US-Canada: Guarding northern border
More people, high tech on the watch
- They come across in small airplanes
and on foot, astride horses and atop
snowmobiles. They hike and float and ski and
dog-sled their way out of Canada and across
Montana's northern border, often smuggling drugs
are caught. Sometimes not.
''What we do is
one of the toughest jobs in the world,'' said
Lonnie Moore, information officer for the
Spokane Sector of the U.S. Border Patrol. ''I
believe we catch most of them, but we're not
naive enough to think it's 100 percent. There's
always room to improve.''
Five years after
the terrorist attacks on New York City and the
Pentagon, America's northern border is, by most
measures, much more secure than at any time
before. It is not, however, secure in any
definitive way, and the real question in this
post-Sept. 11 world is, how safe is safe enough?
That's what Mike
Meehan's wondering, anyway, from behind his desk
at the Flathead County sheriff's office.
feel secure with the system that's now in
place,'' he said. ''I'm certainly not going to
go home tonight and worry about a bunch of
terrorists coming across the border.''
What Meehan does
worry about is high-grade marijuana coming south
from British Columbia -- ''B.C. bud,'' as it's
Smuggling is a
lucrative business, Meehan said, with B.C. bud
commanding prices in excess of $5,000 per pound
in the northern states, and as much as $8,000 a
pound by the time it makes its way south to
northern border is an attractive route, what
with all that wild and rugged expanse rambling
across uninhabited mountain valleys. There are
big transboundary lakes, which Meehan notes are
notoriously difficult to control.
''In a lot of
those areas, there just isn't much population,''
His Border Patrol
sector covers a whole lot of big empty, from
Washington's snow-capped Cascades all the way to
the Continental Divide. In 2002, just 40 people
patrolled all those miles of border. In fact, a
mere 300 worked the entire northern border,
coast to coast, compared with 9,000 on the
nation's southern border.
Sept. 11, 2001,
changed all that.
in manpower up here,'' Moore said. ''We now have
seven-day-a-week, 24-hour coverage, which wasn't
always the case before.''
But the real key
to the 24/7 coverage is not manpower, but
There are motion
detectors in the woods these days, infrared
cameras, heat sensors, magnetic detectors -- and
a lot more high-tech infrastructure no one is
authorized to talk about.
detectors seemed to work the best,'' said
Meehan. Bears trigger motion sensors, and lots
of critters trip the heat sensors -- but not
many elk are wearing belt buckles.
improved,'' Meehan said of border security.
''There are a lot more agents up there, and a
lot more monitoring devices.''
''better'' means -- and how wisely tax dollars
are spent on border security -- is a very
slippery business. Last year, Moore said, agents
in his sector apprehended about 120 people
crossing the border illegally. That's a lot, but
not that many more than in previous years.
increase in agents and budgets seems not to have
translated into a threefold increase in
apprehensions, and all admit some illegals
continue to slip through. At the same time,
fewer apprehensions may, in fact, be associated
with more patrols, as presence deters activity.
So, back to
Meehan's question: How safe is safe enough?
border, according to Meehan, will always be
But the reason he
doesn't lose any sleep is because
intelligence-gathering has been stepped up
considerably. Agents often know what to look
for, where and when, thanks to
information-sharing between agencies and
''It's kind of a
free-flow association of information, and it
actually works very well in practice,'' said Jim
Bunner, supervisor at the Whitefish office of
the Border Patrol.
You don't need to
monitor every inch of backwoods, Moore agreed,
if you have a solid intelligence network. Sure,
a few lone pot smokers might make it through,
but there's security adequate now to weave a web
tight enough for the bigger flies.
''If there have
been any terrorists caught up on this border,
then I sure haven't heard about it,'' Meehan
running the border -- aside from the ''mules''
carrying B.C. bud -- tend to be South Koreans,
many of them young women between 18 and 25.
Whether they know it or not, he said, they're
often headed to work as prostitutes in major
The reason, Moore
said, is Canada does not require an entry visa
for South Korean visitors. And once in Canada,
it's a short trip across the northern border to
the United States.
''We pick up a
group of Koreans about every couple months,''
To slow the flow,
Moore said, the Border Patrol is stressing
''citizens' academies,'' special classes that
teach everyday folk how to help federal agents.
people in these little towns, they know what's
going on,'' he said. ''The smallness of the
towns along the border here is a huge help to
So is the
cooperative relationship between the Border
Patrol, local sheriff's offices, Forest Service
law enforcement and agents investigating illegal
The effort may
soon be augmented by a new air and marine
branch, complete with planes and boats supplied
by Customs and Border Protection. Two years ago,
a similar branch opened in the Seattle area with
69 officers, pilots, aircrew and mission support
personnel, along with helicopters, airplanes and
A branch has now
been proposed for Montana, but Moore could not
say when it might open for business. When it
does, however, it's likely to put a dent in the
latest smuggling scheme -- float planes full of
B.C. bud, traveling south to land on remote
''It's like a
game,'' Moore said. ''They adjust, we