Monday, June 25, 2007

A new take on Canada-U.S. free trade

BRAMPTON, ONT. -- Call it free trade in the underworld: Marijuana and ecstasy pills pour south, swapped for guns and cocaine that are shipped north. It's a pattern long familiar to police seeking to intercept contraband flowing back and forth across the porous Canadian-U.S. border.

And the quality of the marijuana and the guns, it seems, just keeps getting better.

On one side of a table at Peel Regional Police headquarters yesterday, guarded by two seriously armed policemen, lay a dozen shiny new handguns and a gleaming, Chinese-made Uzi. On the other were fat plastic bags of ecstasy tablets and clumps of marijuana so potent the aroma was detectable from several metres away.

"It's a common trafficking pattern that we have seen for years," agent Regina Lombardo of the U.S. Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives told a news conference outlining an unusually large clutch of arrests and charges, the result of an investigation dubbed Project Rebel.

"And we tackle it the same way we have for years. It's a collaborative effort."

Posted on a display board were photographs of car-door panels in which the goods were stashed and concealed by the "mules" who did much of the driving.

After simultaneous raids Wednesday in Greater Toronto, Florida and Alabama, around 20 people now face charges for their roles in what police say was a sophisticated network that exported marijuana and ecstasy and exchanged the drugs for guns, ammunition and sometimes cocaine.

In Southern Ontario, 10 people - including five women - were picked up, and face a total of 134 drug and weapons charges. Five others had already been arrested in Sudbury as part of the same investigation.

Wednesday's raids in Toronto, Peel and Halton regions also yielded 29 handguns, 10,000 ecstasy tablets, 515 grams of cocaine, several kilos of Canadian-grown marijuana and quantities of methamphetamine.

And while the 10 GTA residents do not appear to be gang members, the weapons they were bringing into Canada could have found a ready market in gangland and caused "devastation," said Detective Inspector Steve Clegg of the Ontario Provincial Police's weapons enforcement unit.

In this instance, he said, the guns were bought legally at U.S. gun shops by "a straw purchaser" who resold them to network members, who in turn sent them north in the same cars that smuggled the marijuana and ecstasy south.

Little cash appears to have been involved, Ms. Lombardo said. Rather, the two commodities were essentially being bartered, in a two-way trade rooted in supply and demand.

In much of the United States, the penalties for cultivating marijuana or manufacturing MDMA, otherwise known as ecstasy, are often Draconian. In Canada, much less so.

Handguns, on the other hand, are so easily obtainable south of the border that they offer an inviting profit when retailed on the streets of Canadian cities. "And right now there does seem to be a demand on our streets for guns," Det. Insp. Clegg said.

source: The Globe and Mail

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