Somebody must have left a radio on. The inn is empty, but I can hear the Ink Spots crooning some distant ballad as the sun fades in the west. Bats are twisting through the darkness overhead, and I’m enjoying the first lush exhalations of evening from the flowers below my balcony when the low growl of the proprietor’s old golden retriever alerts me that it’s time to get to work — the game may be afoot. Rising soundlessly from my deck chair, I sneak into my bedroom without turning on a light.
The smuggling hotspot of Blaine, Washington. (Map: Steven Fick/Canadian Geographic)
Bob Boule, the owner of this small hotel — Smuggler’s Inn Bed & Breakfast, in Blaine, Washington — has gone to a town council meeting and has left me a pair of expensive night-vision binoculars, with the assurance that I have a good chance of spotting smugglers if I’m vigilant. (“We see people in our yard almost every night. Just keep your eyes open.”) Tiptoeing back outside with the powerful binoculars, I study the border, which isn’t all that difficult, since it runs through his backyard.
Despite all the talk about tougher controls and stricter surveillance of the international boundary, the only border marker on Boule’s land is a rather casual-looking row of boulders lined up across his lawn. (“Part of my lawn is in Canada, but your authorities don’t seem to mind if I cut the grass.”) When Boule is off the property, the integrity of the border is assured by Motley, his overweight, epileptic nineyear- old golden retriever, whose unconvincing growl is accom panied by a wagging tail. After the terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001, U.S. Customs and Border Protection (CBP) placed a series of camera towers along the border, but they don’t provide complete coverage, so Motley serves as a supplemental warning system for the authorities. (“If Motley barks, the Border Patrol knows something is amiss. The officers tell me they’re thinking of deputizing him.”) Right now, Motley is issuing a low growl and staring across the road. Scanning the area with the binoculars, I see nothing out of the ordinary.
An asphalt road runs from west to east across the foot of Boule’s lawn. It’s called Zero Avenue, and it’s the first road in Canada — or the last, depending on your direction of travel. An hour’s drive south of Vancouver, the street runs right alongside the border, from the coastal flats toward the foothills of the Cascade Mountains. About 10 years ago, I developed a writerly interest in the area and began hanging around with CBP agents, RCMP officers, marijuana exporters and anyone else who would talk to me. I learned that the ditches and woods along Zero Avenue are veined with footpaths and traditional smuggling trails and littered with granola-bar wrappers and water bottles, and although it’s a quiet country road in the daytime, it becomes a Dylanesque carnival of nefarious activity by night. One miserable, wet January morning at 3 o’clock, I met a team of Mounties and accompanied them on a joint stakeout with American authorities.
“Welcome to the United States of America,” said the CBP officer as we stepped over a broken strand of barbed wire. “Anything to declare?”
“Yeah,” replied an RCMP officer. “I should have worn thicker socks.”
The officers set up an infrared scope and huddled under the lifted tailgate of the CBP vehicle, shivering in the rain and watching the scope’s monitor. “Some nights it gets so busy, we don’t know which group to chase,” said RCMP Sergeant Pete Thompson. “One time I blinked my lights, and a guy ran across the border and jumped into my unmarked car.”
The cops assured me that it shouldn’t be long before smugglers showed up, and sure enough, 20 minutes later, a pickup truck came creeping down Zero Avenue, its undercarriage producing a spectral heat signature on the infrared monitor. To a law-abiding schmo like me, it’s always a marvel to witness the existence of actual criminals, but the cops weren’t a bit surprised when a passenger hopped out, shouldered a large backpack and “gumbooted” into the United States. You could hear engines starting and cops from miles around shouting into their radios, but two hours later, they were still combing the woods, muddy, tired and empty-handed. At daybreak, we headed to a diner for some bacon and eggs. Once again, the fox had escaped.
“We figure that we catch only about five percent of the smugglers,” CBP agent Dave Keller told me. If you extrapolate from that, the illegal traffic must be impressive, because on Boule’s property alone, 147 people have been arrested in the past three years. Most of them were carrying sacks of “B.C. Bud,” the potent, homegrown Canadian marijuana that more than doubles in value as soon as it arrives in the United States.
Experts estimate that marijuana sales bring between $8 billion and $4 billion into British Columbia every year, which ranks it beside softwood lumber as the province’s most important export products. And some Americans, Boule included, believe that the provincial government is quietly tolerant of the marijuana industry. “Same as gambling and cigarettes,” he says. “The government pretends to disapprove, but think of what that money means for vehicle sales, the construction industry and real estate.”
Boule knows an angle when he sees one and has turned the border’s notoriety into an opportunity. Each room at Smuggler’s Inn is named after a famous criminal, and he encourages guests to keep an eye out for smugglers with his night-vision glasses. “We try to have some fun with it,” he says. He’s placed a sign on Zero Avenue behind the B&B — Slow, Smugglers Crossing — and occasionally gets calls from vague-talking people asking whether he’s interested in making a little money. (“I tell them, ‘Sorry, you misunderstand.’”)
Since September 11, 2001, however, Boule has noticed the border tightening up. He sees Predator drones and Black Hawk helicopters cruising overhead and says local law enforcement authorities take the boundary a lot more seriously. “I used to stroll across and have coffee with my Canadian neighbours,” he says. “I’d get in a lot of trouble if I did that now.”
Motley is still grumbling, standing at the foot of the lawn and gazing off down Zero Avenue, so I walk downstairs and join him. As I raise the binoculars, the border hovers at my left shoulder, an invisible wall of air that repels like a force field. But then a low-slung black creature with a white stripe down its back ambles across the road, bound for a night of foraging in the United States.
1864 – The Case of Dr. Black Vomit
Mosquitoes are now known to be responsible for the spread of yellow fever, but in the mid to late 1800s an American physician believed otherwise — Dr. Luke Pryor Blackburn was convinced the disease was spread via infected bed sheets.
Blackburn, who would later become the governor of Kentucky, was a registered physician active in the containment and treatment of yellow fever in the United States. But his desire to destroy the federal government during the American Civil War led him to do something grotesque.
In 1864, Blackburn went to Bermuda to help yellow fever victims pro bono and secretly collected his patients’ blood-, feces- and vomit-stained blankets, dressings and clothing with the intent to create “an infallible plan directed against the masses of Northern people solely to create death.” He packed the dressings in trunks and had them sent to Halifax so they could later be smuggled across the U.S. border. After sending the trunks, he moved to Canada.
Blackburn believed that opening the trunks would “cause widespread infection” and he planned on delivering them to targeted locations and people, including President Abraham Lincoln in Washington, D.C. However, his plot was revealed by a trunk smuggler he hadn’t paid and Blackburn faced murder and conspiracy charges following the Civil War.
He stood trial in Toronto for breaking Canada’s neutrality act and remained there after his acquittal. He headed south to his homeland again on the heels of another yellow fever outbreak and was greeted there with open arms, despite his intent to sicken his fellow Americans years earlier.
In 1879, Blackburn became the governor of Kentucky and continued practising medicine until his death in 1887.
1920 – Al Capone
“I don’t even know what street Canada is on,” American mobster Al Capone famously told police, claiming that he had never visited, nor knew anything about, the country to the north. But the gangster who bootlegged liquor was spotted in Moose Jaw, Sask., from time to time escaping the perils of a life of crime in Chicago.
In the 1920s, Moose Jaw was a safe haven for Capone, who reportedly used the city’s underground tunnels to travel between hotels and restaurants unnoticed.
Dr. Hugh Young, a physician in Moose Jaw, says he was summoned late one night, blindfolded and led through a series of tunnels to Capone’s hotel room. The gangster, he says, had an abscess on his tonsil and asked Dr. Young to remove it without anesthetic.
Stories of Capone’s presence have circulated for years, but no hard documented proof has come to light, save for eye-witness accounts from Dr. Young, a local paperboy and others.
However, the American gangster did have business in Moose Jaw. During American prohibition the town was a pivotal place for booze deliveries to the U.S. And Capone is known to have organized large shipments of liquor from distilleries across the Canada-U.S. border via rail cars and boats.
(Photo: United States Department of Justice)
1924 – The Liquor Men
IIt’s the 1920s, and every week American dollars are deposited in a bank account for a Mr. Norton at the Bank of Montréal. Norton receives sums in cash and cheques and has bank drafts written in his name. Yet there are no other records of his existence.
Mr. Norton was an alias used by brothers Samuel and Harry Bronfman, two Jewish immigrants who saw dollar signs in America’s decision to prohibit liquor. The pair knew that their family could make large sums of money rum-running across the border.
The surname Bronfman means “liquor man” in Yiddish and that is exactly how the Bronfman brothers styled themselves. They operated the Distillers Corporation Ltd. in Montréal, founded by the Bronfman family in 1924, as well as a number of export houses along the Canada-U.S. border. Sam took the lead and in 1928 merged their company with Seagram and Sons Ltd. to create Seagram Company Ltd., the world’s largest distillery.
Due to the number of Jewish bootleggers and mobsters travelling Lake Erie’s waters during prohibition — among them Meyer Lansky and “Big Maxie” Greenberg — it became known as “the Jewish Lake.” These criminals shipped liquor across the water to undetected “safe” spots, allowing liquor to continue to flow in the U.S.
Following the end of prohibition in 1933, Sam Bronfman continued to make and sell liquor and his company would, in Bronfman’s later years, become the biggest supplier of alcohol internationally. He also became a well-known Zionist supporter and was made a Companion of the Order of Canada.
Today, Seagram Company Ltd. produces wines and spirits through affiliates in 41 countries and territories on six continents, and also owns Tropicana and Dole juices.
(Photo: Library and Archives Canada “Blind pigs raided, 160 kegs destroyed, Elk Lake, Ontario,” 1925, C.H.J Snider)
1929 – The S.S. I’m Alone
Pocked with bullet holes and sinking fast, thanks to the blast from four explosive shells detonated near its hull, the S.S. I’m Alone sank beneath the waters of the Gulf of Mexico on March 22, 1929. One Canadian crew member, Leon Mainguy, drowned. The others, including Captain John Randell, were chained and thrown into a jail in New Orleans .
The ship was sunk following a hot pursuit by the U.S. Coast Guard schooner the Dexter. It had been following the I’m Alone for several days and suspected it of smuggling liquor into the southern United States.
It’s true. The I’m Alone was a rum-running ship, built in Britain and under Canadian registry. Randell, originally from Newfoundland, left Halifax in 1928 and set out in the I’m Alone for Belize, where crewmen picked up liquor, stowed it as cargo and then sailed to destinations along the Louisiana coast.
When the Coast Guard decided it was time to sink the rum-running ship, the I’m Alone was 321 kilometres offshore. But the Coast Guard had no jurisdiction on any vessel farther than 19 kilometres out.
In 1935, a trial was held and arbitrators from both countries agreed that it was a “wrongful sinking.” The commissioners of the case concluded that “the admittedly intentional sinking of the suspected vessel was not justified,” and although the I’m Alone was a rum-runner, “the act of sinking the ship by officers of the U.S. Coast Guard was … an unlawful act.”
The U.S. was required to formally apologize and “in respect of the wrong” paid “the sum of $25,000 to His Majesty’s Canadian Government.”
Randell was given $7,906 and Amanda Mainguy, wife of the deceased crewman, Leon Mainguy, recieved $10,185 in compensation for her loss.
(Photo: Trinity Historical Society Archives)
2001 – Don’t Blame the Neighbours
It was barely a year ago that the secretary of the United States Department of Homeland Security, Janet Napolitano, ignited a diplomatic controversy after suggesting that the September 11, 2001, hijackers entered the U.S. via Canada. Days later, Arizona senator and one-time presidential candidate, John McCain, chimed in, telling Fox News that “some of the 9/11 hijackers did come through Canada, as you know.”
But it isn’t true. In 2004, the final report of the 9/11 Commission appointed by the U.S. government confirmed that each of the 19 hijackers — 15 from Saudi Arabia, two from the United Arab Emirates, one from Lebanon, and one from Egypt — entered the U. S. with government-issued documents on passenger jets originating from outside North America.
(Illustration: "I want you for the U.S. Army nearest recruiting station" James Montgomery Flagg, 1916-1917)
2005 – Smuggling People
In 2005, a 23-year-old Albanian named Shkelquim Harizi and his mother planned to pay a Canadian and a group of Albanian-American smugglers more than $10,000 to help them cross the border into Canada. But as part of the plan they had to cross the Detroit River on Jet Skis.
On September 2, Harizi and his mother held on to each other as a Canadian smuggler drove them across the water to their destination. But as they travelled their jet ski capsized and sent all three into the fast-moving water. Harizi’s mother and the smuggler swam to shore, but Harizi was carried away by the current.
According to World Vision Canada, our nation is “a source, transit and destination country for human trafficking.” It’s the third most profitable branch of organized crime following drugs and firearms, and the RCMP estimate that between 600 and 800 people are smuggled into Canada annually.
In 2005, Canada enacted human-trafficking legislation which has since produced five convictions, says Justice Canada.
2010 – Canadian Cannabis and the U.S. Border
The United States mainly casts the net of its international war on drugs southward, but U.S. Senator Charles Schumer recently made news after admonishing Congress and the White House to develop a comprehensive national anti-drug policy for its border with Canada. Quoted by the Associated Press, the New York Democrat cited increased seizures of marijuana and other drugs at the Canadian border to suggest a new policy was needed, one styled on the one already in place on its boundary with Mexico.
A large market exists south of the border for Canadian-grown marijuana and designer drugs, such as ecstasy. Border enforcement agents seize hundreds of kilograms of cannabis and pills headed south every year. This is likely the tip of the iceberg.
According to a 1999 report by the Canadian Senate Special Committee on Illegal Drugs, 60 to 70 percent of an estimated 550 tonnes of marijuana grown in Canada annually finds its way to the U.S. The United Nations, in its World Drug Report for 2009, also identified Canada as the primary global producer and exporter of ecstasy.
Whatever the intent may be in proposals to modify the United States’ border strategy with Canada, academics and law enforcement alike are quick to emphasize the adaptability and resilience of organized crime and smuggling rings.
Meanwhile, Canadian groups are pressuring for the decriminalization of marijuana, and California will hold a referendum in November on its legalization. With or without a new border strategy, the most widely consumed illicit drug in North America may be destined for decriminalization.