Cover

B.C.’s tunnel busters

It all began when a border agent noticed a drug dealer doing an honest day’s work

KEN MACQUEEN November 7 2005
Cover

B.C.’s tunnel busters

It all began when a border agent noticed a drug dealer doing an honest day’s work

KEN MACQUEEN November 7 2005

B.C.’s tunnel busters

Cover

It all began when a border agent noticed a drug dealer doing an honest day’s work

KEN MACQUEEN

UNTIL TAKING up residence at a Seattle-area federal detention centre this summer, 30-year-old Francis Devandra Raj, like many Indo-Canadians his age, lived with his parents at their Surrey, B.C., home. His father has owned an autobody shop for 30 years. Francis chose a different path. “Raj is no stranger to danger,” says Pat Fogarty, an inspector with British Columbia’s Organized Crime Agency, and the officer in charge of an investigative team of the province’s Combined Forces Special Enforcement Unit. Raj had a criminal history for marijuana possession and immigration violations. Inves-

tigators with the Canadian Border Services Agency kept watch, suspecting he might be involved in the cross-border drug trade.

In March 2004, he spent almost $595,000 for a property at 26171 Zero Ave., in Aldergrove, just east of Surrey. It consisted of a disused greenhouse, a metal Quonset hut, and a decaying white clapboard house—all fronting Zero Avenue, a semi-rural road running along the shallow ditch that serves as the border with the United States. By late last year, the property was a hive of activity. Raj arrived by truck each morning with fellow Surrey residents Timothy Woo, 35, and

Jonathan Valenzuela, 27. The house and the greenhouse remained in ill repair, but the trio lavished attention on the Quonset hut, where Raj told a neighbour they had plans for an autobody shop.

They’d vanish inside most mornings, often loading lumber or tools through the hut’s sliding back door. Evenings, weary and dirty after a 10-hour day, they headed home, often hauling away a load of dirt. Ironically, the appearance of Raj doing an honest day’s work was enough for an alert border-services agent to approach Fogarty’s unit last December. “Drug dealers don’t do a lot of physical labour—that’s why they’re drug dealers,” Fogarty recalls the agent arguing. “I kind of think it’s a tunnel.”

Fogarty considers himself a leader who encourages initiative. But, really, three guys digging from Aldergrove to Washington state? “I didn’t believe it,” he says. There’d never been a known illegal tunnel between the U.S. and Canada. Why would there be,

with all that open border? The special unit, which draws from police agencies across the province, has a mandate to fight organized criminals and serious crime. It has more than enough on its plate without chasing theories. The tunnel possibility might warrant a closer look, he told members. Come back with something solid if you want to take this further. And so they did.

U.S. authorities had discovered 33 tunnels under the American border with Mexico. They’d never found one breaching the border with Canada. Still, Joseph Giuliano, deputy chief patrol agent for the Pacific Northwest sector of the U.S. Border Patrol, worried that it was only a matter of time. After the terror attacks of Sept. 11,2001, the newly formed Department of Homeland Security beefed up staff and technology along its porous northwestern boundary. The overriding aim was to keep terrorists out, but the

crackdown also choked the relatively unfettered southern flow of B.C. pot. “They’re not going to go away simply because we make life difficult,” Giuliano says. “They adapt. They adjust. They improvise.”

This spring, U.S. agents of the Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA) and the Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) picked up worrisome intelligence from secretly recorded conversations with a Canadian ecstasy trafficker. He spoke of a crossborder drug tunnel. “In particular, he said that ‘they’ were going to charge $500 per pound of marijuana smuggled through the tunnel and that ‘they’ could run loads of approximately 300 lb. at a time,” a DEA agent later wrote in arrest documents filed with the U.S. District Court in Seattle. News of a tunnel big enough to move drugs—and people—“raised concerns of national security on both sides of the border,” says

John McKay, the Seattle-based U.S. district attorney, whose office is prosecuting the case. Key questions went unanswered for U.S. authorities. Where was the tunnel? And who was underwriting such a massive project? Who were “they”?

The closer B.C. investigators looked, the better the tunnel theory seemed. A title search of an empty property at 151E. Boundary, across the road on the U.S. side, showed it had been purchased by Fijian East Indians. “Same ethnic group,” says Fogarty. They ran through the options: maybe Raj and the others were removing dirt to install a cement floor? Maybe they were digging a bunker? Neither made sense. The investigators ran ground-penetrating radar along Zero Avenue. It failed to show a disturbance beneath the surface because, as they discovered later, the tunnel had yet to reach the road. Even as hot sun baked the metal hut, the doors stayed shut. “Nobody works like that,” says Fogarty. Police needed a look

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inside. An opportunity came unexpectedly.

The diggers worked a day shift, so police on overnight watch were shocked one June night to see a car pull up and a woman get out. “She proceeded to B and E the place, and actually took a number of tools from the Quonset hut,” says Fogarty. Police were initially alarmed the break-in might blow their surveillance. Fogarty decided to capitalize. “We had her taken down by Abbotsford police,” he says. She gave a vivid description of the inside of the hut. “It’s kind of weird,” she told them, describing a loading ramp, a hoist and a plywood-covered hole she almost fell into. They asked about all the lumber inside. She’d seen only a few wood scraps. Bingo. Police knew there was only one place all that lumber could be: underground.

By now, the unit had shared its information with U.S. authorities, giving them the location of the tunnel. They held regular inter-agency strategy meetings. Starting on July 2, judges on both sides of the border approved a series of covert search warrants allowing clandestine entry to the buildings and tunnel. “Wow,” Fogarty says of his first

look, “this is for real.” His first priority was to get an engineer down there. If the tunnel could undermine the road overhead, he’d have to shut it down. Fortunately, the 1.2-msquare tunnel was built to last, equipped with electric lights, vents and sump pumps to keep it dry. “They had reinforced all the walls and the ceiling with two-by-sixes on edge all the way across,” Fogarty says. “It was really good. I felt safe going in.” Authorities added decorative flourishes of their own, bugging the tunnel and the U.S. house with microphones and miniature video cameras.

A decision was made to let the men keep digging. It wasn’t just for the malicious pleasure of seeing them toil in vain, though Giuliano concedes there was some of that. “Paybacks,” he says with a grin, “are a bitch.” If the tunnel was used for drug runs, prosecuting the case would be much easier, says McKay. “We didn’t want to face the defence

of, ‘Well, I was digging a wine cellar and made a wrong turn.’ ” There was also the hope of finding who was underwriting the estimated US$ 1-million cost of the operation. “I don’t think that was Mr. Big down there in the tunnel with his shovel,” says Giuliano, “or even anyone closely related to Mr. Big.” Feaving this portal open carried its own risks. Agencies maxed out overtime, keeping constant watch. Could the tunnel overwhelm border defences with a flood of illegal aliens or drugs? Could it even be an elaborate ruse, wondered Giuliano, while terrorists quietly slipped in over the mountains? Could word leak as ever more agencies got involved? At one point, a seriously annoyed Fogarty warned U.S. investigators to back off. So many were driving by the tunnel area he feared they’d spook the diggers. There was really no need to get close. In addition to the bugs inside the tunnel, the U.S. Border Patrol had seismic recorders tracking its progress from ground level. The patrol also monitors an impressive bank of 32 video and infrared cameras along the northwest stretch of the border, each with

a range of almost five kilometres and the ability to pan and zoom in on any action.

The tunnel—some three metres deep and 110 m long—was done by early July. It surfaced through the living room floor of the Boundary Road house. An arrest strategy was put in place. Fogarty denies the plan was to make the bust on the U.S. side, where penalties for drug smuggling are drastically higher. The arrests depended on where the contraband flowed, he says. It could as easily have been cocaine and guns heading north. In fact, the first loads, on July 15, were two hockey bags likely full of marijuana. They were wheeled south through the tunnel on a cart and loaded into a van. Fogarty believes smugglers saw the massive marijuana market as a quick source of cash. “They had blown the budget,” he says. “This is why they were starting with marijuana, but this would have evolved very quickly to pay off

those bills.” U.S. agents trailed the van, losing it in heavy traffic near Seattle.

More bags followed the next day. These were loaded into a GMC van, and later handed off to a woman with a small child waiting at a mall in Bellingham, Wash. Drug agents had state troopers intercept the van as it headed south; it had 42 kg of marijuana inside. Meantime, the diggers went crossborder shopping. They hauled several grocery bags through the tunnel to Canada. Fogarty, worried about what the bags might contain, considered a bust. Money from the drug deal was one likelihood, but so were the staples Canadians smuggle on a daily basis: groceries and beer. Fogarty backed off. “The last thing I want to do,” he told investigators, “is take them down for 12 beers.”

Nothing moved the day after the van was busted, and then more bags followed. U.S. authorities hoped they might lead investigators up the food chain. Fogarty argued to shut the tunnel down. “My people are working 24/7. They’re coming to work exhausted. For what, another 100 lb. of marijuana?” U.S. authorities hit the Boundary Road house on July 20, after the men had popped from the tunnel with nothing more nefarious than equipment to fix the brakes on their van.

Raj, Woo and Valenzuela remain in custody. They’ve waived their right to a speedy trial, allowing authorities more scope to build their case, and their lawyers time to craft a defence. Canadian police swooped in on Raj’s parents’ home, seizing $32,290 from their bedroom. Police contend it was the proceeds of a drug sale. Raj says the money belongs to his parents.

Authorities won’t say if more arrests are likely. The accused, meanwhile, aren’t cooperating. Maybe a debt was being worked off. Maybe they were paid workers. It’s not in their best interest to say, concedes Fogarty, considering the murderous nature of B.C.’s Indo-Canadian gangs.

Few involved in the case doubt that organized crime was behind the tunnel. Or that it was a toll operation with the potential to carry things far more deadly than pot. It shows, if nothing else, the premium criminals place on breaching the border. Organized crime has sent “a little message,” says Giuliano. “If we have to, we’ll dig a tunnel. If we have to, we’ll get a 747 and fly it over you. If we have to, we’ll get a submarine.” A submarine, he says, brightening at the challenge. “That’s what I’m waiting on.” !?]

One agent made a shocking deduction: ‘Drug dealers don’t do a lot of physical

labour-1 kind of think it’s a tunnel’