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Smuggling on the U.S.- Canada Border: Contraband, Crime, and Terror

Cross-border smuggling and border vulnerabilities on the tribal lands that straddle New York, Quebec, and Ontario are not new, but there is now increasing evidence linking the illicit tobacco network to terrorist funding, organized crime networks, and illegal movements of narcotics, weapons, and people. The “Smuggling on the U.S-Canada Border: Contraband, Crime, and Terror” half-day conference will bring together First Nations leaders, subject matter specialists, and government officials to conduct one of the first dialogues on bi-national contraband to be held in the United States.

Date & Time

Mar. 4, 2014
9:00am – 12:00pm ET


6th Floor, Woodrow Wilson Center
Get Directions


Panel One: Cross-Border Contraband in the St. Lawrence Corridor and U.S.-Canada Relations


Chief Brian David, Chief, Mohawk Council of Akwesasne

Chief Steve F. Thomas, Chief, Mohawk Council of Akwesasne

Rear Admiral Michael Parks, Former Commander, 9th Coast Guard District, U.S. Coast Guard


Laura Dawson, Dawson Strategic

Laura Dawson opened the panel with a brief overview of the St. Lawrence corridor, including cross-jurisdictional and social issues. She then proposed the question, “How do we or should we understand cross-border?” and turned to Chief Brian David.

Chief David redefined the term “cross border” to mean an “incursion of border” and said that the border exists only to distinguish between the U.S. and the UK/Canada; the border is only meant for “you”. Furthermore, Chief David looked at the history of the border and the Mohawk people’s relationship with the U.S. and UK. Specifically, he noted that 9/11 “came through Akwesasne” and that first responders were Mohawks who had experience cutting iron (and that those same Mohawks are suffering from numerous health issues as a result—and are not receiving any medical or health related aid).

Turning to cross-border smuggling, Chief David noted that what outsiders view as smuggling, Mohawks who live in the area consider trade and a means to make a living. As a result, he asserted that the only way to end smuggling is to increase legitimate trade, build infrastructure, and provide better (legal) opportunities.

Chief Steve Thomas added to Chief David’s remarks and noted that the Mohawk people do not have a “homeless” problem, unlike the U.S. or Canada. He called on the U.S. and Canada to negotiate with his people to legitimize cross-border trade and emphasized that we are all allies.

Mike Parks responded to both Chiefs by noting that there is, truly, a lack of awareness of the Mohawk culture and that there are numerous jurisdictional challenges associated with the region (municipal, state, provincial, and national/federal agencies are frequently involved all at the same time).

As a result, Parks proposed a three pronged approach to ensuring that all stakeholder voices are heard:

1.       Create a shared awareness of the issue and current events (talk to each other). Included in this point: understand the issues and jump to similarities rather than differences;

2.       Synchronize priorities to find a way forward. BTB is a big part of this;

3.       And ensure seamless operations.

Parks noted that, for him, transparency plus truth yields trust.

Dawson added that, generally, people tend to talk about the Mohawks and not with the Mohawks. She noted that governments are reluctant to talk, so asked how we can bring 1st Nations into the conversation, with the understanding that a rubber stamp does not count as a consultation.

Chief David responded, stating that Mohawks should be a part of the discussion and part of the solution. As such, they need increased facilities and funding.

Chief Thomas followed Chief David by noting that Mohawks do send officers to training camps for police forces and do send intelligence to authorities, but that there is still a problem with the interconnectedness of families (cousins will not report on cousins). He suggested that a marine unit be placed permanently in the St. Lawrence region, and that though cameras are on the border, they are not enough to prevent smuggling. Quick money, fast cars, and the added pressures of outlaws and gangs (Chinese gangs in particular) make it difficult to turn down smuggling opportunities.

Chief Thomas re-emphasized his point that if the proceeds of contraband are linked to terrorist activities, it is not productive for anyone. There should be a reinvestment in community development.

Dawson jumped in and noted that 80% of Mohawks graduate high school and many choose to stay on the reserve. They need legitimate opportunities.

Parks, too, said that it is very difficult for Mohawks to police their borders. With only about 24 police for over 30 miles of a difficult border, the gaps are huge. He also asked that everyone stop referring to the border as the “northern” border, but rather as the “shared” border.

All panelists agreed that collaboration is possible, provided communication improves. Tax collection will remain an issue unless some of the tax is reinvested back into the community and tax evasion will persist regardless. However, Chief Thomas asserted that the Mohawks are prepared to partner.

Panel Two: Implications of Illicit Trade for National, Bi-national, and Global Security


Matt King, Deputy Assistant Secretary, Office of International Affairs, U.S. Department of Homeland Security

Sam Schear, Associate Director, The Conference of Presidents of Major Jewish Organizations


Laura Dawson, Dawson Strategic

Laura Dawson introduced the panelists and provided brief opening remarks. She noted that tax arbitrage and contraband yield about $1 million per week and that a sophisticated network exists within the region.

Matt King briefly discussed the over 120 ports of entry along the border and the issue of moving illicit goods across our “shared” border. He noted that it is a two-way street between the U.S. and Canada, citing specific issues in Montana, BC, and Colorado. Sending cocaine, arms, and currency to Canada also allows for sending sensitive technology to China and Iran. Therefore, King called for a more integrated cross-border enforcement regime, lauding “entry-exit” and Shiprider, and emphasizing the need for radio interoperability.

Sam Schear then commented specifically on the role cigarette smuggling plays in funding terrorist activities. He referenced notorious terrorist Makti ben Maktar and noted that illegal cigarettes are a $100 billion dollar industry: 1 carton sells for $35, 1 van sells for $20,000, and 1 tractor full sells for $2 million. It cost less than $15,000 to carry out the London bombings, while 9/11 only cost about $500,000. Cigarettes are portable, profitable, and easily sold. Furthermore, according to Schear, over 40% of cigarettes in New York state are contraband.

The panel concluded that nothing can be done to combat the issue unilaterally. Bilateral cooperation (with Mohawks included) needs to occur. 


Hosted By

Canada Institute

Bound by common geopolitical interests and strong economic and cultural ties, Canada and the United States enjoy the world's most successful bilateral relationship. The Wilson Center's Canada Institute is the only public policy forum in the world dedicated to the full spectrum of Canada-U.S. issues. The Canada Institute is a global leader for policymakers, academics and business leaders to engage in non-partisan, informed dialogue about the current and future state of the relationship.     Read more

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