Shadow Wolf Kevin Carlos follows a trail of footprints on the western edge of the Tohono O odham Nation in Arizona.
Shadow Wolf Kevin Carlos follows a trail of footprints on the Tohono O’odham Nation in Arizona

Arizona: Amid tall cacti and thorny mesquite trees along Arizona's Mexican border, Jason Garcia, 38. has found what he is looking for.

A freshly dislodged leaf from a Creosote bush is his first sign, a snapped branch is the second. Nearby are shiny patches of dirt where suspected drug smugglers used a tree limb to brush away their vehicle's tire tracks.

Unfortunately for the smugglers, Garcia, a Tohono O'odham Indian, is hot on their trail.

Mr. Garcia is a member the Shadow Wolves, an elite Native American tracking unit in the US Department of Homeland Security. The squad also includes members of the Navajo, Lakota and Blackfoot tribes. They are considered to be among the best hunters of human beings in the world.

Many believe a multi-billion-dollar fence, predator drones and electronic sensors are the way to seal the border. Mr. Garcia's methods, however, are thosed his ancestors used for centuries to hunt animals and other prey for food.

Nine Shadow Wolves operate in the Tohono O'odham Nation, a vast Indian reservation as large as Northern Ireland.  O'odham means Desert People, and they have lived here for thousands of years. Some 20,000 of them now live in scattered villages.

The Tohono O'odham's border with Mexico is 121 kilometers long. The desert wasteland is filled with canyons and scrubland -- favorite places for Mexican drug cartels and illegal immigrants to enter the U.S.  But the area is dangerous.  Few roads are paved, and the desert is infested with rattlesnakes and venomous lizards called Gila monsters. 

Last year, the bodies of 252  Illegal immigrants were recovered. Most died from heat exhaustion and dehydration in the summer and hypothermia in winter. One border agent and former marine, Brian Terry, was killed in a shoot-out with Mexican bandits.

The Shadow Wolves themselves once had $500,000 bounties placed on their heads after a shoot-out with a drug gang.

Drug smugglers use every possible option to get their drugs over the US border. Their main method is paying illegal immigrants as human mules to carry heavy bales of marijuana across the border. The mules strap pieces of carpet their shoes to disguise their footprints.

Kevin Carlos - Native American "Shadow Wolves" Track Smugglers and Immigrants Through DesertIn response, the Shadow Wolves examine thorns for snagged fibers of clothing. They study the direction of indentations in the soil made by dislodged pebbles. Moisture from a squashed piece of cactus tells them how far ahead people are.  As shade from trees moves through the day, disturbed soil under them tells how long ago someone stopped to rest.

Their tracking technique is called "cutting for sign" and is taught from childhood.  Garcia's longest successful track took him 21 miles through the desert and mountains.

"This takes a lot of patience," says Mr. Garcia. "You're looking for something that's almost invisible. Initially it can be something minute. But it's the thrill of the hunt. I'm looking for bad guys that don't want to be found."

Unlike his ancestors, however, Garcia is armed with an M-4 rifle and a semi-automatic pistol.

The Shadow Wolves seize an average of 27,200 kilograms of drugs a year. The street value: $60,000,000. It is impossible to determine how much marijuana and how many illegal immigrants get through.

Kevin Carlos - Native American "Shadow Wolves" Track Smugglers and Immigrants Through DesertMany politicians support a giant fence along the entire US - Mexico border. Others, however, say the priority should be adding manpower. The Tohono O'odham already have metal barriers, but drug smugglers simplybuild temporary ramps and drive over them. Mr. Garcia says a fence might work in flat areas but in "a lot of rugged mountain country," it would be impractical.

John Bothof is Lakota Shadow Wolf. He says a fence would be "pretty ineffectual" and believes the money should be used to create local Native American task forces.

"These guys live out here. They know what's going on," he said.