CANADA

The wild coast

Drug runners work the Atlantic connection

JOHN DeMONT November 11 1991
CANADA

The wild coast

Drug runners work the Atlantic connection

JOHN DeMONT November 11 1991

The wild coast

Drug runners work the Atlantic connection

Just after 2 a.m. on Oct. 27, on an isolated stretch of Nova Scotia’s Highway 103 just 40 km west of Halifax, RCMP officers swooped. As a black dump truck headed east from a secluded stretch of shoreline, several carloads of officers forced the vehicle to pull over. After apprehending the driver, they looked into the back of the truck and found what they had been expecting: plastic-covered bales of hashish, almost three tons of it, with a street value that police put at about $45 million. The raid was the culmination of weeks of investigation by the RCMP and Halifax police. Within three days, 10 men, all of them Nova Scotians, had been charged as a result of the seizure. And Canada Customs officers impounded a Panamanian-registered freighter, forced into Halifax harbor by engine trouble, on suspicion of having unloaded the hashish shipment on Nova Scotia’s South Shore.

It was the sixth large drug seizure in Nova Scotia in the past 18 months. But in spite of those successes, RCMP drug enforcement officers say that they are overwhelmed by the flow of drugs into the province. By their own esti-

mates, they intercept less than 10 per cent of the narcotics smuggled into Nova Scotia. And, they add, the amount of drugs entering Canada through the East Coast has increased dramatically in recent years because of Washington’s strict crackdown on drug smuggling along the eastern seaboard of the United States. That, according to police, has encouraged international drug cartels to transform isolated stretches of Nova Scotia’s coastline into one of their main pipelines for moving drugs into North America. Declared Cpl. Daniel Duffy, a member of the RCMP’s Coastal Watch program, which monitors marine drug smuggling in Nova Scotia: “This province is an open door for drug runners.”

But the problem is not restricted to Nova Scotia. In April, 1989, police in neighboring New Brunswick made the largest cocaine seizure in Canadian history when they arrested two Colombians whose plane crashed outside Fredericton—carrying more than half a ton of high-grade cocaine. Last August on Prince Edward Island, authorities apprehended a truck carrying almost five tons of marijuana,

and arrested 10 men in connection with the seizure. And in many ways, drug smuggling is the continuation of a long-established Maritime tradition. During the Prohibition era, Atlantic Canada emerged as one of the main supply routes for illicit alcohol destined for the United States. Smugglers handled thousands of boatloads in the provinces’ many secluded harbors.

RCMP officers say that most of the illegal bounty now arriving in Atlantic Canada travels in nondescript coastal freighters—outfitted with state-of-the-art radar and navigational equipment. The mother ship usually stays outside of Canadian territorial waters, where the crew then transfers the cargoes of hashish, marijuana or cocaine to smaller craft—often local fishing boats—which move the drugs to shore. In Nova Scotia, the smugglers store their goods in any of the hundreds of tiny coves and inlets that mark the province’s coastline. They then transport it by road to distribution centres in Ontario, Quebec and the United States. Explained Sgt. Gary Grant, co-ordinator of the RCMP’s drug-awareness program in Nova Scotia: “These people have the money to buy the best equipment. They are extremely well organized and extremely sophisticated in their methods.”

Still, Nova Scotia drug agents have enjoyed some success in dealing smugglers major setbacks in recent years. Last week’s raid was the latest in a series of seizures in the province that began in May, 1990, when smugglers fled after being spotted by a fisherman. In the process, they abandoned 35 tons of hashish with an estimated street value of about $525 million on a secluded beach near the tiny fishing village of East Berlin on the province’s South Shore. Police are still investigating that incident—the second-largest hashish seizure ever in North America. As well, on July 30, 1990, the RCMP—with help from a naval destroyer and a coast guard cutter— struck again, arresting 16 men and seizing 20 tons of hashish worth an estimated $300 million in the sleepy Cape Breton fishing community of Baleine. And in April, RCMP officers charged 21 people in connection with a large shipload of cocaine from Colombia’s infamous Medellin cartel that was destined for Yarmouth, N.S., but sank near Cape Race, Nfld., after hitting ice.

That flurry of drug-smuggling activity, Canadian drug enforcement officers say, is mainly the result of Washington’s decision in the mid1980s to vastly step up its efforts to reduce the flow of drugs into the United States. Those efforts have yielded some success: last year, American drug agents intercepted 222 million lb. of marijuana, compared with 3.5 million lb. in 1979. Declared Grant: “The drug cartels are unable to

get into the United States, so they have simply redirected their cargoes to Atlantic Canada.”

That has left Canadian drug enforcement authorities fighting a vastly unequal—and understaffed—battle against wealthy and powerful international drug barons. In fact, in Nova Scotia, only two RCMP officers work full time combing the province’s coastline for drug shipments. As a result, the RCMP is forced to rely heavily on its Coastal Watch program, which encourages fishermen and others to call the force—anonymously if need be— about any suspicious activity that may be linked to the drug trade. Already, police say, a number of seizures have resulted from tips by Nova Scotians who have noticed unknown ships offshore or observed suspicious activities on isolated stretches of the coastline. “The old rumrunners were almost folk heroes in the small communities,” said the RCMP’s Duffy. “Most people don’t feel any such kinship to this new generation of smugglers.” But public sentiment alone has not been enough to stop the international drug cartels from turning Atlantic Canada into their newest North American transit route.

JOHN DeMONT