COLVILLE, Wash. -Along the U.S. and Canadian border, crime can come in all the colors of the rainbow. One recent bust at the border netted 300 pounds of the colorful party drug Ecstasy. The street value was estimated at more than $9.5 million.
But the haul didn’t come from the streets or some drug lord’s lair. It was found about 3 hours north of Spokane. The bags of pills were stuffed into some backpacks. The backpacks were left along a little-used dirt trail in one of the most remote areas of America.
Welcome to the United States northern border. Welcome to the Slash.
"Up here the terrain is a little more vast than you would see down south,” said Border Patrol Agent Zachary Crosson.
The Slash is 20 feet wide and 305 miles long. That’s just the Spokane sector, where Crosson is in charge. Like the Slash, his job is pretty clear-cut. Detect and prevent anything and anyone illegal from entering the country. Mother Nature does give a helping hand on protecting the northern border.
"The vast terrain is very rough terrain that we work in. It does limit the amount of entry's that we get just with that natural barrier," added Agent Crosson.
But, according to Crosson, agents are a little more sparse, and the manpower along the northern border is not what it is down south. By sparse, Border Patrol in Colville only has 44 agents. All of them a unique breed of law enforcer and they’re willing to go to the extremes to uphold the law
“The winter. We do ride in the winter. It can get really cold,” said agent Dan Bales.
Equal parts agent and outdoorsman.
"We’re not worried about getting lost or turned around. Even when we are going through the thick stuff we have a real good idea where we are at," said Bales.
Agent Justin Fox grew up in just south of the Slash in the small town of Colville. He’s got more than a decade’s experience with the patrol.
He started off on the southern border but eventually working his way back home.
“Everything you do is under a microscope because Colville is a tiny little town and no matter what, if I go to the gas station, I know five people,” described Agent Fox.
But being a local has its advantages. "If someone has something to share something that we would be interested in like illegal activity or what have you I think more people are comfortable coming to someone that they know,” added Fox.
Those aren’t the only extra sets of eyes and ears the patrol relies on.
"Horse patrol is a big asset that we have with the station. It's something we run daily. It’s in every part of our daily operations," says Crosson.
The horses are more than just sure-footed transportation to hard-to-reach wilderness.
“We are checking various trails to see if anyone has been through there or anything out of the ordinary,” said Agent Bales.
Horses are built to be natural detectives. They can hear frequencies far lower and far higher than humans, and their ears can pivot 180 degrees to pinpoint where sounds are coming from. The equine eye is also one of the largest of any land animal. They are particularly sensitive to motion, can see in almost pitch darkness and their eyes are positioned, so they have almost a 360-degree field of vision.
Something that agent and lead wrangler Dan Bales says can come in quite handy.
"We've had guys wear camo, we have had guys blend in like they are hunting. They're going to try and sneak through the woods, they'll come across with whatever they're bringing. That's kind of the game,” Agent Bales said.
Since 2010, agents on the northern border arrested 2,230 from people from 45 different countries. 233 people were prosecuted in Idaho, Montana, and Eastern Washington. Border patrol participated in 362 seizures, ranging from illegal drugs, cash, cars, and guns.
However, with all the pressure now on the southern border, more illicit traffic is being rerouted through Canada.
According to the latest arrest numbers, the number of people caught illegally crossing the United States northern border is already up 142 percent from last year.
"They come up here and look for immigration systems that will come in and know that we might not have as many people on the northern border. You know thinking that they can exploit," said Agent Crosson.
Their methods are also becoming increasingly creative in hopes of eluding the law. One smuggling operation took to using a helicopter to fly in their goods. So as for building a wall up here, Agent Frost would prefer to see more personnel than piles of concrete.
“In general any sort of infrastructure that we build, in and of itself, it doesn’t do any good if it's not being defended by border patrol agents,” said Agent Frost who also spent time patrolling the southern border.
Republicans in the House have put together a bill providing more than $200 billion in new spending on border protection over the next five years - including hiring 10,000 more officers. But such legislation is currently tangled up in the larger immigration reform debate.
So until the political problem is solved the methods and targets may change - but the mission won’t.
“Everybody wants that American dream of being able to grow up in a safe place. It's just our responsibility to make that happen,” said Crosson.