic and the impact it is having locally. Every contribution, however large or small, will make a difference.
Your donation will help us continue to cover COVID-19 and our other vital local news.