PHOENIX – The Shadow Wolves unit, Homeland Security’s only Native American specialist stalking team, is ready for a change after nearly 50 years of patrolling the Arizona desert.
Bills to strengthen and expand the authority of the Shadow Wolves were unanimously approved by the U.S. Senate Homeland Security Committee last month.
If the bills go ahead, they will allow Homeland Security to reclassify Shadow Wolves from tactical enforcement officers to special constables and expand the program to other tribal jurisdictions.
Since 1974, the elite unit has hunted down smugglers across the 2.8 million acres of the Tohono O’odham Nation in southern Arizona and the 76 mile strip of land bordering Mexico.
The unit is world famous for its ability to “cut panels” or read physical evidence in the landscape: spotting a weft in the desert thicket, the edges of a mark in the sand, or the interior color of a tree. broken twig.
As a member of the US Department of Homeland Security’s Immigration and Customs Working Groups, the Shadow Wolves are a key part of interdiction and investigative efforts that lead to arrests and drug seizures. and illegal weapons.
They participated in an investigation that led to the capture and sentencing of 18 members of the Sinaloa cartel near the Tohono O’odham Nation in 2019.
As of this year, the unit is made up of nine tribal members including the Tohono O’odham, Blackfeet, Sioux and Navajo.
If the Shadow Wolves Enhancement Act progresses through the House and Senate, it will strengthen an agent retention and recruitment strategy in the Tohono O’odham Nation and expand the program to other tribal nations close to the international state borders- United north and south.
Reclassification as Special Agent would mean current and future Shadow Wolves would undergo a Criminal Investigator Training Program and Special Agent Training.
The upgrade would also help counter technological advances used by criminal organizations and improve collaboration in multi-jurisdictional investigations. It would provide agents with new tools while preserving the legacy of unity.
The bill was first introduced in March 2020 and unanimously supported by Tohono O’odham’s Legislative Council the same month. Then it was reintroduced in July, adding the extension of the program to other tribal jurisdictions.
U.S. Senator Kyrsten Sinema, D-Arizona, who sits on the Senate Homeland Security Committee, is a major sponsor of the bill.
“Reclassifying the Shadow Wolves as Special Agents gives them more authority to investigate illegal border crossings, patrol the border and keep Arizona families safe,” Sinema said.
The Tohono O’odhams have lived in the Sonoran Desert for millennia. In the middle of the 19th century, when the international borders were redrawn with the purchase of Gadsden, their lands and inhabitants were divided.
Border enforcement has transformed the lives of tribal members in Arizona, restricting their own cross-border movement to hold ceremonies or visit relatives south of the international border, and ultimately placing them at the heart of the fight against trafficking. drug abuse and irregular migration to the United States and Mexico. frontier.
The Tohono O’odham Nation spends around $ 3 million in tribal revenue on border security operations, according to 2019 testimony given to Congress by the former tribe president. The tribe is also investigating and funding autopsies for the deaths of dozens of migrants who perish trying to cross the reserve undetected.
The seed of the Shadow Wolves was sown in 1974, when the Tohono O’odham Nation authorized the now disbanded US Custom Services to build an office in Sells. The agency, in turn, hired 25 tribesmen as patrol officers. About 10 years later, the unit acquired its unique name.
Verlon Jose, governor of traditional chiefs Tohono O’odham of Mexico and former vice president of the nation, said the Shadow Wolves are “protectors” and “warriors” with a unique personal commitment to what they do.
The men and women who are committed to tracking down the smugglers and stopping the flow of drugs have a vested interest in their community, he said.
By the late 1960s, Mexico was the main source of heroin in the United States, and by the 1970s, traffickers based in Mexico controlled three-quarters of the market. The Nation saw large quantities of drugs circulating in the community.
“It was really about protecting people,” said Jose, noting that the international border put them at the forefront of the traffic route. “We are on the front line before anyone else. But in a way, it’s America’s front line.
While efforts to expand the program are seen as a way to facilitate collaboration between federal agencies and tribes, the nature of border enforcement on Native American sovereign territory remains complex.
When the Department of Homeland Security was created following the terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001, the reorganization placed the Shadow Wolves under the surveillance of the US Border Patrol.
The federal government did not consult the Tohono O’odham Nation on such a reorganization, in violation of federal agreements.
Eventually, the unit was reassigned as part of the ICE Homeland Security Investigations in 2006. By this time, the Shadow Wolves program had lost several experienced trackers who said the border patrol chain of command limited its patrols and investigative operations.
The number of officers has increased from 25 to nine in recent years.
Jose said more support for the Shadow Wolves program has been delayed due to bureaucracy and the inability of lawmakers to speak to people on the ground.
Even though the bill seeks to expand the Shadow Wolves program to other tribal lands crossing the international borders of the United States, the tribes themselves have worked together for years.
The leaders of the Tohono O’odham and Blackfeet Nations – the Blackfeet jurisdiction about 50 miles to the border of Canada – worked together and made visits to learn from each other, Jose said.
But the long-standing presence of border patrol agents, internal checkpoints and surveillance equipment on tribal lands has created an environment of tension.
The Tohono O’odham Nation is cooperating with homeland security operations, but opposes President Donald Trump’s proposed border wall because it would further divide O’odham communities and have profound ecological consequences.
With $ 16 billion from U.S. taxpayers and embezzled military funds, the former administration completed 452 miles from the border wall, though the 76-mile strip of land between the nation and Mexico only has an anti-barrier barrier. -vehicle at the waist.