Akwesasne area an ecstasy smuggling hotbed

B.C. is acknowledged as a funnel for the growing exportation of Canadian ecstasy, but the U.S. Justice Department and other authorities have identified another trouble spot: the native territories that straddle the Canada-U.S. border at Akwesasne.

Canadian gangs now exporting drugs worldwide, says U.S. report

At least $1 billion worth of drugs, including ecstasy, are smuggled through the Akwesasne area every year from the Canadian side, says a U.S. district attorney. (Canadian Press)

B.C. is acknowledged as a funnel for the growing exportation of Canadian ecstasy, but the U.S. Justice Department and other authorities have identified another trouble spot: the native territories that straddle the Canada-U.S. border at Akwesasne.

A Justice Department report said multiple tonnes of high-potency marijuana are smuggled through the St. Regis Mohawk Reservation, located on the U.S. side, each week by native American groups that are supplied by Canada-based gangs, an operation that also smuggles "multi-thousand tablet quantities" of ecstasy into the United States.

St. Regis Mohawk Reservation is part of the Akwesasne area, which encompasses the U.S. border with Ontario and Quebec at the St. Lawrence River. The region also includes Mohawks on the Canadian side.

According to the Justice Department: "As much as 20 per cent of all high-potency marijuana produced in Canada each year is smuggled through the St. Regis Mohawk Reservation, which accounts for less than half a per cent of the U.S.-Canada border.

"The shared international border and geography of the reservation make it conducive to cross-border drug trafficking activity while also inhibiting law enforcement interdiction efforts."

A meeting in Lake Placid, N.Y., on Sept. 15 to discuss U.S.-Canada border security, attended by U.S. Attorney General Eric Holder, was told that ecstasy and marijuana originating from the Canadian side of the Akwesasne territory can rake in tens of millions of dollars in just a few weeks.

District attorney's view

Derek Champagne, the district attorney for Franklin County, across the border from Cornwall, Ont., is responsible for prosecutions on the U.S. side of Akwesasne. Here are some issues he has identified:

  • $1 billion US worth of drugs smuggled through area every year from Canada.
  • $1 billion worth of illegal cigarettes smuggled through Akwesasne headed to Canada.
  • Underfunded native police forces.
  • Open borders, which criminals can exploit.

Derek Champagne, the district attorney for Franklin County, across the border from Cornwall, Ont., told CBC News that at least $1 billion US worth of drugs are smuggled through the area every year from the Canadian side, and criminals have smooth sailing straight to New York City.

Champagne, who is responsible for prosecutions on the U.S. side of Akwesasne, said a nebulous border area where jurisdiction overlaps with native self-government "creates this absolute nightmare" for law enforcement on both sides of  the border.

Champagne said there is no border control and no customs in areas of Akwesasne, and that criminals can drive across unimpeded from Canada into the U.S. He said the Mohawk police forces are undermanned and underfunded and don’t have jails, limiting what they can do. Akwesasne police did not immediately return calls for comment.

More and more ecstasy is getting through, and there is no easy solution, Champagne said.

A growing trend

Canada is a growing source of ecstasy for the United States and other countries, and some law enforcement officials in the U.S. are seeing a disturbing trend, as emboldened gangs seek the huge profit margin offered by the powerful stimulant and hallucinatory drug.

The number of ecstasy seizures at the U.S.-Canada border grew by 10 times over a five-year period from 2004-09.

Two high-level U.S reports on drugs say ecstasy production and exportation remain a large problem in Canada, with the U.S. Justice Department saying Asian gangs in this country are the leading cause of ecstasy export growth.

Asian drug trafficking gangs have filled a niche by trafficking high-potency marijuana and ecstasy, "drugs not typically trafficked by Mexican, Colombian, or Dominican gangs," said a 2010 Justice Department report.

"This factor has contributed to their success."

Ecstasy seizures have increased since 2004 when just over 312,000 pills were seized at the U.S. border, compared to 2009, when 2.1 million pills were taken.

A 2011 report from the U.S. State Department said Canadian ecstasy producers now export to countries around the world, including Japan, New Zealand and Australia.

"Precursor chemicals for the production of ecstasy are smuggled into Canada from source countries such as China and India on a regular basis," according to the International Narcotics Control Strategy Report.

The RCMP's 2009 report on drugs in Canada points out that the main source of ecstasy in the country is B.C., saying it remain Canada's "gateway province" for "production, trafficking, and exportation."

In 2009, the RCMP launched a synthetic drug initiative, which was designed to eliminate the production and distribution of drugs like ecstasy.

Drug labs 'filthy and disgusting'

Doug Culfer, national co-ordinator of the operation for the RCMP, said gangs are attracted to ecstasy for two simple reasons: the profit margin is enormous and they can control the whole process, from production to sale.

"The profit margin is insane," Culfer said, explaining that it can take only "pennies" to make each pill, yet they can sell for $10 to $20 on the street.

With other drugs like cocaine, the traffickers have to rely on another country for production, whereas ecstasy can be locally produced in a gang's lab.

Culfer has been in a number of labs, most of them in B.C. where the majority are located, and called them "filthy and disgusting."

"They are not discerning in what goes in [the ecstasy]."

Police on both sides of the border are working together more these days to try to stop the flow of drugs. (Canadian Press)

American and Canadian authorities have recognized the issue and are now working closely at shutting down labs and cutting off the supply of chemicals needed to make the drugs, said Culfer.

Holder himself, at the U.S.-Canada border security meeting, noted the recent co-operation on both sides of the border to deal with drugs and other problems.

"This approach has paid dividends, which can be measured in real terms — the seizure of millions of dollars in illegal drugs and assets; the disruption of international gang operations and criminal networks; and the successful extradition of individuals accused of drug trafficking, terrorist activities, and sexual assault," he told the gathering.

Champagne said he would sign authorization to let Canadian authorities chase criminals into the U.S. but he doesn't have jurisdiction.

Right now, police can't cross the border but have to call ahead to the jurisdiction, either Canadian or U.S., to let them be aware of a chase or of a sighting.

In many cases, police officials have to just watch the border area.

"It's not a crime to cross the St. Lawrence River," said Champagne.

Olympics, G8 played a role

Canada and the U.S. clearly need to continue working together to stem the flow of ecstasy, said the State Department report.

"The United States will seek to collaborate with Canada to build enforcement capacity and regulatory frameworks in North America to promote industry compliance and avoid diversion of precursor chemicals and lab equipment for criminal use," concluded the report.

The end of extraordinary security demands on law enforcement related to the 2010 Vancouver Winter Olympics and the G8-G20 summits "should allow Canada to implement a more effective and expansive inspection regime," it said.

Ecstasy has replaced marijuana as the biggest drug of concern, as highlighted by the Justice Department: "The amount of marijuana seized along the U.S.-Canada border decreased from 10,447 kilograms in 2005 to 3,423 kilograms in 2009."

The State Department said a number of grow-ops have been moved from Canada to the U.S. in order to avoid having to smuggle drugs across the border.

Ecstasy is still popular on the street, said Culfer, since people are more comfortable with pills, rather than with snorting a drug, for example.

The key to winning the battle is stemming the flow of chemicals needed to make the pills. Canada is not a big chemical producer so they need to be imported from mostly Asian countries though Canadian ports, mostly on the West Coast.

Recently, a shipment of six tonnes of chemicals used to make methamphetamines was intercepted on the West Coast.

Culfer was in China in June to liaise with authorities there. He said China has its own ecstasy issue and understands that Chinese chemicals are being shipped to Canada.

"Organized crime targets countries with weak borders," he said.