On the Border
Allyson E. Taylor
Extracted From The Ninth Coast Guard District PIO Site
Nestled on the banks of the St. Lawrence River in upstate New York, summer mist slowly burns off as the sun breaks through the clouds, waking the small town of Massena to the promise of a warm, summer day just on the horizon.
This peaceful day begins with a routine patrol for Coast Guardsmen and Border Patrol agents who have been working together patrolling the waters around Massena for illegal importation.
“Last year we had six major seizures totaling $200,000 of hydroponic marijuana and 18 illegals (people),” said Chief Petty Officer Furman Alden, Officer in Charge at Station Alexandria Bay, N.Y. “Drugs, cash, cigarettes and people are smuggled across the border. Marijuana and cash is smuggled South into the United States and cigarettes are smuggled North.”
Since December 2002 there have been significant seizures, including 537 pounds of marijuana, over a quarter of a million dollars cash, 16 boats and over $200,000 worth of cigarettes.
Smuggling is just one of the worries in Massena.
“The situation gets very complicated here. There are two countries, two counties and a reservation,” said Petty Officer First Class Jesse Ponder of Station Alexandria Bay.
The Akwesasne Reservation is the only American reservation that crosses the border of two countries, which makes smuggling between Canada and America through the waterways easier, " Alden said.
“This is a prime area for smugglers since there are no customs checkpoints on the roads that run from Canada to the U.S. on the reservation. Without checkpoints, there is no way to check or report what is coming into and going out of the country, making it easy to move product across the border,” Alden said.
While on patrol in the waterways, three two-man crews, consisting of one Coast Guardsman and one Border Patrol agent, are positioned at different intervals on the seven-mile stretch of water. Having three boats at varying points on the river allows for a broader scope of area to be surveyed. They communicate with one another anything that may seem suspicious.
“A couple of boats will pull into a dock on the Canadian side and are only there for a couple of minutes while they make the pick up, then take off,” said Petty Officer Second Class Ty Norris of Station Alexandria Bay.
Only one boat will have possession of what is being transported, but all of the boats will take off at the same time, hoping to confuse officials.
“We can’t chase all of them,” Norris said. “We have to guess at which one took the product on board and pursue them.”
The boats the smugglers use are faster and can outrun Border Patrol and Coast Guard boats by 30 to 45 miles per hour, making a boat chase sometimes frustrating for the joint-agency crews.
Occasionally, high-speed boat chases have lasted as long as five minutes. Five minutes can seem like a long time when whipping around in an open boat without breaks, airbags or seat belts, on a river about the width of a two-lane highway. Recently one chase ended only because the boat being pursued ran aground on an island, forcing the boat to an abrupt stop.
A new system is being implemented to the area to help in the fight against illegal importation.
Station Alexandria Bay introduced the Running Gear Entanglement System (RGES) to the Border Patrol as a new tool of detaining boats that are suspected of smuggling. From a black box mounted on the tow bitt at the stern of a Coast Guard boat, 60 feet of line is shot toward the boat by 3300 pounds of pressurized air. Once in the water, the boat runs over the line, causing it to become entangled in the propellers of the engines. The engines cut out, ultimately forcing the boat to come to a stop. Agents are then able to question the boat’s operator and inspect the contents on board.
“Since we can’t catch these boats, we will have to follow them into one of the tributaries, set up the system and wait for them to come back out,” said Alden. “When they come out, that is when we will have the chance to deploy RGES and apprehend anything illegal they might have on board.”
Throughout the Coast Guard, only three stations are authorized to use RGES. Station Alexandria Bay is the only unit in the Ninth District to have the system.
“Smugglers will always have bigger and faster boats, but anything helps, and the entanglement system is a start. There is a good possibility it could work very well here in the right situation,” said Dick Ashlaw, Border Patrol Agent in Charge in Massena.
Every situation will not always be perfect, but every tool they can use helps in the fight against smuggling.
As night falls, the joint patrol comes to an end. A last look at the water and Norris notices a boat creeping to a dock. He grabs his binoculars to get a closer look.
“You can never be too sure about what is going on. It is better to be too cautious and keep an eye on anyone you may think suspicious. If they aren’t breaking the law, they have nothing to worry about,” Norris said.
Ten minutes pass and the boat Norris spotted is moored to the dock. The team assumes nothing suspicious is happening and it is safe to head in for the day. They put on their goggles to protect their eyes from bugs flying through the night air and speed to the boat ramp, eager to end the patrol until next time.
September 30, 2004