Located in a remote area of Arizona that shares a 76-mile stretch of land with the Mexico border, the Tohono O'odham Nation became a thoroughfare for smugglers.
"It's the reality of living on the border," said Rodney Irby, assistant special agent in charge of U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement's (ICE) Homeland Security Investigations (HSI) in Sells, Ariz. "There was a definitive drug smuggling threat on the second largest Indian reservation in the United States."
That's why the residents of the Tohono O'odham Nation embarked on a unique partnership with ICE's legacy agency, the U.S. Customs Service, in 1974. The two organizations formed the Shadow Wolves, ICE's tactical patrol unit.
"To date, we are the first and only federal law enforcement agency authorized a permanent residence on the Tohono O'odham Nation which is comparable in size to the state of Connecticut," said Irby.
When the partnership was established, the U.S. Customs Service agreed to hire Native American officers to serve as part of the Shadow Wolves. ICE upholds this commitment today.
"The Shadow Wolves enable us to develop intelligence from a somewhat closed society that wouldn't be available to non-community members," said Irby. "[They are] also expert trackers. They use their Native American tracking skills that were instilled in them when they were young for hunting and tracking livestock and apply those skills to locating smugglers in the remote desert terrain."
Shadow Wolves officers patrol smuggling corridors based on information from the community. They start a mission when someone finds signs – animal indicators, footprints or evidence of backpackers. Sometimes they work on foot, and other times, by vehicle. It is not uncommon for a Shadow Wolves officer to work continuously for 24 hours to catch someone.
The unit was heavily involved in the success of Operation Pipeline Express, a 17-month multi-agency investigation responsible for dismantling a massive narcotics trafficking organization suspected of smuggling more than $33 million worth of drugs each month through Arizona's western desert. Since October, the Shadow Wolves have seized 20,719 pounds of marijuana and 20 vehicles and made 8 arrests.