Corruption, Murders Underpinning Vastly Rich Cocaine Cartels Could Cross Canadian Border
They were not the first Canadians to run afoul of Colombian cocaine or Mexican guns, and it's a fair bet they won't be the last.
But the recent deaths of Gordon Kendall and Jeffery Ivans are another sign that what began as a Colombian disease and then morphed into a Mexican malady is now on its way to becoming something of a Canadian condition, too.
Around midnight on Sept. 27, Kendall and Ivans were relaxing in or near the condo they shared not far from the Plaza las Glorias in the Mexican resort town of Puerto Vallarta, a tourist haunt made famous when Elizabeth Taylor and Richard Burton conducted a very public romance there while filming The Night of the Iguana in 1963.
Half an hour later, both men were dead - the most recent Canadian casualties in a bloody conflict that has bedevilled the Mexican Republic since late 2006 at least.
That was when the country's new president, Felipe Calderon, declared war on the cocaine cartels that are now doing to his land what their South American counterparts have long inflicted upon Colombia - killing its people, sapping its spirit, and crippling its institutions in an orgy of payola and blood.
Upwards of 15,000 Mexicans have lost their lives in drug-related violence since early 2007, a spiralling death toll that eclipses most of the world's other civil conflicts.
Now Kendall and Ivans are dead, both shot repeatedly in the head by unknown assailants - killed and then "re-killed," as they say in Spanish.
Their fate provides the moral of this tale. Canadians, like Americans, cannot expect to have their cocaine without suffering its pain.
The cross-border spillover of violence and graft from Mexico is already a source of mounting American trauma. The U.S. Department of Justice calls cocaine trafficking that country's "leading drug threat." Canada has not been affected to the same extent, but that could quickly change, especially if the squeeze on drug traffickers in Mexico forces them to change their tactics.
"They're not going to simply evaporate," said Tony Payan, a political science professor at the University of Texas at El Paso and an expert on U.S.-Mexico border issues. "The U.S.-Canada border is the next frontier. That's a very open border."
Put aside the spectre of violence for a moment and consider corruption.
"The Mexicans say, `We're not the only ones with a problem,'" said Maureen Meyer, a Mexico expert at the Washington Office on Latin America. "I think we're being idealistic to think that corruption is not a concern in the United States. We'd be fooling ourselves to think that the U.S. and Canada are immune from that."
The lure of substantial bribes - say, $50,000 per transaction - is more than enough to make many a border guard, Canadian or American, at least contemplate looking the other way.
Not long ago most Colombian cocaine travelled to its destination by air. Later the cartels shifted their methods, transporting cocaine mainly by sea to transshipment points in the Caribbean and then on to Florida. Nowadays, about 90 per cent of Colombia's cocaine travels to Mexico, mainly by sea, before proceeding across the Rio Grande to the Western U.S. - nearly $40 billion U.S. worth of cocaine a year. A considerable portion of that cargo continues north to Canada.
If you are a drug trafficker, all you really need to do is corrupt one agent per border.
"The No. 1 way to move drugs is at ports of entry," said Payan. "You just have to break one link in the chain. The drug traffickers prefer that. It's easy for an agent to just wave a vehicle right through." It seems hardly surprising then that more than 80 U.S. border officers have been convicted of corruption charges in the past two years, according to The Associated Press.
Payan estimates there are 75 new corruption investigations involving U.S. border guards each year.
He's echoing a point the Mexican president has been trying to drive home for some time - it isn't Mexicans who are being corrupted here.
"To get drugs into the United States, the one you need to corrupt is the American authority, the American customs, the American police - not the Mexican," Calderon said recently. "And that's a subject, by the way, which hasn't been addressed with sincerity."
Calderon did not include Canada in his remarks, but he easily could have. In 2004, the Canadian Border Service Agency seized 321 kilograms of cocaine along British Columbia's border with the United States. Two years later, the haul soared to about 585 kilograms of cocaine, as B.C. replaced Toronto's Pearson Airport as the country's main portal for the drug. The seizures haven't abated.
If this much contraband is being seized, then it's fair to assume even more is getting through. How is this possible without at least some complicity at the Canadian border?
Meet Baljinder Kandola, 35, of Surrey, B.C., a Canadian border guard with six years' experience.
Kandola was arrested in October 2007 and now faces half a dozen charges of importing drugs and weapons into Canada.
Another Canadian guard, Jasbir Singh Grewal, was indicted this past June by a U.S. grand jury in Seattle and faces a charge of conspiracy to export cocaine from the United States into Canada.
The U.S. indictment alleges Grewal allowed an RV loaded with cocaine to enter Canada via the Lynden-Aldergrove border crossing on at least 11 occasions during 2007 alone and was paid an average of $50,000 U.S. each time.
So far, drug-related violence is confined mainly to Mexico, but this could well go international as well.
A recent assessment by the National Drug Intelligence Center, an agency of the U.S. Department of Justice, found Mexican cartels now operate in 230 U.S. cities, up from 50 cities only three years ago. "Those guys can clash," said Payan. "At some point, they're going to have interests to protect."
U.S. towns on the Mexican border are havens of tranquility compared to their sister communities just across the Rio Grande, but drug-related violence is on the upswing in Southern U.S. cities, such as Tucson ( plagued by home invasions ) and Phoenix ( regarded by many as the kidnap capital of the U.S. ).
So far, Toronto Police have seen no sign of Mexican gang activity here. But British Columbia has suffered a spate of killings some refer to as "Mexico-type" gang violence.
Much of the bloodshed has involved members or associates of the so-called United Nations gang, centred in B.C.'s Fraser Valley.
In May 2008, Mike Gordon, a B.C. realtor closely connected to the gang, was shot dead in Chilliwack in what the RCMP calls a targeted killing. A UN gang member, Duane Meyer, was gunned down in Abbotsford only a few days earlier.
Just a month before that, in April 2008, two UN members, Elliott "Taco" Castaneda and Ahmet "Lou" Kaawach, were mowed down at a restaurant in Guadalajara, Mexico's second-largest city.
Then, late last month, Kendall and Ivans both met their own sad and bloody end. Neither man was known to have had ties to Canadian gangs, but they were evidently mixed up in drugs. In Mexico these days, that can be a death sentence.
Given the state of the Mexican police, plagued by corruption and incompetence and hugely overworked, it is unlikely anyone will ever be brought to justice for their deaths - just two more grim statistics, after all, in a mounting toll.
October 18, 2009