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Security Efforts Falling Through Cross-Border Cracks

The U.S. allots $5,000 to counter smuggling on a reservation straddling the U.S.-Canada line.

November 20, 2005|Cara Anna | Associated Press Writer

ST. REGIS MOHAWK RESERVATION, N.Y. — As he lies in bed listening to smugglers on the river, Andrew Thomas wonders how much domestic security $5,000 can buy.

Thomas is the tribal police chief who patrols a geographic hiccup, the only Indian reservation that straddles America's northern border. Part of the St. Regis Mohawk reservation is in America, part is in Canada, and a river and several islands fall in between -- making these 12 miles of rural New York some of the country's most popular for smuggling.

As the U.S. government tries harder to secure its borders, this is one door that remains wide open.

Tribal residents don't like outside officials poking around, so Thomas and his officers, all three of them per shift, are America's first line of defense. For their efforts, they get $5,000 in homeland security money a year.

"Pennies," Thomas says.

But better than nothing, which they got in 2002 and 2003.

At night, the St. Lawrence River hums with the sounds of smugglers slipping from one side of the reservation to the other in stripped-down boats. They carry marijuana, Ecstasy, money, human cargo and, for Thomas, more than a little frustration.

After dark, he leaves policing of the river to the nearby U.S. Border Patrol station, which watches the reservation waters on the American side. Sometimes the smugglers wait just over the line.

The tribal police have a boat, but not enough people to operate it. "An expensive paperweight in the parking lot," Thomas calls it.

But the $5,000 is being put to use.

The St. Regis residents are building a protective fence around the police station itself.

"I'm slowly pulling my hair out," says Derek Champagne, district attorney for Franklin County, which surrounds the reservation. He prosecutes crimes committed in the county -- on the reservation and off. "If we're going to have a border, it should really mean something."

Last year, about $8.4 million in marijuana and $6 million in Ecstasy were seized after being moved through the reservation and into the quiet farm country of northern New York. Authorities arrested 120 people, a mix of tribal members and outsiders.

The seized drugs are a fraction of what comes over.

"Do you honestly think we're getting 5% of what comes through?" Champagne asks.

The numbers come from a two-year-old task force of more than a dozen local, state and federal authorities. But they work mostly outside the reservation and its 9,000 residents on the American side.

Champagne plays a videotape of the St. Lawrence River that divides the tribal lands in two. On the tape, shot in winter, trucks drive freely over the now-frozen border. In other parts of the reservation, land roads connect the U.S. and Canada all year, with no checkpoints and no questions.

Earlier this year, Champagne showed the tape at a state terrorism conference in Albany.

"People said, 'That's our border?' " he says. There was no other real response.

Bill Ritchie, who leads Franklin County's task force, says he doesn't even know of any sensors on the reservation, like the ones placed along America's borders to monitor illegal crossings.

"How do we police that?" asks Dick Ashlaw, the local Border Patrol agent in charge.

Quietly, some law enforcement officials blame the lack of a real solution on the traditional tension between government and tribe, some of whose members post signs against the "feds" and "Gov. George Custer Pataki" along the reservation's main highway.

"No one wants to look like the big bad government squeezing the Indian," says Robert Singer, a retired Border Patrol agent who lives near the reservation.

It may happen just the same.

Julius Beeson just got caught in the unique geography. He tried to cross the one bridge that links the reservation's two halves, but was turned back by federal border officials for not having the right ID.

They asked for a Canadian work permit, he says. He didn't have one.

"I'm going to burn my tribal card," Beeson says. He grabs his wallet and starts toward the fire that burns outside a longhouse on the reservation.

"I've never been denied access to my own land before," he says.

Like other tribal members, he sees the reservation as a land that can be crossed freely.

But along the edges, enforcement is tightening.

In nearby Massena, the Border Patrol station hopes to move into a new building next year, one that can hold 35 to 50 agents. The station now has 16.

The U.S. attorney for New York's Northern District wants to open a local office to handle the rising number of prosecutions.

Beeson says he just wanted to go to work, fixing a house on an island on the Canadian side. Now he says he's out a day's pay, and maybe the job.

"And you wonder," he says, "why so many of us are going back to the river."

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