Shadow Wolves

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Immigration and Customs Enforcement

Seal of U.S. Customs and Border Protection

Established March 1, 2003
Department Homeland Security
Assistant Secretary John T. Morton

The "Shadow Wolves" is a unit of Native American trackers. The law enforcement unit is part of the U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE). The Shadow Wolves' primary task is tracking smugglers through a 76-mile (122 km) stretch of the Tohono O'odham Nation territory that runs along the Mexico – United States border in the state of Arizona.[1]


The "Shadow Wolves" law enforcement unit was created in 1972 by an Act of Congress, after the U.S. federal government agreed to the Tohono O'odham Nation's demand that the officers have at least one fourth Native American ancestry.[2] The Shadow Wolves became the first federal law enforcement agents allowed to operate on Tohono land.[2]

The unit is congressionally authorized to have as many as 21 members but, as of March, 2007, it consisted of only 15 members.[2] Members of the unit come from nine different tribes, including the Tohono O'odham, Blackfeet, Lakota, Navajo, Omaha, Sioux, and Yaqui.[2][3]

In 2003, the Shadow Wolves became part of the Department of Homeland Security when ICE was merged into Homeland Security. ICE officials are also considering creating a sister unit of the Shadow Wolves to patrol the Blackfeet reservation in Montana, on the U.S. border with Canada.[2]


The Shadow Wolves comprise an Immigration and Customs Enforcement tactical patrol unit based on the Native American Tohono O'odham Nation in southern Arizona. Shadow Wolf officers are known for their ability to track aliens and drug smugglers as they attempt to smuggle their illegal commodities across the border. The unit boasts an esteemed history of tracking passed down from generation to generation. The name "Shadow Wolves" refers to the way the unit hunts like a wolf pack.

The Shadow Wolves were founded in 1972 as an initiative undertaken by the U.S. Congress to track drug smugglers on Native American lands in the American Southwest. Despite possession of high-tech equipment, the unit relies mainly on traditional methods of tracking, primarily a technique called "cutting for sign". "Cutting" is searching for and analyzing "sign", which includes any kind of physical evidence (footprints, tire tracks, thread, clothing, etc.). Officers may spend hours or days tracking in the field following a "sign" until arrests and seizures are made, or it has been determined that the contraband has been loaded into a vehicle and transported from the area.[citation needed]

Key facts[edit]

  • The Shadow Wolves' methodical approach has enabled them to track and apprehend smugglers in parts of the Southwestern U.S. across arduous desert terrain and rugged mountainous areas where tracks left by smugglers may be no more than an overturned pebble or an almost indistinguishable impression in the sand.[4]
  • An experienced Shadow Wolf can spot small items snagged on branches, twigs bent or broken, or even a single fiber of cloth or burlap from a sack or bag that could be filled with drugs. They can read faint footprints in the dust and determine when they were made, where they came from and whether or not traffickers are carrying additional weight such as backpacks filled with drugs.[4]
  • The Shadow Wolves are the Department of Homeland Security's only Native American tracking unit.[4]
  • The Tohono O'odham Nation, patrolled by the Shadow Wolves, covers 2,800,000 acres (11,000 km2) and is mainly made up of small, scattered villages.[4]
  • The current unit consists of 15 Native American Patrol Officers representing nine Native American tribes (Tohono O'odham, Navajo, Kiowa, Sioux, Blackfeet, Yurok, Omaha, Yaqui, and Pima) who employ traditional tracking skills combined with modern law enforcement technology to enforce immigration and customs laws on the 76-mile (122 km) stretch of land the Tohono O'odham Nation shares with Mexico.[4]
  • The unit was transferred back to ICE from CBP's Border Patrol in October 2006 and is being utilized to enhance ICE investigations and operations on the Tohono O'odham Nation.[4]
  • Since transferring back to ICE in October 2006, the fifteen-member unit is responsible for the seizure of over 31,000 pounds of marijuana, over forty-three criminal arrests of smugglers, and the seizure of 16 vehicles.[4]
  • Officers estimate in recent years they have seized an average of 60,000 pounds of illegal drugs a year.[4]
  • In 2007, The Shadow Wolves intercepted less than 20% of illicit Mexican cargo passing through their territory, which spans both sides of the US Mexico Border.[4]

Global training missions[edit]

In addition to tracking smugglers on the U.S. border, the Shadow Wolves have also been asked to train border guards and customs agents around the world tracking smugglers, in nations including Latvia, Lithuania, Moldova, Estonia, Kazakhstan, and Uzbekistan.[1][1][3][5] The unit is also being used in the effort to hunt terrorists along the border of Afghanistan and Pakistan by training regional border guards in Native American ancestral tracking methods.[3][6]

In popular culture[edit]

  • A film about the Shadow Wolves began production in southern Arizona in October 2009.[needs update] Call of the Shadow Wolves[7] centers on a story of the Shadow Wolves' work in protecting the U.S. borders from criminals and terrorists. Director Brian Kosisky said in a news release, "Most people know very little about the Shadow Wolves. This is a tremendous opportunity for a storyteller to create a present-day Western where Native Americans are the heroes."
  • A documentary film about the Shadow Wolves, Shadow Wolves: Tracking of a Documentary, was directed by Jack Kohler and produced by Joseph Arthur.[8] The documentary profiles an intertribal group of Native Americans.
  • The Shadow Wolves were featured in the National Geographic Channel show Border Wars in the episode titled "Walk the Line".[9]
  • Shadow Wolves television series is under production, to be released in 2019.


  1. ^ a b c Wheeler, Mark (January 2003). "Shadow Wolves". Smithsonian. Retrieved July 2, 2016.
  2. ^ a b c d e "In Arizona Desert, Indian Trackers vs. Smugglers," The New York Times, March 7, 2007. Retrieved March 12, 2007.
  3. ^ a b c "Native American trackers to hunt bin Laden," The Australian, March 12, 2007. Retrieved March 12, 2007.
  4. ^ a b c d e f g h i
  5. ^ "Moldova: Native American 'Shadow Wolves' Helping Train Moldovan Guards To Protect Borders," Radio Free Europe, October 5, 2004. Retrieved March 14, 2007.
  6. ^ "Report: Native American Trackers to Hunt Terrorists at Afghan Border", Fox News, March 12, 2007. Retrieved March 12, 2007.
  7. ^ Call of the Shadow Wolves Archived 2009-07-28 at the Wayback Machine
  8. ^ Tribal Point Media
  9. ^ "Border Wars: Walk the Line" Archived 2010-04-20 at the Wayback Machine, National Geographic Channel, retrieved May 5, 2010.

External links[edit]