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Controversy surrounds transfer of elite customs unit "Shadow Wolves"

SELLS, Ariz. - After 30 years of service with the Bureau of Immigration and Customs Enforcement (BICE), the Shadow Wolves are being transferred to the Bureau of Customs and Border Protection (BCBP), part of management reorganization.

The move has caused fear and uncertainty within the unit and questions abound as to whether the agents will continue to track and seize narcotics as well as pursue traffickers or be relegated to chasing illegal aliens.

Established by an act of Congress in 1972, Shadow Wolves is the nickname for an all-Indian customs unit that uses traditional skills learned from tracking game on the reservation or finding free-ranging livestock that may have wandered away, instead of high-tech gadgetry, to catch smugglers.

Their skills enabled the 21-person unit to seize 108,000 pounds of illegal drugs, nearly half of the drugs seized by Customs last year and another 84,697 pounds so far this year while covering a 76-mile long border within the Tohono O'odham Indian reservation in Arizona.

They were recently featured on "America's Most Wanted," "Fox News" and in major publications such as "Smithsonian Magazine" and "Soldier of Fortune."

"They're not being folded into the general border patrol population," explains Roger Meier who handles public affairs for BICE. "Commissioner Robert Bonner views them as a key part of our strategy for gaining control of the border in Arizona. Keeping them intact, as they are, while utilizing their talents in tracking, is part of his plan to maintain control of that border. They're basically being transferred from one division within the border and transportation security directorate of the Department of Homeland Security to another."

Bonner is commissioner of the BCBP and initiated the management change.

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Meier explained the transfer is more in line with the Shadow Wolves function. "Their function is more of a patrol function than an investigative function."

Agents disagree

"The border patrol and what the Shadow Wolves do are two entirely different jobs," explained an agent who requested anonymity. "We focus on narcotics interdiction, investigation into narcotic interdiction and also weapons of mass destruction. The border patrol catches the people - the illegals. We're investigators not border patrolmen."

A member of the unit is presently in Poland to assist training border guards, customs officials and police in tracking smugglers of chemical, biological and nuclear weapons.

Several lawmakers support examination of the decision indicating that management change may impact the Shadow Wolves' duties negatively.

A letter dated May 30 and signed by Rep. Dave Camp, R-Mich., Rep. Mark Souder, R-Ind., and Rep. John Shadegg, R-Ariz., to Bonner, requested delay of any final decision on the move, discussion of the issue and a suggestion to visit the unit. The letter states: "Additionally, we strongly encourage you to take the time while you are in Arizona next week to visit personally with and observe the Shadow Wolves. Two of us have done so and are convinced of their effectiveness and importance to homeland security."

Other matters regarding the transfer include issues of cultural sensitivity. Agents believe the Border Patrol is not concerned about entering sacred land on the reservation.

"These people are specially trained and their knowledge about the area where critical tracking needs to be done and they're given that responsibility," said Harry A. Ramon, Vice Chairman for the Tohono O'odham nation. "I support them because they are recognized as a distinct group based on culture and tradition."