Eyes on the border

12/11/16

by Elizabeth Hewitt

December 8, 2016

ALBURGH — When U.S. Border Patrol agents caught up to Paulo Jorge Abelha, he was about 20 yards south of the border.

It was Aug. 19. A short time earlier, Abelha had taken a taxi from the Montreal airport to the small Quebec border town of Noyan.

He got out of the cab a little south of town and began walking across the sparse agrarian landscape toward the United States, according to the cabdriver, who called Canadian police.

Much of this area is farmland, belonging either to research or dairy farms. Many houses along the shore of Lake Champlain are summer homes. Weathered concrete blockades and overgrown road signs demarcate the border.

Abelha was near some farm equipment when U.S. agents found him, alerted by Canadian police. It turned out, according to court papers, that Abelha had been deported from the U.S. to Portugal just three days earlier.

Welcome to the border.

While the country’s focus is trained on the security of the southern border with Mexico, the northern border — the longest between two countries in the world — lies watched by just a few thousand eyes.

Many who are engaged in illicit actions are caught. Abelha was arrested and held in prison for months. In early December, a federal judge in Burlington sentenced him to time served and ordered him to be returned to Portugal.

But others are not.

Authorities acknowledge that despite round-the-clock patrols and an advanced network of surveillance technology, they can’t be certain how much criminal activity occurs along the border.

“We don’t know what we don’t know,” one official from the Swanton sector of U.S. Customs and Border Protection said recently.

Road Closed

Roger Rainville has lived and farmed at Border View Farm, on Line Road, for three and a half decades. Formerly a dairy farmer, Rainville now runs a research farm with more than 4,000 test plots where he grows everything from milkweed to hops and hemp.

The sleepy country road shoots straight across the flat pastoral landscape north of Alburgh. One side of the road is the USA, the other side is Canada. But Rainville thinks of the families who live to his north no differently from those who live to his south.

“They’re our neighbors,” Rainville said. “They’re not another country to us.”

Between patrols and electronic technology used by border agents, he gets a pretty high level of security, he said. Otherwise, there are not many instances when the border is obvious to him. He learned of a recent apprehension near his farm only when he read about it in the news.

Only twice in the years Rainville and his family have lived on the border has he been concerned about safety, he said. One time, a mass of American and Canadian authorities descended on the area to apprehend someone suspected of transborder drug activity near his farm. The other time was on Sept. 11, 2001.

But, in general, the particular locale of Rainville’s farm rarely crosses his mind.

swantonsector“There’s only a border because it shows it on the map as far as we’re concerned,” Rainville said.

Alburgh’s Canadian border falls within the jurisdiction of the Border Patrol’s Swanton sector, which is responsible for everything between St. Lawrence County in New York and the border between New Hampshire and Maine.

Some 300 people, including agents and administrators, are charged with 24-hour supervision of the 295-mile stretch, according to the Border Patrol.

The majority of the sector’s territory is on land, ranging from mountainous and densely wooded to flat and pastoral. About 92 miles of the border is on water, largely the St. Lawrence River, as well as a small part of Lake Champlain.

Driving through northern Vermont, it’s not always clear where the United States ends and Canada begins. It’s not uncommon to suddenly pop up on the Canadian side of monuments demarcating the border when driving along a Vermont country road — though roads that connect through to Canadian infrastructure are either blocked or guarded with a port of entry.

On one Alburgh route, now bisected by a blockade, an abandoned house straddles the border. On a nearby lakeside road, a downed tree, about 2 feet in diameter, marks the line. (Border Patrol agents on a recent tour were not sure who was responsible for felling and positioning the log.)

lizzielog

Just a few decades ago, drivers could cross the international boundary on back roads without going through a border checkpoint.

A handful of faded Canadian signs still stand, left from a time before cross-border roads were blocked, relics directing people in French and English to report to the nearest customs office. In some cases, undergrowth has reached the level of the signs.

Concern about cross-border traffic is nothing new. In one high-profile case in 1988, three Lebanese men made national headlines when they crossed from Quebec to Vermont carrying a black bag that contained a bomb.

In more recent years, the flow of traffic was increasingly restricted. The latest and largest push to close unofficial paths across the border was in the aftermath of Sept. 11.

Still, disparities between the staffing and resources on the northern compared with the southern border are stark. There were slightly more than 2,000 agents staffing the eight northern border sectors in fiscal 2015, compared with more than 17,500 along the southern border, according to federal statistics.

The records show a much higher rate of illicit traffic along the southern frontier as well. In fiscal 2015, 2,626 people were apprehended by the Border Patrol in all eight northern sectors versus 331,333 on the southern border.

While more than 1.5 million pounds of marijuana was confiscated coming across the southern border, just 654 pounds of it was intercepted along the northern border.

The Swanton sector tends to see a fairly high rate of illegal activity, compared with other northern sectors.

The vast majority of the marijuana confiscated along the northern U.S. border in 2015 was intercepted in the Swanton sector’s jurisdiction: 502 pounds of the total. That trend traces back several years.

Nearly 1,500 people have been apprehended along this sector’s stretch of border in the last five years. Border Patrol agents call them PWACs: “present without admission Canada.”

The sector also had the highest number of cases accepted for prosecution: 108 cases, followed by 93 in the sector headquartered in Grand Forks, North Dakota.

Assistant U.S. Attorney Kevin Doyle, who works out of the Burlington office of the U.S. attorney for the District of Vermont, said cases related to the border are “pretty common.”

Cases brought to federal court include drug smuggling, firearms trafficking and human smuggling. Instances of illegal entry into the United States from Canada tend to come up weekly or biweekly, he said.

The time and resources involved with resolving cases varies depending on the charges, he said. He, like Border Patrol agents, acknowledged that it is difficult to know the rate of success in catching cross-border activity.

“I don’t know the percentage of what we’re catching and what we’re not catching, but we can’t be catching all of it,” Doyle said.

Surveillance

The Border Patrol is one of three subsets within U.S. Customs and Border Protection. The Office of Field Operations is responsible for manning the border crossing points; Air and Marine Operations secures the border by air and on water. The Border Patrol is responsible for the border in between the ports of entry.

Agents typically go out on patrols solo in white Ford SUVs marked with a broad green stripe. They drive along country roads and look for signs of unusual traffic — tracks from a car that may have turned around, or an unfamiliar car with a non-Vermont license plate. With luck, they may notice a path in the snow, a muddy print or some other sign left by someone crossing the border by foot.

Meanwhile, a network of cameras and sensors installed at points along the border sends information to a team of three people watching some two dozen screens around the clock, crammed into a small windowless room in Swanton.

Some cameras provide live feeds; some take up to 15 minutes to transmit images back to the headquarters — a reality of operating in remote areas with limited radio and cell signals, according to Swanton Sector Special Operations Supervisor Brad Brant.

The technology captures a log of life as normal along the border: a roadside jogger in a red hat frozen midstride, the dark brown body of a moose lumbering through the woods. If something suspicious comes up, agents in the field are notified and head to the area.

Still, the surveillance reveals only so much, Brant said. An image of someone illicitly crossing the border doesn’t provide much in the way of identification. The sector holds onto images of people crossing the border who were never caught.

Agents are also backed up by a resource that Richard Ross, deputy patrol agent in charge of the Richford station, considers indispensable: residents. Locals, he said, represent a willing and supportive set of eyes that is key to helping intercept illicit transborder traffic.

Ross heads a station responsible for 23.5 miles of border. The stretch ranges from rolling agricultural hills in the west to the densely wooded north side of Jay Peak, where the Long Trail spills out.

On a drizzly November day, Ross navigated a network of roads that loosely parallel the Canadian border. Occasionally he passed a green-striped vehicle — one of the agents from his station out on patrol. He stopped and rolled down the window to check in with an agent driving the other direction along a dirt road less than a mile south of the border. Nothing too unusual, the agent reported — a parked car that likely belonged to a hunter in the area.

After another couple of minutes, beyond a handful of family residences, the road rounded into a clearing about 20 feet wide — like a path cut for power lines.

This clearing, called “the slash,” runs the length of the northern border.

The road crosses into the woods on the northern side of the slash and, after running along for a couple of dozen yards in Canada, cuts back into the slash. To the west of the road, a small cemetery with aged stones and dates ranging back to the mid-19th century sits in the middle of the clearing.

To Ross, the road and cemetery are a potential vulnerability — one that has been exploited in the past.

In the morning hours of Sept. 18, 2013, tipped off by surveillance photographs of two camouflage-clad figures, agents staked out the cemetery. A Ford pickup pulled up and parked on the Canadian side.

Confronted by a Border Patrol agent who was watching the area, the man in the car identified himself as Luis Cordero and claimed he was there to visit the tombstone of a friend.

Cordero was allowed to go, but he made it only a short distance before another Border Patrol agent stopped him after agents recognized his name as connected to a suspected smuggling operation. Agents ultimately found $400,000 in cash split up into bags with “50” or “50k” noted in black marker, alerted to them by a trained dog that smelled traces of drugs on the money.

Cordero later pleaded guilty to evading a legal requirement to report when transporting more than $10,000 out of the country, and he was sentenced to 25 months in prison, according to court records.

Unusual activity stands out, according to Ross. The agents of the Richford station get a sense of the rhythm of the area, he said — commuting schedules, what cars belong at which home, other patterns.

That’s a quirk of the northern frontier, according to Brant, who, like most agents, used to work on the Mexican border.

“There weren’t a lot of people doing normal things along the southern border,” Brant said. Vermont and Quebec residents lead their lives along the border, and criminal activity can blend into the daily buzz, he said.

‘Eyes and ears’

Earlier this year, on Sept. 17, Border Patrol agents responded to a tip from Canadian police about suspicious activity: Several people were getting into a gray minivan with North Carolina plates about 75 yards from a gate that marks the border in Derby Line.

Agents found five people in the car. One person, Miguel Ramos, showed New York identification. The others were found to be Guatemalan nationals without authorization to be in the U.S.

Ramos later told agents, according to court documents, that his father told him about an offer to make money picking up people illicitly crossing the border. Ramos set up a deal for $1,000 and drove Gerardo Xar-Marroquin to Derby.

The three other men told interviewers that somebody in Canada took them to the border, then they crossed and met Xar-Marroquin and Ramos on the other side. The two were arrested and indicted by a grand jury in Burlington in October.

According to members of the Border Patrol, the federal agency collaborates with the Royal Canadian Mounted Police — the agency that handles security between ports of entry on the other side of the border — and with state and local police in Vermont.

In many of the border communities, including Richford, the U.S. Border Patrol is the only 24-hour law enforcement agency. If something happens during early morning hours, agents might be the first to respond to situations like a domestic assault, Brant said. All Border Patrol agents go through a certification process that allows them to enforce state laws to an extent.

The benefit goes the other way too: The Border Patrol also gets some backup from local and state law enforcement.

Operation Stonegarden, a federal program, provides funding for local law enforcement officers to work overtime shifts along the border.

Last year, according to documents from the Vermont Department of Emergency Management and Homeland Security, half a dozen Vermont law enforcement agencies received a total of $250,498 through the program.

Franklin County Sheriff Robert Norris said the program is valuable on a local and federal level.

When local or state law enforcement agents are on an Operation Stonegarden shift, they work within their normal powers. “We are simply eyes and ears for our federal partners,” Norris said.

Norris emphasized that international security has a direct impact on the towns of Franklin County and the rest of Vermont.

“Any international criminal activity that comes across our border is a threat to our community,” he said.

However, Border Patrol officials in Swanton have some concerns that local law enforcement agencies may be limited in their powers to be a secondary line of defense.

When law enforcement agencies and civil rights advocates were finalizing a model statewide policy on fair and impartial policing earlier this year, one of the major sticking points concerned the role of local and state police in enforcing immigration laws.

Civil rights advocates pushed for curbs on law enforcement, aiming to shield people who may not have legal immigration status, including migrant farmworkers, from being handed to federal authorities for deportation. An estimated 1,500 migrant agriculture workers are in the state.

The policy that was adopted statewide earlier this year restricts officers from asking people whether they are in the country legally and puts limitations on contact with federal authorities.

The Border Patrol fears the policy leaves the country more exposed, Swanton Sector Chief Patrol Agent John Pfeifer said.

“It takes away the depth and support,” Pfeifer said.

‘If you build a fence, someone needs to watch a fence’

At dusk on the first Friday of this month, U.S. Border Patrol agents and Canadian police saw a man in a brown coat and jeans make his way south on Chemin du Bord-de-l’eau in Noyan, near the intersection with Alburgh’s Line Road that is marked by a downed log.

U.S. agents caught up with him a short distance from the border, according to court papers. The man, Theodoris Konomis, presented a Greek passport and said he was on his way to visit relatives in the Queens borough of New York for a couple of days.

While Border Patrol agents spoke with Konomis, a dark green GMC Jimmy, matching the surveillance image of the vehicle Konomis got out of on the border, pulled up. The driver, Daniel Larmand, initially said he was on his way to look at a boat motor in nearby Rouses Point, New York.

Later, when he was questioned at a Border Patrol station, Larmand said he gambles in Montreal and is $25,000 in debt to a man named Graique, or “G.”

According to Larmand, Graique asked Larmand for a favor, which involved picking a man up in Montreal, dropping him off near the border, then picking him up and driving him to another meeting point. Konomis told investigators that a family friend paid Larmand for the service and that he was supposed to be dropped at a bus station.

Larmand faces federal charges of alien smuggling, which could carry a penalty of up to 10 years in prison and a $250,000 fine.

U.S. Border Patrol officials and prosecutors say smuggling cases continue to be regular events.

So should residents worry about the border? Special Operations Chief Brant said to consider the length of the dividing line, the terrain it runs through, the number of personnel charged with covering it, and the position between major cities. “I think they should be concerned,” he said.

The terrain varies from remote wilderness to residential neighborhoods. Several towns famously straddle the border.

Brant does not anticipate the role of the Border Patrol will shift much under the incoming Trump administration.

Though President-elect Donald Trump raised immigration as a major issue in his campaign, Brant noted that his proposals would not typically involve the border agency. U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement primarily carries out immigration laws in the interior of the country.

“It’s certainly easier to catch them here, interdict them along the border, than it is to find them in the interior,” Brant said.

As it is, he said, the Border Patrol in the Swanton sector has just 300 people to secure the 295 miles of border. “We need to focus our efforts on the border with that amount of resources,” he said.

Improved infrastructure along the border could help. As it is, agents use back roads combined with ATVs to reach the region’s more remote locations. More detection technology would also be a boon.

“If you build a fence, someone needs to watch a fence,” Brant said. “It’s just an obstacle.”

  • Pete Novick

    Great article!

    The US – Canada border has long been known as the longest international border between two countries in the world. For almost 200 years, it was also the longest unguarded border in the world.

    All that changed with the Patriot Act, (2001), and the Department of Homeland Security, which was established by act of Congress in 2002.

    As a person who travels between the two countries fairly often, I am amused at how surly the US authorities are, and always pleasantly surprised by how professional and polite the Canadian authorities are.

    But I have promised myself never to endure again the tragicomedy that is clearing US Customs and Immigration at Toronto Pearson International Airport when returning to the United States from abroad.

    Cheers

    • And English-speaking long-term Quebecers find the American border personnel equally pleasant, perhaps because we are visitors, but I think it is just the Vermont way! Conversely, when a French-speaking Quebec agent queries a fellow Quebecer in French, and that Canadian responds in English, things are not quite as cozy as they might have been! So! Good days, bad days, but the agents on both sides are so far ahead of anywhere else in the world, we should be thankful and hold the complaints!

  • Judy Phelon

    Nice article, Elizabeth. We have a camp in Alburgh Village and routinely see Border Patrol doing their job. I am impressed when I see them staked out in various remote corners. They were especially visible when the convicts escaped from NY prison. We love the little crossing in Noyan but, pay attention, the officials on both sides are very professional and mean business.

  • David Parker

    Excellent article. This is a world often veiled in secrecy and its great to get a look inside the inner workings.

  • Kathleen Ryan

    This is a great article, well written

  • Rosalie Fox

    What a great article that opened my eyes to what my neighbors to the north live with on a day-to-day basis. Kudos!

  • What a great article! My wife and I live in North Hero from mid-May to Mid- October each year. We cross the border a few times each summer, mostly to visit the Fritz Kaiser Fromagerie in Noyan. We’ve never been treated with any thing but courtesy going either way! Elizabeth’s coverage of the area and border operations is beyond excellent. Thank you.

  • Jonathan Meeks

    Top notch writing here. Elizabeth’s writing is on par with the New York Times or the Washington Post. Let’s hope we can keep her in Vermont.

  • Bob Moyer

    I’ve been amused several times over the years by what the customs agents concentrate on. The US folks want to know if you’re bringing in booze; the Canadians want to know if you have firearms. Illuminating.

  • Steve Marsh

    My wife and I are also frequent visitors to Quebec. We recently attended a charity auction in Stanstead, Quebec where the auctioneer was a Canadian Border Officer. He was absolutely delightful as an auctioneer, and equally friendly when we see him as we cross the boarder. Interestingly enough, when we returned to the US, the Border Agent greeted us with “welcome home”. He could not have been more pleasant. We have lived on the Border all of our lives, and I Could count the bad experiences on 1 hand.

  • Steven D. Pike

    The northern border has always lacked staff and facilities, except just after 9/11. . However, the relationships built up among federal agencies, both Canadian and US, state, provincial, and local enforcement, as well as people living on both sides of the border, have mitigated the lack of resources. Federal customs and immigration officers in Vermont can be certified as state law enforcement officers as well. I hope Vermont’s current push for de facto sanctuary, if not de jure, does not harm that trust. Wish there had been a little mention that Vermont ports of entry with the help of the Vermont National Guard ( aka Da Dope Busters) intercepted a heck of a lot lot of marijuana and ecstasy in the post 9/11 years.

  • Steve Boal

    The blatantly Unconstitutional 100 mile warrantless search zone, erroneously upheld by the courts (and not even mentioned in this article), has the unintended consequence of limiting the respect and cooperation the affected U.S. citizenry may have for the folks that staff the American side of the frontier.

  • Good article.

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