Can $5,000 Buy Homeland Security?

On the U.S.-Canada border, a Mohawk tribe waits for help


ST. REGIS MOHAWK RESERVATION, New York_As he lies in bed listening to smugglers on the river, Andrew Thomas wonders how much homeland security $5,000 (?4,160) can buy.

Thomas is the tribal police chief who patrols a geographic hiccup, the only Indian reservation that straddles America's northern border. Part of the St. Regis Mohawk reservation is in America, part is in Canada, and a river and several islands fall in between, making these 12 miles (19 kilometers) of rural New York some of the country's most popular for smuggling.

As the U.S. government tries harder to secure its borders, this is one door that remains wide open.

Tribal residents don't like outside officials poking around, so Thomas and his officers, all three of them per shift, are America's first line of defense. For their efforts, they get $5,000 (?4,160) in homeland security money a year.

"Pennies," Thomas says.

But better than nothing, which is what they got in 2002 and 2003.

At night, the St. Lawrence River hums with the sounds of smugglers slipping from one side of the reservation to the other in their stripped-down boats. They carry marijuana, Ecstasy, money, human cargo and for Thomas, more than a little frustration.

After dark, he leaves policing of the river to the nearby U.S. Border Patrol station, which watches the reservation waters on the American side. Sometimes the smugglers wait just over the line.

The tribal police have a boat, but not enough people to operate it. "An expensive paperweight in the parking lot," Thomas calls it.

But the $5,000 (?4,160) is being put to good use.

The St. Regis residents are building a protective fence, around the police station itself.

"I'm slowly pulling my hair out," says Derek Champagne, district attorney for Franklin County, which surrounds the reservation. He prosecutes all crimes committed in the county, on the reservation and off. "If we're gonna have a border, it should really mean something."

Last year, about $8.4 million (?7 million) in marijuana and $6 million (?5 million) in Ecstasy were seized after moving through the reservation and into the quiet farm country of northern New York. Authorities arrested 120 people as well, a mix of tribal members and outsiders.

The seized drugs are a fraction of what comes over.

"Do you honestly think we're getting 5 percent of what comes through?" Champagne asks.

The numbers come from a two-year-old task force of more than a dozen local, state and federal authorities. But they work mostly outside the reservation and its 9,000 residents on the American side.

Champagne pops in a videotape of the St. Lawrence River that divides the tribal lands in two. On the tape, shot in winter, trucks drive freely over the now-frozen border. In other parts of the reservation, land roads connect the U.S. and Canada all year, with no checkpoints and no questions.

Earlier this year, Champagne showed the tape to a state terrorism conference in Albany.

"People said, 'That's our border?'" he says. There was no other real response.

Bill Ritchie, who leads Franklin County's task force, says he doesn't even know of any sensors on the reservation, like the ones placed along America's borders to monitor illegal crossings.

"How do we police that?" asks the local Border Patrol agent-in-charge, Dick Ashlaw.

Quietly, some law enforcement officials blame the lack of a real solution on the traditional tension between government and tribe, whose members post signs against the "feds" and "Gov. George Custer Pataki" along the reservation's main highway.

"No one wants to look like the big bad government squeezing the Indian," says Robert Singer, a retired Border Patrol agent who lives near the reservation.

It may happen just the same.

Julius Beeson just got caught in the unique geography. He tried to cross the one bridge that links the reservation's two halves, but was turned back by federal border officials for not having the right identity documents.

They asked for a Canadian work permit, he says. He didn't have one.

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