For a gang with a reputation for ruthless efficiency, it was a curiously lax operation. Last November a member of Montreal’s biggest cocaine trafficking syndicate parked a rented Oldsmobile Sierra in the underground garage of a downtown apartment block, then walked off leaving the car keys dangling from the trunk. A second man was scheduled to arrive shortly afterward and remove a parcel from the car, but police arrested him before he could make the pickup. When a passerby saw the keys and opened the trunk, he found 23 kg of high-quality cocaine in two hockey equipment bags, each kilo individually parcelled in plastic and wrapped in fingerprint-proof silver duct tape. The cache’s estimated street value: $16 million.
Since making the seizure, one of the largest ever in Canada, Montreal drug
enforcement authorities have been able to obtain only one conviction in the case. The driver of the car, Jorge Alberto Roa, 24, a Canadian citizen of Columbian origin, received a six-year jail sentence in January for possession of narcotics with intent to traffic. Still, the case has highlighted the rise of a powerful new force in Montreal’s everexpanding drug trade. A police spokesman said that Roa belongs to the lower ranks of a “family” of Colombian immigrants that now dominates trafficking in the city, Canada’s cocaine capital. Linked to similar gangs in Boston, New York, Miami and Colombia itself—the source of 18 per cent of the cocaine reaching Canada—the syndicate has established a highly organized importation and distribution network. Said Lt. Detective Claude Lachapelle, drug squad chief for the Montreal Urban Community (MUC): “They started
moving in here four or five years ago. Now, 75 per cent of the cocaine seized is taken from Colombians.”
The ascendancy of the Colombian cocaine traffickers, who have blended into Montreal’s generally law-abiding Latin American community of about 25,000, has added a violent new twist to the city’s burgeoning drug problem. Motorcycle gangs, along with francophone, Italian and Irish-Canadian crime groups have also exploited the booming market for cocaine—and for heroin. In fact, in its annual report on the illicit drug trade, the RCMP said that Montreal serves as “the leading national distribution centre” for cocaine while doubling as a regional distribution point for eastern Canada.
In January one RCMP agent told the MUC Public Security Committee, a panel still studying drug abuse, that nearly 65 per cent of federal drug seizures occur in Quebec, mainly in Montreal and at Mirabel international airport. Said William McKissock, the Ottawa-based chief of Canada Customs’ anti-drug division: “There is no question—Montreal is a world hub of narcotics trafficking.”
The growing role of organized crime in the cocaine trade, police say, is a nationwide phenomenon fuelled by a rapid increase in consumer demand. The RCMP estimates that Canadians are spending $1.2 billion a year on the fashionable, powder-like narcotic. At the same time, the number of people charged by the RCMP with cocaine offences rose 13 per cent to 1,161 in the year to March 31, 1985. More than 115 kg of cocaine were seized, a 17-percent increase.
The drug reaches Canada from South America by a variety of circuitous routes, often passing through Florida, the Caribbean or Mexico. From the United States—the world’s largest market for cocaine with an estimated consumption of 100 tons in 1985—cocaine enters Canada by car, truck, boat, small plane and commercial airliner. The main destinations: Vancouver, Toronto and Montreal.
Montreal’s Colombian traffickers purchase most of their cocaine in Miami, authorities say. By moving large quantities of the drug into the citylast year 1,134 kg was seized in Miami from a Colombian Avianca Airlines 747 carrying flowers to Montreal— they have managed to reduce the price of a kilogram of undiluted cocaine to $55,000 from $72,000 on the local wholesale market. The Colombian organization guarantees its buyers “quantity, quality and low prices,” one MUC drug squad agent told Maclean's. “They know the game better than anybody.”
Police say the Colombian family actually consists of two organizations. One controls importation and distribution, the other the investment and “laundering” of drug profits. Altogether, MUC police have identified 50 Columbians suspected of dealing in cocaine. But so far police have been unable to penetrate the tightly knit families at the higher levels.
The Colombians established a foothold in North America in the 1970s, when three or four family syndicates controlled the export of cocaine to the United States. Now, U.S. authorites say that 17 Colombian families are operating in the country, taking a leading role in the wholesale and retail trade. In Toronto the Colombians have also taken over a significant share of the drug market, according to police. As well, other Latin American gangs have begun to compete with the Colombians.
Montreal police say criminal elements in the city’s 1,500-strong Peruvian community are pushing for a larger share of the drug business.
Montreal’s established underworld groups have also moved quickly to exploit the rich market for cocaine. An RCMP investigation of Montrealer Sabatino (Sammy) Nicolucci, 37—sentenced last September to 14 years in prison for importing 12 kilos (value: $8 million) of cocaine seized in Vancouver two years ago—uncovered links between the trafficker and Montreal’s Sicilian Mafia, al-
legedly headed by Montrealer Nicholas Rizzuto. During a 1984 visit to Caracas, Venezuela, where Rizzuto owns a restaurant called II Padrone (Italian for The Godfather), Nicolucci was seen meeting with Rizzuto’s son, Vito. Later, while Nicolucci was staying on the Caribbean island of Aruba, intelligence sources say, a member of the Cuntrera family, another Sicilian Mafia clan operating in Montreal and Caracas, paid his hotel bill. During their investigation of Nicolucci, RCMP narcotics agents also learned of another cocaine distribution ring. That one allegedly involves Montreal businessman Denis Lemieux, 42, an owner of the chic Bishop Street nightclub, Le Privé and one of seven men currently in court on trafficking offence charges, after police seized 21 kg of cocaine in Montreal last year.
Montreal also appears to be a major conduit for Mafia-controlled heroin. Reputed Montreal underworld kingpin
Frank Cotroni is currently fighting an extradition order on charges of conspiracy to import heroin into the United States.
Moreover, in January three middleaged Montreal men of Sicilian descent—Gerlando Caruana, Filippo Vaccarella and Luciano Zambito— were convicted in the largest heroin seizure (58 kg) in Canadian history and sentenced to 20 years each for conspiring to import the drug. They had attempted to import the heroin into Canada via England in a con-
tainer of furniture shipped from Thailand.
Meanwhile, Montreal police have had to contend with still another gang of heroin traffickers. It has about 100 members, mainly Iranians who already have Canadian criminal records. The young gang seized a large portion of the city’s street-level heroin trade, originally working out of downtown amusement arcades but now operating clandestinely. Members of the group, MUC police say, import small, 50to 200-gram batches of the narcotic in letters and parcels sent from Pakistan, then traffic largely in “point” measures—one-tenth of a gram—worth $60. Last year the MUC arrested 25 Iranians on drug-related offenses.
At the same time, the allure of fast money is attracting a stream of smalltime traffickers. At Mirabel airport customs officers regularly arrest travellers wearing drug-filled body packs and others who have swallowed balloons of cocaine, hashish or heroin. Most are between 18 and 25, and 85 per cent of the carriers are jobless—a profile that reflects Montreal’s improving, but still serious, unemployment rate of 11.5 per cent. Pierre Sigouin, acting Montreal region chief of Canada Cus-
toms’ anti-drug squad, also points to the wide use of non-criminals as couriers, or “mules,” by drug distribution groups. Said Sigouin, whose 19-man squad confiscated more than $181 million of illegal drugs between last April and January and made 200 arrests: “The market is open to whoever dares take the risks. And for a lot of people in this city, smuggling is an attractive alternative to poverty.”
Heroin use has, in fact, ballooned in recent years. Police say that the estimated number of regular users in Montreal has doubled in recent years to between 4,000 and 5,000. Far more evident, however, is the city’s appetite for “bag”—cocaine. In the city’s dense network of nightclubs, almost every establishment has been staked out by dealers of quarterand half-gram portions of the expensive—$100 to $150 a gram —stimulant, says Lachapelle. Said Montreal criminal lawyer Jean Dury: “Most cases I deal with, whether they be armed robbery, murder or assault, are drug-related crimes. And most often the drug involved is coke; it’s a social poison.”
The lucrative business of supplying the drug in large quantities has led to a modern-day gold-rush involving even prominent members of Montreal society. In January a provincial court judge sentenced Jean Renault, a $100,000-a-year insurance lawyer, to 14 years in prison for his role in creating Canada’s first known cocaineprocessing laboratory.
With such a variety of competitors in the crowded cocaine business, the potential for violence is high. Already, many Montrealers have come to accept random bloodshed as the inevitable byproduct of the illegal trade. According to MUC police, 86 murders directly related to drug trafficking were committed in Montreal from January, 1980, to July, 1985. Only last month former Hell’s Angel Yves (Apache) Trudeau, 42, pleaded guilty to 43 counts of manslaughter spanning a 15year career as an underworld assassin-many of them connected with the drug trade.
Some municipal officials say that they have been surprised by the rapid growth of the drug trade. “There is obviously a very big business in drugs here,” said Lachine mayor Guy Descary, who headed hearings of the MUC Security Commission into the trade. “We were all a little shocked.” But while police say drug enforcement is a top priority, they insist that as long as demand for drugs such as cocaine keeps rising, Montreal’s resourceful and durable underworld will continue to do a lively business.
The story you want is part of the Maclean’s Archives. To access it, log in here or sign up for your free 30-day trial.
Experience anything and everything Maclean's has ever published — over 3,500 issues and 150,000 articles, images and advertisements — since 1905. Browse on your own, or explore our curated collections and timely recommendations.WATCH THIS VIDEO for highlights of everything the Maclean's Archives has to offer.