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Smuggling USA/Canada : $300,000,000 a Year in the 401 Corridor.

Updated on March 7, 2018

20,000 Cartons of Cigarettes - every Day!

For most of us, the thought of anything being free is a daydream, but others try to make it happen - illegally. They try to make it happen via one specific triangle in North America – on the Canada/USA border, between New York State and Ontario. They make it happen by smuggling 20,000 cartons of cigarettes across the border every day. And that’s only the cigarettes; there are no stats for the alcohol, gas, dope, guns and people, smuggled across the border daily.

Have a look at the map and you will see where Canada and the USA have a friendly bumping contest. The Canada/US border may be the longest friendly border on earth, but it is still a border and where there are borders there are smugglers. And this part of North America is reckoned to be a smugglers paradise.

As you can see, the USA/Canadian border tries to keep to the centre of the St. Lawrence River, but occasionally has to zigzag to avoid islands. Not only is there an international border here, there is also an abutment of two Canadian Provinces, Ontario and Quebec. As Ontario and Quebec have different laws, this is really a 4 border crossing.

Now add another complexity; into that same triangle, plonk down another Nation, a nation which is known as a ‘Jurisdictional Nightmare’ to the laws on both sides of the border - the First Nation Reserve of Akwesasne. This reserve for the indigenous Mohawks, straddles all of the borders. Part of it is on the southern side of the St. Lawrence, where it borders Quebec, and the USA. The northern part borders Canada - and is also in Canada.

New York State/USA  - Ontario/ Canada  -  Quebec/ Canada, bump bums.
New York State/USA - Ontario/ Canada - Quebec/ Canada, bump bums. | Source
The Mohawk's Akwesasne Nation straddles the borders.
The Mohawk's Akwesasne Nation straddles the borders.
The foreground is Canada.  Pilon Island, in the background is part of the Akwesasne Nation.
The foreground is Canada. Pilon Island, in the background is part of the Akwesasne Nation.
Again, Canada is in the foreground.   On the other side of the small bridge is Hamilton Island, an Akwesasne Nation island.
Again, Canada is in the foreground. On the other side of the small bridge is Hamilton Island, an Akwesasne Nation island.

Smuggling by Road, Boat, Air - and Ice?

To the 13,000 Mohawks who inhabit this reserve, the name ‘Akwesasne’ means ‘The Land where the Partridge Drums,” but locally it is known as ‘cigarette land.’

The Royal Canadian Mounted Police estimate 90% of the illegal cigarettes that cross the border into Canada, come through Akwesasne.

The locals take advantage of this border complexity on a small scale. When boaters from Ontario set off with empty gas cans, and return with those same cans full to the brim of cheaper Quebec, Akwesasne, or American gas, shoulders are shrugged, as it is accepted that the local is going to use that gas in his boat, and not re-sell it. Apart from which, the same boater’s ancestors probably commuted across the river to obtain or exchange goods before there were any smuggling laws, separate Provinces, or even gas.

Of course, the gas cans could be false and be filled with alcohol or cigarettes. Only last month the Border police stopped a pick-up and found a false gas tank – full of cigarettes. Driving across the Three Nations Bridge with car trunks full of cigarettes or pick-ups loaded with cigarettes, is the easiest method of smuggling – it is impossible to search every vehicle crossing from the States or Akwesasne.

Another favourite method is by boat. Operating at night, with quiet motors and no navigation lights, the smugglers drop the contraband off at a pre-determined spot on the Canadian side of the river. It is then picked up by another group, who distribute it to the illegal smokers. We have seen this happen, without realising it. A boat dropped off lots of cartons at a home on the river. The puzzling thing was that the home hadn’t been inhabited for years. As we were wondering why, a van pulled up and all the cartons were loaded at record speed before the van sped off. Then it dawned; smugglers.

Frequently we see smugglers being chased down river by police launches, and it isn’t unusual to hear gunfire when the hunting season is over. If the police launch does catch up with the smugglers boat, as long as the smugglers have jettisoned their illegal cargo, there isn’t much the police can do about it.

When the river freezes over, the smugglers find life a lot simpler. It is easier and quieter to walk across a frozen river pulling a sled loaded with ciggies, than it is to boat across. Another method in winter is to load up a trailer with cigarettes and tow it across the ice by snowmobile. If the smugglers are seen and chased, all they do is unhitch the trailer; watch it speeding off into the distance - and look innocent. But even easier, when the ice is firm enough, is to load a truck up with cigarettes and drive it down onto the ice, cross the ice bridge, and drive up onto Canada.

It isn’t as if there is a vast distance between Akwesasne and Canada. The Three Nations Bridge, crosses from Canada to Cornwall Island, which is part of the Akwesasne Nation. The bridge then crosses from Cornwall Island into New York State. Pilon Island, another Akwesasne Nation island, is just over 100 metres from Canada. One island in particular, Hamilton Island, is metres away from Canada and is connected by its own bridge.

The police forces on all borders are investing in extra equipment, such as helicopters, heat detectors and snowmobiles, in an attempt to cut down the smuggling. They are also investing in more policemen. There have been hints recently, that the smuggling operations are being backed by international gangs, including the Nigerian mafia, so these investments are desperately needed.

News Flash- May 2014

…and not only the Nigerian Mafia. In April of 2014, it was discovered that the smuggling operation involved blameless Carolina tobacco firms, Montreal Mafia, Italian Mafia and Mafia/Mohawk rings using the Akwesasne corridor.

The police raided over 20 sites that had been under investigation for over a year, and arrested almost 30 people. During the raids, 40,000 kilos of tobacco was seized, as well as 1,000 marijuana plants; as an added bonus, $450,000 in cash was found. That will crimp the smuggling operations for.....let's see.....mmm...... a week or two?

One carton of smuggled cigarettes.
One carton of smuggled cigarettes.
A trunk load of illegal cigarettes.
A trunk load of illegal cigarettes.

Akwesasne is the route for 90% of Canada's Smuggled Cigarettes

Where do the cigarettes come from? There are tobacco factories in Akwesasne – The Land where the partridge Drums. According to reports (i.e. gossip) the cigarettes are of inferior quality and are made from the floor sweepings of the legal manufacturers. I must qualify the previous statement – as far as I'm aware, it isn’t illegal for cigarettes to be manufactured in Akwesasne, it is only illegal to import them into Canada without paying the tax on them.

I wouldn’t dream of suggesting that all Akwesasne residents are smugglers; only a small proportion of Mohawks indulge in the contraband business, but let me quote a remark made by Chief Angela Barnes, - “You also have to recognize that many in Akwesasne consider [smuggling] the exercise of their sovereignty."

Smuggling has been going on since the beginning of time, and no matter how sophisticated the law’s methods of investigation become, it will never cease. Perhaps one day we will find out that Adam smuggled the apple into the Garden of Eden.

There are snags attached to smuggling; if caught, the smuggler loses not only the cigarettes, but their vehicle, their home if it was bought with the proceeds of smuggling, all the cash in their bank balance, as well as all offshore bank balances – and their freedom. The risks are big, but people still do it.

But smugglers should now be wary of the new policing that has been brought in by the CFSEU………

………………..The Cornwall Combined Forces Special Enforcement Unit (CFSEU), which is an integrated unit comprised of the RCMP, Canada Border Services agency (CBSA), Ontario Provincial Police (OPP), Cornwall Community Police Service (CCPS), Akwesasne Mohawk Police Service (AMPS) and the Ontario Ministry of Finance. CFSEU also works closely with the US Immigration and Customs led Border Enforcement Security Task Force (BEST).

Don’t say you haven’t been warned!

Clearing a route across the frozen St. Lawrence River.
Clearing a route across the frozen St. Lawrence River. | Source
If planes can land on the frozen river, there should be no problems driving truck loads of contraband across.
If planes can land on the frozen river, there should be no problems driving truck loads of contraband across. | Source
Pilon Island in winter, across the frozen St. Lawrence.
Pilon Island in winter, across the frozen St. Lawrence. | Source

Drugs and Guns

There are some other points to be made about cross border smuggling – it isn’t all one way.

Marijuana (Cannabis) is legal in Canada when used for medicinal purposes, but some people go overboard and instead of looking for a Doctor’s prescription, decide to grow their own. Only last week a home-grow operation was discovered beside three schools in Cornwall, Ontario. And last year a derelict factory was found to be hiding a huge marijuana grow op.

It is logical if a smuggler is taking the risk to smuggle cigarettes into Canada, that the return journey shouldn’t be wasted, so cannabis is smuggled into the States. The snag with the cigarette and cannabis smuggling is that it is almost accepted along both sides of the border with a shrug, after all, how much damage can a few kilos of cannabis and some cartons of cigarettes cause? A lot, as it happens.

The cigarettes that are smuggled into Canada are tax free and cheap as dirt. Unfortunately, it isn’t only frugal smokers who are smoking these cheap, tax free smokes. The principal smokers of these smuggled cigarettes are those who aren’t allowed to smoke at all – pre-teens and teenagers.

In Ontario it is against the law for a retailer to display cigarettes, and it is illegal to advertise outwith the store that they sell cigarettes or other tobacco products. The local service station will no doubt sell cigarettes as well as gas, but the cigarettes will be hidden, and must only be visible when being sold.

19 is the minimum age for purchasing tobacco products in Ontario, but paradoxically, 16 is the minimum age for smoking. The teenager can smoke when they are 16, legally, and only get a slap on the wrist if caught, but the person who supplied the cigarettes will be the one breaking the law. If a potential buyer looks too young, the retailer can demand proof of age, so it is difficult for a teenager to obtain cigarettes legally in Ontario.

Obtaining them illegally is so much easier.

And once the teenager or pre-teen is entwined in the tobacco smuggling link, it is oh so easy for them to become involved in the next part. The next part can be either doing some personal smuggling - of cigarettes, drugs, guns, people, or deciding to use the more lethal drugs such as heroin or cocaine. Lately, the police drug busts have been finding assault rifles along with the drugs and cigarettes. This is another worrying trend in a gun-free nation.

A $1 million dollars of Marijuana in a Garage?

And another major coup on the last day of April 2013. The Mohawk police force confiscated a large amount of money, two large trailers, an SUV, two pick up trucks …..and….over a million dollars worth of marijuana, on the Akwesasne reserve of Cornwall Island.

This was a large scale Grow-op, the police spokesman said. The marijuana was caught just prior to harvesting, and lots of already packaged weed was also taken off the streets.

One of the things the growers were charged with was ‘theft of electricity’. If you are a landlord, and you lease your property, it is imperative that the tenant sign an agreement to say that they are responsible for the cost of electricity. It takes a heck of a lot of power to grow marijuana, and if you don’t have the signed waiver, and your tenant is caught with a grow-op, you, the landlord, will be liable for the power cost.

The massive uses of power, and the odour of the growing weed, are two of the principal ways of catching grow-op operators.

There was another arrest on week ending 26th April 2013 - Customs & Excise uncovered a Marijuana grow-op in a guy's garage in the middle of the Cornwall City. Maybe he'd had too much to smoke?

Altogether the plants were worth $209,000. Not a bad little business to run from your garage. Now If only it was legal!

And still they Smuggle in the 401 Corridor

Remember the name – O-TITAN. That was the name of the operation that snared 37 smugglers in one day in June 2013. The criminals were smuggling guns, people, cigarettes, marijuana, and money across the USA/ Canada border.

Not only did it snare 37 smugglers, it also netted over 11 thousand cartons of cigarettes, over $50,000 Canadian, 45 kilos of marijuana. As an added bonus, the police collected 2 boats and 17 vehicles, which will no doubt be in the next police auction after the court case is finished. The smuggling was done mostly by boat, with the contraband hidden under the floorboards of fast speedboats.

The oddest part about this operation was the fact that all the 37 people were named in the local newspaper, and it caused a lot of gossip in the community. If this was still the age of backyard fences and neighbours gossiping over them, there would be lots of…. ‘Imagine that, and he’s from such a nice family. She’s been trouble since the day she was born; I knew she’d be in to something like this.’…. As it is, the publication of the names raised a few eyebrows and caused a lot of texting.

Normally all the information the police gives out is where the smugglers live. In this case they varied between Ontario, New York State, Quebec and Akwesasne. More surprisingly were the sex and ages of the smugglers; both sexes were involved and the ages ranged from 18 to 66.

Oh, before I forget, two homes in the city of Cornwall were also found to be marijuana grow-ops, and the homes were closed down. I’m not sure if the houses are included in police auctions, but if they are, the new owners should find the air inside the homes ‘invigorating.’

Almost as fascinating as the number of smugglers caught and vehicles seized, are the number of law enforcement agencies involved, and their acronyms. . Most of these agencies have their own logo, and their vehicles are all different – different makes and different colours. These differences force us, the law abiding public, to have eyes in the back of our heads as we drive innocently along.

Stay tuned for the next instalment.........see capsule 2


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    • profile image

      Jon Land 3 years ago

      John: Very much enjoyed your coverage here. I've just completed a book called TAKEDOWN that follows the efforts of a former undercover drug officer and current Ohio smalltown police chief (Jeff Buck) who led a task force that put a sizable dent in the marijuana smuggling business distributed through the Akwesasne Reservation. I love the photos you've posted here and would love to arrange to reprint a number of them in the book which is being published by Forge in 2016. Could you let me know if we could make that work? You can reach me at and, again, great work on this post! Jon

    • John MacNab profile image

      John MacNab 4 years ago from the banks of the St. Lawrence

      Welcome again, Jess. Please keep on reading, it makes a change having someone read the hubs. I live just outside Cornwall, and I couldn't believe the smuggling when I first got here. My daughter, who used to live in Massena, was once offered a job in a cigarette factory in Akwesasne; she refused, and moved down to Washington D.C.

      As I read in a newspaper article the other day, the crossing should be back where it was, and it was kinda incongruous of the natives to refuse to allow Canadian border guards to have guns, when the American ones already had them.

      I find the city quite fascinating.

    • JessBraz profile image

      JessBraz 4 years ago from Canada

      Me again. :) Your last two hubs led me to check out some of your others... This one caught my eye, as I live in Cornwall. :)

      Smuggling in Cornwall is definitely a hot button issue. I've heard all kinds of ideas about how to curb it... everything from they should've put the new RCMP building down by the water, instead of way inland like they did... To even crazier things like they should just take down the bridge and make them have to enter Canada through a different border crossing further down (like Gananoque)... that wouldn't do much about them crossing over the river however, and it would hurt Cornwall's economy, as well as Massena's..

      It's definitely something that Cornwall needs to take a harder stance on.. The trick though is to do it without alienating the residents of Cornwall Island.. They're not all smugglers.. The actions of a few tarnish the reputation of many... It is crazy to think though that on other First Nations Reserves throughout Canada the people live in shacks and barely have enough money to buy food, while here they're driving around in Cadillac Escalades.

      It's quite the town we live in.

    • John MacNab profile image

      John MacNab 5 years ago from the banks of the St. Lawrence

      Nell Rose: Thanks for the visit and comment Nell. It was a revelation to me when I first came here to live so close to the US border. The car searches and questions as you try to get into the USA are....time consuming. I didn't have that kind of trouble driving across into England, or Wales. I suppose that's going to change soon with Scotland looking for complete separation - daft sods.

    • Nell Rose profile image

      Nell Rose 5 years ago from England

      They say build it and they will come, it seems the other saying, find a way in and we have cracked it, seems appropriate here! I never realised about the borders before, so many little openings that can't always be kept patroled. Interesting stuff, and fascinating read, nell

    • John MacNab profile image

      John MacNab 5 years ago from the banks of the St. Lawrence

      tirelesstraveler: Thanks for stopping by and commenting tt. The point is cash, and lots of it. It's estimated that in that triangle alone, $300 to $400 million is smuggled across the border, that includes guns, drugs and people. Lots of the smuggling goes the other way into the US - especially the people and cannabis.

    • tirelesstraveler profile image

      Judy Specht 5 years ago from California

      My mother-in-law lived on the St. Clair river for several years. You could watch people in Canada walking in their yards. All you needed was a boat to get across. My husband and his high school band had to smuggle their foreign exchange student back to the US after they had gone to Canada for a band concert . Nobody thought about her needing her passport, they put her in one of the snare drums. Until they crossed the border. I had heard stories like that , but never anything about cigarettes. What is the point?

    • John MacNab profile image

      John MacNab 5 years ago from the banks of the St. Lawrence

      I'm glad you visited and commented drbj. There is one thing about the entrepeneurs in Akwesasne; non of them live in hovels. It's a pretty well off Reserve, and it also has its own casino. Perhaps other native (sorry; indigenous) reserves should be taking lessons from them.

      When I was thinking of this article, I asked an indigenous person for some finer details regarding the smuggling and all I got was 'Are you effing crazy?' However, he did mention, without being aware of it, that it is easier when the river is frozen.

    • drbj profile image

      drbj and sherry 5 years ago from south Florida

      Very interesting, John. I did not know that so many residents of Akwesasne are so entrepreneurial. Seems that a number of 'partridges' are more into other items than drums.