Courts & Crime

Drug-fighting effort along northern border a national model

WASHINGTON — In the northwest corner of Washington state, local and federal law enforcement officials have been working together for several years to crack down on the cross-border narcotics trade, and the Obama administration has modeled a broader drug enforcement strategy on their efforts.

While much of the attention in recent years has focused on the southern U.S. border with Mexico, the 5,225-mile border between the U.S. and Canada has a drug problem, too. And much of the drug traffic goes through Blaine, Wash., the busiest point of entry west of Detroit.

"We've got a lot going on up here, and it's critical for security and safety," Jenny Durkan, the U.S. attorney for the Western District of Washington in Seattle, said in an interview. "We have unprecedented collaboration between state and local agencies and Canada. It's working very well."

The Government Accountability Office warned in a November 2010 report that federal and tribal lands along the U.S.-Canada border were vulnerable to drug activity. That led to the creation of the National Northern Border Counternarcotics Strategy, which the White House Office of National Drug Control Policy released last month.

The strategy aims to build on existing law enforcement relationships, improve information sharing among agencies and build ties with tribal governments. These efforts would improve the interception of drugs along the border and the dismantling of the criminal gangs involved in trafficking.

"We have a pretty good interdiction program, but it's not perfect," Durkan said.

Durkan and other officials said the demand for drugs has caused the traffickers to get more creative to evade detection. Just because the number of drug seizures at border checkpoints has declined, it doesn't mean that drugs aren't getting through.

"Drug markets are thriving in the U.S. and Canada," said Donald MacPherson, executive director of the Canadian Drug Policy Coalition, which advocates alternatives to traditional drug enforcement policies. "There's no drought that we're aware of."

U.S. drug use is down about a third from its peak in 1979, when 14.1 percent of Americans 12 or older used illicit drugs in the prior month. However, overall drug use has increased in the past decade, while U.S. drug enforcement budgets have risen.

In 2010, according to the National Survey of Drug Use and Health, 22.6 million Americans 12 or older used illicit drugs in the prior month, or about 8.9 percent of the population, up from 8.3 percent in 2002.

Meanwhile, the budget for the Drug Enforcement Administration increased to $2.6 billion in 2009 from $1.8 billion in 2002. According to the White House drug czar, $22 billion was allocated for federal drug control efforts across 49 agencies in 2010.

On the border between Washington state and Canada, the number of enforcement personnel increased significantly after the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks, while the number of drug seizures and arrests along the border has fallen in the decade since.

The White House report released last month identifies marijuana and ecstasy as the biggest drug threats to the U.S. from Canada, while cocaine from South America crosses the United States on its way to Canada. Methamphetamine, heroin and prescription drugs move across the northern border in lesser quantities, and cash and weapons move in both directions.

In northwestern Washington state, Whatcom County Sheriff Bill Elfo said drug activity along the border creates a safety issue for the area's 200,000 residents. The Northwest border doesn't see anything near the level of violence on the U.S.-Mexico border. But in the year before the 2010 Winter Olympics in Vancouver, an outburst of drug-related gang violence left more than two dozen young men dead in British Columbia.

"Our biggest concern with that is when people carry hundreds of thousands of dollars in cash or narcotics, it does create a risk to our community," Elfo said.

Dealing with the problem requires more than random patrols.

Durkan said the most effective operations involve the gathering and sharing of information across agencies.

"The better stops are based on intelligence," she said. "We're not always successful, but we're getting better."

The U.S.-Canadian border enforcement partnership began in 1997 and expanded in 2005. U.S. officers can ride on Canadian ships, and vice versa, eliminating redundant maritime patrols. Investigative task forces grant state, provincial, local and tribal law enforcement officials the same authority as Immigration and Customs Enforcement officers. U.S. and Canadian agencies also work together to follow the money trail of drug smugglers, and with financial institutions in both countries to detect illicit transactions.

These moves addressed an obvious problem in the past: If criminals could disregard the border, why shouldn't law enforcement?

Technology also plays a role. Customs and Border Protection uses much of the same equipment as its colleagues on the southern border: unmanned drones, remote video surveillance, night-vision equipment, thermal cameras and underground sensors to detect traffic moving in wilderness areas. At border checkpoints, agents use particle detection systems and fiber-optic scopes to find drugs hidden in cars and trucks.

Authorities try to make it as expensive as possible for traffickers to stay in business.

"The bottom line for organized crime groups is money," said Sgt. Duncan Pound, a spokesman for the Royal Canadian Mounted Police. "If we can make it so they have to spend so much money to get things across the border, we've reduced their desire to be in that business."

But the traffickers have one advantage: The northern border crosses thousands of miles of mostly unguarded wilderness. As authorities have tightened up the border crossings in Washington state, the drug trade has moved east, to Idaho, Montana and North Dakota — even as far east as Detroit and Buffalo, N.Y. It's hard to quantify exactly how much traffic is diverted by enforcement efforts, Durkan and others said, but intelligence gathered by multiple agencies indicates smugglers are using a scattershot approach.

"For a while, you see it in the marine environment. Then the truck environment, then remote areas of land border," said Mike Milne, a spokesman for Customs and Border Protection in Washington state. "Or you just grow it in the U.S. and distribute in the U.S."

Drug smugglers are also creative. They use secret compartments in cars and trucks to hide the drugs, or stuff them inside the hollow walls of truck trailers. They dig tunnels, use helicopters or light aircraft, and in coastal areas, high-speed boats to evade capture. If taking drugs across the border becomes too cumbersome, they can sell domestically.

"Any criminal wants to take the path of least resistance. If a border crossing is well guarded, they're going to look for another way," said Lt. Mark Brogan, a spokesman for the Washington State Patrol.

Border agents said that drugs are but one of the evolving security challenges along both U.S. borders. They also deal with terrorism, illegal immigration and human trafficking. As the criminals adapt to enforcement, enforcement must adapt, too.

"There's no Swiss Army knife for the border," Milne said.


National Northern Border Counternarcotics Strategy

National Survey on Drug Use and Health

DEA staffing and budget, 1972-2011


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