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River deaths have had little impact on cross-border human smuggling networks, court records show

While the spotlight focused on the border territory of Akwesasne following the St. Lawrence River deaths of six foreign nationals and two Canadian children, smuggling networks continued to move people overland through a region east of the Kanien’kehá:ka (Mohawk) community, U.S. court records show. 

Canadian authorities recovered the bodies of four members of an Indian family and a Romanian couple with their two Canadian-born children from the St. Lawrence River on March 30 and 31. The two families are believed to have died trying to cross illegally into the U.S. by boat across the St. Lawrence River through Akwesasne. 

Recent filings with U.S. federal court show that the sudden attention on the irregular movement of people from Canada into the U.S. did little to stem the overall human smuggling traffic that flows through a borderland region between Canada and New York State. 

This area, known to U.S. border authorities as the Swanton Sector, runs along the Ontario-Quebec and New York State-Vermont borders. It is the most active region for north-to-south irregular traffic along the Canada-U.S. border. The highest level of irregular traffic flows between Quebec and New York State, according to U.S. border data. 

The Royal Canadian Mounted Police (RCMP) says it has seen an increase in southbound irregular traffic over the past few months. In a statement the federal police force said many individuals arrive on flights to Toronto or Montreal with visitor status and then attempt runs at the border. 

“We are also noting that some individuals that entered Canada illegally between designated ports of entry, for example at Roxham Road, are now attempting to enter the U.S. in the same illegal manner,” said Cpl. Tasha Adams, with RCMP’s C division in Quebec, in an emailed statement. 

The RCMP is responsible for patrolling borders between official ports of entry.

A border camera attached to a tree along the Quebec-New York State border.
A border camera attached to a tree along the Quebec-New York State border. (CBC News)

The recent tragedy on the river has not slowed down the smugglers. 

Within a week of the river deaths, between April 7 and 11, U.S. border authorities detained at least 30 people who crossed the Quebec-New York State border outside Akwesasne’s eastern boundaries, according to the records. 

In the space of about 11 hours, on April 9, U.S. Border agents detained 15 people who crossed south at two border points between Fort Covington and Champlain, N.Y.

The first group crossed on the night of April 8 when cameras and sensors operated by the RCMP and U.S. Border Patrol captured between five to 10 people crossing through brush and farmland into the U.S. around the town of Fort Covington, N.Y., which sits about 15 kilometres east of Akwesasne, according to the records. 

Agents then began a stake-out of the area. By 1:15 a.m. on April 9, they spotted a vehicle roll slowly along a road running parallel to the border and stop briefly as two people emerged from the shadows and jumped inside. Agents stopped the vehicle which had two Mexican nationals with muddy clothes in the passenger seats. 

Agents then found seven more Mexican nationals hiding in brush around the same area. 

Wet, muddied clothes and shoes left behind in September 2022 by individuals crossing irregularly into the U.S. through forests along the Quebec-New York State border.
Wet, muddied clothes and shoes were left behind by individuals crossing irregularly into the U.S. through forests along the Quebec-New York State border in September 2022. (CBC News)

Hours later, roughly 60 kilometres east of Fort Covington, at around 11:35 p.m., U.S. Border Patrol agents pulled over a Ford F-150 pickup truck with six Mexican nationals “stacked on top of each other in the back seat.” 

One of the male Mexican nationals told agents the smuggling attempt was organized by someone in Canada and that he had flown into Toronto a week earlier. 

He said he paid $2,500 US to the Canadian “facilitator” through a money transfer. He was picked up by a driver in Toronto and then taken to Montreal before heading south for the border. He told agents he was expected to pay another $2,500 once he crossed, according to court records. 

The driver of the vehicle, who was also a Mexican national living illegally in the U.S., said this was his fourth border run and that he was paid $1,000 US a trip. 

RCMP have ‘limited’ legislative tools

On April 11, about 50 kilometres east of Fort Covington, sometime after 11:30 p.m., U.S. border agents pulled over a Chevrolet Silverado with six Mexican nationals who had just crossed into the U.S. from Canada. 

One of the Mexican nationals, a male, told border agents the border smuggling attempt was brokered by a man named “Alex” in Canada. He said he paid $3,000 US upfront and was expected to pay another $3,000 once he arrived at his destination in Maryland. 

The driver was from El Salvador with no papers to live in the U.S. legally, according to court records. 

Adams said there is little the RCMP can do even if it does intercept individuals aiming for the border. If the individuals are legally in Canada, the best the Mounties can do is transport them away from the international boundary, said Adams. 

“We attempt to detect and deter this movement, but the reality is that the legislative tools at our disposal are limited,” said Adams, in the emailed statement. 

“We often transport these people elsewhere as we want to prevent them from entering the U.S. illegally. We inform our partners at [U.S. Border Patrol] and it becomes a continuous cycle.” 

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