PLATTSBURGH, N.Y. | The world’s longest undefended border: It’s a catchy yet increasingly imprecise term for the U.S.-Canada frontier, as authorities on both sides ratchet up efforts to curb bustling traffic in illegal drugs and guns.
The U.S. Border Patrol has tripled the number of agents along the 5,500-mile stretch in recent years, with hundreds more soon to be deployed. Unmanned U.S. surveillance aircraft are being tested for use over the frontier, and video surveillance towers are going up around Buffalo and Detroit. Multi-agency, binational law enforcement teams operate in 15 regions from coast to coast.
The U.S.-Mexico border draws far more attention - and more American resources, as Mexican drug cartels fuel killings and corruption with massive trafficking operations.
Thousands of Mexican troops battle the cartels in a conflict that has killed more than 11,000 people since late 2006. By comparison, the scale of drug violence and trafficking in Canada is minuscule.
Yet the northern border, mostly out of the spotlight, presents its own challenges. It is hard to monitor due to its length and geography and used by a diverse array of traffickers ranging from outlaw motorcycle gangs to Asian-run drug rings.
“It’s a long border, mostly very remote, very wooded, very sparsely populated,” said James Burns, the Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA) special agent in charge of upstate New York. “It’s easy to go from one side to the other without detection.”
Canada supplies large quantities of marijuana to American users, including hundreds of thousands of pounds a year of lucrative, high-potency “B.C. Bud” from British Columbia. Canada also has developed rapidly into a leading supplier of ecstasy - often laced with highly addictive methamphetamine - both for U.S. and overseas markets, as crime gangs operate factory-style superlabs.
The contraband arrives by helicopter, boat and float plane, in cattle trucks, hikers’ backpacks and by snowmobile. One favored smuggling passageway is the St. Regis/Akwesasne Mohawk Indian reservation straddling the St. Lawrence River along the New York-Canada border where tribal sovereignty limits access by Canadian and U.S. investigators.
Just this month, federal and state authorities in Plattsburgh, on the western shore of Lake Champlain, announced the dismantling of a purported billion-dollar marijuana smuggling ring that used the Mohawk land as a transit route into the United States.
“Operation Iron Curtain” resulted in charges against more than 45 people, from Quebec to Florida. Over the past four years, the ring smuggled about $250 million worth of high-grade, hydroponic marijuana into the United States annually, authorities said.
“It’s easy to forget in these idyllic surroundings and friendly communities - and with our close relationship with our Canadian neighbors - that there are people so interested in lining their own pockets that they don’t care what harm they cause others,” said Assistant U.S. Attorney Grant Jaquith.
Even excluding the remote 1,500-mile border with Alaska, the U.S.-Canada frontier covers 4,000 miles from the Atlantic to the Pacific, making it twice as long as the U.S.-Mexico border.
Yet as of last month, the Border Patrol had 1,550 agents deployed along the Canadian border, compared with 16,900 along the Mexican frontier. The northern contingent is up from less than 500 agents in 2002 and will expand to more than 2,200 over the next year.
At last count, marijuana from Canada accounted for less than 3 percent of the pot seized near U.S. borders, with the bulk coming from Mexico. But the DEA fears more will be coming from the north as marijuana-growing operations expand in eastern Canada.
Other trends also cause alarm. Seizures of ecstasy being smuggled from Canada to the United States quintupled between 2004 and 2006, from 1.1 million dosage units to 5.2 million. Meanwhile, Canadian authorities reported that seizures of cocaine coming northward over the border had tripled.
The boom in Canadian ecstasy smuggling followed a cutback of the drug’s production in Western Europe and is linked to the ability of crime groups to bring precursor chemicals from Asia into Canada for processing at gang-run labs. The United Nations’ drug czar, Antonio Maria Costa, last month urged Canada to emulate the United States and Mexico in cracking down on these precursors, such as over-the-counter cold medicine.
Inspector Doug Ellerker, an assistant director of the Royal Canadian Mounted Police’s drug branch, said the superlabs are a prime target of investigators.
“Because of the money to be made, it’s a real issue for us to deal with,” he said. “We’re seeing a turn toward the larger economic-based labs that can produce larger quantities.”
Canada’s gangs are a multi-ethnic mosaic: Quebec biker gangs led by French-Canadians, and Chinese- and Vietnamese-led gangs in several major cities. One particular problem, Canadian police say, is extensive infiltration of the trucking industry by criminals whose families emigrated from India.
The National Drug Intelligence Center, in its 2009 report, estimates that Canada-based drug gangs were generating between $33 billion and $56 billion annually from overall drug sales in the United States, with much of the cash smuggled through the Mohawk territory.