Weapons are crossing the border by the thousands, writes CHARLIE GILLIS, and the number of people wounded and killed in this country is mounting

August 15 2005


Weapons are crossing the border by the thousands, writes CHARLIE GILLIS, and the number of people wounded and killed in this country is mounting

August 15 2005



Weapons are crossing the border by the thousands, writes CHARLIE GILLIS, and the number of people wounded and killed in this country is mounting

JOHN BUTCHER had fallen on hard times. His wife of 33 years had died after a lengthy battle with multiple sclerosis. He’d lost his job in the financial services industry, he’d run out of money and, in his late 50s, the expat Englishman had been forced to move in with his daughter. With only an entry-level job at a golf course and moonlight gigs as frontman of a blues band to earn his keep, he felt like a burden. So when a close friend approached him with a shady sounding proposition—$500 per trip to

squire envelopes stuffed with U.S. cash into Canada from Detroit—he swallowed hard and accepted. “I was told that at my age, I would never be involved with anything that would result in a jail sentence,” he says. Glancing at his surroundings—a drafty interview room at the Toronto East Detention Centre—he now snorts at this thought with hollow laughter.

Between desultory mouthfuls of prisonissue bologna sandwich, Butcher, now 62,

unspools his tale of self-inflicted woe. He did in fact make two trips with money in early 2004, crossing the border without incident and collecting his fee in cash. But on his third trip, Canadian customs officers stopped him at the Detroit-Windsor Tunnel and searched his 1991 Pontiac Sunbird. There, in the space beneath the spare tire in his trunk, they found 23 high-powered handguns, including a TEC-9 semi-automatic, a weapon notorious within the law

enforcement community for its tendency to spray bullets like water from a garden hose. Butcher maintains he had no idea he was carrying a small arsenal. “If I had, I would have thrown those obscenities into the Detroit River.”

But ignorance buys only so much mercy when you’re implicated in Canada’s gunrunning epidemic. Although the court accepted Butcher’s claims that the guns were planted, he was sentenced to 2xh years in jail, emerging last month. The whole experience has left him bitter, and from time

Clockwise from above: 9-mm handgun; shooting scene in a Toronto apartment building; Surrey, B.C., RCMP with seized arms; Shaquan in hospital

to time Butcher lashes out—at the cops, the Crown, the illegal gun traders who drew him into their web. But mostly he heaps scorn on himself. “If ever there was an Olympic medal for stupidity,” he says, “I would have won gold.”

STUPIDITY, to be sure. But if the summer of 2005 has taught Butcher anything, it’s that he was a pawn in a much larger, bloodier, business. In the past two weeks, five

someone to point a finger south. Mayor David Miller, among others, singled out the U.S. as a prime source of gangland weapons on Canadian streets, saying the guns that come over the border are “very easily accessible to these kinds of thugs.”

If the experience of Canada’s border agents is anything to go by, Miller is right. In the

gang-related killings since the mid-1990s is the one glaring exception to Canada’s overall decline in violent crime. At the same time, handguns have been steadily supplanting long-barrelled guns as weapons of choice in gun homicides, reflecting what experts see as a critical shift in the nature of violent crime in Canada. “Overall, there are more gang and drug-related killings, and fewer family killings,” says Tom Gabor,

people have been killed and 11 injured . MM All

in 14 separate shootings in Toronto, including one that sent a four-year-old boy to hospital with four bullet wounds, and another that scattered late-night revellers from a downtown square. The unrelenting stream of gunplay drew alarmed reaction from politicians, including Ontario Premier Dalton McGuinty, and it didn’t take long for

past five years, authorities have seized more than 5,400 firearms coming into the country from the United States, a figure believed to represent a fraction of the northward flow. The lion’s share of those weapons— some 3,695—were handguns, which tells you something about who was doing the buying. Pistols, after all, are the tools of the urban street gang, and a threefold growth in

a University of Ottawa criminologist. “Those involved in the former seem to have a preference for handguns, many of which are unregistered and likely smuggled into the country.”

Butcher’s case could be considered Exhibit A: the so-called friend who recruited him to smuggle cash, he says, turned out to have indirect connections to the notorious Malvern Crew, a gang of thugs named


for the part of suburban Toronto where they’ve spent the past couple of years dealing drugs and terrorizing the public. Justice Timothy Lipson, the Ontario court judge who sentenced Butcher, concluded that the weapons he was carrying were to be sold to “gang members in Scarborough” for purposes of “the drug trade and turf protection.”

But it’s not the only example, and some recent cases suggest growing demand within gangs for military-style assault weapons.

Two years ago, police on the West Coast interrupted a smuggling operation after U.S. authorities spotted someone with a backpack crossing the border outside Blaine, Wash., and alerted the RCMP. The Mounties gave chase and eventually recovered a bag containing 12 semi-automatic weapons, along with two Uzi submachine guns. The culprit got away.

Such cases make it easier to understand why practically every cop on the street these days seems to be encased in body armour, and why police calls for ac-

Down on his luck, Butcher thought he was being paid to move cash, not arms

tion have taken a slightly hysterical tone. After one shooting in June, a veteran Toronto homicide detective said it had become “commonplace” to seize handguns during investigations, adding that “people would rather be caught with a gun by police than be caught without one by a rival.” Beat officers in Calgary, Edmonton and Montreal tell similar stories—more incidents involving guns; more seizures of prohibited weapons, more spates of unrestrained gun violence. Last year, police in Vancouver sounded a public alarm after investigating three shootings in four days, two of which were fatal.

Not all the guns used in such

Cover I >


after cardboard box, layan incentive, police offered to forgo weapons cases are necessarily ing pistols on a table for viewing. Some are charges if suspects simply turned in their

cases are necessarily smuggled. Some are stolen from Canadian owners, or from gun shops, in break-ins. But the seemingly endless flow across the border—and the sense the bad guys can tap the pipeline whenever they please—has left many officers feeling helpless. “We remove firearms [from the street] on a regular basis now,” says Insp. Rob Rothwell, head of criminal intelligence for the Vancouver police. “But for these people, it’s like buying a pack of candy. They re-arm themselves immediately afterwards.”

the street, recalls Hill. As after cardboard box, layan incentive, police offered to forgo weapons ible for viewing. Some are charges if suspects simply turned in their ic o pmrlpKj attapBprl lacpr nipppc Ttip pfFppt was liWp npplina an onion

Hill and his police colleagues found 10 smuggled weapons in the Windsor area

THE BASEMENT property room at Windsor police headquarters doesn’t generally see many handguns. Not, at least, by American standards. The half-mile of water separating Canada’s southernmost city from downtown Detroit has traditionally buffered the community from the gun-toting criminal element on the other side. Yet it’s here, amid a scattering of stolen stereos and bicycles, that Det. Brad Hill is unsealing box

ing pistols on a table for viewing. Some are in pieces. One has a crudely attached laser that casts a red dot on the intended target. Hill, who has a deadpan air that would play nicely on Law & Order, wears a quizzical expression as he handles the pistols. “I’m not really into guns,” he admits. “I only know how to fire my own.”

These weapons were seized during a recent home-invasion investigation that quickly morphed into a journey into the cross-border weapons trade. It began when officers searching a suspect’s girlfriend’s apartment discovered a Hi-Point .380 pistol hidden in the toilet tank. They entered the weapon’s serial number on a shared police database that tracks smuggled firearms. A few hours later, a call came from Ontario’s Provincial Weapons Enforcement Unit advising that the gun could be part of a larger shipment of illicit weapons originating in Atlanta.

“So we started leaning on these suspects” to find the rest of the guns and get them off

charges if suspects simply turned in their pieces. The effect was like peeling an onion. Within 24 hours, they had collected 10 handguns right in the Windsor area—most of them .380 or 9-mm Hi-Points, a downmarket version of the Austrian-made Glock favoured by many police departments. One they found hidden in the ceiling tiles of a local auto body shop, another in the apartment of a suspect’s grandmother. The bull of the herd, a TEC-9 machine pistol, sat in a shoebox on the porch of a tidy bungalow, just above a manicured row of shrubs.

It is, without stretching the point, a fearsome piece of hardware. As Hill hoists the TEC-9 for closer inspection, he brushes away fingerprinting dust on the 30-round clip and points to the absence of a second handle to govern the direction of fire. “You couldn’t control it, even if you wanted to,” he says. Investigators believe the guns were destined for Toronto, which several of the suspects call home. But to Hill, there’s small comfort in the idea of being a way station in an illegal weapons route. “We like to think we don’t

Cover >

have a lot of guns in Windsor. To come across this many in our community is unnerving.”

UNNERVING enough, you’d think, to make weapons smuggling a major diplomatic issue between Canada and the United States. The connection between the gun supply in the U.S. and the criminal element in Canada is, after all, well accepted, if not well measured. In 2004, Canadian police asked the U.S. Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives to trace 1,135 guns seized during criminal investigations—guns they were pretty sure originated in the U.S. This year, they’re on pace to top that number, says Mark Curtin, the ATF’s attaché at the U.S. embassy in Ottawa, and while he’s forbidden by law from disclosing the success rate of the traces, he says gun issues represent about 80 per cent of his office’s work these days. A good thing, too: according to the RCMP-led National Weapons Enforcement Support Team, a unit formed to combat gun smuggling, fully 94 per cent of crime guns they seized on Vancouver streets in 2003 came from the U.S., while other studies suggest one out of two handguns recovered in Canadian crime are smuggled into the country.

Meantime, hardly a day passes without news of some shooting in a Canadian city— often gang-related and too often devastating to innocent bystanders like Shaquan Cadougan, the four-year-old from Toronto. The Malvern Crew came under public scrutiny last year after a stray bullet flew through the wall of a home in north Scarborough, killing Derek Wah Yan, 40, and later when an innocent 21-year-old, Omar Hortley, was gunned down on a city sidewalk. The fourday spate of shootings in Vancouver that garnered so much attention last year claimed the life of a man walking on a thoroughfare during rush hour (police believe he had run out of gas). In Montreal, a 30-year-old man was wounded 18 months ago during a gang shootout outside an apartment block.

Why then, is gun smuggling not a topline subject in the ongoing negotiations to strengthen border controls? If Washington complains of terrorist cells operating north of the border, or hydroponic pot pouring southward, surely Canada has a legitimate gripe about U.S. guns endangering its police and creating a lethal environment in its cities. Where is the quid pro quo?

The answer, of course, lies in the elephantand-mouse imbalance that has always defined

Canada-U.S. relations. While the U.S. leans heavily on Ottawa to harmonize its immigration screening and border security to weed out terrorists, Canada must focus on protecting its $680-billion trade relationship with the U.S., and has little leverage for its own demands. “This would be very hard to get on any kind of binational agenda,” says Reginald Stuart, an expert in CanadaU.S. relations at Mount Saint Vincent University in Halifax. “There’s just no constituency in the United States to support it at a federal level.” One problem is money. Even if the ATF wants more funds for antismuggling operations, says Stuart, a past scholar at the Washington-based Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars, “the answer’s going to be ‘okay, get in line’.” Another problem is America’s ongoing love affair with firearms, which gun control advocates say blinds it to the fears of its neighbours. The latest statistics indicate there’s a gun in America for nearly every one of the country’s 280 million people, and the anti-firearms lobby is getting nowhere

with Republicans in control of Congress and the White House. While the ATF and other agencies have worked diligently to help Canadian police, the sheer volume of firearms south of the border makes their work appear futile. To Josh Horwitz, executive director of the Washington-based Coalition to Stop Gun Violence, this alone justifies Ottawa sticking its nose into American affairs. “We need to hear from other countries who say, ‘We’ve done all we can. We need help,”’ he says. “You have a role in this debate.” Canada could try some practical measures, too, starting with a tougher approach to Americans who try crossing the border with weapons. “Bringing a gun into Canada right now can get you a fine as low as $300 or $400,” says Wendy Cukier, president of the Toronto-based Coalition for Gun Control and a professor of justice studies at Ryerson University. “On the illegal market, the same gun would sell for more than that.” Ottawa could also broaden its successful experiment with special, bi-national police units that


Feb. 10, 2000: Gunfire in the parking lot of Toronto’s Emery Collegiate Institute left an 18-year-old bystander shot in the abdomen. Four young men were arrested.

April 5,2002:30-year-old Richard Daniel Lof was killed by a stray bullet during an altercation at a Surrey, B.C., pub. Jagrup Singh was convicted of his murder.

Aug. 16, 2003: A violent confrontation at the Loft Six nightclub in Vancouver between bikers and Indo-Canadian gangsters left DJ John Popovich, 32, dead and two other bystanders injured.

April 21, 2004: A stray bullet from a nearby gunbattle shattered Louise Russo’s spine, as the 45-year-old mother stood in line at a Toronto sandwich shop.

Aug. 5, 2004: Gunfire during a Mon-

trealstreet fight hit an innocent woman in the arm. Gang violence was blamed.

Nov. 28,2004: Tamara Carter, 11 (left), was shot in the face by a stray bullet when a man opened fire on a Toronto bus.

July 19,2005: Shamari Belnavis,20, was able to save his four-year-old brother before he was executed in a hail of bullets by two gunmen in Toronto. But a 19-year-old male bystander was shot and wounded.

July 24,2005: A family argument on the Siksika First Nation, east of Calgary, resulted in a 14-month-old boy being shot in the head while seated in a stroller. His 16-year-old uncle was charged.

Aug. 3,2005: Outside on a hot Toronto night, four-year-old Shaquan Cadougan and three others were wounded in a drive-by shooting. A 23-year-old man has been charged.

Compiled by Patricia Treble Sources: Various news agencies, Toronto Police Service

Cover >

fight border crime. Canada now has 19 Integrated Border Enforcement Teams, which are made up of officers from the RCMP, Canada Border Services, U.S. Customs and the U.S. Coast Guard, operating across the country. They’ve been effective, say experts, in gathering intelligence and cracking smuggling rings before guns reach the streets.

There’s a third approach, however, that could prove more effective—and more divisive—over the long term. Instead of scolding Americans for their attachment to firearms, some advocates say we should make gunsmuggling a keystone issue in talks to create a continental security perimeter. In exchange for harmonizing immigration and entry laws to address U.S. concerns about terrorism, the theory goes, Canada could press for stateside action against gun smugglers, and investment by the Americans in stronger border measures to block the movement of illicit firearms. “It’s a question of mutuality of interests,” says Allan Gotlieb, Canada’s former ambassador to Washington and a long-

tion philosophy on its neighbours. And Cukier, for one, sees border integration as irrelevant, possibly counter-productive, in blocking guns from being smuggled northward. “There’s nothing this [U.S.] administration could do to assure me they would keep guns from coming into Canada,” she says, “especially if we began relaxing the border. I don’t believe they would have the will or the wherewithal to do anything about it.”

IN THE MEANTIME, people like Ken Jones, a Canada Border Services officer based in New Brunswick, must make do with what they have—namely, technology and native savvy. At the busy car crossing between St. Stephen, N.B., and Calais, Maine, Jones sits inside a tall, white truck, peering at a computer monitor as we roll slowly alongside a semi-trailer carrying a large sailboat. With its myriad compartments, masts, rigging and inboard engine, the yacht would be an ideal place to hide arms for smuggling. But as the boat

airports and seaports (St. Stephen shares its with the Port of Saint John). Moreover, the choice of which vehicles to search hangs, as ever, on a border officer’s ability to spot signs of malfeasance—the furtive glances, sweaty upper lips and travel plans that strain an officer’s credulity. “It can’t be just a hunch,” says Mary Lou Graham, a veteran officer at St. Stephen. “We use some proven methods, and we like to think we’re putting a pretty good-sized dent in any illegal activity.” Maybe. But it’s worth remembering that John Butcher crossed the border without trouble the first couple of times he tried, merely by telling guards he was visiting friends. He believes the money he carried was proceeds from the drug trade, but he’s guarded when describing how the weapons wound up in his car. The events, he says, are likely to come up in future court cases. In any event, his fingerprints were never found on any of the weapons.


ajBttSMK&our IT

time supporter of co-operation among Canada, the U.S. and Mexico. “I think it’s safe to say the United States has no greater interest, from a security standpoint, than its northern border.” And while it’s too early to suggest something as radical as a single, joint agency to operate the border, that could serve as a long-term goal, Gotlieb says. “Bilateral institutions are, I think, very desirable.”

It’s a road Ottawa is already travelling, with the announcement of the Smart Border Declaration with the U.S. in 2001. If the government tried to add guns to the agenda, it would almost certainly find an ally in Mexico. That country is growing more vocal about gun-smuggling issues at America’s southern border, since an estimated 80 per cent of its crime guns originate in the States.

But domestically, Ottawa would likely encounter stiff opposition toward greater bilateralism, as the political climate remains distinctly skeptical about U.S. motives for border integration. Many liberal critics in this country see the perimeter concept as Washington’s way of imposing its own immigra-

hauler pulls into an inspection bay, a giant arm attached to a truck is reaching up and over the top of the entire load, sweeping the vessel from stem to stem with gamma rays. The scan is then transmitted to a computer back in the cab, where it produces a colour image not unlike an X-ray. We can literally see into the boat.

This, says Jones, is the “bling-bling” of contraband detection equipment. The Vehicle and Cargo Inspection System (VACIS) allows trained officers like him to spot items inside a truck or shipping container based on their density, revealing false walls and secret compartments. Running through the many screen settings, varying hue and contrast, Jones points to a variety of identifiable, obviously metal objects—the yacht’s driveshaft, its propeller, a set of bolt cutters inside the tractor-trailer. “Anything that doesn’t fit in is going to stand out,” he says. In this case, the boat is clean.

The technology is marvellous, but it has its limitations. At $2 million apiece, VACIS units are pricey, so there are just 12 in Canada to be shared between land crossings,

In the end, Butcher, who has since been released, was lucky he never saw the weapons placed in his car. As a result of his inability to name names, he enjoys the good will of the Malvern Crew, including about a dozen mostly Jamaican members who were incarcerated at his facility. Inmates who threatened him were warned that they may soon be going to the hospital. And when it emerged that Crown prosecutors had tried to pin a gang-related charge on him, his newfound friends hooted with laughter. A few started calling him “Da beeg gangsta mon.”

The idea of playing big-house mascot to a group of outlaws is not something Butcher finds terribly amusing. But prison has given him time to think, to read, to examine his conscience. He has learned his lesson, he says; he knows where danger lies and—like anyone betrayed by a long-time friend—he’s determined not to be duped again. With the death toll from gang shootings rising on Canadian streets, and nothing on the horizon to stem the flow of American guns, can the same be said for the rest of us?