Organized crime groups in B.C. are buying helicopters in growing numbers to clandestinely transport marijuana across the border, the Mounties say.
One of two men killed in a helicopter crash near Hope recently had previously been charged in the U.S. with drug smuggling using a helicopter.
In early September, three B.C. men were arrested in Washington state, and their helicopter seized, after they were found with 55 kilograms of marijuana.
"What we've noticed lately it is a lot of helicopters. It is a large increase," RCMP Const. Randall Wong, of the Integrated Border Enforcement Team, said in an interview. "Over the last year to year-and-a-half it has more been helicopters than fixed [wing] planes."
Helicopters are the preferred means of transport for many reasons -- they can be picked up used as cheaply as $100,000 and don't need a runway to take off. Owners don't need insurance or to file flight plans for short-haul trips.
"The criminal element will actually hire a pilot to teach people how to fly helicopters. They are not going to ground school, as they are supposed to," Wong said. "They buy these helicopters and their whole mentality is the more product I can get across the border quicker, the better off we are."
Wong said the criminal gangs use drug money to buy the helicopters, so they don't need bank loans. They will offer a farmer near the border a large monthly fee to store the helicopter.
He said aircraft have devices on them so they can be picked up by radar.
"Most of the bad guys don't even turn that on," he said.
They then lie about their identity if they are contacted by air traffic control. It's not like there is a police aircraft close by to pull them over.
The biggest development in cross-border criminal activity was the discovery last summer of a tunnel built between Canada and the U.S. to smuggle drugs. Three B.C. men are going to trial in Seattle in November after their much-publicized bust.
Wong said there have been rumours among law enforcement personnel for years about the existence of cross-border drug tunnels but none had been discovered.
"We have never had an investigation where we actually located one until now," Wong said. "I would really be remiss if I said there was no other one. In all honestly, why wouldn't there be one?"
While the three men charged did not get a chance to really use the tunnel because of their arrest, Wong said it could have been a gold mine for organized crime.
"If that was never detected, those three guys would have been millionaires," he said.
The most common form of drug transportation remains commercial trucks, particularly drivers with links to Indo-Canadian crime groups based in the Lower Mainland.
Mike Milne, of U.S. Customs and Border Protection, said more B.C. truckers have been arrested on drug charges in the last year and their level of sophistication has increased.
"We are seeing more and more false compartments in the cabs," he said.
RCMP Insp. Paul Nadeau of the Vancouver drug section said the number of commercial trucks involved has gone up 400 per cent over the last three years, with the size of marijuana loads being seized getting significantly larger.
The types of drugs discovered on both sides of the border mimics trends among users.
Things like heroin and opium are down, while ecstasy and pseudoephedrine -- used to make crystal meth -- are up, Milne said.
In 2004, Washington state officials led the U.S. in the quantity of ecstasy seized. In just four weeks last summer, the state seized more than in all of 2004.
Like the criminals, law enforcement agencies on both sides of the border are sharing information and working together as much as possible.
"I don't think either of us could do our job as efficiently without each other," Wong said.
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