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Elite tracking unit targets drug smugglers

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By Brady McCombs -- Arizona Daily Star

TUCSON, Ariz. (AP) - The lessons Shadow Wolves training officers taught Sloan Satepauhoodle when she began six years ago remain ingrained in her psyche: ''Be patient, Sloan, be patient.'' But she really wants to make a bust today.

''If I could just find something on the branches,'' said Satepauhoodle, who started with the Shadow Wolves in July 2001, ''that would help me a lot.''

Then, her radio buzzed to life with news: One of her fellow Shadow Wolves had found an abandoned truck full of marijuana on the northern edge of the Tohono O'odham Reservation near Sells, Ariz. She clapped her hands, smiled and turned around to walk back to her truck. Within a half-hour, she's headed north to help unload, weigh and process the bundles.

In this tight-knit, 14-member unit of American Indian drug trackers, the success of one is the success of all. The Shadow Wolves moniker refers to the way, like a wolf pack, when one finds its prey - a load of marijuana or better yet, the drug runners themselves - he or she calls in the rest.

''Even though it wasn't me, it made me feel great because it was such a big load,'' Satepauhoodle, 40, a Kiowa from Oklahoma, said.

The load - 2,741 pounds - turned out to be one of the largest single seizures in what is becoming a banner year and renaissance of sorts for the Shadow Wolves, founded in 1972 by Congress.

On Oct. 1, 2006, Department of Homeland Security officials approved the transfer of the unit to Immigration and Customs Enforcement from the U.S. Border Patrol, where it had been assigned when DHS was created in 2003. Before 2003, the unit was part of the former U.S. Customs Service.

With the Border Patrol, officers say they were confined to assigned patrol areas and unable to get involved in investigations. Now, they have the freedom to roam the 76 miles of border and 2.8 million acres on the Tohono O'odham Nation and can stay involved in the investigations that continue after the bust.

''The Border Patrol is such a huge organization. They have a really rigid chain of command and their structure is very solid whereas the way we work is very fluid,'' Satepauhoodle said. ''We are back to doing what I came on to do. I feel like I'm doing the work that I was trained to do.''

Their use of ancient tracking methods and their understanding of the Tohono O'odham culture have earned the Shadow Wolves great respect on the reservation.

Six of the 14 Shadow Wolves are Tohono O'odham, with the others representing seven other tribes from across the country. All officers must be at least one-quarter American Indian.

''They are a Native people protecting a Native land,'' said Derrick Williams, ICE resident agent in charge in Sells. ''Their track record and their success is a huge source of pride for the TO Nation.''

In addition to being highly trained in traditional tracking, they embody an important American Indian concept: being useful, said Eileen Luna-Firebaugh, associate professor of American Indian law and policy at the University of Arizona.

''They are centered with the idea of how incredibly important they are to the community,'' said Luna-Firebaugh, who wrote the book ''Tribal Policing: Asserting Sovereignty, Seeking Justice.'' ''That is internalized and manifested in their relationships with tribal members.''

Their move back to focusing on drugs was a major improvement for the Tohono O'odham Nation and made members feel like someone was listening to their concerns, she said.

''Most O'odham believe that the illegal immigrants are not the source of the crime on the reservation,'' she said, ''but that the source of crime on the reservation is drug smugglers.''

The Shadow Wolves also distinguish themselves from Border Patrol agents by conducting their work with a respect for the culture, she said.

''They are part of the community in a way that the Border Patrol is not,'' Luna-Firebaugh said.

Satepauhoodle stuck her head out the window of her truck and stared at the ground looking for fresh footprints, horse prints or tire tracks.

The veterans taught her how to distinguish between cattle and horse prints, on how to read a footprint to determine if it's a man or woman and whether he or she is carrying a heavy pack.

Satepauhoodle, whose name means ''Fuzzy Bear,'' grew up in Oklahoma. After graduating from the University of Notre Dame, she worked as an intelligence specialist for the Secret Service and later as a customs inspector at Dulles Airport outside Washington, D.C.

Satepauhoodle was drawn to the Shadow Wolves when she read about the American Indian requirement while working as an inspector. Even though the lifestyles are totally different between her Plains tribe and the desert O'odham, she said she's been able to develop a rapport with the O'odham.

''We all have the same American history on how we were treated and how we are viewed in general,'' she said. ''There is that kind of little bonding right there in that we are Indian.''

Back at the ICE office in Sells, the crew unloaded the bundles of marijuana from the dusty Suburban.

The Wolves stack them, marked them, weighed them and put them in the evidence room. The load is worth $2.7 million, according to figures from the National Drug Intelligence Center. They know it's a tiny part of the tons of drugs that pass through the reservation daily, but it represents a solid day's work. Since Oct. 1, they've seized more than 43,000 pounds of marijuana.

Officials with ICE are ecstatic to have them in the fold, said Alonzo Pena, special agent in charge for Arizona. Three more officers will soon be headed to the federal law enforcement academy to join the Shadow Wolves, which would bring the unit's total to 17.

The Shadow Wolves are equally pleased with their new arrangement.

''We are kind of back in harmony again because we are all under one roof,'' Satepauhoodle said.