Human Smugglers | The Canadian Encyclopedia


Human Smugglers

"Eightball" pulls back his long black hair, adjusts his balaclava and peers across the St. Lawrence River through his night-vision binoculars.

This article was originally published in Maclean's Magazine on November 22, 1999

Human Smugglers

"Eightball" pulls back his long black hair, adjusts his balaclava and peers across the St. Lawrence River through his night-vision binoculars. It's the kind of night the 20-year-old Mohawk smuggler loves: an inky darkness deep enough to shield him from prying eyes as he makes another frantic dash across the churning river. His cargo, four illegal aliens from China, sit hunched in the bottom of the boat, their coats pulled tight against the biting wind. As he nears the American side of the river, he hunts for another smuggler waiting with a van on a narrow road hugging the shore. Finally he spots him, and noses the boat onto a muddy beach. "Out," he yells abruptly at the Chinese. "America? America?" they ask as they scramble into the van for the final leg of their long journey to New York City. "They're terrified," says Eightball. "They don't know where they are."

Eightball, who gets his nickname from his love of playing pool, lets the driver of the van tell his frightened passengers where they are. He has already turned his boat around, and is headed back across the St. Lawrence, which slices through the Akwesasne native reserve, 70 km southwest of Montreal. The reserve is a smuggler's paradise - a 20-hectare maze of islands and hidden inlets spanning the Ontario, Quebec and U.S. borders. As part of a two-month, two-continent investigation of human smuggling from China, Maclean's travelled the reserve with Eightball and other traffickers who flout the law on both sides of the border. The global trade in human migrants has become intense and lucrative, as last summer's outpouring of boat people from China to Canada's West Coast dramatized. For many Chinese migrants - and countless others - Canada is simply a way station en route to the final destination: New York City. Although Canadian authorities are trying to crack down, a common tactic is to declare refugee status in Canada, then slip away to the United States. And to get there, one of the most straightforward places to run the border is sprawling, hard-to-police Akwesasne. "There is a big international operation somewhere across the salt waters," says Mohawk Grand Chief Mike Mitchell. "On their maps, the gangsters put a pin at Akwesasne, and said, 'This is where it's easiest to cross.' "

The pressure on Akwesasne will only mount. The business of smuggling humans around the world earns criminals $10 billion in profits annually. Eightball and his group, who make $1,000 for every adult they sneak across the border, hope the migrants keep coming. "It's a good business," he says. "We want to expand."

The torturous journey to Akwesasne often begins in China's Fujian province, which sits directly across from Taiwan. The Fujianese have a long history of going abroad to create new lives, and human smuggling - by boat and by plane - is entrenched there. Chinese and Canadian officials have pledged to co-operate to try to stop the unlawful exodus, and signs now exhort Fujian villagers to "Resolutely stamp out smuggling and illegal emigration." But locals say they are not deterred. "It's dangerous, but worth the risk," says a taxi driver in the provincial capital, Fuzhou. "I still want to go to America. My cousin is there, and you can earn a lot of money."

If he reaches North America, he could find himself in a safe house in Akwesasne, where some native women raise money to feed their families by sheltering the migrants. As she sipped a mug of coffee in the kitchen of her home, while a police radio scanner crackled in the background, a Mohawk woman named Madeleine told Maclean's she has picked up dozens of illegals near the reserve in her van and hid them overnight. While she was frightened at first, she discovered the hungry migrants were also afraid of her. "They just want to start a new life," said Madeleine. "I'd send out for pizza and they would start to relax." But she remained vigilant. "If the police came," she said, pointing to an open window covered with a purple towel, "they could escape into the woods."

It is not unusual for residents on the reserve to be startled by an early morning knock on the door. Instead of a neighbour dropping by, they are confronted by strangers from half a world away. The visitors are not always from China. In late October, a Mohawk named Angie found two men from Pakistan in light jackets at her door - their only luggage a black briefcase. They asked to use the phone to reach their contact who could arrange to move them on to New York, but she refused to let them in.

The pair then approached another house before the Akwesasne police finally picked them up and took them to a nearby Canada Customs office. Because the men had not yet entered the United States, and were officially refugees in Canada, they technically had not broken the law and could not be held. In such cases, police say the migrants often phone their contact and make arrangements to run the border again.

A week before the arrival of the pair at Angie's, five men from Pakistan were also found wandering a marshy stretch of shoreline at Akwesasne. "It's a common occurrence," said Akwesasne police Chief Lewis Mitchell. "We just find them walking on the shore. We get calls daily." A veteran smuggler on the reserve said such cases usually arise when the young Mohawks driving the boats believe the police are in hot pursuit. "They dump them out on the shore and take off," he said. "The illegals are left to fend for themselves."

Normally, he said, the nocturnal run across the river goes much more smoothly. It often begins in Montreal or Toronto where local Asian gang members working for a "snakehead," or smuggling organizer, are ordered to move their clients to Cornwall, the industrial city of 49,000 on the Canadian side of the St. Lawrence next to the reserve. A call is placed to one of the smuggling kingpins at Akwesasne, who dispatches his underlings to pick up the illegals. Instead of a dark alley, as might be expected, the refugees are often boldly transferred under the golden arches in the parking lot of a McDonald's restaurant not far from a bridge that links the reserve to the mainland. "I go to the drive-through window and get some food," recounts Eightball, "and then I wait for them to show up."

It takes just seconds to make the switch and only a few more minutes to complete the journey across the bridge to Cornwall Island, which forms the Ontario side of the Akwesasne reserve. "Sometimes, we will take them to a safe house," says Eightball, "or leave them in a shack overnight." At best, if the migrants are left with the young smugglers, the only food they will see is a few slices of bread. They are much better off with Madeleine. "Some people said just give them bread and water," she says with a laugh, "but I like to give them more than that."

At times, the clash of cultures in Madeleine's home left her puzzled. One group of Muslim refugees from Southeast Asia fell on their knees in her kitchen and began praying - in thanks, she suspects, for having safely reached the U.S. border. Others, after months on the road, have asked to use her shower. To her bewilderment, they are often unable to operate her modern plumbing and give up. And although surrounded by neighbouring houses, she says no one ever said anything to authorities when she pulled up in her van and hustled the visitors into her home. "People around here don't talk," she says. "They mind their own business."

Madeleine has also glimpsed a more dangerous side of smuggling. On occasion, she has picked up people going the other way - crossing the river from the United States to Canada who she says were well dressed, "wearing lots of gold jewelry," and drove them more than 400 km into downtown Toronto. Eightball has also ferried similar passengers to the Canadian side. "They had thousands of dollars wrapped in plastic," he recalls. "You could see the ends of the bills sticking out."

Asian crime specialists believe the Canadian-bound passengers are part of a troubling new phenomenon. As the populations of illegal migrants increase in New York and Toronto, officials say, a growing number of migrants become involved in organized crime, including prostitution and drug dealing. Both criminals and the proceeds from drug dealing and smuggling have to be moved between the two cities. Akwesasne is a convenient gateway. "Smuggling and the crime associated with it has become a monster," says a police expert on the subject, "with tentacles reaching around the world. It is going to change the nature of Toronto."

The pressure to move people across the St. Lawrence continues even in the dead of winter. When cars are not available to cross on ice roads, snowmobiles regularly do - with refugees, who are generally used to tropical climes, crouched in high-sided sleighs with little more than their tuques exposed. The smuggling is at its most dangerous just before freeze-up, when the ice is not thick enough to support the weight of a vehicle. The smugglers are then forced to go directly through a busy U.S. Customs post with the refugees locked in the trunks of their cars. "Going through customs is the worst," says Eightball. "Your stomach starts to hurt."

Though dangerous, the fruits of running people and contraband across the border seem pervasive on the reserve. Wearing dark sunglasses, his long black hair pulled back under a blue ball cap, Anthony, a longtime smuggler, pointed to the massive homes that dot the reserve. They appear more in keeping with upscale suburbs of Vancouver and Toronto than the tidy bungalows of their neighbours. "That's the home of a smuggler," he said, pointing to one of the large houses as he drove along a back road. "He has never had a regular job." Then he slowed near a large green house by the shore. "That belongs to one of the big families behind the smuggling," he said, before quickly driving off.

As he did, it became obvious why police have a difficult time plugging the holes in the border. A maze of roads leads out of both the Quebec and U.S. sides of the reserve and the only markers to indicate the border are a few concrete pillars. A refugee struggling ashore in someone's backyard may be in Quebec, but by the time he reaches the road in front of the house, he could be in the United States. Anthony headed up one of the roads used as an escape route by the smugglers, past a sign ordering vehicles to report to a U.S. Customs office several kilometres away. The sign only drew a laugh from Anthony. "We just ignore it," he said, and headed down another back road into the reserve.

The nine-hour run from the reserve to New York has also drawn Eightball's attention. He can make $1,000 driving a carload of refugees into the city, and he wants to buy his aunt's old Lincoln Continental. He plans to take out the back seat and cut out the wall behind it, leaving an open space from the driver's seat to the back of the trunk. "He would be able to carry six people lying head to toe," said his aunt as she showed off the car. "Yeah," agreed Eightball, "the Chinese are not very big people."

Money, and tales of money, keep the young smugglers coming back to the shoreline. Eightball has seen briefcases left behind in boats with thousands of dollars in them. Other refugees are robbed and then abandoned. At times, it seems everyone on the reserve has a story to tell of a friend who has seen thousands of dollars piled on a kitchen table, as the proceeds from smuggling are carved up. And even if the smugglers are caught, the money follows them to prison. "They send 'can money' when someone goes to jail," explained Eightball, "so when they get out they will drive the boats again."

Grand Chief Mitchell lays the smuggling problem squarely at Ottawa's feet. Since the mid-1980s, he says, he has tried unsuccessfully to convince federal officials to let the Mohawks pass their own laws to contain the smuggling and operate a native border patrol. The illicit traffic began with cigarettes, which was seen as a victimless crime. Since then, police say, the smuggling of drugs such as cocaine, and even weapons, has become a multimillion-dollar business on the reserve. Mitchell met with newly appointed Indian Affairs Minister Robert Nault to discuss the situation on Nov. 4 at Akwesasne, and the two agreed to meet again. Without Ottawa's help, Mitchell says, it will be impossible to stem the flow of illegals and other contraband.

Smuggling at Akwesasne has become so widespread that attempts to control it have tied down dozens of police officers on both sides of the border. "We can barely keep our heads above water at Akwesasne," says RCMP Sgt. Bill MacDonald, an immigration specialist based in Ottawa. In December, 1998, Operation over the Rainbow, a combined Canada-U.S. task force, arrested and charged 35 people in Toronto, Cornwall and New York with smuggling illegals. The case, which has yet to go to court, revealed the extent of the problem. Authorities believe the group may have earned as much as $250 million smuggling 3,600 people across the border in just two years. Even though successful, the bust has barely slowed the flow of illegals.

Dick Ashlaw, the agent in charge at the U.S. Border Patrol detachment on the American side of the reserve, says the only solution is to deploy more resources. But because American immigration authorities are preoccupied by the nearly one million illegals crossing the Mexican border each year, Akwesasne is not a top priority.

Officials with the Immigration and Naturalization Service in Washington believe that as long as the illegal Chinese migrants seek a future in New York, more will come through Akwesasne as an ever-increasing amount of money is sent home to pay the smugglers' fees. Ken Elwood, an INS field-operations official, says Chinese organized-crime groups are even bringing in migrants to meet demands from Chinese employers. "When Chinese factory or restaurant owners need labour," says Elwood, "they go to a snakehead in New York, who goes back to Fujian and recruits people."

Toronto Senator William Kelly, who chaired a Senate committee hearing into illegal immigration, also believes the number of migrants will increase. Canada's treatment of refugees stems from the 1951 United Nations' convention, a noble document that sought to shelter people suffering from political persecution. But Kelly claims the convention has been distorted by criminals. "We have a very leaky refugee system," says Kelly. "We don't have sufficient people at the borders to deal with this problem."

Immigration Minister Elinor Caplan is putting her faith in Canada's new policy - instituted after the boat people began arriving - of jailing suspicious refugee claimants until their hearings are held. "We have always presumed refugees intend to become citizens," the minister told Maclean's. "That's not what is happening. The number of people going underground into the clutches of organized crime is most troubling." By detaining migrants, she says, Canada will persuade the smugglers that the country is no longer wide open. "We don't know what the future holds," she says. "But we must send the strongest possible message to smugglers that they will not succeed."

People close to the Fujian community in Canada maintain that the plan is doomed to fail. Derek Chen, a Vancouver pharmacist and founder of Vancouver's Fujian Society, says the snakeheads have local agents all over Vancouver and they will keep bringing people in. "I don't know when the Canadian government will realize that the problem is so intense," says Chen. "The resources for receiving and detaining migrants in British Columbia have been used up already. What will it be like when it gets to 6,000 or 7,000 refugees in detention?" But if the new system does not slow the flow of migrants to Akwesasne, Eightball and his partners will be waiting on the shoreline.

A Police Headache

A large wooden sign at the entrance of the U.S. side of the Akwesasne Indian reserve warns the FBI and New York state police to stay off Indian land. But it has had little effect. Canadian and U.S. laws apply in their respective parts of the reserve, which straddles the St. Lawrence River. To combat smuggling, now a multimillion-dollar industry in the enclave, police cross onto Indian land and their presence on both sides of the border continues to grow. On the Canadian side, there are more than 45 members of the RCMP, Ontario Provincial Police and Customs Canada. On the American side, a beefed-up detachment of the U.S. Border Patrol is supported by local and state police.

The reserve itself also runs a 22-member force that covers both countries. Mohawk Grand Chief Mike Mitchell has long argued that the natives should be allowed greater power to combat lawbreakers. "You have a whole army of anti-smuggling police tripping over themselves," says Mitchell. "It has not worked."


Maclean's November 22, 1999