Montana News

Feb 19, 2014 12:14 PM by Alex Backus (

Border Patrol working with various agencies to stop drug smugglers

Spanning more than 5,500 miles, the U.S./Canada border is the longest shared border in the world. This presents a challenge for law enforcement when it comes to tracking contraband.

"The northern border is vast, especially here in Montana," Supervisory Border Patrol Agent Craig Duffy said. "It's very vast, largely unpopulated, partially even inaccessible. So one of the challenges we have is maintaining knowledge of going on along that border.

Duff explains the collaboration allowing border officials to monitor any suspicious activity.

"We rely heavily on our partnerships with other law enforcement agencies, our county sheriffs, other federal agencies," Duff said.

"We also rely a lot on the local residents, the ranchers and farmers who actually live and farm along on the border. Those people often have more knowledge of the area than we ever will. They know their neighbors, they know who belongs in the area and who doesn't."

This collaboration is supported through Operation Stoneguard, a program that received over $950,000 dollars in Montana last year.

Montana has a total of 14 ports of entry, which together processed two million people last year.

On the northern border from Washington to Minnesota, 800 pounds of drugs were seized in 2013; the Sweetgrass station in Montana sits on the border, making it the busiest in the state.

"During the winter we're probably processing six to eight hundred cars a day, probably between four and five hundred trucks a day," Larry Overcast, U.S. Customs and Border Patrol Port Director said.

Among these hundreds of vehicles who are smuggling drugs, they most commonly find marijuana, cocaine and ecstasy.

"We've been seeing more cocaine than we have in the past, Duff said.
"Ecstasy's been pretty big in the last few years as well."

The larger loads moving across the border are cartel-related, largely originating from Mexico; introducing the challenge of Interstate 15.

"I-15 represents a significant risk because we're connecting the border communities of San Diego, a very large community where there's a lot of crime, there's a lot of illegal activity, with the large population centers in Canada," Overcast said.

Contraband is transported in various ways, depending on the terrain.

"Less amenable to vehicle traffic in the mountains, it's a lot of foot traffic," Duff said. "Hockey bags here seem to be a trend. They'll just carry those across on foot, snowmobile sometimes. They'll walk it across the actual border to a drop point in the states where someone will pick it up in a vehicle. Away from front where the terrain is a little more amenable, there's a lot of road access along the border. They'll load it in the vehicle and just drive through."

For those crossing the border at stations, they're hiding sometimes hundreds of pounds using concealment methods.

"We've encountered people utilizing gas tanks to conceal contraband in the engine compartment," Overcast said. "In the dash, tires, false walls. Vehicles with modified compartments... the bed of the pickup may tilt it may lift up, or there may be other kinds of motorized compartments. It may be within cargo or within a false floor in a semi-truck. [So] we try to utilize other kinds of inspection techniques."

Border patrol utilizes various techniques to do this, including x-ray technology, K-9s and highly-trained officers. They also rely on technology in the field, including sensors buried in the ground, unmanned aerial vehicles and cameras.

While border patrol works to find drugs among the millions of people crossing, it's not limited or concentrated to any one type.

"We've had smugglers here anywhere from 60 years old to 16 years old," Overcast said.

"It's a wide variety and it's not predisposed to a person of a certain ethnicity or certain geographic reason. It's all about making money through illegal means."

The U.S. and Canadian Border Patrol's collaborative efforts prove to be imperative in halting these smugglers. In 2011, they saw one of their largest seizures, when Canadian smugglers attempted to move $193 million dollars worth of drugs over a two year span from British Columbia, through Saskatchewan to the U.S. through Montana.


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