Working Together Along the 49th

Sep 15, 2007

Canada-U.S. border partnerships in the St. Lawrence Seaway

​On 3 September 2007, at about 6:40 p.m., officers from the Royal Canadian Mounted Police and the U.S. Coast Guard spotted an 18-foot boat transporting large green plastic bags on the St. Lawrence River. As the authorities approached, the driver abandoned the boat in the water, just off the eastern tip of Cornwall Island, Ontario, and fled on foot.

Onboard the boat, the officers discovered 60,000 contraband cigarettes manufactured in the United States and worth $6,600. The boat was seized, but the suspect was not found.

The morning before, RCMP officers had arrested a suspect in St. Andrews, Ontario, just outside Cornwall. The 57-year-old Ottawa resident was in possession of 70,000 contraband cigarettes (worth $7,700). Manufactured in the United States and smuggled into Canada, these cigarettes had not been stamped at the customs to be sold in duty-paid market.

A similar story unfolded at an afternoon arrest on Highway 401. This time, RCMP arrested and charged a 50-year-old woman residing in Hamilton, Ontario, for possessing 150,000 cigarettes worth over $16,000 – unstamped by Customs. She too was smuggling American-manufactured cigarettes into Canada. In short, smuggling-related arrests are an almost daily procedure for the Central St. Lawrence Valley RCMP Detachment in Cornwall.

This Eastern Ontario city of about 45,000 lies on a part of the St. Lawrence River that forms the natural border between Ontario and New York. It is located on Highway 401, 40 kilometres (25 miles) southeast of Ottawa, 115 km (71 miles) southwest of Montreal, and 435 km (270 mi) northeast of Toronto.

The 80 square kilometre Akwesasne Mohawk reserve, home to 13,000 residents, is at the centre of this area, bordering two provinces and one state. Its largest section is in New York, where one can easily drive to the Quebec portion without crossing a border checkpoint. However, to access the several islands that form the Ontario section (inhabited Cornwall Island being the largest), one must go through customs at the Three Nations Crossing.

Seized marihuana, shown on board RCMP vessel. (Photo: USCG-RCMP Cornwall)

This unique geography and the strategic location of the area, close to Eastern Canada’s three largest centres, create a rare opportunity for criminals smuggling anything from diapers and cocaine. Recog­nizing this, law enforcement agencies have become far more alert, and various bilateral initiatives have been created to restrict this illegal cross-border trade.

“We don’t want to see the geography of this area being used by criminal organizations,” says Sgt. Michael Harvey from Central St. Lawrence Valley RCMP Detachment in Cornwall.

Canadian and American enforcement agencies have worked together over the years on joint border investigations. The first IBETs initiative, developed near Chilliwack in British Columbia, between the RCMP, U.S. Border Patrol and U.S. Customs Service aimed to address concerns from communities along the border and problems faced by all levels of policing services. Thus, the first IBET was created to focus on critical smuggling issues.

The Integrated Border Enforcement Teams (IBETs), an RCMP-led initiative that brings national, provincial, state and municipal governments and law enforcement agencies from both Canada and the United States, received broad cooperation in the wake of 9/11. These groups work together with renewed interest, sharing information on issues regarding national security and organized and border crimes.

Besides the RCMP, core IBET members include the Canada Border Services Agency, the U.S. Customs and Border Protection/Office of Border Patrol, the U.S. Coast Guard, and the U.S. Immigra­tion and Customs Enforcement.

Officers from all participating agencies gather intelligence to help analysts prepare packages of information on criminal organizations. Investigators and supervisors from the different groups meet daily, and monthly reports are distributed to every IBET partner.

IBETs have a law enforcement role, but no Canadian or U.S. agency has the authority to make arrests on the other’s territory – a gap that gives the advantage to smugglers using the waterway.

For example, an RCMP boat patrolling the river could spot a smuggling operation in Canadian waters, but once the criminals reach U.S. waters they cannot be stopped. In such a case, the RCMP would have to contact the U.S. Coast Guard or the New York State Police promptly, but this means a greater coordination effort and increases the chance of failure to arrest criminals.

Contraband cigarrettes. (Photo: RCMP Valleyfield)

Looking to eliminate that gap, a pilot project that had served Detroit-Windsor waterways during the Super Bowl XL in February 2006 was brought to life again in Cornwall this summer. “Shiprider,” as the project is called, involves bi-national joint marine patrols for better maritime law enforcement.

For two months, officers from both the RCMP and the U.S. Coast Guard (USCG) were sworn in and given special designation to make arrests on either Canadian or U.S. waterways, islands, and shorelines on a 100-km stretch of the St. Lawrence River, from Salaberry-de-Valleyfield, Quebec to Cardinal, Ontario.

When a USCG patrol proceeds to an arrest in Canadian jurisdiction, this arrest becomes the responsibility of the RCMP, and vice versa.

Reports on the operation have not been finalized, but already there is enthusiasm at the RCMP. “There has been an increase in seizures of tobacco products and marijuana,” says Harvey. The sharing and gathering of intelligence during the operation has been “incredible,” he goes on to say, and police vessels were able to identify a greater number of the criminal organizations’ members.

This project could permanently alter the advantage balance. “All the governments recognize that, and we get a lot of attention,” says Harvey. A key element in the strategy has been the exchange of information with the “very pro-active” Akwesasne police services, he says. “They are on the front line.”

Smuggling of cigarettes and drugs happens both ways; smuggling to and from both Canada and the United States. However, in the Cornwall area, there is a unique smuggling pattern. Contraband cigarettes are produced in illegal plants in Akwesasne, NY, then smuggled and sold in Canada. That money then buys marijuana in Eastern Canada, which, in turn, is smuggled back to the United States. The money made from marijuana is then laundered in the production of cigarettes in Akwesasne’s cigarette plants, and the cycle continues.

Some blame Akwesasne’s authorities directly for permitting this vicious circle.

11 August 2007 Co-crewed USCG and RCMP vessels on patrol in the St. Lawrence Seaway in support of the Shiprider Pilot Project. (Photo: USCG)

In February 2006, an article in the New York Times blamed U.S. Reserva­tions for playing a critical role in the transport of drugs from Canada. It dubbed Akwesasne the “black hole,” due to the ease with which the border is crossed in that ­location. It accused the Mohawk residents of having profited largely from the smuggling across “the lightly patrolled frontier.”

In response, Saint Regis Mohawk Tribal Police Department Chief, Andrew Thomas, described the author as “… a ­narrow-minded journalist who doesn’t have an understanding of the entire nor­thern border. To say it’s a black hole means that 12 agencies don’t know what they’re doing.”

Chief Thomas brings attention to the political and social factors for smuggling goods across the border. For example, Canada has a prohibitive tax on tobacco. Contraband cigarette cartons from the United States can be almost ten times cheaper than on the regular market.

According to Irvin Waller, crime prevention professor at the University of Ottawa, more should be done to counter root causes of drug abuse. “It’s very clear that prevention is not working – a lot of federal money is assigned to law enforcement, and not enough to prevention,” says Waller. Reducing demand would lower the now-lucrative advantages of such smuggling.

As long as there is a market for cheap goods, whether these be drugs, cigarettes or purses, smuggling will continue – and unsecured bi-national waterways offer smugglers an ideal route. It can’t be stopped, but it can be slowed down with the coordinated involvement of enforcement agencies on both sides of the 49th parallel.  

André Fecteau is freelance journalist based in Ottawa.
© FrontLine Security 2007