Cocaine seizures at airports across Canada have increased steadily since 2012 with women replacing men as the largest smugglers of the drug, according to documents obtained by Global News.
Intelligence reports, circulated to Canada Border Service Agency officers between March and May of 2016, offer a window into the world of cocaine trafficking at airports across the country and how border officers are combatting the problem.
One heavily redacted report from March 2016 titled “Cocaine in Air Mode: females smuggling greater quantities than males,” showed that of the 223 seizures at airports involving women between 2012 and 2015, a total of 812 kilograms of cocaine was confiscated. Of the 287 incidents involving males, 681 kg were seized.
“This represents a noticeable shift in the modus operandi for cocaine smuggling,” the report reads.
The CBSA reports also indicate airports have become a more dominant entry route for cocaine trafficking.
“Ports of entry (POE) in the air mode have increased steadily since 2012 with 233 kg seized in 2015 (37 per cent of total cocaine seized) and 365 kg in 2014 (43 per cent) compared to 114 kg (29 per cent) in 2013, and 100 kg (26 per cent) in 2012,” the report says.
Toronto-based criminal lawyer Daniel Brown says he has seen increasing instances of women charged with smuggling drugs, play out in the criminal justice system for years.
“The perception was that women were less likely to get caught, meaning that border agents were screening the men more heavily than they were screening the women,” Brown said. “The idea was, if you were able to persuade a female to do this, then you were more likely to have your product reach the country successfully.”
In 2016, the total value of cocaine seized by border officials was valued at nearly $94.5 million, up from roughly $64 million in 2015, according to a CBSA document.
“Comparing year to date in 2016 and 2015, both the number of seizure (+79 per cent) and overall volume (+201 per cent) of cocaine have increased,” a CBSA document said.
Brown said that in many cases, vulnerable women are often targeted and placed under duress by drug traffickers in situations where their lives or family members’ lives are threatened.
“Mostly young, single mothers without any criminal history are persuaded into acting as couriers or they’re being used as blind couriers, meaning they don’t even know they are carrying drugs over,” Brown said.
The main transit points for cocaine seizures involving women in 2015 were Jamaica, St. Lucia and Dominican Republic, according to the CBSA document.
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Brown said there isn’t a lot of leniency in Canada’s courtrooms for female couriers who’ve been threatened or forced into carrying drugs.
“Even where they have no criminal record and a very sympathetic story, there is very little the courts can do in sentencing, meaning they often face very harsh sentences,” he said.
‘They pay a huge price’
Brian O’Dea, a Canadian former drug smuggler who exported large amounts of drugs from Southeast Asia, the Caribbean and South America before his arrest in 1991, said that people apprehended for illegally bringing in small quantities of drugs on planes are seen as “low-hanging fruit” to border officials.
“It’s meaningless. It truly is meaningless. I mean, it gives them something to go after that they know they can get,” he said from his home in Toronto.
“I’m going to guess that most of those were either on the body or in some false bottom of a suitcase and carried by individuals. That is so minuscule. That’s little people trying to make a little dollar, compared to what’s really in the market and how that’s getting there.”
O’Dea said these arrests distract from the bigger picture of international drug smuggling, and provide border officials with a mechanism to “actually get results,” but added he doesn’t think it “affects the whole.”
“These people who smuggle these little amounts, they pay a huge price,” O’Dea said, calling them “little players” instead of “organized criminals.” “They pay a price as if they were moving tonnes and get huge time in jail, particularly if they get nailed in the U.S.”
Meanwhile, the total number of drug seizures at Canada’s airports showed a small jump between 2015 and 2016, rising from just over 1,000 to over 1,160. Seizures at airports in the Greater Toronto Area showed an increase from 297 in 2015 to 475 in 2016, according to the CBSA.
Aviation expert Jock Williams said smugglers will often spend time conducting reconnaissance, research and intelligence operations at airports, in order to modify their smuggling operations accordingly.
“They know where surveillance is highest and where it’s the lowest, and these guys aren’t idiots. Of course, they’re going to go for vulnerabilities,” he said.
Williams said smugglers will attempt to bypass security with low quantities of drugs to attempt to succeed on a “very small scale” initially, before moving on to larger quantities later on.
“You may pump as much as you can through it quickly, knowing you’re going to get caught eventually,” he said.
‘Tip of the iceberg’
Williams added the amounts seized by border officials are just the “tip of the iceberg,” compared to the quantities that actually make it into the country.
“The amount that we intercept, I’m sure is a very small percentage of the amount that actually arrives here,” he said. “We know the scale of the problem that we have and it’s not being created by a typical woman’s purse filled with material.”
Williams said it’s not uncommon for airline staff to be directly involved in smuggling operations, either in Canada or internationally, because it can be seen as a “victimless crime” from their perspective.
“I was approached one time many, many years ago for diamond smuggling in Amsterdam … it was tempting, trust me,” he said, adding he declined to participate in the smuggling operation.
“The reality is, it’s a chance to make some really quick, good money … You might say that in your heart that you won’t do anything serious for $10,000, but maybe you would for a million.”
A spokesperson for the CBSA said in a statement the agency wouldn’t comment on why this trend was occurring.
“The Agency’s role is to facilitate the entry of legitimate travellers and goods, while protecting the safety and security of Canadians and ensuring that Canada’s borders are not used for illegal activity,” the CBSA said in an email.
O’Dea said smugglers are willing to take the occasional loss in order to successfully bring drugs into the country, which makes arrests and seizures part of the cost of doing business.
“I think everybody knows it’s all hit and miss in that game. They know that every flight coming in is a suspect flight,” he said.” So, anything that you put on that flight, you’re rolling a dice.”
With files from Ryan Rocca