Ancient wisdom coupled with IT helps border agents track criminals

Customs Service patrol officers along a 70-mile stretch of the U.S.-Mexico border in Arizona combine centuries-old tracking skills and high-tech devices to catch drug smugglers.

Customs Service patrol officers along a 70-mile stretch of the U.S.-Mexico border in Arizona combine centuries-old tracking skills and high-tech devices to catch drug smugglers.

The officers represent a variety of American Indian nations, including the Tohono O'Odham, Pima, Omaha, Lakota, Navajo, Sacafox, Yorock and Oto Missouri.

Charged with patrolling an area the size of Connecticut, the officers use an arsenal of night vision goggles, intrusion sensors and handheld Global Positioning System receivers. But they rely on themselves more than the devices.

'Technology is only a tool,' said Harold Myers, an officer in Sells, Ariz., who has been with the Customs Service for about two years. 'If we can't follow tracks by using our own skills, then we can't do anything. Technology is only [so] good.'

Nineteen officers based in the Sells office and two satellite offices in Three Points and Ajo use techniques passed on by their fathers and grandfathers, as well as those acquired on the job. Their skills include finding and analyzing tracks on the remote Sonoran desert, which is dotted with cactus and the occasional dwelling.

On a typical day, Myers uses an all-terrain vehicle to 'cut for sign,' a term used to describe physical evidence that someone has crossed the area. Myers also often tracks on foot. He studies footprints to determine who they belong to'possibly an illegal alien or a drug courier.

If the footprint is small, it may be that of a child who is sneaking across the border or lost. If the footprints are deep, the person could be carrying a heavy bag, perhaps loaded with drugs, Myers said.

Last year, the Sells patrol oversaw 146 arrests and 166 seizures totaling 49,500 pounds of marijuana. So far this year, there have been 65 arrests and 46 seizures of 17,724 pounds of marijuana.

With their skills proving successful since 1975, the officers have begun training border patrols in foreign countries, including the former Soviet republics of Uzbekistan and Kazakhstan, where smuggling sometimes involves nuclear materials and weapons.

'Preeti Vasishtha

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