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Spokane, Washington  Est. May 19, 1883
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News >  Spokane

Border a challenge for agents

Thomas Clouse Staff writer

U.S. Border Patrol agents often find marijuana smugglers in North Idaho carrying one item for personal protection: bear spray.

“They used to carry bear spray because they were more worried about grizzly bears than getting caught by agents,” said James McDevitt, the chief federal law enforcement officer in the region. “At least agents read them their rights. The bears don’t have that same protocol.”

Last year, agents hid in the dark on the banks of the Kettle River and watched with infrared cameras as a smuggler in a raft brought 1,000 pounds of marijuana across the U.S. border.

In the sprawling Spokane Sector of the U.S-Canadian border, agents use recently purchased ATVs, snowmobiles, helicopters, search dogs, airplanes and horses to make it harder for human traffickers, drug smugglers and would-be terrorists to cross, McDevitt said.

But geography is the U.S. Border Patrol’s worst enemy.

The Spokane Sector includes 350 miles of Canadian border from the highest point of the Cascades in Washington, across the northern border of Idaho and east to Whitefish, Mont., in the Rocky Mountains.

“It’s the largest undefended border in the world,” McDevitt said. “In a lot of places there is no fence. The border is just a clearing in the trees. It’s a pretty big, diverse and remote piece of real estate.”

Since the terrorist attacks on 9/11, the number of agents in the Spokane Sector has tripled. Even so, large swaths of land provide a tempting target for smugglers.

“We just can’t afford to have people every six inches across the border,” said McDevitt, the U.S. Attorney for the Eastern District of Washington. “We have to use technology. We have to be smart about it.”

Robert Harris recently took over in the Spokane office as the Chief Patrol Agent for the Border Patrol. Both Harris and McDevitt cited improved relations with their Canadian counterparts both in law enforcement cooperation and information sharing.

“We know the trails that are being used and the geographic choke points that you have to use, be it human trafficking or moving contraband,” Harris said. “That’s the challenge on the northern border is to get a sufficient amount of technology to monitor it.”

Residents would be making a mistake to compare the number of agents patrolling the border with Mexico to the border with Canada, because the mission is different, Harris said.

“The No. 1 priority up here is detection,” he said. “Second, we need to have the ability to respond to a border incursion.”

McDevitt said the Border Patrol uses a combination of random patrols along with cameras and motion detectors to keep an eye on other problem areas. Shifting resources to shut down smuggling lanes in one area simply forces traffickers to use another.

For example, Border Patrol agents clamped down in 2002 on traffickers coming through the border between the San Juan Islands to the western slope of the Cascades.

“In 2003, we had a fourfold increase in drug trafficking and a 10-fold increase in human trafficking,” McDevitt said. “We really put the pressure on drug traffickers and now the B.C. bud is showing up in Sweetgrass, Montana. All they did was displace the problem.”

However, Harris said, those moves made it more difficult for smugglers to succeed.

“This is a rugged, remote country,” Harris said. “If you have smugglers from Vancouver, they have to contact somebody who knows this area. That’s when they expose themselves.”

Residents who live along the border often provide the best information about suspicious activity. However, McDevitt said he does not endorse any plan for a Minutemen Project for the Canadian border.

In April, more than a 100 volunteers, organized by Jim Gilchrist of Orange County, Calif., scouted for illegal migrants and smugglers along the Arizona border with Mexico.

“That’s every individual’s right to do those sorts of things,” McDevitt said. “We need citizen involvement very, very much. But that does not mean we need people on the border with guns trying to make arrests. We don’t need vigilante action.”

Harris pointed out that while the Spokane Sector will probably never get all the agents he would like, Washington’s congressional delegation has been very generous in providing funds for technology.

“Whatever we get good at, (smugglers) will react to,” he said. “But we are trying to be mobile and adaptable so we can change to any smuggling technique.”

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