Tribal police lead cross-border drug bust

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AKWESASNE, N.Y. - Tribal police in three Native communities in the U.S. and Canada partnered with federal law enforcement agents and provincial police in cross-border raids March 26, arresting 30 people and confiscating drugs, cash and weapons.

The multi-jurisdictional operation involved 300 law enforcement agents, including Mohawk Peacekeepers from the Kahnawake, Kanesatake and Akwesasne communities in Quebec, Ontario and New York; the U.S. Drug Enforcement Agency; the Royal Canadian Mounted Police; and provincial police in Quebec and Ontario.

Fifteen raids were executed in the Montreal area and the Native communities, police said. The roundup, dubbed Operation Cancun, resulted in the arrest of eight people in Kahnawake, 10 in Akwesasne and one in Kanesatake. The other arrests were made in the Montreal area.

Police seized 250 pounds of marijuana, $2.5 million in cash, two AK-47 machine guns, two M-16 machine guns and three grenade launchers, according to police reports. Police had previously uncovered marijuana- growing operations in Chateauguay and Mascouche in Quebec.

Those arrested face charges of gangsterism, drug exportation, illegal weapons possession, drug possession, drug trafficking, conspiracy to traffic drugs, conspiracy to export drugs and drug manufacturing. Police are still searching for two more suspected smugglers.

Kahnawake Grand Chief Mike Ahrihrhon Delisle Jr. issued a statement of support for the arrests, and a warning.

''The Mohawk Council of Kahnawake fully supports this Peacekeeper-led initiative. We are pleased that it appears to have been very successful and, additionally, took place without incident or injury. We do not - and will not - support such illegal activity within the territory. Anyone who chooses to take part in such activities should take warning.''

The raids and arrests were the end result of a nine-month investigation, said Andrew Thomas, the chief of the tribal police at the St. Regis Mohawk Reservation in New York.

''It was initiated by the Royal Canadian Mounted Police. They worked with the aboriginal Combined Forces Special Enforcement Unit, which is the First Nation police agencies in Canada. The initial investigation began last August and was coordinated with the DEA in the U.S. and also with investigators from my office in the tribal police department,'' Thomas said.

He assigned two investigators from his 18-person team to work with the federal investigators during the initial phase to track down leads, verify source information and do background work in the U.S. part of the Akwesasne reservation. The reservation is in New York, Ontario and Quebec, straddling the U.S.-Canadian border, which is demarcated by the St. Lawrence River. The community on the Canadian side of the border includes 36 tribal police. The initial investigative work was done last fall, Thomas said.

''With the culmination of the investigation on March 26, we had more involvement, apprehending the suspects on this side of the territory,'' he said. ''There were four targets, but some were picked up in Canada.''

Although the recent raid made spectacular headlines, Thomas noted that arrests for border crimes are made on an ongoing basis.

''I've been a member here since 1995 and we've been making arrests for border crimes ever since I've been here, and I guess that will go on after I'm gone as well. It's just a unique geographical location that makes it conducive to exploitation by anyone who wants to get products across.''

During the summer, smugglers haul their goods back and forth across the river by boat; in the winter, they drive across the frozen river in cars and trucks.

Although the geography at Akwesasne is unique, the cross-border smuggling is not.

''It goes on clear across the country, across the U.S. and Canadian border. It's not something specific to us here on my little reservation. We get a lot of attention, mind you, but it goes on at points east and west of us,'' Thomas said.

The March 26 arrests included both Native and non-Native people.

Thomas said his police force is busy each day with border issues.

''There's always something going on that requires our attention for border crime issues, either watching someone or watching for drug activities or arresting someone.''

There's an active market for untaxed cigarettes traveling north from the U.S., according to Thomas.

''The Canadian government has taxed cigarette products to a ridiculous point and created a black market for cigarettes. Whenever there's a demand, people are willing to supply the demand. People are opportunistic and, again, it's not just Native people who are benefiting from this opportunity that exists in Canada. All across Canada there are people involved in the black market.''

The March 26 raids have been characterized as having destroyed a major drug ring.

''We like to believe that, but there are more targets that will surface on the radar screen and there are some people that this didn't have much impact on, shall we say,'' Thomas said.

''They'll be back and up and running in no time, most of them, unless they're incarcerated.''

The arrestees on the U.S. side of the border will be charged in U.S. District Court in Syracuse, N.Y. Those arrested on the Canadian side will faces charges in Canadian federal court.