- The Washington Times - Monday, December 8, 2003

Part I: Guarding America’s border

Second of three parts

HAVRE, Mont. - The “Ghost of Sin Ojos” is an illusive figure known all too well to the Border Patrol agents who prowl the rolling plains here under the big Montana sky, a shadowy visitor dressed in black with no eyes who moves unseen over a strip of land along the Canadian border known as the “Hi-Line.”

“I’ve never personally seen the ghost,” said Border Patrol Senior Agent Larry D. Shields as he guided his four-wheel-drive vehicle along a dirt path near a barbed-wire fence that separates the United States and Canada. “But there’s no doubt he’s out here.”

There’s also no doubt that the ghost has company, an elusive and growing number of drug smugglers, crossing from Canada into the United States — in trucks and cars, on snowmobiles and horseback, in airplanes and on foot — carrying a mountain of illicit drugs, including a new and potent hydroponically grown Canadian marijuana known as “BC bud.”

Using night-vision optics and global-positioning systems to navigate the desolate and often-rugged terrain, the smugglers seek to fulfill a growing demand in the United States for drugs — particularly the high-grade marijuana that sells for up to $6,000 a pound — 10 times the price of Mexican pot.

Illicit drugs such as BC bud have become a billion-dollar industry for Canadian smugglers, and their spread into the United States was inevitable, law-enforcement authorities say.

“Canada has increasingly become a source country for drugs to the United States; there’s no question of that,” said Carl A. Eklund, who heads the Border Patrol’s Colville, Wash., station, describing the principal exports as BC bud, high-purity heroin and precursor chemicals — used to produce synthetic drugs, primarily methamphetamine.

“With regard to BC bud, a number of organized-crime groups in Canada have been identified as suppliers, including outlaw motorcycle clubs and Vietnamese gangs, but some of those involved are simply entrepreneurs, working out of their basements.”

BC bud, whose moniker derives from its origin, British Columbia, has a tetrahydrocannabinol potency rating of 20 percent to 30 percent, compared with an average of 2 percent to 5 percent for marijuana produced elsewhere. That accounts for its high cost.

The U.S. demand for Canada’s growing supply of illicit drugs and no apparent shortage of smugglers has prompted some members of Congress to ask the federal government to reimburse states and municipalities for the multimillion dollar costs of prosecuting those arrested by federal authorities at the northern border.

Separate bills offered by Sen. Maria Cantwell and Rep. Rick Larsen, both Washington Democrats, would authorize $28 million a year. The bills are pending in committee.

“We can’t keep sticking economically stressed local communities with the cost of prosecuting federal crimes,” Mrs. Cantwell said recently. “The federal government should pay its fair share to keep border communities safe.”

Quiet northern frontier’

Immigration lawyer Jose Latour in Seattle, a former member of the U.S. Diplomatic and Consular Offices in Mexico and Africa, said most Americans think the drug war is taking place in the Mexican desert and the Caribbean. The notion that drugs have been an issue “along our quiet northern frontier is fairly new to most of us.”

Mr. Latour said a tremendous increase in marijuana seizures along the northern border has triggered a corresponding increase in the shipment of cocaine, guns and money heading into Canada, causing many in the United States to look with concern at Canada’s liberal marijuana laws.

“The production of high-potency marijuana in Canada, where the government has a more liberal point of view on its use and legalization, has significantly impacted on the United States,” he said. “If BC bud was being produced for consumption in Canada, we would have no legitimate say on what that country should or shouldn’t be doing.

“But it’s being produced for export to the United States, and that places Canadian marijuana growers in the same category as Peruvian coca producers and Asian poppy growers,” he said. “Despite its views on marijuana, Canada needs to act aggressively to control the production of the marijuana crop now bound for the United States.”

Despite sharp criticism from the White House, Canada has introduced federal legislation that removes criminal penalties for possession of small amounts of marijuana. Administration officials warned that decriminalization would result in more smuggling of BC bud and increased drug use among Americans.

Seizures of marijuana along the Canadian border rose 300 percent last year compared with in 2001, according to the Bureau of Customs and Border Protection (CBP), which has the responsibility of guarding America’s borders against terrorists, weapons of mass destruction, illegal aliens and drug smugglers.

More than 14 tons of marijuana was seized on the northern border during 2002, most of which was attributed to a high state of vigilance along the border in the wake of the September 11 attacks.

Assistant Border Patrol Sector Chief Marvin J. Foust in Spokane said CBP officials in Washington — in recognizing the growing drug-smuggling problem along the U.S.-Canada border — recently assigned 386 new agents to the northern border, bringing to 999 the total number along the often-invisible 4,121-mile line that separates the United States and Canada.

Chief Foust said about a quarter of those agents, all veterans of the drug-flooded U.S.-Mexico border, are expected to go to Washington state, assigned to the Spokane and Blaine sectors.

“It’s going to take time for the logistics to work out, but I think we’re headed in the right direction,” he said. “That’s important because up here problems sometimes are only one or two miles away as the crow flies, but because of the terrain you can’t get there in less than 30 or 40 minutes.

“That’s a safety issue I believe the leadership in Washington is quite properly trying to address,” he said.

Corresponding response

But for every law-enforcement upgrade along the long-ignored northern border, there has been a corresponding response by the drug smugglers.

When manpower and technology, such as seismic meters, infrared devices, magnetic sensors and remote cameras, were upgraded in western Washington state, where BC bud is king, the smugglers moved eastward — targeting less-threatening and more-remote routes to avoid detection.

“With 300 miles of international border to protect, our biggest problem is narcotics smuggling, and it’s one of growing concern to us,” said Border Patrol Assistant Chief LeAlan Pinkerton in Spokane. “And at least 95 percent of our interdictions have something to do with BC bud.”

Chief Pinkerton noted that drug smugglers have studied the border to learn how many agents and inspectors are assigned in western Washington state and to discover what new technologies are being used to catch them.

“Feeling somewhat overwhelmed at some of the bigger ports, they’re looking for someplace else to exploit and, apparently, we’re it,” he said.

The Spokane sector has 87,500 square miles of rugged mountain terrain in eastern Washington state, Idaho and western Montana, making it a prime target for smugglers, who also have become a presence in the rural areas north of Havre, the largest city on the Hi-Line.

“It also has become clear to us that more drugs, including BC bud, are beginning to filter over into this area, and that’s cause for great concern,” said Chief Robert L. Finley, who heads the Border Patrol sector office in Havre and is responsible for 454 miles of border with Canada.

“Because it’s grown hydroponically in basements, it’s hard to detect. Eventually, they pack it, wrap it and move it to places like Minneapolis, Chicago and Billings, wherever there are buyers,” Chief Finley said. “We’re getting the infrastructure we needed and using the technology that’s available, but with more than 450 miles of border to protect, it’s a long ways between the lights.”

Mr. Pinkerton said other drugs also are being smuggled from Canada through the Spokane sector, including Mexican marijuana. He said field agents also have stopped shipments of Colombian cocaine headed north, some of which is being exchanged for BC bud. Other northbound contraband, he said, includes illicit drug profits and guns, a staple among narcotics smugglers.

“We certainly have needed help with regard to resources and technology and have for a long time, but we’re ready and we’ll make our stand at the border,” said Mr. Pinkerton, noting his agents have received critically needed support from Canadian law-enforcement agencies, including the Royal Canadian Mounted Police.

“Our Canadian counterparts are an extension of our own agency,” Mr. Pinkerton said. “When we need help, we can always count on them. It is a cooperative pact unrivaled anywhere.”

Mr. Eklund at the Colville, Wash., station has driven, walked or flown over nearly every square mile of the Colville National Forest, where smugglers continually are seeking new routes.

During a flight in a new Border Patrol A-Star helicopter over the tree-crowded Selkirk Mountains with Border Patrol Pilot Joseph Grasso, Mr. Eklund said drugs are being smuggled at remote locations all along the border aboard commercial, private and rented trucks and cars, snowmobiles and all-terrain vehicles.

He said some of the drugs are being carried on foot in 60- to 80-pound backpack loads over the rugged eastern Washington state border by smugglers using night-vision optics and global positioning system equipment. Some of the smugglers, he said, use small private aircraft out of Canada to drop marijuana-packed hockey equipment bags to accomplices in the United States.

Cross-border cooperation

Like other Border Patrol sectors along the Canadian line, the Grand Forks, N.D., sector, the largest in the country with eight states, has begun seeing more movement of drugs — including the seizure in October of the largest-ever drug haul in this region, $5.75 million in BC bud at the CBP checkpoint at Portal, N.D.

“Prior to September 11, our staff was limited, and our technological support was spread very thin. But we have a lot more people now and a lot of new equipment, which gives us an increased ability to respond to calls and better control the area,” said Chief Glen W. Schroeder, who heads the Grand Forks sector.

Chief Schroeder said his ability to respond to ongoing crime also has been enhanced by the Integrated Border Enforcement Teams (IBET), multiagency task forces that target cross-border criminal activity. First formed in 1996 as a partnership between U.S. authorities in Blaine and Canadian officials in British Colombia, he said the IBET task forces have evolved into a major enforcement success.

The Red River-Manitoba IBET — covering North Dakota, Minnesota and Manitoba, Canada — began operations in December. Its initial members included the U.S. Border Patrol and U.S. Customs Service, both of which are now a part of CBP, along with Canadian Customs, Citizenship and Immigration Canada and several municipal and provincial law-enforcement agencies.

With the creation in November of two more IBET teams, there now are 14, which cover every strategic location across the entire Canada-U.S. border.

“The IBET task forces are a big force multiplier, giving you a dimension you don’t normally have,” said Chief Schroeder. “It had made a big difference for us.”

Targeting trains

In Havre, Chief Finley was one of the first to target the trains, assigning agents to check them when they pull into the city’s downtown station daily at about 3 p.m. for a crew change. The 30-minute stops initially gave the chief an opportunity to focus his limited manpower on both drug and alien smugglers.

“Amtrak has been very cooperative,” the chief said. “Working the trains has proven to be very successful.”

Amtrak’s “Empire Builder” travels daily between Chicago and Seattle, stopping every afternoon in Havre, where it is met by a crew of green-uniformed Border Patrol agents, often led by Mr. Shields, the senior agent.

“When the train stops, we usually put agents on board working from both ends to the middle, talking with everyone we can and looking for anything out of the ordinary,” said Mr. Shields, as he and other agents — including a K-9 officer — walked the platform at the Havre 1st Street station while others worked inside the train.

“As law-enforcement resources and technology have increased in the high-traffic areas of western Washington state, we’ve begun to see more movement into our area by the drug and alien smugglers,” he said. “That’s no surprise. We’ve also gotten more people and equipment, and we’re beginning to make a lot more arrests.”

More arrests and no complaints from the travelers, according to officials at Amtrak’s Chicago office.

Mr. Shields noted that in addition to a rise in drugs showing up in the Havre area, the number of illegal aliens being encountered also has increased — a number of whom have been caught on the trains. He said the agents have arrested illegal immigrants from as many as 35 different countries trying to sneak into the United States.

Ho Chi Minh trails’

Although many drug smugglers continue to seek out new routes into the United States, others are content to stay in western Washington state, closer to the sources of the drugs and the buyers.

Authorities said much of the BC bud crop and other illicit drugs generally move out of Canada to traffickers in Seattle and Portland, where it is distributed to U.S. marijuana markets — mainly along major transportation corridors, such as Interstate 5, which links large metropolitan areas along the entire West Coast from Canada to Mexico.

Drug smuggling along the western edge of Washington state — through and near the Blaine port of entry — has become so commonplace that many of the established and frequently used routes are referred to by authorities as the “Ho Chi Minh trails,” a reference to supply lines built by the North Vietnamese during the Vietnam war.

In 1997, the White House Office of National Drug Control Policy (ONDCP) designated the Blaine region as a high-intensity drug trafficking area, qualifying it for federal funds to enhance and coordinate anti-drug efforts among local, state and federal law-enforcement agencies.

After the September 11 attacks, the ONDCP confirmed that many Canadian drug smugglers were beginning to move their operations eastward because of increased vigilance at high-use ports of entry in the urban areas of western Washington state. Drugs crossing the border in Idaho and Montana border are routed to California, New York and Georgia, authorities said.

A November 2002 report by the Royal Canadian Mounted Police said the smuggling of Canadian marijuana to the United States was “an activity that is conducted every day, practically all along the border.” The report said that the drug was being moved by land, sea and air, using every conceivable method — and that the most active smuggling area was the boundary between British Columbia and Washington state.

The report said the Peace Arch Provincial Park at the Blaine port of entry was one of two “major pipelines for smugglers,” the other being the San Ysidro, Calif., crossing on the U.S.-Mexico border. As expected, inspectors at Blaine have ratcheted up their border-enforcement efforts, confiscating millions of dollars in BC bud and other drugs in what CBP Port Director Margaret R. Fearon credited to “increased vigilance.”

“While carrying out our top priority of stopping terrorists and the weapons of terror, we continue to make significant arrests for drug smuggling,” she said. “We have not let down our guard in our effort to stop the flow of drugs into the United States. You come here, and you’re going to get caught.”

Located nearly midway between ports at Blaine and Portal, N.D., is the port of entry at Roosville, Mont., a remote station situated in a quiet mountain pass on the eastern edge of the Kootenai National Forest. CBP Port Director Rex Edwards said he has not yet seen large quantities of BC bud or other drugs, but knows smugglers have moved into the area.

“The Border Patrol has made several seizures on the west side of the Kootenai, but it hasn’t started showing up here — not yet,” he said. “It would be a mistake for drug smugglers to confuse our size with any lesser effort of enforcement. I have a bunch of hard rocks here dedicated to getting the job done.”

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