RM Issue #031015
Hole in the border
LUCAS OLENIUK /TORONTO STAR Oct. 11, 2003
For years, booze and cigarettes have been smuggled across the Canada-U.S. border near Cornwall — now it could be terrorist
QUEBEC BUREAU CHIEF
CORNWALL—He hears the first shot while strapping on his bulletproof vest. Then a dozen more — hollow, rapid thuds of an assault rifle, the deadly staccato you usually associate with a wartime firefight. "Oh, oh," mumbles Sgt. Gilles Tougas, snapping his head up and staring across the St. Lawrence River at the treeline of the Akwesasne First Nations reserve. Sitting on the gunwale of his RCMP patrol boat, he looks for the gunman while radioing in to confirm that other Mounties patrolling the river haven't been hit. "That was an AK-47," he says. "That's worrying." Yet not worrying enough to stir a few dozen people sitting on lawn chairs beside the marina that is one of Cornwall residents' favourite spots for a sunset picnic. Pot-bellied men sit back and crack open cans of beer and stare at the pleasure boats. Others take heaping mounds of raw meat from coolers and toss them on the smoking Hibachis. "John," calls one woman, seconds after the gunfire. "Get off that chair and get me some more charcoal." Such is life on the river's edge of this sleepy town, situated on one of the most porous parts of the Canada-U.S. border. From here, smugglers have used this river area to traffic in guns, drugs, alcohol and, especially, illicit cigarettes — and, possibily, and most alarmingly of all in the post-9/11 world, hundreds, if not thousands, of illegal immigrants. Yet it's all been happening for so long — even Al Capone and other Prohibition-era smugglers favoured this narrow section of the border — that most people are blasé. However, they're not in the position of a Mountie heading onto the river for night patrol, trying to spot that AK-47's muzzle flash, keep an eye open for terrorists and catch smugglers on the swift-flowing river. "Got a will prepared?" Tougas deadpans, poker-faced, as he pats his vest. "You know, these vests won't stop a round from an AK-47." The speedboat's engine throttles up and we head out onto the river at 80 km/h, just as the sun dips below the horizon and the waters blacken. On a map, a thin and perfectly marked line runs up and down the St. Lawrence, splitting it into its Canadian and American halves, with the islands of the Mohawk reserve straddling the border. The rules are simple for both countries' police, immigration and military forces who guard this stretch of the world's longest, undefended border: The U.S. authorities watch the south half of the river, the Canadians the north. But drifting along the St. Lawrence, with nothing more than faint starlight to light the way, that theory gives way to a more complicated reality: Canada's most vital river, used by Canadians, Americans and countless foreign traders as an artery into the continent's economic heartland, is a smuggler's — and possibly a future terrorist's — paradise. "We can't catch everyone crossing the border, we know that," acknowledges Tougas, who leads what is called the Integrated Border Enforcement Team (IBET), the joint task force that tries to co-ordinate Canadian and U.S. agencies in efforts to guarantee national security. "Stopping terrorism is our Number 1 priority. After 9/11, I can say our operations are better than ever." Yet still far from a sure thing, even after Ottawa's plan to spend more than $125 million on border security after the terrorist attacks on the World Trade Center on Sept. 11, 2001. When they wish to show off their improved border security, RCMP officers take visitors to a windowless room in their Cornwall detachment. The briefing always begins with a video that starts with the harrowing attack on New York. The narrator proclaims: "The terrorist attacks have forever changed this border and those who protect it." "The top priority of the IBET is to combat terrorism and terrorist activity," Tougas says. He is asked if he has found any possible terrorist activity on his stretch of the border. "Nothing identified," he says, adding there's also no proven link between terrorism and cigarette smuggling, obviously anxious to keep anyone from jumping to conclusions. As for the efficacy of the border patrols, it's better than ever, he says. Canadian and U.S. officials can call on each others' border officials to snare smugglers, and share intelligence, radio systems and high-tech surveillance methods, such as night-vision and heat-imaging equipment, some of it airborne. Then, the top Border Patrol agent for the United States strides into the room. It is quickly evident there is both a divergence in style and perspective on the touchy subject of the terrorism threat at the border. "It's a geographical nightmare," says Dick Ashlaw, thumping a map on the table that lays out the 100-kilometre stretch of the river border. Smugglers know border patrol agents are outnumbered, he says. A smuggler's speedboat can escape capture by racing into the Canadian side of the river, where U.S. border patrols are not allowed to follow, even in pursuit of a suspected criminal. The sort of man who fills a room just by being there, the swashbuckling Ashlaw has reduced the other dozen immigration, customs and police officials from both sides of the border seated at the table to silence. It's true, Ashlaw says, that in the last few years, greater security has resulted in less people- smuggling across his section of the river. He estimates the number of people caught sneaking across the border has declined to about 150 to 200 this year, from about 600 a year before. But he also admits the U.S. Border Patrol likely catches no more than one out of 10 people, meaning there may be close to 2,000 people still sneaking across. For the most part, they are not suspected of posing a terrorist threat, he says. But he also warns, "We have dealt with a lot of interesting people," by which he means people from countries deemed by the U.S. government to have potential terrorist links. "Were they terrorists or not?" he says. "We haven't seen Osama bin Laden. "We have had a few (people) over the last few years — they may have terrorist ties," he adds. "Have we had any identified, bomb-toting terrorists? No ... Not that we know of." In daylight, the St. Lawrence River hardly seems such a problematic border point. Skimming across the river at more than 80 km/h, over rapids and past whirlpools that could suck a swimmer down to the bottom, U.S. Border Patrol agent Chad Marshall says as much as he pilots his speedboat around Cornwall Island. "The Mexican border — now, that is crazy," he says. "When I was down there, we used to get 1,000 illegals a shift." Still, on almost every shift on the St. Lawrence, something turns up. Over on the southern bank, on the U.S. part of the Akwesasne reserve, the Border Patrol recently discovered discarded blankets, noodle containers and Chinese language newspapers littered near a favourite landing spot for people smugglers. "It was probably seven or eight Chinese coming across from Canada," says Andrew Lacombe, another Border Patrol agent, who stands on duty on the boat, his machine gun stashed nearby in the gunwale. "The smugglers charge about $1,000 (U.S.) a head to bring them across by boat. When they get them to the reserve, they put them in a van and drive them away to New York or wherever."
`We have had a few (people) over the last few years — they may have terrorist ties' Dick Ashlaw, U.S. Border Patrol agent
On a recent patrol, the two agents also found a Jordanian man on the river, trying to smuggle about 1,000 kilograms of Egyptian cigarettes into Canada. "We still don't know what he was up to," says Marshall, yelling to make himself heard above the roar of the wind. Cigarettes are, in fact, still the most lucrative contraband on the river, and as a recent court case filed by the federal government alleges, still the best way to gauge how wild and ingrained border smuggling has become. In August, Ottawa launched a $1.5 billon lawsuit against 13 tobacco companies, alleging a massive scheme to collude with "known smugglers, supplying their products to them and encouraging and advising them to funnel those products into the black market" to avoid paying taxes. The suit alleges the companies exported Canadian tobacco, had it turned into cigarettes and then arranged for black market trade out of the back of trucks and cars and "under the counter" at convenience stores to avoid $1.5 billion in Canadian taxes. "They invited smugglers on fishing and golfing trips and spent lavishly on entertainment," the lawsuit charges. The tobacco companies have denied the allegations, which have not yet been proven in court. Although smuggling ebbed after a police crackdown in the 1990s, the RCMP now believes the trade is on the rise again. Certainly, there's no doubt cigarettes are still a cash cow on the Akwesasne reserve, where people connected with the trade get downright nasty when visitors pry into how their business works. "Get off my property," screams a woman, who has driven up in a black SUV after spotting a photographer taking a picture of an establishment known as Tamra's Puff Shop. The store's shelves are stuffed with all brands of cigarettes, selling for about half the price they would in Canada or New York state. The most curious items were what a clerk called "Canadian smokes," a carton's worth of unmarked cigarettes inside clear, plastic baggies on sale for about $11. Missing health warnings and any indication that duties had been paid, they would be illegal to sell off the reserve in Canada and the United States. Behind the shop, not far from the Mohawk Bingo Palace, is an unmarked building that is the recently built cigarette factory. But a man who ordered visitors off his land rebuffed a request for an interview. "Give them two minutes to move the car," he says, turning to a worker. "Then get the fork truck and move them off." Just how lucrative it all is remains a mystery. But at the G&G Smokeshop, a shack filled to its rafters with brands such as Native — "Made by Native Trading Associates, Mohawk Nation Territory" — an employee gives a hint. "We must pull in about $10,000 (U.S.) a day here," she says. Before 9/11, the major concern over the cigarette trade was that it sucked much-needed tax dollars out of state and provincial governments. But there may also be a frightening new twist, according to police and counterterrorism experts. In the two years after 9/11, the United States and other countries have frozen more than $200 million in bank accounts deemed connected to Al Qaeda and other terrorist groups. But there is now concern terror cells are dipping into the practices normally associated with organized crime, such as cigarette, drug and people smuggling, says Tom Sanderson, who studies border threats at the Washington, D.C.- based Center for Strategic and International Studies. U.S. authorities recently broke up a cell of the terror group Hezbollah in North Carolina that was illegally selling cigarettes for cash in Detroit. Profits were sent to Lebanon by courier or mail, police allege, to buy such things as detonators and infrared targeting devices. "Probably a very small percentage of the smuggling business goes to terror groups, but this could still be in the neighbourhood of millions of dollars," says Sanderson, adding that even organized crime may not know some of their partners may have terror links. "But when you buy illegal cigarettes or drugs, you could be helping terrorists. What's important to remember is the attack on USS Cole cost $10,000 and the attack on the World Trade Center cost about $500,000. It doesn't take much." It's an hour since the sound of AK-47 shots echoed across the river. The sun has set, the moon yet to rise and the RCMP patrol boat roars toward the New York state side at a speed that literally peels back one's eyelids. So fast, in fact, bats are suddenly inside the boat, caught by surprise by the swift-moving craft cutting through the night. Suddenly, Tougas orders the engine cut, so he can quietly drift in the middle of the current. All he can hear is the gurgle of the current, a few dogs barking on a far-off shore and the trill of late-season cicadas. He has put on night-vision goggles, which allow him to see the nocturnal world in an eerie, lime-green glow. "There," he says, ordering the boat's engine back on and pointing into the distance. He has pinpointed a slow-moving boat, running without lights. "Cut your engine," he yells as he nears the boat. The command is ignored. "Cut your engine," he yells again. Again no response. But this time, the other vessel shines a light at the Mountie, temporarily blinding him and making his night-vision goggles useless. With the thought of AK-47 gunfire still on everyone's mind, a palpable uneasiness hangs over the patrol boat. Finally, on the fifth command, the other boat turns off its engine. It turns out to be piloted by Harold Square, a Mohawk who is out on the river with his family, none too pleased at someone delaying his trip home. "You're out of your jurisdiction," he shouts. "These are Mohawk waters. Get out of here." Nevertheless, he hands over identification. And as Tougas inspects it, one of the children in Square's boat wonders about the horsepower of the RCMP boat's engine. "How fast can you go?" he asks. "Oh, he can't go so fast," Square says, taking back his ID and starting up his own engine. "They don't have any money for a really fast boat." A few minutes later, heading back to Cornwall after a night that turns up not a single smuggler, Tougas concedes that the man has a point. Flush with cash, smugglers build ever-faster boats that can now exceed 160 km/h, double the speed of what this RCMP boat can do. They can cross the narrow parts of the river in 20 seconds. "Speed for speed, we're losing the battle," Tougas says. "But we're in a process of getting a boat that would answer this problem." Left unsaid, though, is what's always been obvious: At night, the St. Lawrence seems awfully big. And if history is any measure, the Mounties never have the fastest boat for very long.