Old-Time Methods Have Place in Fight

Old-Time Methods Have Place in Fight
Posted by FoM on January 19, 2000 at 10:23:06 PT
By Pat Flannery, The Arizona Republic
Source: Arizona Central
The smooth, shallow dips in the dirt were barely visible to anyone else, but Marvin Eleando recognized them immediately. Carpet walkers, he thought. These smugglers sneak across the border with drugs on their backs and carpet squares on their feet so they don't leave prints. "They think they can get away," Eleando said. "I like to track them, just to prove to them that they can be found." 
Eleando followed the clues 100 yards through the scrub, stepping softly in the cold desert night. He stopped now and then to pluck a snapped twig or pass his fingers over the tips of a low shrub. Their dryness, the stale colors of the clues, made him think the tracks were old. This is the low-tech side of the war on drugs, and it's being fought in the heart of the Tohono O'odham Reservation by the U.S. Customs Service's Native American patrol unit. Based in Sells, it's the only Customs patrol unit left in the country. Others were scrapped as the U.S. Border Patrol grew. The Native Americans work without the expensive gizmos that the Border Patrol tends to favor. They catch smugglers the old-fashioned way: by tracking them across the desert floor. Eleando's Tohono O'odham ancestors did this work 100 years ago, tracking game and helping cowboy posses chase desperadoes. His colleagues come from various tribes, including O'odham, Pima, Sioux, Navajo, Cherokee and Chickasaw. For 28 years, the unit has tracked smugglers entering the United States in the vast isolation south and west of Sells along 76 miles of border that the reservation shares with Mexico. In 1997, nine old-timers, including Eleando, were honored by then-Treasury Secretary Robert Rubin for busting more dope, most of it marijuana, than any other Customs unit in the country. A Tough Job:The high desert between the Baboquivari Mountains and the Ajo Range has always been prime smuggling turf, whether it was Chinese immigrants late in the 1800s, booze during Prohibition or Mexican immigrants for much of the 1900s. It has always been a tough job. Creased by hills and washes, the southern half of the reservation is dense with creosote, mesquite, ironwood and lush cactus. It is well off the beaten track, yet offers smugglers access to roads leading directly to interstate freeways and cities like Tucson, Phoenix and Los Angeles. Just as important, it's sprinkled with pueblos where smugglers often recruit allies to stash drugs until they can be driven to urban warehouses. On a rural reservation where unemployment is high and job opportunities scarce, a smuggler's cash is alluring. Eleando says he once was shunned by friends and relatives for arresting a nephew for smuggling. "I just ignore it and watch my back and do my work," Eleando said. "And I'm going to move away from here when I retire. I don't want to be here." Eleando and 16 other patrol officers take turns "cutting sign" in the desert, looking for smuggling tracks. A fit hiker can walk a load 25 miles from the border to the Sells area in a night. The patrol officers spend most of their time in between, roving the backcountry, scratching for signs in the dirt. Eleando can divine a lot from the dusty deck. Older tracks have crumbling edges. The number of tracks, their shapes and sizes tell him how many people or animals he's looking for. Unshod horses often carry drugs; the tracks of unshod animals are easier for smugglers to brush out. Even horse droppings offer clues. A poorly fed horse is usually a wild roamer, but one fed on oats and hay could be hauling drugs. A Race In The Desert:Despite their best efforts, the drug hunters know the odds are stacked against them. "We're out here, the Border Patrol is out here, and they still get through," Eleando said matter-of-factly. One morning last spring, for example, Eleando and a longtime colleague, Lambert Cross, were called to Ajo to give the National Park Service a hand. A ranger at Organ Pipe Cactus National Monument, 70 miles west of Sells, had found several backpacks of drugs in a wash just off the highway near Lukeville. The ranger didn't disturb the dope but parked up the highway behind some brush. He wanted to catch whoever showed up to pick up the load. He needed trackers to help catch whoever had dropped it off on foot. Eleando and Cross sped to Ajo. Halfway there, a change of plans squawked over the radio. The dope had been snatched back from under the ranger's nose. The backpackers who had dropped the load apparently had hidden nearby to wait for the pickup, and they spotted the stakeout. They were lucky; the ranger couldn't see the dope from his vantage point nearby. He could only see the road where it crossed the wash. The backpackers sneaked back to the wash through the dense cover of desert scrub. When they reached the dope, they strapped on the packs and hightailed it southeast, staying low enough in the arroyo that they couldn't be spotted. Their trickery wasn't discovered until the ranger returned to the wash to check the load. There was nothing there but fresh tracks. "They're trying to get back south with it," Eleando said. He guessed that the packs were full of cocaine, because smugglers wouldn't risk capture to save a cheaper load of marijuana. When Cross got to the wash, he took out after the southbound tracks. A park ranger and a Border Patrol agent were slightly ahead on the trail. The smugglers had a 30- to 45-minute head start. Five sets of tracks headed for the edge of the Ajo Range. It would be harder to track them once they got into the rocks and turned south for a run to safety across the border. As Cross worked his way through washes and over hills, Eleando circled south in his truck, hoping to cut off the smugglers. He found their earlier, northbound tracks about five miles from the frontier. A Customs helicopter from Tucson hovered overhead. But the packers were smart. They stayed low, and Cross soon discovered that they had turned straight east, making a beeline for some craggy hills to hide from the chopper. Several hours later, the hunt was over. The patrol had run out of tracks in the rocky foothills of the Ajo Range. Eleando knew the packers would hole up for at least a day where they couldn't be seen. He shrugged it off, knowing there would be another load soon enough. "Those backpackers, they're good," he said. "But there's always someone in there who doesn't care, and they'll make the mistake that allows us to catch them." NEAR VAMORI Published: January 19, 2000Copyright 2000, Arizona CentralRelated Articles: A Contest of Wits at U.S. Border - 1/18/2000 is Pipeline for Illegal Drugs - 1/17/2000 Losing Drug War - 1/16/2000 
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