|By Tresa Baldas and David Ashenfelter,
Detroit Free PressMcClatchy-Tribune Regional News
Sept. 07, 2011--Tourists. Gamblers. Drug traffickers. Human smugglers. Commercial truck drivers.
Since the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, North America's busiest commercial border between the U.S. and Canada has seen them all -- some too often, such as traffickers; others not often enough, such as tourists.
Federal authorities, travelers and businesspeople say the attacks 10 years ago had a dual impact on the border crossings in metro Detroit: Fewer leisure travelers passed through, but more criminals were caught, especially those peddling drugs and counterfeit goods, resulting in record seizures and detentions.
Authorities say the ability to catch more criminal activity at the borders is largely the result of a significant increase in staffing and better technology, such as X-rays that can see through trucks and surveillance cameras on the Detroit River. There are 11 surveillance towers equipped with high-tech cameras and radars built along a 35-mile stretch of the St. Clair River.
Nationwide, the Border Patrol is better staffed than ever in its 86-year history, doubling the number of agents from 10,000 in 2004 to more than 20,500 in 2010.
Officials wouldn't release staffing figures for the border crossings in metro Detroit, saying only that the number of agents at the Ambassador Bridge, Blue Water Bridge and the Detroit-Windsor Tunnel has doubled since 9/11.
Tourism suffered after 9/11 -- especially in Canada. Hassles and long lines at the border, along with the stalled economy, led many to stay home rather than travel abroad for a play, dinner or gambling. -- See more coverage of September 11
For example, the number of passengers passing through the Detroit-Windsor Tunnel has plummeted. In 2010, roughly 3.6 million vehicles passed through the tunnel, compared with 5.9 million who used it in 2001. But the effects were felt throughout Canada.
"Where we saw the most significant drop was on same-day travel by automobile," said Michael Dubreuil, research manager for the Canadian Tourism Commission. "It was absolutely staggering."
Dubreuil said same-day trips from the U.S. to Canada plunged 71% between 2000 and 2010, while overnight trips from the U.S. declined about 22.6% during that period. The drop has resulted in billions of dollars in losses for the Canadian tourism business, he said.
Dubreuil pointed to other factors that compounded the problem -- the economic recession that started in 2008, the U.S.-Canadian exchange rate that makes traveling to Canada more expensive for Americans and the most recent requirement that U.S. citizens have passports or enhanced driver's licenses to return home.
"Americans are the majority of my client base and since 9/11, my business has taken a hit," said Jon Bondy, a Windsor-based fishing guide. He said that beyond the recession and passport requirements, what he called "obnoxious" border agents on both sides have hurt.
Bondy, a fishing guide for 17 years, said his customers complain almost daily about agents who want to know why Americans can't fish on their own side of the border.
"Is it too hard to say, 'Welcome to Canada?' " he said. "Americans aren't feeling as welcome here as they used to."
And when his American customers stop traveling to Canada, he said, it also means they're not staying in Canadian hotels or eating at Canadian restaurants.
Joe Frei Sr., owner of Brian's Sport Shop in Windsor, said he, too, has lost American customers, who come to his shop mainly for hockey skates and blade sharpening.
"Today, I had five Americans come in for sharpening," he said. "Before 9/11, it was 15 to 20 a day. ... It's just a hassle for Americans to get back across the border."
Linda Hylenski, a court clerk in Detroit, said she used to cut across southern Ontario from Windsor to Niagara Falls on her annual trips to Cape Cod. But after encountering a four-hour delay crossing into the U.S. after 9/11 -- and losing a hotel reservation in the process -- she takes the longer route around the south end of lakes Erie and Ontario.
"It's too bad," she said. "I always used to like to drive through Canada and stop on the Canadian side of Niagara Falls for breakfast."
She said the last time she went to Canada was four to five years ago for the funeral of a co-worker's father.
But Canadians who work in metro Detroit said crossing the border usually is a minor inconvenience. And some return on weekends to shop for clothing, groceries and other items, to take advantage of the favorable exchange rate.
"We don't have Burlington's in Canada, or Target or Krogers," said Maria Cerio, a legal assistant at the Dykema law firm in Detroit. She said U.S. stores offer more variety and better bargains.
Agents busy stopping drugs
Border officials say much progress has been made to cut down on security hassles for those traveling between the U.S. and Canada.
It wasn't uncommon immediately after Sept. 11 for people to wait in line for hours to get into the U.S. Today, thanks to more border agents and higher-tech equipment, the typical wait is about five minutes, officials said.
Although the improvements make it smoother for leisure or recreational travelers, it's not as easy for criminals to traverse the borders. Federal authorities say drug smuggling from Canada into the U.S. has been on a dramatic upswing over the last decade.
"Ecstasy and marijuana cases, specifically, have increased since 9/11," said Ronald Smith, chief officer with U.S. Customs and Border Protection (CBP).
Technology has played a key role in finding the drugs, Smith noted. "We've got the ability to look at things closer now," Smith said. "We've got all the technology now: gamma ray inspection of trucks ... it allows us to look at a commercial truck without physically going into it."
And they're finding plenty.
According to CBP, ecstasy seizures along the U.S.-Canada border have increased significantly over the years, from 1.1 million doses in 2004 to more than 2 million doses in 2009. Marijuana seizures have increased 22%.
Detroit, in particular, has turned into a hotbed for ecstasy.
"We're the first stop on the line for ecstasy coming in," said Daniel Lemisch, chief of the criminal division of the U.S. Attorney's Office in Detroit. "It all gets funneled through our district because of the bridges and tunnels."
Federal agents say they've witnessed major ecstasy busts in recent years at the border, the bulk involving Canadian truck drivers. For example, at the Blue Water Bridge in Port Huron, agents seized more than 80,000 ecstasy pills hidden in the walls of a tractor-trailer last September.
At the same bridge last year, agents seized more than 250,000 ecstasy tablets hidden in a truck carrying a shipment of health and beauty products bound for Texas. At the Ambassador Bridge, 5 kilograms of ecstasy pills were hidden in the bumper of a car.
People, cars, more smuggled in
Drugs aside, Smith said, plenty of other criminal activity has kept border agents busy.
Smugglers have been caught trying to sneak illegal immigrants into the country. And counterfeit goods are increasingly getting snagged -- everything from fake designer handbags to fancy footwear.
Most recently, a Detroit-based criminal ring was busted stealing rental cars, transporting them across the border into Canada and then reporting them stolen, when they were really en route to Iraq. Entry records at the border established a paper trail, which led to 16 arrests last week.
Smith said there's never a dull moment at the border.
"Every day you come to work, you expect something new, and you're typically not disappointed," Smith said. "It's always a surprise for an officer when you open up a trunk, and you have someone looking back at you."
Staff writers M.L. ELRICK and ERIC SHARP contributed to this report.
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