COVER

A GLOBAL STRUGGLE

DRUG POLICE ARE FIGHTING THE ODDS

RIC DOLPHIN April 3 1989
COVER

A GLOBAL STRUGGLE

DRUG POLICE ARE FIGHTING THE ODDS

RIC DOLPHIN April 3 1989

Robert Ethier, manager of the municipal airport near Sorel, Que., 70 km northeast of Montreal, said that he did not notice anything unusual about the two men who landed their twin-engine Turbo Commander aircraft for fuel late on the evening of March 12. He was about to join them for a cup of coffee when another twin-engine plane landed, and three U.S. Customs officers armed with rifles jumped out. The U.S. officials forced Ethier and the other two men to lie facedown for 20 minutes while they searched the surrounding area and the Commander, which they said they suspected of carrying cocaine from South America. As it turned out, no drugs were found aboard the aircraft. But the incident provided a dramatic glimpse into the unremitting struggle between international police forces and drug smugglers who bring billions of dollars’ worth of illegal narcotics into Canada each year. In the case of the Commander, the American officers said that the plane had probably been carrying drugs, which its occupants may have jettisoned while flying over Nova Scotia.

The flow of illicit drugs into Canada is growing steadily. Indeed, some experts say that the quantities may be doubling every year. Canada Customs, the arm of the Canadian government that was responsible for 80 per cent of all illegal drug seizures in Canada last year, reported that officers intercepted and confiscated $387 million worth of cannabis (marijuana, hashish and cannabis oil), cocaine and heroin at Canadian border points in 1988. That represented a 20-per-cent increase over the $322 million worth of drugs that customs officers seized in 1987, compared with $244 million worth in 1985. Although the figures may have reflected Canada Customs’ expanded crackdown on drug smuggling—and the acquisition of sophisticated new X-ray equipment—they also reflect a greater influx of drugs. “The drug industry in Canada is alive and thriving,” said William McKissock, chief of Canada Customs’ enforcement policy and liaison section. “And there appears to be every indication that it is growing.”

At the same time, the ruthlessness of international narcotics dealers is encountering increasingly tough drug enforcement tactics. During the March 12 incident in Sorel, when Ethier’s 20-year-old son, Carl, appeared on the scene, one of the U.S. Customs officers jabbed him with his rifle before Ethier could explain who he was. Ethier said that he was terrified. “You don’t know if they’re going to shoot you or what,” he told Maclean’s.

Later, RCMP officers who were called to the scene arrested the two suspected drug smugglers and charged them with illegal entry into Canada and flying a stolen aircraft. Last week, the two men—who were Spanish-speaking residents of Florida and Colombia—were deported to their own countries. Meanwhile, the incident raised questions about the legality of U.S. Customs officials brandishing weapons on Canadian soil. Abbie Dann, a spokesman for Ottawa’s external affairs department, said, “From the information we have, this may be a fairly serious matter involving a violation of Canadian sovereignty.”

At the same time, the RCMP posts its own officers overseas in an attempt to intercept drugs at their source. Under agreements that the external affairs department has negotiated with foreign governments, the Mounties currently have 28 liaison officers stationed in 18 foreign cities. One is Bogotá, the capital of Colombia, where most of the coca plants grown in the neighboring South American nations of Bolivia, Brazil and Peru are processed into cocaine. RCMP officers are also posted to Bangkok in an effort to halt the traffic in heroin out of the so-called Golden Triangle region of northern Thailand, Burma and Laos, where opium poppies—from which morphine and heroin are derived—are grown. With the help of police intelligence reports from Canada, Mounties posted overseas are often able to help foreign police arrest criminals who are planning to make drug runs to Canada.

Fight: The Mounties’ foreign assignments can be hazardous. Last month, Cpl. Derek Flanagan, 35, of Richmond, B.C., became the RCMP’s first overseas fatality when he was killed in Thailand during a drug operation. Flanagan and four other Mounties were in an opium-growing region near Chiang Mai, 600 km north of Bangkok, investigating reports that a large shipment of heroin was headed for Canada.

Flanagan, a burly physical-fitness enthusiast, was posing as a buyer, partly to obtain information from a Canadian who was suspected of being involved in drug smuggling. During a fight between Flanagan and a Thai suspect on the back of a pickup truck, Flanagan fell and severed his spinal cord. He died later in hospital.

Despite Flanagan’s death, the investigation proved to be effective. Thai police seized heroin that would have been worth up to $15 million in Canada. They also charged Alain Olivier, 30, of Drummondville, Que., and five Thai citizens with heroin smuggling—an offence punishable by death in Thailand. As a result of the investigation, six Quebec residents were later arrested in Montreal and charged with trafficking.

At the same time, the wealth and influence that drug kingpins exert in some countries can thwart the efforts of Western law enforcement agencies. In Southeast Asia, billionaire heroin producers in the Golden Triangle maintain private armies of up to 15,000 men. In Thailand, police officers have been known to bribe their superiors for transfers to opium-growing regions where they themselves can earn lucrative payoffs from heroin traffickers. Even more powerful Colombian drug cartels, including the dealers based in the city of Medellin, control cocaine exports from the surrounding region. Last week, a federal grand jury in Jacksonville, Fla., issued indictments against 30 defendants, including Pablo Escobar Garviria and three other reputed members of the Medellin cartel, on charges of smuggling more than $1 billion worth of cocaine into the United States. None of the indicted cartel members is currently in U.S. custody.

Logistics: Despite the regular destruction of jungle-based cocaine laboratories by local authorities and by the American Drug Enforcement Administration, the cartels continue to thrive. Said Rodney Stander, an assistant RCMP commissioner who headed the Mounties’ drug enforcement program between 1980 and 1988: “These syndicates each have related groups that act as investors, bankers and lawyers. In addition, most have logistics experts, exporters, chemists and specialists in wholesaling, retailing and market development.”

Bankroll: Foreign drug dealers use a variety of financial arrangements and smuggling methods to supply the Canadian market with illicit drugs. According to Stander, organized crime families in Canada bankroll some large drug shipments while others receive financing from overseas drug syndicates, including the Medellin cartel, with the help of criminal elements among the Latin American communities in Canadian cities.

The largest number of drug seizures is still made from couriers entering Canada by motor vehicle or at airports. Only last week, customs officers at Toronto’s Lester B. Pearson International Airport found 91 lb. of cannabis oil and 18 lb. of marijuana stashed behind garbage bins in the washrooms of an Air Canada Lockheed L-1011 jet that had arrived from Montego Bay, Jamaica. As well, larger amounts are now coming in by ship. Last November, Canadian customs officers in Vancouver found 26 lb. of heroin in a crate of ceramics aboard a ship from Thailand.

Despite the increasingly successful rate of drug interceptions, federal officials estimate that seizures represent only about five per cent of the total flow of illicit narcotics reaching the Canadian market from around the world. Otto Jelinek, the federal minister in charge of Canada Customs, says that although the five-per-cent figure is an improvement over five years ago, customs officials still need more training, better equipment and a greater degree of co-operation from authorities in such drug-producing countries as Colombia and Thailand. “There has to be greater action and more effort,” said Jelinek. “We have had limited success. Now we must build on it.” For his part, the RCMP’s Stamler compared the international drug trade to a balloon. “When you squeeze one part,” he said, “a bubble pops up somewhere else.” With the narcotics trade showing no sign of abating, Canadian officials are likely to find themselves in a prolonged and deadly battle to contain the bubbles.