CANADA

Uprooting the mob

Police break up a major drug-smuggling ring

JOHN NICOL July 27 1998
CANADA

Uprooting the mob

Police break up a major drug-smuggling ring

JOHN NICOL July 27 1998

Uprooting the mob

CANADA

Police break up a major drug-smuggling ring

At 4 a.m. last Wednesday, Marianne Iannachino’s water broke, and when she decided to go to the hospital three hours later, she nearly had the baby on her doorstep. Outside, the serenity of her cul-de-sac of monster homes and manicured lawns in Woodbridge, Ont., had been broken by eight police cars that showed up to arrest Alfonso Caruana, reputed to be one of Canada’s most powerful mobsters. “I’m scared,” she called out to her mother, worrying whether she’d be able to get through the roadblock at the end of their street (she did, and delivered a healthy boy seven hours later). Bewildered residents of the bedroom community northwest of Toronto had already begun to descend on the roadblock. And when he learned what was happening, Mike De Frenza, a local businessman, said he was happy the arrest could mean safer streets for his children. “You work hard to afford to bring your family up here to a clean area, and look what happens,” he said. “You only think it’s clean.”

Caruana was only one of 12 people arrested and charged with drug trafficking in last Wednesday’s police operation—encompassing not only Canada but Mexico and the United States as well. But the majority of the arrests—eight—were in Toronto and Montreal. And of those, Caruana’s was the most pivotal. Police say that he oversaw an organization of Sicilian origin that ran drugs and laundered money for other mob families. The arrests, triggered by the May 16 discovery of 200 kg of cocaine carelessly concealed by drug couriers in Texas, are being hailed as the biggest organized-crime bust in Canadian history. And they cap a two-year international investigation that was nearly stopped in January for lack of funds.

That, in fact, partly explains last week’s well-orchestrated media coverage of the arrests. RCMP Insp. Ben Soave, who oversees the Combined Forces Special Enforcement Unit that co-ordinated the investigation, acknowledges the need to convince the public and politicians that such lengthy and costly investigations are worthwhile. In fact, several well-placed leaks to the media ensured splashy coverage of the operation. A huge news conference, clearly planned well in advance, featured money-flow and drugflow maps as well as officials of some of the other police forces involved, including the Italian Carabinieri and American Federal Bureau of Investigation. Soave even tried to simplify his complex investigation into a catchy sound bite, calling Caruana the liWayne Gretzky” of mobsters.

In an interview with Maclean’s, Soave said that taking on organized crime is like finding a dandelion—and instead of pulling it out by its roots, mowing the lawn. “It will still look manicured,” he notes, “but you will get a bunch more dandelions as long as those roots are still there. Before you know it, your whole lawn is infested and it has spread to your neighbors’ lawns.” Organized crime, he adds, has been involved in 20 murders in southern Ontario alone over the past five years. Besides, criminals regularly corrupt public officials—and youth. In Toronto, Soave says, the Russian mob is recruiting teenagers as young as 13. “The public never looks at that,” says Soave, who has been in police work for 28 years. “Then again, do they stop to think when they buy a package of smuggled cigarettes they are supporting an organized criminal group? It’s very difficult to perceive, it’s not visible.”

Neither, for the longest time, was the organization headed by Caruana. Police claim it has been active in Canada for 30 years, for the most part unimpeded by law enforcement agencies. Not only could it count on the Mafia code of silence, known as omerta, to keep its operations quiet, but it was what Toronto-based organized-crime expert Antonio Nicaso calls a “biological” mob family: two Sicilian clans, the Caruanas and the Cuntreras, connected by intermarriages to the point that anyone breaking ranks would have to betray a relative. As well, the organization was so international—it operated in Thailand, India, Europe, the Caribbean and North and South America—and had such a complex network of bank accounts that any investigation would have to be long-term and involve huge travel and surveillance costs.

Soave says that, over the years, mob investigations have collapsed or never got started due to lack of funding. Last winter, his own investigation, which relied on cooperation and resources from more than 20 police agencies around the world, also faced that possibility, with costs running into the millions and funds running out. In the end, the unit received funding—Soave would only describe it as a “six-figure” sum—from the Criminal Investigations Service of Ontario, a provincial government agency, to complete its task. But the work, Soave admits, will never be complete. If the arrested members of a family are successfully prosecuted, new leaders are likely to take their places. In Soave’s metaphor, the dandelions will be back.

JOHN NICOL