THE ever-increasing body count in Mexico’s drug war has focused Americans’ attention on the gangs south of the border. When it comes to shipments of ecstasy, however, they are looking in the wrong direction. Because the drug is a synthetic compound that can be manufactured anywhere, Latin America’s warm climate does not provide the same advantage that it does for cocaine or opiates. Instead, it is Canada that has an edge, because its large population of Asian immigrants gives its organised-crime groups easy access to Chinese suppliers of ecstasy’s precursor chemicals. In the year to October 2010 American customs officers seized 1,460 pounds (662 kg) of ecstasy at the northern border, and just 24 pounds at the southern one.
Stemming the flow of ecstasy—which sells for two to three times more in the United States than in Canada—along an 8,891-km (5,525-mile) border has proven to be extremely difficult. The frontier, long called the world’s longest undefended border—although it has recently been rechristened as unmilitarised—runs through vast tracks of wilderness, over mountains, through the middle of the Great Lakes, and down the main streets of some small towns. Moreover, because Canada and America are each other’s biggest trading partner, a balance must be found between securing the border and impeding the 35m vehicles that cross each year.
The United States beefed up its border controls after the September 11th attacks. Although its measures were principally aimed at fighting terrorism, they have made life more difficult for traffickers as well. It increased the number of customs agents along the Canadian frontier from 300 to 2200 and brought in new technology, including Predator drones and surveillance balloons in the air, and thermal imaging cameras and remote video-surveillance systems on the ground. It has also sought greater cross-border cooperation: Canada recently agreed to give the United States 22 additional radar feeds to help detect smugglers crossing over on low-altitude flights. Alan Bersin, the commissioner of America’s Customs and Border Protection agency, told a Congressional committee on May 17th that information-sharing with Canada had increased significantly. It is likely to improve further under the agreement signed in February by Barack Obama and Stephen Harper, Canada’s prime minister, to explore deeper continental security ties, and as a result of a law passed in January requiring America’s government to produce a “Northern Border Counternarcotics Strategy”.
Yet while the United States may be clamping down at the 122 land border crossings with Canada, patrolling the gaps between them remains difficult. Traffickers in Quebec ride snowmobiles in winter and all-terrain vehicles in summer, while those in British Columbia make use of helicopters and boats. Indian reservations that straddle the border, allowing residents to pass freely into either country, are particularly porous: American authorities estimate that 20% of all high-potency marijuana smuggled from Canada passes through New York’s St. Regis Mohawk Reservation, which is known as the Akwesasne Reserve on the Canadian side. The more America tries to crack down, the more ingenious the smugglers become.
May 23rd 2011
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