VANCOUVER — Deep in the jungles of Peru or Colombia, a kilo of cocaine can be bought for as little as $3,000.
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By the time the lucrative white powder makes the 7,000-plus-kilometre journey to the streets of Vancouver, a kilo is worth as much as $30,000.
It is that huge increase that fuels the greed of B.C.-based crime groups, who have developed sophisticated north-south networks to smuggle coke into Canada and their currency commodities — marijuana and synthetic drugs — south.
Most major criminal gangs here get their cocaine from Los Angeles-area distribution centres run by Mexican cartels, who sell it for $17,000 to $20,000 US a kilo, says Supt. Pat Fogarty of the Combined Forces Special Enforcement Unit.
That means the B.C. gangs must make their own transportation arrangements from L.A. to Vancouver, clandestinely crossing the Washington-B.C. border.
Some Canadian drug-smuggling gangsters use brokers to get the cocaine into the U.S.
“Some may have a good contact that actually lives down in Mexico ... Some may have someone living there six months of the year to take care of the coordination,” Fogarty said. “Some fly off and live in other parts of Central America for the purpose exclusively of being a contact to arrange things. It is common.
“It depends on how connected you are. Some people can only go through distribution centres in L.A.,” Fogarty said.
That is exactly what happened when Fraser Valley smuggler Daniel LeClerc was nabbed with 144 kilos of coke in September 2006.
LeClerc was piloting a 1973 Cessna from Calgary when he landed in Grand Falls, Mont. He told a U.S. customs officer there that he was on his way to Las Vegas, even though he had filed no flight plan.
After he took off again, U.S. authorities tracked his route using radar. He passed Vegas and headed on into Whitefield Airport in L.A.
He parked the Cessna in a hangar. As Immigration and Customs Enforcement agents clandestinely observed, he drove off in a white Cadillac sedan and returned a while later in a black BMW.
“Agents watched LeClerc unload black luggage from the trunk of the BMW and place it into the Cessna,” U.S. court papers said.
He flew off again, but was forced to land at a small northern California airport because of a fuel gauge problem. It was there that law enforcement moved in and confronted the B.C. man. He told them he was carrying either money or drugs, but didn’t know which.
“LeClerc then stated he was scared of the organization and wanted to talk,” an indictment in the case said.
The group he said he feared was the United Nations gang. He admitted to making 12 previous trips between California and Canada.
“LeClerc identified Clay Franklin Roueche as being one of the persons who orchestrated the cocaine importations into Canada.”
The interception of LeClerc launched the Combined Forces Special Enforcement Unit (CFSEU) investigation into the UN’s drug-trafficking activities.
Roueche was charged last year in the U.S. after being intercepted en route to meet with his man on the ground in Mexico — Ahmet (Lou) Kawaach — a former B.C. resident deported from Canada. Kawaach and fellow UN gangster Elliott (Taco) Castaneda were gunned down in the Mexican city of Guadalajara in July 2008 in a drug-related targeted hit.
Fogarty said LeClerc, who remains in a U.S. prison, would have obtained the cocaine from an L.A. distributor of a Mexican cartel.
Other B.C. gangs have also been caught red-handed in the U.S.
Rob Shannon was sentenced in Seattle in March to 20 years for leading the transportation division of an international drug ring working for the Hells Angels in B.C.
U.S. authorities seized 1,300 pounds of cocaine and 7,100 pounds of “B.C. bud” and $3,517,230 US as part of the probe.
While some B.C. crime groups broker through L.A. or Mexico, better-connected gangs can buy direct in South America, Fogarty said.
The advantage of direct buying is the price: They can get the cocaine for between $3,000 and $6,000 a kilo “depending on how far into the jungles you go,” he said.
The disadvantage is the difficult challenge of getting the product thousands of kilometres across several borders.
Right in the middle of the drug route is Mexico’s cartel war, which has resulted in more than 7,000 murders since 2008. The Mexican government has deployed more than 36,000 soldiers in the most violent regions of the country in an attempt to halt the war.
That has pushed up the kilogram price of cocaine, forcing some B.C. crime groups to get more creative and produce more synthetic drugs, said Supt. Brian Cantera, who heads the RCMP’s regional drug section.
“The impact that the drug war has had, in terms of our region and Canada, is simply this: It has made cocaine less attainable or not as easily attainable and as a result of that it has driven the price up, albeit that price seems to have subsided [lately,]” Cantera said. “It has forced some of these crime groups to become more active in other areas — such as clandestine lab production of synthetic drugs. That is the real impact of it.”
And B.C. specialities — ecstasy and crystal meth — have been exported far and wide, Cantera said.
They are produced here in larger quantities than elsewhere because “our precursor laws are not as stringent as those in the U.S.”
The chemicals needed to make those products are being legally imported into Canada in large quantities, so “these crime groups have reached into those areas to further their profits,” Cantera said.
Police have intercepted synthetic drugs from B.C. in Australia, Japan, throughout Europe and across the U.S.
Just on Friday, two B.C. men were sentenced to life in prison in Australia for smuggling more than $130 million worth of ecstasy and cocaine hidden in computers into the country.
Dale Christopher Handlen, a father of three, received a life sentence with no parole for 22 years, and his associate Dennis Paul Paddison got a 22-year sentence with parole eligibility after 14.
It is not considered that the Mexican violence has led to the increase in gang violence in B.C., although inter-gang rip-offs of cocaine and marijuana are always a source of tension.
“To say that their war is having a direct impact on the violence, I don’t think so. It has made the market more difficult to obtain cocaine,” Cantera said. “Some of the individuals who are involved in drug trafficking have had to find other means to support that income.”
Smuggling techniques have evolved over the years along the north-south route. Police have seen all modes of transportation — from tunnels, to airplanes and helicopters, to ships, to Ski-Doos, and even hockey bags slung over shoulders for clandestine cross-border treks.
But the basic commercial trucking system is proving to be the most lucrative and easiest way for organized crime to get their products in and out of Canada, Fogarty said.
“What has really gotten better is the movement of product through the trucking industry. Years ago, it used to be that you would have a dirty truck driver that worked for a perhaps a legitimate company. But now there are just tons of these guys out there that augment their living by picking up their fresh produce from L.A. and throwing in 100 kilos of cocaine.”
And with thousands of trucks crossing the U.S.-Canada border daily, most don’t get caught.
Moving smaller amounts of cocaine more often makes economic sense to the criminals who risk smaller financial losses if a shipment is intercepted.
“You are bringing in smaller amounts because it is coming in every week or every three days, you could have it coming in every day if you wanted. That is how sophisticated it is.”
If a large quantity is intercepted — like 100 or 200 kilos on a commercial truck — it is probably a shared load, Fogarty said.
“There may be three or four people who have gone through a trucking broker and say, ‘Okay, I want my 40, I want my 60, I want my 30’ and the trucker dispatches a guy who is down there and says, ‘Okay, I’ve got four orders for you.’
A spinoff industry in B.C. is the construction of highly sophisticated secret compartments in commercial vehicles.
Specialists can earn $50,000 a truck to create the compartment and it is legal to do so unless police can prove the tradesperson had the intent to participate in a criminal scheme.
Fogarty said some of those discovered have been unbelievably complex containers.
“You have to turn the radio on, push this button, push that button and all of a sudden a hydraulic compartment opens up. That’s how it is now. We need an expert to come in and figure it out,” he said. “They’ll have it so you can never get it open, and it will be lined with that special cloth so that X-rays don’t show anything. They even use masking agents so dogs can’t detect anything,” he said.
Police in both the U.S. and Canada have had success in intercepting shipments and charging gang members.
The recent Roueche guilty plea was considered a sign of the strength of the case against the crime boss, which included evidence from police on both sides of the border.
But Fogarty said he is still worried about the long-term societal impact in B.C. of the growing influence of gangs and crime groups.
“Bullying is just learning how to be a gangster. It is power. They want to be powerful people. And power, by fear,” he said. “It is a dirty business. It is a really, really dirty business.”
By Kim Bolan
June 7, 2009