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A glimpse inside the ongoing cross-border smuggling operations near Akwesasne

A cross-border human smuggling attempt arranged by a Montreal woman nicknamed “Chama” ended with a high speed chase involving multiple U.S. Border Patrol vehicles and a crash in upstate New York, according to U.S. federal court records. 

The case from late October offers a glimpse into the inner workings of smuggling operations that continue to run through Akwesasne — a Haudenesaunee community that straddles the Canada-U.S. border and sits along the St. Lawrence River about 120 kilometres west of Montreal —  in the months following a disastrous attempt that ended with multiple deaths in late March. 

A family of four from India and a family of four from Romania died in the St. Lawrence River after their boat capsized in stormy waters during a night crossing. The driver of the boat, Akwesasne resident Casey Oakes, was found downstream in July. 

Police say they have intercepted dozens of human smuggling attempts since.

Various international criminal networks continue to run foreign nationals through Akwesasne’s territory with the aid of some local boaters and residents.

The Akwesasne territory, with a population of about 27,000 people, is severed by the Ontario-Quebec border and the international boundary with New York State. Outsiders have for decades taken advantage of the jurisdictional tangle within the Mohawk territory to move illicit products and humans across the border.

The community has been shaped and marred by the colonial geopolitics that molded North America, and the industrial machinery that powered it, which destroyed their fishing grounds and farming culture. Today, some locals facing narrowing economic opportunities have provided their knowledge of the lands and water to smugglers for a fee — a trade handed down through generations for some families.

Cash greases the trade

The latest incident, from Oct. 26, unfolded after a report from New York State police led U.S. border patrol on a high speed chase with a white Hyundai Palisade with Ontario plates. It crashed and stopped at a riverbank in Fort Covington, N.Y., which sits about seven kilometres from Akwesasne’s eastern border. 

The vehicle collided with border patrol vehicles three times before reaching the edge of the Little Salmon River where the driver jumped out and fled into the water before being grabbed by a border patrol agent. 

Travis Adams, the alleged driver, and Ashton Francis, the alleged passenger, are both from Akwesasne. They were charged with alien smuggling, and remain in custody. Ashton’s daughter, a minor, was also in the vehicle at the time, according to court records.

Court records say Travis Adams suffered from the loss of his father, Richad Adams, a prolific and prominent smuggler who vanished in 2009.
Court records say Travis Adams suffered from the loss of his father — a prolific and prominent smuggler who vanished in 2009. (Travis Adams/Facebook)

Luis Esteban Zamora-Candia from Chile, Javier Estrella-Chel from Mexico and Sandra Milena Agudelo-Martinez from Colombia were also detained for illegally crossing into the U.S. from Canada.

Zamora-Candia and Estrella-Chel both remain in custody, and are said to be witnesses for the prosecution. 

Details outlined in the court records reveal how the individual who sets up a human smuggling operation may not know all the players eventually involved, who are often subcontracted to finish the job. 

According to U.S. court records, Zamora-Candia and Estrella-Chel flew into Canada shortly before attempting the run across the border and made the arrangements through a woman nicknamed “Chama” in Montreal. At least one of the three, Estralla-Chel, stayed with Chama before he was allegedly picked up in Montreal by Francis, according to court records. 

Zamora-Candia allegedly paid $3,000 US and Estrella-Chel paid $5,000 for the trip across the border, but the court record doesn’t say how much Agudelo-Martinez paid.

Chama allegedly hired Adams and Francis for $9,000 US to move the foreign nationals through Akwesasne, across the Canada-U.S. border and down to Plattsburgh, NY., according to the records. 

Adams allegedly hired a boat driver nicknamed “Doc” for $1,200 US who lives on Cornwall Island — an Akwesasne island that sits in the St. Lawrence River across from Cornwall, Ont. 

A map shows how the Akwesasne territory is divided by the St. Lawrence River and the Canada-U.S. border.
The Akwesasne territory is divided by the St. Lawrence River and the Canada-U.S. border. (CBC News)

Francis allegedly picked up the trio in Montreal and took them to a “house near the river” on Cornwall Island where they waited for about eight hours before they were put on a boat for the journey across the St. Lawrence, according to the court record. They landed on the southern shore in Snye, Que., a portion of Akwesasne that sits in Canada but is only accessible by road via the U.S. A boat trip from Cornwall Island to Snye does not traverse the international boundary. 

The trio allegedly waited for “several hours” in a garage before they mounted the white Hyundai SUV for the ill-fated trip to Plattsburgh about 110 kilometres southeast of Akwesasne. 

Smuggling continued despite deaths

The RCMP’s O-Division, which covers Ontario, has recorded 69 mostly southbound “human smuggling occurrences” across the St. Lawrence River in the region around Akwesasne and Cornwall, Ont. The majority of nationalities moving irregularly across the border include Latin Americans, Romanians, Indians and Vietnamese, according to RCMP data. 

Earlier in October, a Chevy Tahoe with Wisconsin plates was stopped by U.S. Border Patrol after spending roughly an hour on the Akwesasne border shortly after midnight. The vehicle was allegedly carrying six Mexican nationals.

In another incident on Oct. 5, three Vietnamese nationals were intercepted by agents after they were picked up inside Akwesasne. 

A dock juts out into the fog-covered water of a placid river.
A dock on the American side of the St. Lawrence River in the Mohawk Nation at Akwesasne is pictured on April 6, 2023. (Evan Mitsui/CBC)

The Akwesasne Mohawk Police (AMPS) has intercepted 29 people in 24 incidents of human smuggling attempts across its territory since April 1, according to data provided to CBC News. AMPS has also intercepted an additional 29 foreign nationals crossing the territory on their own. 

Akwesasne community members have told CBC News that many of the individuals involved in the lower rungs of the human smuggling trade through the territory get drawn-in as a result of severe addictions issues. 

That was the case with Casey Oakes, according to those who knew him, and his court file that documented struggles with additions. 

Lost father, also smuggler

Adams also struggles with addictions, according to his court file, along with the generational impact from his father’s involvement in the smuggling world that led to his sudden disappearance. 

Adams allegedly told U.S. Border Patrol agents he fled into the water after crashing the SUV by the river because “he did not want to go back to prison.” He was only out a few weeks after completing a 10-month sentence as a result of his struggles with addictions, according to court records. 

Adams was sentenced in January 2023 for numerous breaches of conditions stemming from a 2013 conviction for trafficking oxycodone pills — obtained from a dealer in Cornwall, Ont.— throughout Akwesasne. His breaches included failing drug tests, along with arrests in Canada for tobacco smuggling. 

Richard "Acid" Adams, the father of Travis Adams, dissappeared in 2009. His family says he was murdered by organized crime elements in Montreal.
Richard “Acid” Adams disappeared in 2009. His family says he was murdered by organized crime elements in Montreal. (Jorge Barrera/CBC News)

In September 2019, Adams was arrested with what police say was 1,274 kilograms of unstamped tobacco after he rammed an RCMP boat, capsizing his own, while crossing the St. Lawrence headed toward the southern Quebec shore near Saint Anicet. Six months later, Adams was arrested by the RCMP after he was accused of moving 773 kilograms of unstamped tobacco on a snowmobile.

Adams was sentenced to 11 months for these and a handful of other incidents in June 2020.

In his sentencing ruling, Quebec Court Justice Joey Dubois quoted from Adam’s Gladue report — a pre-sentencing report for an Indigenous offender — noting he was the father of two children. The report stated Adams suffered from “abuse and neglect, abandonment … and the normalization of substance abuse and smuggling.”  It said Adams also suffered traumatic events in his life, including the presumed death of his father and an uncle “who was very close” to him. 

“Travis has been living in a hopeless state of mind, dealing with a dependence on alcohol and drugs,”  said the Gladue report quoted by Dubois. 

The impact from the assumed death of his father, Richard “Acid” Adams, is also mentioned in a 2014 pre-sentence report for his U.S. conviction for drug trafficking. 

“Travis’ father had serious run-ins with the law and was in and out of jail and prison when Travis was a young man.… Travis and his father were very close. His father raised him. However, in July 2009, his father disappeared,” said the report. “His father was likely killed by a member of a criminal organization operating in Canada.”

The family alleges in Ontario court records that Richard Adams, who was a prominent and prolific smuggler, was murdered by the West End Gang in Montreal.

His body has never been found. 

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