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EXPLORATIONS - August 14, 2002: Shadow Wolves - 2002-08-13


This is Steve Ember.


And this is Shirley Griffith with the VOA Special English program EXPLORATIONS. Today we visit the desert of the American Southwest to learn about a group of people called the Shadow Wolves.



A Shadow Wolf is hunting. He is not looking for animals. He is hunting people.

The Shadow Wolf walks slowly across the extremely hot desert sand. His eyes move slowly over the ground. Most people would only see sand, dirt, rocks and some small plants. The Shadow Wolf sees a story.

He looks closely at the ground. He can tell that five men passed this way. Four of them carried heavy loads. He can also tell they are moving quickly. They are not yet running, but they are moving as fast as their heavy loads permit. One is not carrying a heavy load. The Shadow Wolf knows this person is the group’s leader.

The Shadow Wolf increases his own speed across the dry, hot desert. Soon, he can tell that the five men are running. They know he is following them.

Moments later, in the far distance, a group of birds suddenly flies away from the ground. The five men have frightened the birds. The Shadow Wolf slowly pulls out his radio and calls for help.

The five men are captured within an hour. They are arrested for trying to bring illegal drugs into the United States. Once again, the Shadow Wolf hunters of the United States Customs Service have been successful.


For thousands of years, people were hunter-gatherers. They survived by hunting wild animals and gathering kinds of food that were not easily found. Their hunting skills were extremely important. The ancient hunter-gatherers of the world learned to follow the signs or marks left on the ground as animals moved along a path.

This skill is called tracking. A good tracker would often spend days following the signs of a group of animals until he could make a successful kill for food.


These skills have disappeared in most of the modern world. Yet, special members of the United States Customs Service use them to find and arrest people who try to sell illegal drugs. These Customs Service agents are Native Americans.

The group is called the Shadow Wolves. There are Eighteen men and one woman in the group. They belong to a number of different tribes, including Tohono O’Odham (tuh-HO-no ode-um), Navajo (NA-veh-ho), Lakota, Omaha, Pima(PEE-mah), Yorock (YORE-ock) and Sac&fox (sack n' fox).

The Shadow Wolves live by a saying that tells a lot about them and their work. The saying is, ”In brightest day, in darkest night, no evil shall escape my sight, for I am the Shadow Wolf.”



The Shadow Wolves have been members of the United States Custom Service for about thirty years. They work on the second largest area of American Indian land in the United States. It is called the Tohono O’Odham Reservation. It is a few kilometers west of the city of Tucson, in the southwestern state of Arizona.

The huge reservation shares a one-hundred-twenty-kilometer border with Mexico. People who want to sell illegal drugs in the United States carry the drugs on their backs across the desert land of the Tohono O’odham Reservation. They try to move from the border to the nearest road, about forty kilometers away. Usually about three or four people carry the drugs through the reservation at night. Their shoes leave marks in the dirt.

The Shadow Wolves follow these shoe marks to find the drug dealers and arrest them. The Shadow Wolves have been very successful at this.


The Congress of the United States approved the idea of the Shadow Wolves thirty years ago for several reasons. Police agencies in Arizona and the United States Custom Service had all the modern technology needed to help catch people who tried to sell illegal drugs. But they lacked the skills of the ancient hunter-gatherers who could follow the signs left by people as they passed through the desert.

Customs Service officials knew drug dealers were coming across the border and into the Tohono O’Odham Reservation. The government asked Indians who lived on the reservation to help in the fight against the drug dealers. The first members of the Shadow Wolves were members of the Tohono O’Odham tribe.

A few years ago, the first members of the unusual group began to retire. The group asked if skilled trackers from other tribes wanted to become Shadow Wolves. The answer was yes.


The Shadow Wolves do not use only their ancient tracking skills. They also use modern devices that help them see in the dark. They use modern radios to communicate. They use airplanes, helicopters and other methods of transportation in their work.

They have a very good record. In the first fifteen days of March two-thousand-one, the Shadow Wolves tracked and captured almost one-thousand-fifty kilograms of illegal drugs. In the following six months, they captured more than eighteen-thousand kilograms of illegal drugs. One day in April of this year, they seized dealers carrying more than one-million-six-hundred-thousand dollars worth of drugs through the Tohono O’Odham Reservation.



The Shadow Wolves main task is finding and stopping illegal drug dealers. Sometimes they are asked to help rescue people who become lost in the desert.

Three of the Shadow Wolves are Gary Ortega, Jason Garcia and Lambert Cross. Lambert Cross has been a tracker for almost thirty years. In two-thousand-one, the three Shadow Wolves saved the life of a little boy who had become lost in the desert.

The child and his dog left their home and walked into the desert. No one could find them. Search aircraft were used. Experts with dogs were called. The aircraft and the dog experts searched but could not find the little boy.

The three Shadow Wolves then joined the search. They found very little evidence of the boy in the desert. But they found just enough for them to begin tracking the child. They continued to follow the marks left by the little boy until they found him and his dog. They returned them to their home.


The Shadow Wolves also share their skills with other law agencies. Jason Garcia and two other members of the group traveled to Kosovo. They trained border guards there to track people who deal in stolen weapons. They also helped train police and border guards in Kazakhstan and Uzbekistan.

The police and border guards in those countries were often surprised when the Shadow Wolves began teaching them ancient methods of tracking. The Shadow Wolves say the police and guards expected to learn how to use some kind of modern electronic equipment. Instead they were taught ancient hunting skills.


Bryan Nez is from the Navajo tribe. He has worked with the Shadow Wolves group for twelve years. He learned to track as a child.

Mister Nez says he learned more by finding lost children and people on holiday who became lost in the desert.

Other Customs Officers say it is interesting to watch him work. Most people would not see anything unusual in an area. Yet, Mister Nez sees a lot of evidence of people passing through. He says anyone can be followed because they leave signs on the ground. He says he can follow them even at night, or over rocks.

Sometimes, he says, the evidence he needs is something that he sees. Other times the evidence is something that he does not see. Sometimes it is just a feeling that he has.


The work of the Shadow Wolves is dangerous. Sometimes the illegal drug dealers carry weapons. Shots have been fired more than once.

Each of the Shadow Wolves wears a small gray colored feather on his clothing. It reminds them that their work can be dangerous. It also honors Shadow Wolf Glenn Miles. He was shot and killed by illegal drug dealers in nineteen-eighty-seven. The person responsible for the crime was never caught.

Several of the Shadow Wolves followed the killer. The signs he left on the ground crossed the Mexican border nine kilometers from where the shooting took place.


Each month, the Shadow Wolves find hundreds of kilograms of illegal drugs and arrest those carrying the drugs. The group knows it will never catch all the criminals who try to move illegal drugs through their area. However, the Shadow Wolves will continue to prove that ancient skills can be used to solve modern crimes.



This program was written by Paul Thompson. It was produced by Cynthia Kirk. This is Shirley Griffith.


And this is Steve Ember. Join us again next week for another EXPLORATIONS program in Special English on the Voice of America.