U.S. authorities seize Florida-bound convoy allegedly smuggling 270 kg of Canadian marijuana
DEA tapped cellphone of Akwesasne member who allegedly operated warehouse at centre of smuggling operation
U.S. authorities recently intercepted a convoy of late-model pickup trucks pulling trailers in New York state with more than 270 kilograms of Canadian-grown marijuana headed for Florida, U.S. court documents allege.
The Feb. 5 bust was part of a multi-agency operation that included surveillance and cellphone wiretaps.
The operation, headed by the U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA), tracked the movements of a motorboat across the St. Lawrence River and the departure of vehicles from the Mohawk community of Akwesasne, which straddles the Canada-U.S. border about 120 kilometres southwest of Montreal.
The convoy was eventually intercepted by New York state police on Hwy 87 heading south toward Lake Placid, N.Y., with Florida as the ultimate destination, according to an affidavit filed by the DEA.
The bust comes as the U.S. inches toward removal of marijuana from the list of controlled substances. The U.S. House of Representatives passed a bill late last year to push the effort forward. The proposed change is expected to gain traction in a Democrat-controlled Senate.
New York and Florida are also moving toward legalizing the recreational use of marijuana, which has been legal in Canada since 2018.
New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo said in January that he planned to legalize and tax marijuana in the state by the end of the year. In Florida, state legislators are also moving to legalize recreational marijuana use this year, with bills introduced in the state House and Senate.
Intercepted text messages tipped off DEA
The DEA began its operation after obtaining information that "large amounts of marijuana" were being smuggled into the U.S. through Akwesasne, according to the affidavit filed by DEA agent Niles DuPont, who also works for the U.S. Bureau of Indian Affairs.
The Akwesasne Mohawk territory is cut in half by the border, leaving some portions of the reserve within Canada, accessible domestically only by river, or through the U.S. by roads with no border checkpoints.
Given this geography, coupled with the historic nationalism of Akwesasne, the region has been used to move tobacco north and marijuana south — mainly across the river by boats and by snowmobile in winter when it freezes over.
The DEA received wiretap authorization to intercept the cellphone of John Skidders Jr., who is an Akwesasne member, according to the court document.
The DEA intercepted a text conversation between Skidders and another Akwesasne member named Seth Lazore on Feb. 3, allegedly discussing the packaging of 650 bags of marijuana.
"What time we leaving trw," said an alleged text message from Lazore.
"Soon as its all sealed," Skidders allegedly responded, according to the affidavit.
The DEA then set up surveillance of a warehouse on Cook Road, which is on the U.S. side of Akwesasne. It skirts the Canadian side of the reserve in a section called Snye, which sits between the St. Lawrence River and the U.S. border.
"This location is believed to be utilized by Skidders to load marijuana for transport and to organize marijuana shipments," the court document alleges.
Watching the boats
The DEA surveillance team then observed a Ford F-350 with New York licence plates.
The truck was pulling a "hydro-yacht type boat" on a trailer. Surveillance also spotted another truck, a black GMC pickup, pulling a "camouflaged coloured hydro-yacht," which was later monitored by a second surveillance team heading into a nearby marina in Hogansburg, N.Y.
The camouflage boat was then observed heading across the St. Lawrence toward Canada. A little less than an hour later, the surveillance team spotted it on a trailer towed by the same black GMC truck headed back to the warehouse, the court document says.
"Drug smugglers commonly use boats to smuggle narcotics between Canada and the U.S.," the affidavit says.
The next morning, the surveillance team watched four vehicles — including the Ford F-350 and a 2021 Yukon Denali spotted at the warehouse — at a plaza on Route 37, which cuts through the U.S. side of Akwesasne.
The Denali was towing a trailer with two ATVs and the F-350 pulled a trailer with a Corvette bearing a California licence plate. A third vehicle, a 3500 Dodge pickup truck, carried a trailer with an "antique-like pickup truck." The fourth vehicle, a 1500 Chevrolet Silverado, did not have a trailer but did have a Florida licence plate, according to the court document.
The DEA then began to monitor the movement of the four-vehicle convoy as it headed for Lake Placid. Agents noticed that vehicles "made the same turns and maintained an even speed."
New York State Police troopers then swept in, pulling over the vehicles one by one, several kilometres apart.
Lazore was allegedly found sitting in the passenger seat of the Denali, along with an unnamed driver and two minors. Skidders was allegedly pulled over driving the F-350 that was pulling the Corvette. There were two minors in the truck with him, the court document says.
The DEA said it found 270 kilograms of marijuana hidden in the floorboards of the three trailers.
Skidders and Lazore are each charged with one count of conspiracy to possess and distribute marijuana.
Lawyers for the two did not respond to a request for comment.
U.S. Assistant Attorney Troy Anderson did not respond to a request for comment.