Series: The 'underground' tobacco industry on Mohawk reserves
"Father Jacques Labelle spies them at night from his rectory window, and later often has to fix the damage they leave behind. Perched on the edge of the St. Lawrence River, his Precious Blood Catholic Church boasts a picturesque setting — and ideal conditions for the army of cigarette runners who work the unique neighbourhood.

Smugglers routinely unload their contraband on the church’s concrete dock, nicely hidden from the nearby highway, then pack the goods into vans that speed across the sloping church yard, leaving deep ruts.

Once, they failed to make it off the grass, their vehicle becoming mired in mud and the smugglers — both teenagers — arrested.

“The vehicles are coming and going and it’s done in a matter of minutes,” said Father Jacques. “They’re very aggressive and some have no respect for other people’s property.”

The church is just one of many spots that are regularly commandeered by smugglers who cross the St. Lawrence from the Akwesasne Mohawk reserve, the latest chapter in a turbulent, 20-year history of illict trade through the region, egged on originally by a brazen Big Tobacco smuggling scheme.

Police say some cottages have been taken over by the tobacco traffickers in the off-season; there are reports of Russian and other non-native, organized crime figures renting or even buying summer homes to turn them into smuggling terminals. Authorities believe tens of millions of cigarettes a year — mainly churned out by 10 factories on the American side of the reserve — pass through the area.

Straddling the U.S.-Canada border, Akwesasne is Canada’s contraband capital, and the heart of the aboriginal tobacco industry that has flourished lately on a handful of reserves, producing a flood of cheap cigarettes so vast it might have stalled the decades-long slide in smoking rates.

Police allege the cross-border conduit is being used, as well, by organized crime to smuggle marijuana back into the United States and harder drugs and firearms to Canada. Security experts have long fretted, too, about its potential for facilitating more ominous threats, like terrorism."

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