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The Other Border

At Akwesasne, where the border runs straight and nothing is simple

In this Mohawk Nation territory, there are seven roadways and two rivers where people can cross the border without a security check. For people with nefarious motives, that jagged geography is alluring.

AKWESASNE — This isn’t an easy tour to give. The geography makes it tricky, because in the Mohawk Nation at Akwesasne, you could be in the United States or Canada – or more specifically, New York or Ontario or Quebec – and then without warning, be somewhere else.

“It’s called Borderline Road for a reason, and I’m going to tell you why, and it’s going to be weird,” said Constable Norm King, a member of the Akwesasne Mohawk Police.

The Akwesasne territory is three hours north of Syracuse, 60 minutes south of Ottawa, an hour and a half west of Montreal and inconveniently straddles the U.S.-Canadian border. It encompasses parts of one state and two provinces and multiple rivers and islands. The international boundary runs on a straight line through all of it, following the 45th parallel, the line of latitude that is equidistant between the Equator and the North Pole. That creates several places where travelers cross the international border with no notice.

And yes, sometimes it's weird. The boundary runs along the southern edge of Borderline Road – or Border Road, as it is called on maps. The roadway itself is in Quebec. “Right now, technically, we’re in Canada,” King said as he drove east. He pointed to the right. “That house,” he said, “is in the United States.”

Moments later, the road curves slightly southward. But the border doesn't. It stays straight, following that 45th parallel, which means it cuts through the middle of Borderline Road. With no warning, we're now in the United States. Seconds later, Borderline Road ends and feeds into McDonald Road, which immediately arcs northeast into Canada, where it becomes “Chemin McDonald” in French.

In 30 seconds, we traveled from Canada to the United States and back into Canada, eastbound – and unchecked – the whole time.

What visitors learn on this unintentional international journey is a well-known fact of life for the people who live in Akwesasne: It has seven roadways and two rivers where people can cross the border without a security check. For people with nefarious motives – like smugglers looking for a relatively simple way to slip contraband over the border – that jagged geography is alluring.

A road winding through the Akwesasne Mohawk Nation on the U.S.-Canada border. (Derek Gee/Buffalo News)

Without a tour guide like King, who drove us in an Akwesasne Mohawk Police vehicle, it would be easy to unknowingly jump countries multiple times. The indicators are subtle: The asphalt used in American and Canadian roads is different, so the pavement is different shades of gray. The line that runs down the middle of the road is double yellow in New York, single yellow in Canada.

The easiest indicator is speed signs: miles per hour in the United States, kilometers in Canada. The noticeable welcome signs for Canada or the United States were at the official Canadian port of entry on Cornwall Island, a 20-minute drive to the east. Technically, you’re supposed to check in there if you’re coming to Akwesasne for a meeting that requires entering Canada — even if you could get into Canada freely and openly from New York, like we just did.

While we had checked in at Cornwall before heading to the police station to meet King, what about the people who lived here? What if someone is baking and wants to borrow some eggs or milk from a neighbor across the street — across the border?

Does that really require a 20-minute trip to Cornwall?

By the law, yes. But “by the law” is a tricky thing in Akwesasne.

• • •

The residents of Akwesasne have a strong sense of togetherness. Neighbors help neighbors, family members across generations support each other, and everyone looks out for the community.

St. Regis Mohawk Tribal Police Patrolman Barnes prepares lines from the bow of a Tribal Police watercraft on patrol in the Grasse River on the Akwesasne Mohawk Nation, Friday, Aug. 16, 2019. (Derek Gee/Buffalo News)

"I can't emphasize (enough) the way they take care of each other," said Chief Officer Tracy Casey, one of three U.S. Customs and Border Protection officials who accompanied us, out of uniform and in an unmarked vehicle, while we toured Akwesasne with King. Casey is CBP's tribal liaison in Massena, where she also grew up. "We may be neighbors and we may be friends," Casey said, referring to her own experience living and working in Massena, "but their sense of community is such a higher level."

That bond transcends boundaries and borders — which people in Akwesasne tend not to notice anyhow.

“For people that are here, we don’t see border lines,” said King, who grew up on the Canadian side, or what many residents call the “northern” side, and now lives on the U.S., or “southern,” side. “We don’t see that. I’m sure people from the outside will say, ‘The border lines are here.’ Because we’re law enforcement, we know where the border lines are. But if you talk to a resident and ask, ‘Hey, where are the border lines on this road?’ they won’t know. Why? Because we grew up here, without borders, right?”

As law enforcement, King is empowered to operate as a police officer in Canada only. When he crosses the border – even for seconds – he becomes a civilian. Another agency, the Saint Regis Mohawk Tribal Police, is on the U.S. side of the border and operates as law enforcement in New York. The same dynamic is true for federal law enforcement and border officials from both countries, with a complicated twist: Because Akwesasne is sovereign land, there’s a deep sensitivity to the presence of U.S. and Canadian law enforcement.

But law enforcement has to be present, because for decades, smugglers have taken advantage of Akwesasne’s jigsaw geography to shuttle contraband both north and south. In the dark of night, transnational crime organizations will jam vehicles and boats with people and goods and try to slip across the border while evading law enforcement. Even if they are detected, they can outrace them to the invisible border line, knowing that once they cross, all the people chasing them can do is call their colleagues on the other side. “It’s just a cat-and-mouse game,” Sargent Cody Thompson, one of King’s colleagues, told me later. “We’re getting better at it, but so are they.”

Customs and Border Protection officer McCracken, a firearms instructor, runs through different scenarios using a 300-degree simulator at the Massena Border Station. (Derek Gee/Buffalo News)

Decades of this smuggling – and the reputation that comes with it – has put the community on edge and wary of outsiders. To that point, multiple U.S. law-enforcement officials advised us not to take a self-guided tour of the territory, but rather to be accompanied by Akwesasne police.

That soundness of that advice was apparent. King pulled over at one point to a narrow stretch of the St. Regis River that freezes over in winter, allowing people to take a shortcut route from Quebec into New York. The locals plow it and police it, keeping it for themselves only. Outsiders are not allowed.

Our interest in the spot, or maybe our presence, caught someone’s attention. A man driving a pickup truck pulled over and summoned King.

“This doesn’t look right,” the man told the constable. “You have four non-natives” – there actually were five of us – “and one Indian. There’s something going on here.”

“There’s nothing going on here,” King said, remaining calm.

The man looked at him and said, “All right.” He drove away.

A few minutes later, King put the exchange in perspective.

“I’ve talked to him in the past, and that’s the thing, right? You’ve got to build a rapport with your people, and that’s what I do,” King said. “Say if it was just you guys here. He would probably get out of the truck and challenge all of you.”

The man would have wanted us to leave right away. Ultimately, this is driven by a simple and understandable truth: The Akwesasne people are protective of their home.

• • •

This isn't new. Smuggling in Akwesasne dates back a century.

“It’s not a new phenomenon,” said Saint Regis Mohawk Tribal Police Chief Matthew Rourke, as he and two of his officers took us on a boat tour of Akwesasne, which included a spot in the St. Lawrence River where a buoy marks the intersecting borders of New York, Ontario and Quebec.

Matthew Rourke of the St. Regis Mohawk Tribal Police. (Derek Gee/Buffalo News)

“It goes back to the Prohibition days,” Rourke adding, noting that Al Capone used to run a bootlegging operation running alcohol from Montreal to New York through an island that is a half-hour east of Akwesasne. Capone and one of his men shot Rourke’s great-grandfather, who lived to share the story and, when he died years later, still had the bullet lodged in his hand.

“People take advantage of the sovereignty,” Rourke said. “Whether you’re a local or a non-resident, they’re taking advantage.”

Much of Akwesasne is poor. Though our trip along the water revealed a smattering of well-kept mansions, our ride through the inland was dotted with run-down homes and shuttered businesses. For smugglers, that’s an opportunity; there’s a lot of money to made in moving loads of marijuana, which is legal in Canada, to the United States. Likewise, tobacco is a major profit item moving into Canada, as are guns, cocaine, and bulk cash. Paying a relatively small amount of cash to a local, who can move through the territory without raising suspicion, is an easy call for smugglers.

“It’s all about making that money,” King said. “That’s what it comes down to in the end: ‘I’ll pay you $500 to drive a car from A to B.’ That’s what happens, right? A lot of these people technically don’t know what they’re bringing. They just say, ‘Hey, the car is waiting at A. You get in it, you drive it to B. When you get back, I’ll pay you your money.’ It happens like that, and it’s common.”

• • •

Homes on the shore of the St. Regis River in Akwesasne, which contains territory on both sides of the U.S.-Canada border. (Derek Gee/Buffalo News)

But it’s not most people, and the people of the Akwesasne community are eager to say so. At the U.S. port of entry, a woman named Joyce King noticed a couple of journalists. She was heading in from Cornwall Island and came back later to see us. She brought us a gift: a woven braid of sweetgrass, which grows in the marsh areas and is used for purification, much like sage.

King is director of justice for the Akwesasne Justice Department and is trying to solve legal dilemmas caused by the border. For example, if somebody has a restraining order in Canada, it is not recognized by U.S. courts, which could leave that person vulnerable to violence even while transiting around Akwesasne. “We’re talking about access to justice,” she said, “and these are some of the complications.”

I asked her about the smuggling issue, and she pointed out the roots of it are elsewhere, and only a small number of Akwesasne residents are lured into it. “It’s only a certain amount of people, and of course, that’s exploited,” she said. “But here, we have professions. We have people trying to open businesses. We have lawyers. We have judges, like me. We have entrepreneurs.”

King pointed out that one of the major employers is the nearby Akwesasne Mohawk Casino Resort, in Hogansburg on the New York side of the border. “Just people trying to make a living,” she said.

Joyce King's Haudenosaunee passport. (Derek Gee/Buffalo News)

Later that afternoon, and the next week, we met with American law enforcement officials from Homeland Security Investigations, an arm of the Department of Homeland Security. Homeland Security Investigations runs Border Enforcement Security Task Forces in multiple regions. Those BEST teams include American and Canadian law enforcement organizations, and in the case of the task force in nearby Massena, it also includes the Akwesasne Mohawk Police and the Saint Regis Tribal Police.

"We have an excellent working relationship with tribal law enforcement," said Kevin Kelly, special agent in charge of Homeland Security Investigations' Buffalo office, which includes the Akwesasne region. Over multiple conversations, Kelly and other HSI officials reinforced what Joyce King and tribal police told me during our visit: The smuggling that happens through Akwesasne is part of a network that starts elsewhere, in big cities.

"The transnational criminal organizations, because of the proximity of the reservation to the border, and the fact that there are seven unmanned roads coming back and forth between the two countries, exploit that vulnerability," Kelly said.

The contraband is shuttling from one metropolis to another, with intricate logistics and big payoffs. Akwesasne, as always, is in the middle.

• • •

The Other Border

This is the seventh of eight installments in this series. Buffalo News staff reporter Tim O'Shei and chief photographer Derek Gee traveled the U.S-Canadian border along the length of New York state to report this series, which wraps next week with a look at border politics and the implications of the typically strong relationship between the United States and Canada. Here's a look at the stories so far:

"At the the U.S.-Canadian border, relative calm belies a critical mission" (Nov. 22): The introduction to our series takes readers behind the scenes at the Peace Bridge, where officers work daily to root out drugs and other contraband from international mail, to the most remote regions of northeastern New York, where the border is marked not by a waterway, but rather a simple slash through the woods.

"You're likely to be part of the 99%. Border agents get one chance to be sure" (Nov. 26): What really happens at a border inspection? We take you through the process.

"At Roxham Road, refugees find a loophole and safe passage to Canada" (Dec. 1): More than 50,000 people have crossed freely – and illegally – from the United States into Quebec over the last three years to claim political asylum. Most of it happens in the open and everyday at the end of rural Roxham Road near Plattsburgh.

"Before and after crossing, seeking refuge in Canada is a long journey" (Dec. 2): Tim O'Shei visits two refugee assistance homes in southern Ontario to meet people who crossed at Roxham Road and learn about the journey that took them there, and the reality of trying to build a new life in Canada.

"Can they really search my phone?" (Dec. 9): Yes, they can search your phone at the border — and your car, your bags, and more. In this installment, we answer readers' questions about our border travels and the policies that guide crossings between the United States and Canada.

WBFO's Jay Moran interviewed Gee, O'Shei and Chief Customs and Border Protection Officer Aaron Bowker about "The Other Border" series. You can listen to that interview here.

"Ontario to Quebec, Buffalo to Fort Blunder" (Nov. 22): Derek Gee's border photography – shot from land, air, water and by drone – is highlighted here on this interactive map:

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