Battle of wits at the border

Homeland Security diverts some attention from terrorists to stop the more than 2 million pounds of marijuana that enters the U.S. from Canada each year.

Published April 5, 2005 12:44PM (EDT)

It is a sunny spring day; the water is sparkling, dotted with the white sails of jauntily leaning yachts and the green islands that speckle the U.S.-Canadian border. Welcome to the front line of a vicious multibillion-dollar drug war.

A high-powered gray patrol boat with a three-man crew from the U.S. Department of Homeland Security buzzes across this Pacific idyll like a frenetic killjoy, boarding sailing boats, disrupting jolly outings on family motorboats and even accosting tiny sea kayaks.

In theory, the crew's primary task is to stop terrorists infiltrating the United States. Ever since Ahmed Ressam, an Algerian militant, was caught a few miles from here in December 1999 with more than 100 pounds of explosives in the boot of his car, border patrols have been braced for the next episode. One of the crew wears a radiation detector at all times.

Since then, however, the Homeland Security patrol has been finding mainly marijuana on the boats it searches -- industrial quantities of a potent strain known as B.C. Bud, named in honor of the Canadian province where much of it is grown, British Columbia.

More than 2 million pounds of B.C. Bud is thought to reach the U.S. market every year. The whole industry is thought to be worth $7 billion. The product surges into the United States like water flowing off a mountain, finding its way through every crack. It is dropped by small planes or helicopters into the raspberry fields and parks of Washington state. It is walked across the mountain forests in backpacks, stashed among frozen berries and driven in articulated buses or in the back of vans on country roads. Or it comes by sea, on a flotilla of unassuming watercraft.

"See those boats. That's what B.C. Bud boats look like," said Kevin Anderson, one of the patrol's marine enforcement officers, after boarding and searching a sailing boat and a small motor cruiser, and finding nothing more menacing than an expired sailing license.

The crew has been paying special attention to kayaks since last year, when a Canadian junior Olympic champion was caught putting his skills to lucrative use plying the sea border that runs through the Strait of Georgia. His boat was weighed down with his country's finest marijuana. He was unlucky to get caught. On a fine summer's afternoon there can be 10,000 pleasure boats in the archipelago that forms the coastal borderline, and just one patrol.

B.C. Bud is so well thought of on the West Coast, it has been known to trade at the same price as cocaine, more than $3,000 a pound. In fact, it is commonly bartered for cocaine and guns, which travel in the opposite direction, north into Canada, making it a less safe and predictable place -- and more like America -- every day. Drive-by killings are on the rise in the Vancouver area, as are house invasions, by which one gang seeks to take over another's marijuana crop without the bother of lights and hydroponic cultivation.

About a month ago four officers of the Royal Canadian Mounted Police were shot dead when they stumbled on a B.C. Bud-growing operation -- the most Mounties lost in one day since the middle of the 19th century. The killings shocked Canada, and have challenged the country's generally tolerant attitude toward drug offenses.

"It showed Canadians that the people who have grow ops [growing operations] aren't all nice guys with mom-and-pop operations," said inspector Paul Nadeau, the head of the force's coordinated marijuana enforcement team in British Columbia. "Nothing could be further from the truth. Every single criminal organization in the region is involved."

It is a big pie everyone seems to want a slice of. A lot of the smugglers caught on the border are from ethnic Indian and Pakistani gangs in Canada. Many of the 50,000 grow ops thought to be hidden across British Columbia are run by Vietnamese clans. But police on both sides of the border say some of the biggest organizations coordinating the trade are chapters of the Canadian Hell's Angels.

Joseph Giuliano, the deputy chief patrol agent at the Blaine border post, has been watching them evolve from gangs to corporations. "They mostly farm out the dirty work," he said. "They have become administrators, bureaucrats, executives. The old days of them driving a Harley in a leather jacket are gone. Now they wear a three-piece suit and drive a Mercedes."

As the organizations behind B.C. Bud smuggling have grown larger, their operations have become more sophisticated, and the battle of wits at the border has become a technological race. Giuliano's patrols put sensors down along the border that send signals to a central command post in Blaine, generating a computerized voice alert announcing where there is movement and in what direction. Agents can then train one of 32 cameras on the area to determine whether a smuggler is making a crossing or a cow has gone astray.

The smugglers have equipped themselves with night-vision goggles and metal detectors in an attempt to locate the sensors under the cover of darkness. They also conduct surveillance operations, watching the border patrols and testing their reaction times to the sensors, and intercepting radio messages with computerized scanners.

"They even have their own scientific sorts working on the capabilities of our gamma ray machines at the border," Giuliano said. "They're testing what has similar density as B.C. Bud so that it's invisible. Apparently, frozen raspberries [this is one of the world's premier raspberry regions] come pretty close."

The cat-and-mouse game can also be as low-tech as a smuggler in a pickup truck timing a run across the 18-inch ditch that marks much of the land border in the Northwest. Smugglers will swerve off the road over the ditch and gun their cars through rows of raspberry canes.

Until now, the casualties in this contest have been low, but the deaths of the four Mounties have strained nerves. The stakes are getting higher and there are more guns involved. Barbara Kremzner, a border patrol agent who drives around the Blaine area alone trying to stop cars getting across, said: "You never know what it's going to be. It gets hairy."

"We have a big problem on our hands," said Leigh Winchell, the special agent in charge of immigration and customs enforcement in Seattle. "Whenever that much money is involved, crime-related money, the violence follows. Huge quantities of cocaine and firearms and bulk cash are going north. The Canadians are dealing with a murder rate that is growing exponentially. I can't help but believe that if the violence continues to grow there, it will grow here."

By Julian Borger

Julian Borger is a correspondent for the Guardian.

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