When it comes to drug trafficking in the United States, much of the focus lies on the southern border. But to the north, there is a vast frontier – much of which is unmonitored – that is appealing to drug traffickers from Canada coming in and out of the United States. The border Canada shares with New York, in particular, is a popular narcotics route.
On September 7, a Canadian truck driver pleaded guilty to smuggling cocaine in the floorboards of his truck as part of an operation that shipped tons of drugs into the United States from Canada since 2009.
Ravinder Arora of Brampton, Ontario was about to cross the Lewiston-Queenston Bridge from western New York into Ontario a year ago when he was nabbed with more than $3.8 million in cocaine.
The Justice Department's National Drug Intelligence Center’s National Drug Threat Assessment released in August found, for example, that high levels of MDMA (Ecstasy) production by Canadian-based Asian criminal organizations has contributed to increased availability of this drug in the Great Lakes and New York region.
MDMA and marijuana smuggling has been – and will continue to be – the “primary drug threat along the Northern Border,” the report said, adding that large quantities of these drugs are smuggled between Ports of Entry (POEs) at locations such as the Akwesasne Indian Reservation in New York.
A March Government Accountability Office (GAO) report highlighted vulnerabilities along the Northern Border.
“The biggest issue has been hydroponic marijuana (marijuana grown indoors) and MDMA coming south from Canada into the US and being distributed, mostly along the Eastern seaboard, but some of it goes to the Midwest,” James Burns, Special Agent in Charge of the Drug Enforcement Agency’s (DEA) New York border told Homeland Security Today.
“What’s really increased over the past few years,” Burns said, “is the trafficking of pharmaceuticals from Canada to the US. It really jumped after the formula for Oxycontin was changed here in the US to make it more difficult to abuse.”
The formula for Oxycontin didn’t change in Canada, however.
The Northern District of New York borders Canada for approximately 300 miles and includes the St. Regis Mohawk territory where the St. Lawrence Seaway turns north away from the international boundary and eight of the 11 POEs in New York. Four of the border counties in the Northern District of New York —Clinton, Franklin, Jefferson and St. Lawrence Counties — are included in the New York/New Jersey High Intensity Drug Trafficking Area, or HIDTA.
In February, Democratic New York Sens. Charles Schumer and Kirsten Gillibrand, along with several other northern border state lawmakers, wrote Janet Napolitano, secretary of the Department of Homeland Security (DHS), asking that the department utilize military-grade radar technology along the border to detect low-flying planes carrying drugs.
In November, the US Air and Marine Operations Command Center is scheduled to begin integrating its military radar feeds with those feeds used by Canada to improve the ability to catch such aircraft.
In July, Schumer sent a letter to the Office of National Drug Control Policy (ONDCP) in which he demanded that it release its Northern Border Counternarcotics Strategy, which was due on July 5. Congress passed the Northern Border Counternarcotics Strategy Act on Jan. 4 mandating such a strategy.
“When it comes to shutting down drug smugglers, people living near the northern border don’t want to hear ‘the dog ate our homework’ – this report needs to be presented now,” Schumer said.
An ONDCP official told Homeland Security Today the agency expects to release the strategy within the next several weeks. ONDCP consulted with the Canadian government on the document, and the recent change in Canadian government reputedly caused delayed its release.
“We want to make sure it’s a deliberative document and we’ve consulted with the right people,” the official said.
Schumer also called for establishment of a Border Enforcement Security Task Force (BEST) in Massena, NY that’s similar to the BEST team located in the Buffalo region. BEST teams are multi-agency teams comprised of DEA, Immigration and Customs Enforcement, Customs and Border Protection, FBI and other agencies to help disrupt criminal activity at the nation’s borders.
The Massena team is scheduled to be up and running this month.
Burns said any new technology or techniques that will prove effective in the war on drugs along the northern border would be welcomed.
“We’re always looking for new ways to stay ahead of the curve,” he said. “The traffickers are always looking for new ways to adapt … it’s always an interesting chess match against them to stay ahead of the game.”
Drugs most commonly are smuggled across the border in hidden compartments in vehicles or trucks – sometimes mixed with legitimate cargo – whose occupants are trying to enter both New York and Canada. The border in this region is very remote, and in some places, Burns explained, “you have the ability to literally walk across the border from Canada into US and New York without being challenged at a border checkpoint or immigration check point.”
The St. Lawrence River and Seaway freezes so solid in the winter that it forms a virtual ice road on which a person can literally drive across from Canada into the United States, and vice versa.
Another challenge lies in having to deal with multiple jurisdictions. For example, the Akwesasne Indian Reservation, that straddles the New York/Canada border, is an attractive route for smugglers.
When dealing with enforcement, there are seven different jurisdictions to deal with: the US and Canadian Akwesasne, the Canadian and US government, and the state of New York and the Canadian provinces of Quebec and Ontario.
And “that can lead to a lot of interesting interaction,” Burns said, adding “those issues are constantly being addressed.”
But all parties are “working very hard to make sure the traffickers can’t take advantage that there are 7 sovereign entities that need to be dealt with,” Burns said.
Liza Porteus Viana is a Homeland Security Today correspondent who covers technology policy, homeland security, crime, politics and the United Nations.
By: Liza Porteus Viana
11/02/2011 ( 6:51am)
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