CANADA

Drugs and guns

Is a Colombian assassination team in Canada?

GREG W. TAYLOR September 25 1989
CANADA

Drugs and guns

Is a Colombian assassination team in Canada?

GREG W. TAYLOR September 25 1989

Drugs and guns

CANADA

Is a Colombian assassination team in Canada?

It began when police in Edmundston, N.B., in the north of the province on the border with Maine, stopped a car and a van travelling together on a quiet residential street around 5:30 p.m. on Sept. 13. They were unprepared for what they discovered: a deadly arsenal that included an Uzi submachine-gun, two assault rifles and 3,000 rounds of ammunition. By noon the next day, five men were in custody in Edmundston and Saint John, 380 km away in the south of the province. All spoke Spanish and carried Venezuelan passports. But as the search for other suspects continued, attention focused on Fredericton, where two Colombians appeared in court on Sept. 14 to face charges of importing cocaine. And specialists in the shadowy world of the international drug trade quickly speculated that an armed gang had been sent to free— or silence—the pair. Predicted Robert Kupperman, an expert in terrorism at the Washington, D.C.-based Centre for Strategic and International Studies: “There will be many other such arrests in other places. The hit squads are coming.”

The first tip came on Wednesday afternoon from a woman in Edmundston who told police that she had seen several men in two cars and a van “acting suspiciously.”

Shortly afterward, a patrolling officer spotted two vehicles matching the woman’s description, one with New Brunswick and the other with New York licence plates.

When five officers approached with drawn revolvers, the two men driving the vehicles surrendered without a struggle. Said Edmundston’s deputy chief of police, Delbert Pelletier: “They just looked surprised, like they did not know what they had done wrong.” An hour later, police spotted a third suspect vehicle in the parking lot of a mall three kilometres away. Police arrested one man in the car and a companion who was making a call on a nearby pay telephone. The following day, police in Saint John arrested a fifth man as he was returning a rented car.

In addition to the Uzi, assault rifles and ammunition, police said that they found several handguns, camping equipment, an inflatable

boat, diving gear and another Venezuelan passport in the seized vehicles. According to his passport, the man arrested in Saint John was William José Rodriguez, 33, of Caracas. At week’s end, he faced weapons and immigration charges. The four others, charged with a variety of weapons violations, were identified as Tito Sanchez, Euovio Manzano, Osvaldo Gonzalez and Wilmer Ramon Zanabria, all of Venezuela. All were due back in court this week.

Meanwhile, police across the province were looking for other suspects. In particular, Saint John police asked citizens to be on the lookout for at least three men seen with Rodriguez shortly before his arrest. Said Det.-Insp. Dallas Urquhart: “There are others out there.”

It quickly became evident that the identities of the five may well have been aliases. Edmundston’s Pelletier said that he believed that all of the Venezuelan passports had been “altered,” and he said that at least some of the arrested men may actually have been Colombians. He added that the passports indicated that the four men arrested in Edmundston had flown directly from an unspecified country in South Ameri-

ca to Canada, RCMP Insp. AÍ Hutchinson said that four of the five said that they cannot speak English, and that all five were refusing to talk to police on the advice of lawyers.

Despite the potential threat to proceedings, the Fredericton hearing went ahead, but only after more than two dozen heavily armed members of the RCMP and Fredericton city police special response teams surrounded the courthouse and searched everyone entering the courtroom. Armed guards ushered the two accused men, José Ali Galindo Escobar and Fernando Augusto Mendoza Jarmillio—both aged 36—into the redbrick courthouse for their preliminary hearing on charges of importing 1,100 lb. of cocaine into Canada last April 3. RCMP arrested the two men in Toronto after a twin-engine Rockwell Commander aircraft, allegedly flown by the pair, crash-landed

at a remote airstrip north of Fredericton. In the following days, police arrested 12 more people—several of them Colombians—in Montreal and Toronto and seized cocaine valued at about $250 million.

Since then, Canadian authorities have asked the Colombian government to extradite Diego Caycedo of Medellin, suspected of masterminding that and several other illicit drug shipments to Canada. In the wake of Colombia’s recent crackdown on the drug trade, however, the country’s drug barons have issued threats to strike back at efforts to extradite them. And one source close to Canada’s anti-trafficking campaign told Maclean ’s that the Colombian kingpins may have dispatched a hit team as a result of the Fredericton piÉÉ^ trial. Said the source: “They I were there to see that the damage in the court did not ■Hr I get extensive. Basically, they I were there to do away with z [the two defendants].”

I Meanwhile, American au? thorities—including members of the U.S. Border Patrol, U.S. Customs Service,

the Federal Bureau of Investigation and the Drug Enforcement Administration—have been helping Canadian authorities investigate how the men arrested last week made their way to Canada. But some of those officials speculated that the events in New Brunswick may only be the first of many similar incidents in the weeks to come. Said Kupperman: “We believe the drug lords are quite capable of sending teams to assassinate judges, political leaders or anyone they see as their enemy.” Distance may be no defence against the revenge of the Colombian drug cartel.

GREG W. TAYLOR

with correspondents’ reports