Little as one per cent of illegal goods

From: Ottawa Citizen

Screaming packs of snowmobiles bolting along river ice from Akwesasne toward Valleyfield often race within metres of the tiny CBSA post separating Dundee from Fort Covington, New York. None slow down to declare cargo.

While their numbers remain few, more and more residents are fighting back.

Father Jacques Labelle, pastor of the Precious Blood Parish in Glen Walter, east of Cornwall, has organized meetings between a few dozen citizens and police, who urge residents to report smuggling activities.

“People were afraid to sit out at night on their property,” said Labelle.

Smugglers used the waterfront churchyard as a transfer point so often the grounds required landscaping to repair all the tire damage.

“We will continue to fight back, we have to take back what’s ours,” vowed Labelle, now seeking a community meeting with Toews.

Local rural economies are being corrupted, too.

“The young people who come from farming families, they get caught up in it. You can shovel shit all day for $10 an hour or you can run a load of cigarettes and make $5,000,” said the cottager burnt out last winter. “It’s attractive to these young people because there’s not much in terms of economic development in the area other than family farms.

“In a way it’s kind of tragic, they get a criminal record (and) they get dragged into drug smuggling.”

Sgt. Michael Harvey, a policy analyst in the customs and excise branch at RCMP headquarters, recalled a day in court during his years stationed in Cornwall.

“A young girl was making $6,000 a week to take loads three times a day from Akwesasne to Kahnawake,” a Mohawk reserve on Montreal’s south shore. “She explained in court that she would spend that on her addiction to OxyContin.”

Meanwhile, the federal, Quebec and Ontario governments claim the proliferation of untaxed cigarettes costs them at least $1.6 billion a year.

Last spring near here, police stopped one scruffy transport truck towing a 45-foot dump trailer stuffed with six million illegal cigarettes. Police believed they were produced in one of about a dozen unlicensed manufacturing plants on the U.S. portion of Akwesasne, known as St. Regis, with cheap tobacco from the Carolinas.

The bust was part of a six month “surge” operation in which Mounties from across Canada were dispatched to Valleyfield for four, two-week anti-smuggling blitzes.

There were 29 arrests. Seizures included 11 million illicit U.S.-made cigarettes, 8,430 kilograms of fine-cut U.S. tobacco, 22 grams of marijuana, one gram of cocaine, 21 vehicles and one AK-47 assault rifle.

Total estimated value: $33.7 million.

Most of the illegal cigarettes and fine-cut tobacco are destined for the native smoke shops of Kahnawake and the glitter-gulch strip of casinos and cigarette shacks lining U.S. Route 138 through St. Regis.

Contraband tobacco has been a long standing RCMP priority. In 2008, the force unveiled a Contraband Tobacco Enforcement Strategy, aiming to target the highest levels of the organized crime groups involved. So far, 43 organizations have been taken down nationally.

Still, most police sources conceded they are catching a fraction – one to 10 per cent – of the tobacco, drugs and guns moving through this region.

Incredibly, American officials estimate 20 per cent of all high-grade Canadian marijuana smuggled into the U.S. now comes through this region, much of it produced in hydroponic grow ops in Quebec and Ontario. Add to that millions of tablets of the club-drug Ecstasy (aka MDMA), the manufacture and distribution of which is largely controlled by Canadian Asian gangs.

The net result is U.S. authorities dedicating fewer resources and less attention to combating the illicit tobacco trade on the U.S. side of Akwesasne, explains Harvey.

“They’re flooded with our Canadian marijuana and Ecstasy going in. All of their resources are tied up with drugs.”

The challenge faced by authorities on both sides of the border comes into much better focus in an RCMP Eurocopter.

At 2,000 feet above the St. Lawrence, the full extent of this smugglers’ paradise is on view, with dozens of small islands, marinas, coves, secluded bays, tributaries and farm fields from Cornwall to Valleyfield.

In some spots on the Ontario side, small tributaries snake a few hundred metres from the St. Lawrence and directly underneath Highway 401 overpasses.

At Saint-Anicet, houses are erected along a maze of canals.

The topography spans six international, provincial and tribal jurisdictions, while aboriginal sensitivities exert significant influence on the political geography.

Most daunting, perhaps, the smugglers operate mainly in the dark, with expensive night vision technology.

“We can’t have a boat every half mile but we can do the same thing though intelligence,” said Toews as he surveyed the charred foundation of the man’s burntout cottage.

“The co-operation of local people has to be part of that solution as well.”

Nothing short of a military operation could effectively police this zone, which is why the RCMP and other police rely chiefly on intelligence-led counter-smuggling and, they hope, the eyes and ears of thousands of residents.

“There’s no way we could cover all this area,” says RCMP Sgt. Richard Delorme, acting officer-in-charge of the 20-member Valleyfield detachment, which also houses six Sûreté officers on counter-smuggling duty.

In the dark and without running lights, “they can basically land anywhere and go where they want.”

But, “if the population would get on board, it would definitely help because it’s their backyard. We have 5,000 people living here. If you increase your visibility, your way of saying, ‘I don’t accept this,’ then obviously it becomes more difficult for the organizations because now it’s a whole community that is holding together.”

But, “if you condone something in your community . there’s always consequences.”


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