EVE BYRON Independent Record HELENA (AP)
Most of the drugs confiscated by federal agents in Montana come from people crossing the border at legal ports of entries, which begs the question: Do most smugglers try to sneak their wares into the United States from Canada through these legal crossings, or are the agents just not finding those who are crossing illegally? The answer seems to be a little of both, according to Mike Milne, a spokesman for U.S. Customs and Border Protection. He notes that the vast majority of people coming into the United States do so at legal border crossings, which could be part of the reason for the larger number of drugs confiscated there. "For instance, on a typical day nationally, 1.1 million people are processed through our points of entry," Milne said, adding that the figure includes both northern and southern borders. "Those who are coming here between the legal crossings are A) entering the U.S. illegally, so they already have a violation there or B) are entering illegally because they're up to no good in other ways. They're smuggling narcotics, currency or other items. "Are we perfect and catching everything? The answer is no ... Are the borders impenetrable? No. But we're making them more secure and have more resources available now." Those realities are reflected in statistics compiled for the Havre sector, which covers 454 miles of the Montana-Canadian border, according to Ramon Rivera with the border patrol's office in Washington, D.C. At legal ports of entry in the Havre sector during fiscal year 2007, which runs from Oct. 1, 2006, through the end of this Month, agents confiscated marijuana 20 times, methamphetamine four times, cocaine six times, and psilocybin mushrooms, poppies and Oxycontin once each. By comparison, during the same time frame at nonlegal points of entry, like trails or rural roads, the agents were involved in only four incidents involving marijuana, and one each of mushrooms and heroin. Only one of those incidents amounted to a quantity large enough almost 19 pounds to be considered something other than personal use. Havre sector spokesperson Alex Harrington said it's not just that more people go through the legal entry points; it's also that searching for drug smugglers isn't the border patrol's No. 1 objective. "Our main mission is to look for illegal aliens and terrorists, and if the people we stop do have something on them, that's good for our agents, but it's not the main reason we stop people," Harrington said. Confiscating small quantities of street drugs seems to be typical for what's also happening at the legal border crossings in Montana, where agents typically make one or two large drug busts each year. Milne expects more smugglers will try to cross the border into Montana in the future, since agents have been working the Washington- Vancouver border hard in the past decade. These drug dealers typically are well-financed, dedicated and resourceful, which makes them a "formidable foe" for law enforcement, he said. Since 2003, the office of U.S. Customs and Border Patrol has almost tripled the size of the force on the 4,000-mile Canadian border, from 300 to 928. Overall, that means each person is responsible for 4.3 miles. The Havre sector, which stretches from the eastern Montana border to the Continental Divide, has 92 agents, or an average of about five miles per agent. Havre generally ranks in the middle of the agent/per mile ratio of the eight sectors along the northern border. With all this emphasis on catching terrorists or weapons of mass destruction, is it a success or failure of the Havre sector that it's made only one arrest of an individual wanted for questioning in connection with possible terrorist activities? "They're not pounding on our door, but we are here just in case," Harrington said. "It only takes one terrorist, one individual with a grudge against the United States, to come across with something on them. "We want to make sure another 9/11 doesn't happen."