It’s 4:30 a.m. on the Buffalo side of the Peace Bridge plaza. A burly officer with thick, tattooed arms stands in front of a tall crate of Canada Post mail that just crossed the border from Ontario. He’s going to spend the next three hours of his shift in this commercial warehouse inspection dock sifting through mail, melding his instinct, intuition and “intel,” or officer shorthand for secretive intelligence information.
Some of these letters contain bad stuff. He’s going to find it.
“This is the best,” says the officer, facing a pallet of thousands of letters. “I really enjoy this.”
That’s because mail – even the kind stuffed with synthetic psychedelic mushrooms or LSD tabs designed to be slipped under the tongue – never gives attitude. People sometimes do. This officer, whose name is being withheld for security reasons, spent years screening people. He could be outside the loading dock doors, questioning travelers in the inspection booths about a hundred yards away. Or he could be working in the adjacent building conducting secondary inspections for people who were pulled over and sent inside.
A Customs and Border Protection officer gets one chance to decide whether passengers, truckers or pedestrians can be freely admitted to the United States. Getting it right results in mostly nondescript interactions, the ideal of which is spending about 60 seconds chatting in an inspection booth, determining if the people in front of you are truthful and peaceful, and sending them on their way. Getting it right can also be catching people in subversive acts.
But get it wrong – fail to catch the bad ones – and catastrophe can follow. Human traffickers get through. Drugs get in. Murderers or would-be terrorists slip by. People can die. So when you’re working the border, whether you’re checking people or vehicles or a giant box of mail, you look for things that seem out of place.
The same eye of detail and sense of skeptical curiosity that helps an officer succeed with the public is needed here with the mail. The officer came across a small group of envelopes covered in clear plastic tape. They all were sent from the same Canadian address. “Why do they tape it up like this?” he wondered aloud. “It’s probably nothing. But is it normal? We’ll pop one open.”
He picked up a razor, sliced open an envelope and pulled out an object wrapped in plastic. On closer examination, it was a Jonas Brothers keychain. He laughed, put it back in the envelope with an official inspection notice. He resealed the envelope with green CBP tape and tossed it, along with the others, in the safe pile.
Most people are good, and most mail is good, too. But not always. Hence, the unending pressure on the front lines of the border — even the quiet, spacious and largely open boundary that separates the United States and Canada. In places like Western New York, where the border is a backdrop to our daily lives, we notice the smaller realities of being so close to Canada: bridge traffic, which was slower this summer as CBP personnel was temporarily reassigned to the southern border; Ontario license plates in mall parking lots; the occasional Canadian quarter that doesn't work in the vending machine.
But it’s peaceful here. We rarely have clashes, much less widespread apprehensions or violence. Rarely do we think about the bigger, more daunting implications of living on an international border.
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For the past few years, with attention and resources focused on the southern border between the United States and Mexico, where President Trump’s hard line on immigration policies and his call to “build a wall” have stoked debate, it's been worth pondering this point from our comparatively peaceful spot on the northern line: What is happening here? With the cooperation of CBP, which provided inside access at several ports of entry and other vital points along the border, Buffalo News Chief Photographer Derek Gee and I spent the better part of two weeks exploring the U.S.-Canadian line across New York State.
The 445-mile New York stretch of the border is a microcosm of the U.S.-Canadian border, which, at 5,525 miles (including Alaska), is the lengthiest international boundary on the planet. At nearly 4,000 miles in the 48 contiguous states, it is double the size of the U.S.-Mexico line.
The New York boundary meets the French-speaking province of Quebec in the east and Ontario in the west. It is bookended by waterways, each of which creates natural barriers between the two countries. In between, there is dense forest just north of the Adirondack Mountains and vast swaths of open farmland.
Gil Kerlikowske — who was Buffalo’s police commissioner in the 1990s before later becoming President Barack Obama’s drug czar, a job that includes monitoring the cross-border flow of contraband, and Customs and Border Protection commissioner — affirmed one piece of conventional wisdom about the northern border: It’s simpler than the southern border.
“It’s almost twice as long as the southern border and can be incredibly remote,” said Kerlikowske, who brought up another point echoed by multiple law enforcement officials: The United States’ strong ties with Canada are vital.
“The relationship on both sides and the sharing of information, the level of trust and communication is good with Canada,” Kerlikowske said. “But it’s a well-over-4,000-mile border that can be accessed without a lot of difficulty.”
That openness is enticing to smugglers and criminals, albeit in a way that is generally less intense than the crime that happens on the southern border. Law enforcement and intelligence agencies from both countries work together to monitor and choke the flow of contraband. Canada tends to see an illegal influx of firearms and tobacco, much of which are legal in the United States, as well as cocaine routed northward from South America. The United States sees a smorgasbord of drugs, many of them manufactured in China, shipped to Canada and then smuggled southward. Those include ecstasy, LSD, steroids, fentanyl and counterfeit pharmaceuticals, along with marijuana, which is now legal in Ontario.
The smuggling of child pornography, which is most often found on electronic devices, happens in both directions. So does the smuggling of people, which is often facilitated by so-called “coyotes.” These arrangements are often made by organized crime organizations and smuggling outfits in New York City, Newark and Boston, and nearby Montreal, Ottawa and Toronto.
The smuggling of people “is a big-money business,” said a law enforcement official in the northeastern section of the state, which is marked by trails, ditches and open land along the border. People emerge from these areas both day and night. Smugglers pay close attention to where Border Patrol, a division of CBP, places its sensors and cameras. They’ll destroy the sensors, or sometimes slip plastic bags over them. They’ll also have a car waiting to whisk people away, often minutes after they have illegally crossed over. “They move five people, five grand a person, they’re making big bucks,” the official said.
Even if you’re able to evade sensors, cameras and border agents themselves, a human element makes it difficult to successfully slip through the porous border and then blend in. The people who live along the border in the more rural stretches of the state are fiercely protective. If you look out of place, you’ll be noticed. “People will pop out of the woods with wet feet, and it’s really cold,” said one officer, noting that the public will see that, and call Border Patrol or a CBP field office.
One of those people is James Cairns, who lives on a plot of land in northeastern New York so close to Canada that his home is located between the border stations for the two countries. That means if Cairns turns right out of his driveway and is heading south, he needs to stop by the U.S. border station to check in and let them know he didn’t go to Canada. And if he turns left out of his driveway, he’s immediately heading north, where officers from the Canada Border Services Agency await him.
“I have armed guards at the gate,” Cairns joked while chopping lumber for a wood shop he operates on his property. Behind Cairns' wooded backyard is an open area called the “slash” — an approximately 20-foot-wide cut through the woods that spans the length of the U.S.-Canada border.
“C’mon, let’s go to Canada!” he invited us playfully as he pointed across the slash to the other side of the woods. Right then he was walking in the middle of the slash, presumably on the border, moving from country to country as he ambled along. It’s likely that Border Patrol knew he was there, but they also know Cairns, and since the group was accompanied by CBP officers, no agents showed up to ask questions. People hiking the slash on their own, however, would likely have been questioned quickly. They would have tripped sensors or showed up on camera. Or, just as likely, Cairns or another border resident would have flagged them and called Border Patrol.
“They know I’ll call people in,” Cairns said. “If I see somebody on the trails, I’ll call them in.”
Cairns’ family has lived on this land for decades, and he said he has stopped plenty of people slipping into the country illegally. He does have a built-in advantage on this, and it goes beyond the firearm he carries: Cairns is a retired customs officer who worked both at the John F. Kennedy International Airport outside New York City and at a local border crossing in rural northeastern part of the state. As an officer, Cairns developed a reputation for sniffing out impostors at a glance. “It’s just something you learn to do from looking at people,” he said, referring to his days as a customs officer. “Their incomes, their clothing, their shoes.”
On that point, an active CBP officer, who knows Cairns, chimed in.
“We call it ‘suits and boots,’ ” the officer said. “If someone has enough money to try to look like a business person, they’ll get a suit, but they won’t have enough money to actually do the footwear.”
“Plus the fake watches,” Cairns added. “I used to be into watches. High-end watches. It was all little things I picked up on over the years.”
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How much do people living on an international border think about it? That depends on the geography and the community. If, like Cairns, you live in a sparsely populated rural area along a land border, you may consider it part of your duty to be vigilant. You’re looking for people and activity that seem not to fit. You might have Border Patrol on speed dial. You’re protective of your property.
Four years ago, when inmates David Sweat and Richard Matt escaped from the maximum-security Clinton Correctional Facility in Dannemora, authorities assumed – correctly, as it turned out – that they would try to escape through the woods into Canada. During the three-week escape, Cairns drew his gun and cleared every room in his house anytime he left and came back home. Dannemora was only 25 miles away, a distance that could traversed by foot over several days. (Matt was eventually killed; Sweat was shot and captured a few miles from the border.)
In a place like Western New York, vigilance looks different. Lake Erie and the Niagara River create a natural barrier between the United States and Canada, making it more difficult to sneak people and contraband across the unguarded borders. It’s not impossible, though, and smugglers do try. But Border Patrol has a strong presence in Grand Island, for example, where the river narrows and sometimes freezes over in winter. CBP’s Air and Marine unit patrols the water and the skies. The Coast Guard, which is part of the Department of Homeland Security, plays a role here, too, as do local and state law enforcement.
Much of the smuggling that is attempted happens at legal ports of entry. That puts places like Western New York, which has four border bridges, and other regions on the front lines of stopping international crimes both big and small. For that, officer intuition – asking the extra questions, reading body language, sensing when something’s not right – is vital.
In Ogdensburg, Port Director Thomas Trimboli called it “good, old-fashioned officer work.” He pointed to a stack of antiques, from upholstered chairs to a mid-20th century radio. Recently a man tried to cross with all of these goods, saying he was transporting them for a friend who is getting a U.S. visa and works in mixed martial arts. The officer didn’t think that sounded right, asked questions and discovered the items cataloged neatly in the man’s phone, prices included. The $38,000 of goods were intended for resale. “So now he has to go through the broker, have it all entered formally,” Trimboli said, noting the man has done this four other times. “We issued him a $5,000 penalty.”
Across the aisle in the storage bay was a $1.1 million military grade aircraft component that had been listed incorrectly on a manifest. “Nobody knew what these parts were,” Trimboli said. “It just said ‘aircraft parts.’ I have a phenomenal cargo admin officer. … He’s a digger. He brings it in, offloads it, looks at it and says, ‘Wait, that’s not right.’ ”
That same sense of intuition was on display at the Peace Bridge mail inspection, where the officer sifting through envelopes seemed confident he would soon find something more illicit than a Jonas Brothers keychain.
Just feet behind him, officers sorting through another crate of mail were pulling out colorful packets of marijuana seeds. They were packaged inside envelopes and boxes containing mugs, puzzle boxes and toys — a failed attempt at hiding the actual contents. The seeds aren't considered drugs — they would have to grow into the plant to qualify. Still, U.S. agricultural regulations still prohibit shipping the seeds over the border. But puzzles, mugs and toys are just fine, if the parcels are labeled as such, which they were. So the customs officers repack the legal contents, insert an official CBP letter, seal it with the fluorescent green tape and put it back in the mail.
“I put this piece of paper in there telling them we took the seed,” one officer said. “They get the mug. They get the child’s toy. Can you imagine? You order marijuana seeds and you get a child’s toy?”
The other officer soon found something more than a boy band keychain, too. He came across a stack of envelopes that caught his attention. “More than likely,” he said, “these are going to be LSD.”
He sliced one open and pulled out a shiny black packet. In small print, it was labeled with the contents: LSD. The officer pulled out a perforated white rectangular sheet. Each of the 50 tabs was a hit of LSD, designed to be placed under the tongue. The street value of that single sheet could be as high as $1,200. He set the contents into a separate pile, one that could potentially be referred for investigation, and then continued opening the envelopes, where he found more LSD and other psychedelics, too, including synthetic mushrooms. This wasn't surprising: One week earlier, according to a CBP release, officers at the Peace Bridge had found just over 293 grams of LSD across multiple small shipments. Those drugs had a street value in excess of $1 million.
These seized drugs were on top of that. They would be secured in a vault and could lead to investigation. But that is for another federal law enforcement agency, Homeland Security Investigations. For this officer, as the drug seizures stacked up, the likely follow-up would be paperwork.
“It'll be a painful one,” he said, grinning. He didn’t seem to mind that. “Somebody,” he added, “isn’t getting their drugs.”
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Exploring the U.S.-Canadian border: Next stories in our series
What happens at a border inspection? The inspection process may seem mysterious and random, but it is neither. Find out about the technology that vets you before you reach the booth, what officers listen and look for when they ask questions and what happens in secondary inspection.
The road that runs into Canada, where a new life begins: Take a trip to Roxham Road, a rural street in northeastern New York that runs into the Canadian border and the place where nearly 50,000 people have fled to Canada since Donald Trump was elected president in 2016.
The most complicated border: The Akwesasne’s land sits across portions of New York’s North Country, Ontario and Quebec, and it’s considered one of the most complex borders in the world. With a jigsaw-like geography and waterways, it’s possible (though technically not legal) to travel unchecked from New York to Ontario to Quebec in minutes. That has created a tangled jurisdictional web for law enforcement and spawned opportunity for smugglers to sneak goods both north and south.
Inside the U.S.-Canadian relationship – and our own politics: Rep. Brian Higgins calls this the “forgotten border” and blames the Trump administration for mismanaging resources. Trump's acting CBP Commissioner Mark Morgan counters that “Congress has failed to do their job.” The border is a political hot button here, but there is bipartisan agreement that southern Ontario residents are a driver of our economy — from Bills and Sabres tickets, to mall shopping and flights – and the mostly harmonious relationship between the United States and Canada goes a long way toward keeping both countries safe.