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BIA grant to help Akwesasne combat border drug smuggling

AKWESASNE, N.Y. – The St. Regis Mohawk Tribe, which has long battled the problems of smuggling in its border community, received a helping hand from the BIA in March. The BIA’s Office of Law Enforcement Services awarded the tribe’s police department a $263,000 grant to fight drug use, violent crime, and drug and human smuggling.

The news couldn’t have come at a better time.

In February, The New York Times published an article about drug smuggling in Indian country (“Drug Traffickers Find Haven in Shadows of Indian Country”) and referred to the Akwesasne community as “the black hole” used by criminals to transport drugs from Canada to the United States. In response, the tribe defended its efforts to combat crime in the community and argued that its tribally funded police force receives little funding from the federal government to defend the border.

“As the article’s author, Sarah Kershaw, pointed out, our law enforcement- and border security-related efforts receive little or no federal Homeland Security funding due to a quirk in the law which severely limits tribes from securing these resources,” the tribe said in February. “This is the real “black hole” that exists for our community. We continue to work with Congress to correct this inequity, but in the meantime, our tribe is absorbing the cost of the United States’ border security responsibility. Indeed, our tribe is working above and beyond our call of duty to address these law enforcement challenges.”

On March 3, the OLES issued a letter to the tribe awarding the funding.

“OLES acknowledges the dedication and hard work done by the St. Regis Mohawk Tribal Police Department,” wrote Christopher Chaney, deputy bureau director. “Law enforcement officers literally put their lives on the line every day at work and their sacrifices and public service help make our nation a much safer place.”

According to Brendan White, the tribe’s director of public information, the funds will be used to hire three or four additional police officers to patrol the 12-mile U.S./Canada border that runs through Akwesasne. The grant, as outlined, is to be used during the 2006 fiscal year.

“The tribe has always stated that more funding is needed in order for the tribal police to do their job effectively,” White said. “Nearly half of the 15-member police department’s time is spent on border enforcement, which can increase to around 80 percent in the winter season. Spending time on border enforcement takes them away from other public safety needs, so there is clearly a need for even more officers.”

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Akwesasne lies partly in northern New York and partly in the Canadian provinces of Ontario and Quebec, making issues of border-crossing and policing complex. During the winter months, the rivers running through the territory freeze, creating ice bridges that enable Akwesasne Mohawks to cross freely from Canada to the United States without inspection. The frozen waters, though merely a convenience for commuters, creates a problem for police as smugglers move goods back and forth across the invisible border as well.

The St. Regis Mohawk Tribal Police Department is responsible for patrolling the area of Akwesasne that lies on the U.S. side of border. The Akwesasne Mohawk Police Service has jurisdiction over the Canadian portions of the territory.

The tribe submitted an application to the OLES in early February and received the award letter in early March. Although they received less than what they’d asked for, according to White, “the amount that was received will provide additional manpower dedicated to border enforcement and drug smuggling.”

Chief of Police Andrew Thomas has remained committed to combating the drug-smuggling trade in Akwesasne.

“The role of our tribal police is essential in enforcing the international border and protecting our community against criminal activities,” Thomas said. “The money addresses a portion of funding needed in order for our police department to effectively respond as a first line of defense against illegal border crossings and drug smuggling.”

Congress appropriated funds to the OLES for FY 2006 specifically to address crime and offset the costs faced by under-funded police agencies in Indian country. The funds were signed into law by President Bush in September 2005.

In his letter to the tribe, Chaney said he performed a “careful analysis involving every Indian country law enforcement program in the United States” before deciding to award them $263,000. He asked the tribe, in return, to submit crime statistics and budget information to his department.

Though it’s uncertain if future funding will be available from the OLES, the tribe has an alternative plan to receive federal funding for the border patrol work of its police department. According to White, the SRMTPD has been chosen as one of 20 tribal police forces to participate in a pilot program and receive funding from the Department of Homeland Security under new federal legislation that has yet to be approved.

“Until that funding is available, the majority of the tribal police department’s funding will still come from revenues the tribe collects from tribal businesses,” White said. “Diverting tribal revenue to law enforcement, however, takes away needed funding for other community services and programs.”