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The Swanton Sector

Along this stretch of the Canada-U.S. border, human smuggling networks are cashing in on another route to the American dream for people fleeing Mexico’s poverty and violence.

Patrick Morrell/CBC

Shortly before sunset, in the parking lot of a Montreal hotel, the smuggler asked Yazuri Martinez-Alvarez to pay the remaining $3,000 in cash while she sat in the back of a four-door pickup truck with three other men.

Her final payment was due only when the journey ended. But she didn’t argue. Instead, she handed over the money and watched the smuggler count it.

She remained in the truck until the sky darkened and the smuggler told her to leave her backpack behind. She could only carry her passport and cellphone. Baggage would make too much noise when they moved through the brush and might alert border police, the smuggler told her.

Then, she was ordered into a dark-coloured car and driven 65 kilometres south toward the Quebec-New York state border, the urban sprawl thinning as night fell. Martinez-Alvarez hid a purse under her sweater and believed she was nearing the end of a journey that began in late May.

What she didn’t know was the route chosen for her that night would take hours to cross, moving through thick forest and swamp in an area studded with sensors and cameras that would put U.S. Border Patrol agents on her heels.

“It wasn’t at all like what they told us,” she said.

Yazuri Martinez-Alvarez, 21, left her village in Mexico, hoping she could build a life free of violence and poverty in the United States. To get there, she paid smugglers $6,000 US to take her through Canada. (Olivier Hyland/CBC)

At home, in her village in Mexico, she heard people talk about a path to America through Canada that avoided the treacherous routes of the U.S.-Mexico border. That southern border saw two million people from her country, Central and South America cross illegally this year — the highest number ever, according to data from Homeland Security.

Martinez-Alvarez said her daughter’s father walked 10 days through the desert to get to California; she hoped to meet him there someday.

“He didn’t want me to go through that because he suffered so much,” she said in an interview with CBC News outside a motel in Albany, N.Y.

And nearly 750 people have died crossing the U.S. southern border so far this year, according to data recently reported by CNN.

But finding a way into the States was a necessity, Martinez-Alvarez said. Working 12 hours a day, six days a week selling fruits, vegetables and eggs in her home village just wasn’t enough to build a secure life for her one-year-old daughter in a country where a woman’s life is cheap, she said.

“There’s too much femicide, too much danger for women.”

So she spoke to a man on the phone who said he moved his family into the U.S. through Canada by paying a clandestine network managing a route across the northern border through a cornfield.

An aerial view of the cornfield Martinez-Alvarez is believed to have walked through at night to get across the border into New York state. (Patrick Morell/CBC)

The man gave Martinez-Alvarez the contact for a smuggler who said he could take her across the line from Toronto for $6,000 US — $3,000 up front and $3,000 once she was on American soil.

“It was just a three-hour walk … They said there wasn’t much danger,” she said of that conversation.

She left her daughter in the care of her mother and boarded a bus from her home in Tehuetlán for the 295-kilometre trip to the airport in Mexico City, and then took a flight to Canada.

“It was a very tough decision for me, but I had to do it … If I stayed [in Mexico], I wouldn’t have the means to provide for my daughter,” she said.

The trail Martinez-Alvarez followed across the border on June 4 cut through a region of thick forests and farmlands — known to U.S. Customs and Border Protection (CBP) as the Swanton Sector, where border patrol detained 1,767 people crossing illegally over the past three years.

Though overall crossings have taken a downward trend in the past 20 years, this sector separating Canada and the U.S. has seen the highest number of apprehensions over the past three years of any of the eight designated regions along the northern border — and the rates here keep rising.

A sampling of approximate locations

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St. Lawrence River


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A sampling of approximate locations of

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Montreal is 67 km north

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A sampling of approximate locations of

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The area also includes Roxham Road, where the RCMP set up a processing station across the border in Quebec for irregular migration moving north.

On the U.S. side, the border agents out of the Swanton Sector patrol the New Hampshire-Maine state line to the western margin of St. Lawrence County in New York state.

Smuggling networks operating in Toronto and Montreal are priming the flow of people through this region, making thousands of dollars per run across the border, a CBC News investigation found.

Some of these networks are managed from Mexico or connected to criminal organizations in the U.S., according to interviews with law enforcement, individuals who paid to be taken across the border and a review of more than 100 U.S. federal court cases.

And police records show that some criminals under investigation for bringing in drugs from Mexico are now cashing in on another trade: the smuggling of people.

A woman sat on a chair in the U.S. Border Patrol station in Champlain, NY, around 5:30 a.m. on Monday, Sept. 19. Her name was Marely, from Mexico, and there was mud on her jeans and sneakers from a Sunday night walking through the brush in the rain. She was caught hours earlier with three other men in a border area of forests and farmland about five kilometres west of where Martinez-Alvarez crossed.

Agents also arrested two other men that Sunday night in a minivan with Maryland plates driving toward the spot of the apprehension. The men, Mexican nationals, didn’t have papers.

U.S. Border Patrol Agent-in-Charge Chris Buskey says he's seen more people crossing into the U.S. through the Swanton Sector. (Olivier Hyland/CBC)

The day began as the night ended for the Champlain border patrol agents.

At 4:15 a.m., remote cameras had captured images of a large group that crossed the border through Club de Golf International 2000, in Saint-Bernard-de-Lacolle, Que., before getting lost in the forest.

U.S. Border Patrol Agent-in-Charge Chris Buskey followed the search through the chatter on his radio in his unmarked SUV.

He pointed to a slash cut through thick brush — the international boundary between Canada and the U.S.

“Technology cannot penetrate that foliage,” Buskey said. “The advantage is to walk tree lines.”

A deer blind seen near a heavily treed section of the border near the Champlain detachment. The thick trees make it harder for patrol agents, Buskey said. (Patrick Morrell/CBC)

The Champlain detachment, part of the Swanton Sector, covers roughly 50 kilometres of the New York state-Quebec border, running west from Lake Champlain on the Vermont border to Churubusco, N.Y.

The Swanton Sector historically records some of the highest rates of apprehension among all northern border sectors. But overall apprehensions of people crossing the entire Canadian-U.S. border have decreased significantly in the past two decades — cut in half by 2006, compared to the 12,000 people grabbed by U.S. Border Patrol as they crossed from Canada in 2000.

The decision in 2009 by the Harper government to impose visas on visiting Mexican nationals does not appear to have had much effect on the numbers, a requirement that Prime Minister Justin Trudeau rescinded in 2016.
But despite this overall downward trend, the New York State portion of the Swanton Sector’s numbers continue to climb, recording 403 apprehensions in this border stretch alone between March and August.

The heaviest traffic flows along the 90 kilometres between Lake Champlain to the east and Fort Covington to the west, according to a review of U.S. federal court files.

Three border patrol detachments monitor this area. On Sept. 19, agents from all stations picked up 19 people, mostly Mexican nationals, and two drivers. At least four eluded capture.

“Tide’s getting higher, it’s absolutely getting higher,” Buskey said.

LISTEN | Using Canada as a pitstop to the American dream:

One person, believed to be a smuggling guide, doubled back into Canada through the golf course, slipping past RCMP officers who scoured the area in two unmarked SUVs.

“Toronto and Montreal makes this area very accessible,” Buskey said. “You look at the network … of highways and interstates … (Hwy) 87 offers that straight, southbound lane all the way to New York City.”

Over the radio, Buskey learns agents detained nine Mexican nationals, found exhausted and muddy from bushwhacking through the forest, in an SUV with Texas plates. Agents stopped the vehicle as it pulled out of a rock quarry about 1.6 kilometres south of the border.

images expandU.S. border patrol agents apprehended nine people trying to cross the border in the Champlain, N.Y.-area, in the wee hours of a September morning.

The driver, an undocumented Mexican national, told agents he would’ve made $9,000 US if he’d completed the trip. He claimed this was his fifth time making a border run, according to federal court records. He was charged with transporting or attempting to transport an “illegal alien” and remains in custody pending trial.

Not all those caught trying to cross get charged with the federal misdemeanour of illegal entry — some go straight into the immigration system, others are returned to Canada.

Officers at the Champlain station focus on grabbing guides and drivers, Buskey said, because they pose a greater danger to the public and exploit people desperate for a better life.

Guides sometimes abandon people in the bush if they feel agents closing in, leaving them at the mercy of elements in terrain they don’t know, Buskey said.

The discovery of an Indian family found frozen to death in Manitoba metres from the Minnesota border provides a grim reminder of the danger people face when they put their lives in the hands of smugglers, he said.

“It just reaffirms we need to be vigilant,” Buskey said.

Jagdish Baldevbhai Patel and Vaishaliben Jagdishkumar Patel are pictured with their 11-year-old daughter, Vihangi Jagdishkumar Patel. The family, including three-year-old Dharmik Jagdishkumar Patel, died of exposure to extreme weather conditions while trying to cross into the U.S. and were found Jan. 19. (Family handout/Vaibhav Jha/Indian Express)

The family’s death also revealed weaknesses in the way U.S. and Canadian law enforcement handle human smuggling investigations that cross the international line, according to a briefing note prepared for Public Safety Minister Marco Mendicino for a cross-border crime forum this past March.

The document noted that delays in sharing information — in particular between the U.S. Border Patrol and the RCMP — could undermine Canadian prosecutions of cross-border crime.

Mendicino confirmed there have been high-level discussions with the U.S. on this issue. He said human smuggling networks need to be targeted on multiple fronts.

“That means continuing to support police with the resources they need, continuing to ensure we have all the legislative tools in place that are necessary,” said Mendicino. “And, finally, making sure we have strong lines of communication with the United States so we can share intelligence, share information and bust up those networks.”

Public Safety Minister Marco Mendicino, shown here, confirms that there have been conversation with the U.S. on improving communication between the two countries cross-border human smuggling. (Adrian Wyld/The Canadian Press)

The RCMP declined an interview request, instead saying in an emailed statement that “irregular migration is a priority for both Canada and the U.S.”

The statement noted that the RCMP works with Canada Border Services Agency, U.S. Customs and Border Patrol and the U.S. Coast Guard to investigate “transnational human smuggling networks.”

Buskey said he knows the RCMP does what it can to alert U.S. Border Patrol of possible movement across the border, but acknowledges they’re stretched thin.

“They’re short-staffed and they are an all-encompassing agency, so it’s difficult for the RCMP to be everywhere, all the time.”

'We had to get out and run'

Martinez-Alvarez flew into Pearson Airport from Mexico on May 26, renting a room in a Toronto apartment. She found an ATM and began withdrawing money saved and pooled by her family in a Mexican account.

She exchanged the Canadian bills with American dollars over several days until there was enough to pay the smuggler for her journey.

The truck came for her on June 4, driving her and the three men to the parking lot in Montreal, where they switched into a car after dark.

The car drove to a road running parallel to the U.S. border with almost no traffic that night.

“When we arrived they told us we had to get out and run,” said Martinez-Alvarez.

She ran.

She tumbled into a ditch she couldn’t see in the dark, she said, then kept running across a field toward the treeline. Whenever headlights gleamed on the roadway, she dropped down in the low grass.

The group got lost in the trees and heavy brush. They wandered for hours, she said, sometimes in circles.

“We couldn’t find an exit.”

Martinez-Alvarez said she spent hours lost in the trees and heavy brush along the border between Quebec and New York State, a portion of which is shown here. (Patrick Morell/CBC)

The smuggling organization sent a man from New York City to a warehouse near the border to retrieve Martinez-Alvarez and her group once they crossed. His name was Jose DeSala-Garcia, 43, and his pay was $2,000 US for the trip.

In the wee hours of June 5, DeSala-Garcia drove toward Champlain, N.Y., smoking marijuana in a white pickup truck owned by Nelson Cruz. Cruz was under surveillance, his phone tapped by detectives with a multi-agency narcotics task force in New York City.

Detectives believed Cruz led an organization based in the borough of Queens that sold fentanyl, cocaine and heroin, while handling a small weapons business on the side.

The investigation allegedly traced Cruz’s fentanyl source to Mexico and determined DeSala-Garcia was one of Cruz’s lieutenants.

WATCH | A harrowing experience with smugglers at the border:

By the time DeSala-Garcia entered the Champlain area, U.S. Border Patrol was already on the hunt. At 1:38 a.m, the Champlain patrol station had received images captured by remote cameras of Martinez-Alvarez and her group crossing the border.

Agents launched a grid search through the forests and roads running near the border; twice their flashlights swept close to the group, Martinez-Alvarez said.

“We stayed still.”

DeSala-Garcia immediately drew attention once he entered the search zone. U.S. Border Patrol agents spotted the truck at 5:30 a.m. — roughly four hours after their search began — and started to tail it.

Martinez-Alvarez had evaded capture and, following instructions, the group hid next to a warehouse waiting for their ride to a new life.

As the white truck arrived, they ran to it.

When DeSala-Garcia opened the doors, Martinez-Alvarez said the strong, pungent smell of marijuana hit her in the face. She said he gave her a heavy, ugly stare. She felt a bolt of fear but climbed in.

Submitted by Drug Enforcement Administration
Nelson Cruz, shown here in an arrest photo, was under surveillance by a narcotics task force. Detectives believes Cruz ran an organization out of Queens, N.Y., that trafficked in drugs and weapons.
Submitted by Drug Enforcement Administration
Jose DeSala-Garcia, 43, was charged with alien smuggling for his role in picking up Martinez-Alvarez's group at the border. He was arrested again June 15 on suspected drug trafficking and firearms offences.

The truck looped around and turned west toward Hwy 87, which runs straight south to New York City. But the U.S. Border Patrol was soon on the back bumper with vehicle lights flashing.

“I thought at that moment that I would be deported to Mexico,” Martinez-Alvarez said. “I told myself, ‘I’m losing so much money just for wanting something better for my daughter.’”

During questioning, De Sala-Garcia told agents a “co-worker” gave him the location and time to pick up the group. He was charged with alien smuggling and later released on conditions.

The New York City counter narcotics task force arrested De Sala-Garcia on drug trafficking and gun charges on June 15.

Martinez-Alvarez was held, in part, as a material witness against DeSala-Garcia for six weeks at the Clinton County jail in Plattsburgh, N.Y.

After her apprehension, Martinez-Alvarez faced a federal misdemeanour charge of illegal entry. She was held at Clinton County jail in Plattsburgh, N.Y., in part, as a witness against DeSala-Garcia. (Olivier Hyland/CBC)

While waiting in Toronto last June, Grisela Ramirez-Rosales, 46, shared an apartment with a woman who said she knew someone who could get her across the U.S. border. On June 24, she received word a group would leave the next morning at 9 a.m. from a gas station near the corner of Wilson Avenue and Jane Street.

She arrived on time, receiving orders to cross the road to the Dollarama parking lot where the smuggler awaited her. She transferred $4,000 US to a Mexican bank account provided by the smuggler.

Ramirez-Rosales said she flew to Toronto in April to plan her escape from her employers and join her husband in the U.S.

Her employers used her identity in schemes to launder drug money for state government officials, she said. They used her name to register shell companies, open bank accounts and secure loans in Aguascalientes, Mexico.

Her employers kept track of her movements and told her she could never turn her cellphone off, she said. The stress sometimes triggered seizures and, she said, in January she was diagnosed with a brain tumour.

WATCH | After her employers used her identity to launder drug money, this woman fled Mexico:

A pregnant woman and her husband also arrived for the journey that morning, along with Vianey Muniz-Melgarejo, 32. After struggling to find work in Toronto, Muniz-Melgarejo said she felt she had no other option but to try her luck across the border in Kentucky, where people she knew from home in Veracruz settled.

Muniz-Melgarejo said she came north to escape violence and poverty and to build a safe life for her 11-year-old daughter left in the care of her mother.

“I found a job as a waitress, but one day my daughter got sick and my boss fired me because I couldn’t work that day,” she said. “There is a lot of femicide and it’s not safe to be there … That’s why I had the idea to try and come here.”

Muniz-Melgarejo said a cousin made arrangements directly with the smugglers and paid most of the required $6,000 US. She sat next to Ramirez-Rosales in the back of a pickup truck.

They drove to Pearson Airport where the smugglers rented two SUVs for the drive east to a hotel parking lot in Montreal. After sunset, they drove south with a guide and reached a road that skirted a field with a treeline in the distance. The vehicle stopped and the guide told the two women to run.

“It looked far, far away, but we ran and ran until we reached some trees,” said Ramirez-Rosales.

“The guide left us there and told us he was going back for more people,” said Muniz-Melgarejo. “We waited a long time, about an hour or two, waiting for the others to arrive.”

images expandAlong one of the known routes that smugglers bring people into the U.S., abandoned clothing lies forgotten in the woods. Many of those who made a similar journey told CBC about stumbling blindly in the dark and getting scratched and caught in the branches and brush.

They stumbled through swamps and branches and tripped over roots in the darkness, following no specific trail. The guide attempted to find the way on his cell phone, but the signal kept dropping.

One of Ramirez-Rosales’s legs cramped and she fell to the ground; the guide threatened to leave her behind. Flashlight beams swept in the distance.

“I went into a total panic,” Ramirez-Rosales said. “We were walking blind.”

At 4:35 a.m. agents in a patrol vehicle found Ramirez-Rosales, Muniz-Melgarejo and four other Mexican nationals walking along the same road where, three weeks earlier, Martinez-Alvarez waited for the white pickup truck.

“My world collapsed … I was terrified,” Ramirez-Rosales said.

Ramirez-Rosales and Muniz-Melgarejo met Martinez-Alvarez inside the Clinton County jail. They shared the same immigration representative, Halinka Zolcik.

Zolcik, an accredited representative with the Prisoners’ Legal Services, helped bridge the women’s transition into the immigration system.

All three women pleaded guilty to the federal misdemeanour charge of illegal entry, were sentenced to time served and turned over to Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE). They were allowed to stay in the U.S. and begin their immigration process, which could take years.

Martinez-Alvarez made it to California to be with her daughter’s father.

Vianey Muniz-Melgarejo, 32, tried crossing the Canada-U.S. border after leaving Mexico to escape the country's rates of poverty and femicide. (Olivier Hyland/CBC)

Zolcik said she’s been handling immigration cases in upstate New York since 2017 and the pace of irregular crossings from Canada rises and falls. But she’s seen a noticeable increase since March.

The constant killings, rampant, unpunished violence against women, and the widespread corruption in Mexican law enforcement and government push people to flee, Zolcik said.

“When it’s bad there, then that’s when people come,” she said.

WATCH | Smuggling guide threated to abandon injured woman:

Martinez-Alvarez, Muniz-Melgarejo walk through the airport in Albany, N.Y. after Halinka Zolcik, an accredited representative with the Prisoners' Legal Services, helped bridge the women’s transition into the immigration system. (Jorge Barrera/CBC)

Canada Border Services Agency has recorded more than 7,000 asylum claims from Mexico — a continental trade partner — since Jan. 1. In comparison, the agency recorded 1,465 claims from Turkey, the second highest number.

Zolcik said smuggling organizations appear to be cashing in on the demand, mainly out of Toronto.

“It’s a network, I think, of individuals that have stayed in Canada, possibly undocumented, from different nationalities,” she said. “Some of them are drug traffickers … and some of them are just smugglers, and that’s how they make their money.”

CBC investigative reporter Jorge Barrera sits at a picnic table in Toronto's Regent Park, while posing as a person seeking safe passage across the Canadian border into the U.S. He's joined by a man who calls himself Jesus. (Ousama Farag)

He said his name was Jesus during our meeting at a picnic table in Toronto’s Regent Park. He outlined the phases of the trip leading across a cornfield into upstate New York.

I don’t know if Jesus is his real name. He used the handle “N Res” during our first conversation over the Telegram social media app. He contacted me after I posted a message on the channel, Mexicanos en Toronto, asking for help finding passage to the U.S.

“I make trips to New York from Toronto,” he wrote, in a private message. “The price is $4,500 American and the way is 100 per cent guaranteed.”

He explained the payment structure — to secure a spot, $500 and then $3,300 before the journey, with $700 on arrival in New York City.

“I have a spot open on Sept. 9,” he wrote.

I wrote that it was too soon. He asked to move our conversation to the WhatsApp messaging app. He used “Yss” for a WhatsApp handle linked to a cell phone with a Toronto area code. He wrote about a new departure planned for Sept. 16.

We agreed to meet on Sept. 14, so I could hand over the deposit and he could allay concerns. I brought the $500 to secure the meeting, find out more about the route and the workings of the underground smuggling network for this CBC News investigation.

'You won't be abandoned'

Jesus smiled and shook my hand as he sat down at the picnic table.

The trip is straightforward, he said. The drive from Toronto to Montreal will take six hours, he told me, followed by a 15-minute walk, led by a guide, through a cornfield to get across the border. Once across, it’s a sprint to a waiting vehicle and a straight shot to New York City, he said.

The crossings no longer happen at night, he said, because brake lights in the dark were drawing too much attention.

“We ask the group that they don’t leave behind trash, don’t break the corn stalks, above all, leave no clues,” he said. “We need to be careful to keep helping more people.”

He took my envelope with five $100 US bills.

“You won’t be abandoned,” Jesus told me.

Jesus sent a WhatsApp message that evening setting the pickup for 6:20 a.m. on Sept. 16 at the Dufferin transit station in Toronto.

A man in a dark sweater and two duffle bags waited on the bench across from the station that morning. Jesus phoned me as the moment approached, but I didn’t answer. He drove a white SUV and stopped for the waiting man to get in. A woman sat in the front passenger seat and Jesus pulled through the lights.

Jesus phoned again from a Mississippi area code asking where I was. I said I couldn’t make it.

At the pickup point across from the Dufferin transit station in Toronto, Jesus pulls up driving a white SUV. A man with two duffel bags gets in. (Albert Leung/CBC)

A week later we spoke on the phone; I told him I was a reporter and had recorded our meeting. Jesus said showing his face would bring him trouble from the police. He said he didn’t know much about the network he worked for and only made $50 from the $500 US I handed over during our meeting.

“My job is just to get the deposit, and that’s it,” he said.

He said the woman in the SUV that morning was sent to keep an eye on things because it was his first time trying to arrange a trip for someone across.

Jesus said he was 21 and made an honest living, working a cleaning job three days a week to provide for his mother, who suffers from diabetes, and two younger siblings living in Cali, Colombia.

He said he didn’t know U.S. Border Patrol had apprehended 19 people on the same weekend I was supposed to cross. He said he didn’t know two people were caught hiding in a cornfield less than 100 metres from the border.

I asked him if it was justo to charge people so much money to get arrested by la migra?

“It’s not justo for anyone,” Jesus said. “I didn’t know any of this.”

Clarification: An earlier version of this article listed Halinka Zolcik as a lawyer with Prisoners’ Legal Services. In fact, she is an accredited representative with the organization and can legally represent clients at immigration court hearings.

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