ALBURGH, Vt. – Summer is usually a busy time for both the Border Patrol and smugglers who try to enter the U.S. illegally via Lake Champlain, but authorities say organized smuggling in the area is way down this season.
Border Patrol officials credit the reduction in smuggling to benefits of an emphasis on better security. Last year, as part of that effort, U.S. and Canadian officials broke up what they described as two major rings that smuggled illegal immigrants across the border, many through Alburgh.
"We have received more people, more equipment, more stuff to get things done," said Mark Henry, a spokesman for the Border Patrol's Swanton Sector, which runs from Ogdensburg, New York, 295 miles east to the New Hampshire-Maine line.
Organized smuggling is down — but violence is up.
Last week, an agent fired his weapon after being shot at by a person who assaulted him when apprehended near the border in Derby Line. It was the third shooting in the Swanton sector in less than a year. No injuries were reported in any of them.
Henry says the violence is a symptom of their success.
"They're getting frustrated," Henry said of the smugglers. "They're being denied entry. Part of that is we see more violence on the border. It's not just here, but nationwide."
During the first nine months of the current fiscal year, the Border Patrol says the number of violent incidents has increased by 22 percent. Through June 30, the number of assaults was 827, up from 676 in 2007, said Lloyd Easterling, a Border Patrol spokesman in Washington.
Easterling said the greatest increase in violence is in the San Diego Sector on the Mexican border. He said criminals were increasingly reluctant to abandoned parts of the border where they had previously "operated with impunity."
"This entrenchment mentality, along with a willingness to engage our officers, has resulted in an escalation in violence and assaults," Easterling said.
Last fall, Vermont's U.S. attorney announced that two human smuggling rings, one based in Montreal, the other in Toronto, had been broken up after they had moved hundreds of illegal immigrants from Asia and Latin American into the U.S. Some illegal immigrants were charged as much as $10,0000.
Agents don't know if any people were smuggled down the lake as part of those rings, but the lake has been used by other smugglers.
"We've had several attempts where people have rented boats in Canada and come down, you know, with a guide and a smuggler and a car will be waiting along a shoreline where we've interdicted them and apprehended them," said Border Patrol Supervisory Agent John Letourneau.
The rings sent people walking across the border in Alburgh, or down unguarded back roads or railroad tracks, where the new arrivals were picked up by waiting vehicles.
Since the 2001 attacks on the United States, the Border Patrol has been tripling its manpower levels on the U.S.-Canadian border, and added aircraft, all terrain vehicles, snowmobiles and even personal watercraft.
The Border Patrol has used boats to patrol the lake for years. They've always had snowmobiles and all terrain vehicles, but now there are more of them.
Letourneau said smuggling routes are always changing.
"One year they're in our area, the next year they're west, the next year they're in New York," he said. "Who knows what's in the mind of the smuggler."