From The Editor | October 12, 2023

Using IR At The Border To Fight … The Canadian Cartel?

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By John Oncea, Editor


Infrared is used at the border for surveillance, detecting people or vehicles crossing the border, and detecting disguises at security checkpoints. Could it have helped take down the Maple Mafia?

It’s a tale as old as time, involving cartels, black markets, and an almost-perfect heist. I’m talking, of course, of the Great Maple Syrup Heist, when nearly $13.4 million worth of maple syrup was stolen by a team of thieves over several months in 2011 and 2012.

Let’s jump into the WABAC Machine, setting the dial to July 2012. Scientists at CERN's Large Hadron Collider announce the discovery of the so-called “God particle,” a new particle consistent with the Higgs boson; Serena Williams beats Agnieszka Radwańska 6-1, 5-7, 6-2 to win her fifth Wimbledon singles crown, then later teams up with sister Venus five hours later to win the doubles title; Korean pop singer Psy releases single “Gangnam Style,” a worldwide hit that tops the charts in over 36 countries; and, at the Saint-Louis-de-Blandford strategic maple syrup reserve, an inspector from the Québec Maple Syrup Producers (QMSP) was conducting an annual inspection.

Let’s dig a bit deeper into that last item but, first, a little background. And, if you don’t want to read about one of the most fascinating maple syrup-related heists ever, feel free to skip ahead to “IR And Border Crossings.”

Regulating Maple Syrup

Maple syrup and Canada have gone hand-in-hand for a long time. In 1676, a missionary named Chrestien Leclercq documented the use of an iron cauldron by Native Americans and European settlers to produce maple sugar. Since then, Quebec has become the leading producer of maple syrup, accounting for 90% of Canada’s maple syrup and nearly 72% of maple syrup production worldwide, according to QMSP.

However, according to The Canadian Encyclopedia, “The harvesting and production of these seasonal products have often been a secondary farming enterprise among Quebec farmers” because “the price of syrup depends on the quality, quantity and the timing of the harvest. The variability of these factors makes focusing uniquely on the production of maple syrup economically unwise. To manage the province’s supply of maple syrup,” the QMSP, formerly known as the Federation of Quebec Maple Syrup Producers (FPAQ), was created in 1966.

The QMSP operates under the authority of the Quebec government and, as one of its primary functions, allocates production quotas to individual maple syrup producers in Quebec. These quotas determine the amount of syrup that each producer is allowed to make in a given season. It also manages the Global Strategic Maple Syrup Reserve, intended to stabilize prices by releasing additional syrup onto the market during years of low production to prevent price fluctuations.

The QMSP has faced some controversy and legal challenges over the years, and some critics argue that the organization’s control over production quotas and pricing can limit the autonomy of individual producers and restrict competition in the industry.

Canadian Crime, Eh?

Back to 2012 where our inspector, examining the nearly $30 million worth of reserve, housed barrels of maple syrup, nearly fell over while climbing a stack of barrels. “Normally, the full barrels would weigh approximately (600 pounds) and be very difficult to move,” writes The Canadian Encyclopedia. “The inspector opened some of the barrels and discovered that they were empty. In addition, it was later found that other barrels, which appeared full, were in fact filled with water.

It was reported that, despite the cleanliness of the Saint-Louis-de-Blandford reserve, some barrels were found to be dirty while others were rusty, which is an unusual characteristic as maple syrup does not oxidize. Furthermore, the facility lacked security cameras, and there was no video evidence of the theft.

Police were called and determined it was an inside job, turning their focus to individuals who had access to the warehouse. They determined that between October 2011 and August 2012, thieves had siphoned the syrup from the warehoused barrels into barrels of their own, replacing the stolen syrup with water.

“Richard Vallières was accused as the ringleader of the maple syrup theft,” The Canadian Encyclopedia writes. “Vallières allegedly had a reputation in the world of maple syrup producers as a ‘barrel roller’ — someone who found ways around the tightly regulated controls and supply management system developed by the QMSP. Vallières reportedly learned of the strategic reserve from Avik Caron, whose spouse was co-owner of the warehouse where the syrup stockpile was held. Caron testified that he was introduced to Vallières shortly after the warehouse began to be filled with barrels of syrup.”

During the 10 months of theft, the thieves managed to steal more than 3,000 tons of maple syrup. Five hundred tons were recovered though some of it had to be destroyed as it was deemed unsafe for human consumption. Four men, including Vallières, were convicted for their role in the theft with Vallières sentenced to 7 years and 10 months in prison.

What Does Any Of This Have To Do With IR And The Border?

Great question. Some quick math: 3,000 tons stolen minus 500 tons recovered leaves 2,500 tons unaccounted for. What happened to all that syrup? Another great question.

According to The Canadian Encyclopedia, “The thieves distributed their stolen maple syrup from a legitimate operation located in New Brunswick (which) has a smaller maple syrup industry and is not subject to the price and production controls that exist in Quebec. From New Brunswick, the stolen maple syrup was shipped and sold in Ontario and the United States.”

That’s right, the maple syrup thieves slipped their ill-gotten sweetness across the border and into the mouths of their neighbors to the South! Heck, according to Vanity Fair, some of it ended up in Vermont “stashed in the factory of a candy maker who swore he had no goddamn idea the syrup was hot.”

Could infrared (IR) have been used to detect the purloined product? * Sure, why not? The Border Patrol using IR at the time, but at this point let’s not focus on what could have happened and turn our attention to what is currently happening.

* Did I just write 1,000 words telling this story, only to end with a shoulder shrug of an answer? You betcha, but you have to admit it’s a pretty fun story.

IR And The Border Patrol

The U.S. Border Patrol was created in 1924 but mounted watchmen of the U.S. Immigration Service started patrolling the borders 20 years earlier. The inspectors were usually called Mounted Guards and their patrols were irregular and only undertaken when resources allowed.

Operating out of El Paso, TX, there were never more than 75 Mounted Guards, all operating as far west as California trying to restrict the flow of illegal Chinese immigration.

In 1915, Mounted Inspectors were added to the mix, along with new technology: boats and cars. During this time, the U.S. Military and the Texas Rangers helped out here and there, and the Rangers’ efforts were noted as “singularly effective.”

As time went on the makeup and role of the Border Patrol evolved and today there are more the 21,000 agents (60,000 total employees) “specifically responsible for patrolling nearly 6,000 miles of Mexican and Canadian international land borders and over 2,000 miles of coastal waters surrounding the Florida Peninsula and the island of Puerto Rico,” according to U.S. Customs and Border Protection (CBP). “Agents work around the clock on assignments, in all types of terrain and weather conditions. Agents also work in many isolated communities throughout the United States.”

The Border Patrol, like any agency worth its salt, leverages any technology to aid in achieving its mission including cameras, drones, license-plate-reading technology, radar, ground-based sensors, airboats, shallow draft vessels, V-hull platforms, and facial biometrics. They also, according to The Washington Post, use autonomous border towers that use artificial intelligence to determine if a moving object is an animal, vehicle, or person. The towers beam the location coordinates of the object to Border Patrol agents.

And, of course, the Border Patrol uses IR at borders to detect potential intruders or smugglers in low-light conditions as IR cameras can “see” better than the naked eye at night and in bad weather. IR technology is used in thermal imaging cameras which produce a clear image in practically all weather conditions and can detect man-sized targets at extremely long distances.

Short Wave Infrared (SWIR) cameras are also a tool of choice for the Border Patrol to detect disguises at border and immigration security checkpoints. Fixed ground sensors are also used, buried in the ground where they use seismic, acoustic, and or IR technology to detect people or vehicles crossing the border.

Other uses of IR include:

  • Tracking: IR can be used to track the movement of people and vehicles in areas where visibility is limited, such as dense forests or remote deserts.
  • Search and Rescue: IR cameras can help locate lost or injured individuals in remote border regions, which is crucial for search and rescue operations.
  • Detection of Concealed Individuals or Contraband: IR cameras can detect the heat emitted by a person or objects, even if they are hidden under foliage or in vehicles. This can aid in identifying smugglers or illegal border crossers.
  • Aerial Surveillance: IR technology is often used on helicopters and drones to monitor large stretches of the border from the air. This helps in spotting illegal activities and guiding ground units to specific locations.
  • Fixed Surveillance Systems: Some border regions have fixed surveillance systems with IR cameras that continuously monitor the border and send alerts to Border Patrol agents when suspicious activity is detected.
  • Situational Awareness: IR technology enhances the situational awareness of Border Patrol agents, helping them to make informed decisions about when and where to deploy resources.
  • Reduction of False Alarms: IR can help reduce false alarms caused by natural elements such as animals or vegetation, as it focuses on heat signatures rather than visual cues.
  • Deterrence: The visible presence of IR cameras can act as a deterrent to potential illegal border crossers, as they know they are being watched even in the dark.

It's important to note that the use of IR technology by Border Patrol agencies can raise privacy and civil rights concerns, particularly if not used judiciously and with proper oversight. Balancing border security with civil liberties is an ongoing challenge that law enforcement agencies and policymakers must address.