This story originally appeared in the London Free Press.
With some of North America’s busiest border crossings, and geography that pokes finger-like deep into the densely-populated U.S. mid-Atlantic and Midwest states, Southwestern Ontario is a major cocaine corridor to Canada, a smuggler’s alley for vast amounts of the drug that blow through the region to markets in the nation’s heartland, often on a route that begins thousands of kilometres away in Mexico.
Coke, blow, nose candy — the drug with many nicknames moves up the area’s Highway 401 spine to the rest of Canada, following the same routes that make Southwestern Ontario a major gateway for legal trade.
“A lot of the drugs — particularly when we are referring to cocaine coming through the border — do not remain in Southwestern Ontario, it transits to other major urban centres,” said Staff Sgt. Peter Koersvelt of the RCMP in Windsor, who investigates drug-smuggling into Ontario from Michigan.
Three weeks ago in Windsor, on Koersvelt’s turf, the busiest Canada-U.S. border crossing, a 26-year-old Scarborough trucker was charged after officials found 52 bricks of cocaine stuffed into three duffel bags and a tote in a storage area of the truck.
But that seizure — 52 kilograms — is just the tip of the cocaine iceberg, a Free Press analysis of drug seizures at Southwestern Ontario’s border crossing reveals.
While police-reported drug crimes in Windsor and London run more than four times higher for pot than for cocaine, according to Statistics Canada figures, down along the region’s U.S. borders — from its remote southwestern tip in Windsor, to the Niagara Peninsula — cocaine dominates the illegal drug mountain.
An analysis of seven years of federal port-of-entry data, obtained under a freedom-of-information request, shows Canadian border guards seized cocaine worth $207 million on the street at the region’s six international bridges from 2007 to 2013, making it by far and away the top drug smuggled in.
While the figures don’t include the weight of cocaine seized, it amounts to about 2,000 kilograms — that’s two metric tonnes — if you work it out backwards from its street value of about $100 a gram.
That’s enough cocaine to fill 5,000 cereal boxes — what Koersvelt calls “a significant volume.”
By comparison, marijuana seizures at the same Southwestern Ontario bridges — Windsor’s Ambassador Bridge, the Sarnia-area Blue Water Bridge and the Niagara region’s four bridges to New York state — raked in only $8 million in pot over the same seven-year period.
Another 250 kg. of cocaine — a stimulant that’s commonly snorted, inhaled or injected — has been seized since May 2014 at all entry points to Southwestern Ontario, including airports, authorities report.
Any way you cut it, cocaine is the go-to drug for smugglers working through the region.
Transport trucks — and thousands cross some of the region’s international spans daily, especially the Ambassador Bridge between Windsor and Detroit — are the vehicle of choice for drug runners.
“These are criminal organizations that coordinate the importation of drugs in this volume,” Koersvelt said. “I have probably been personally involved in about 15 major interdictions here since 2009 — every one of those involved a commercial truck.”
The busy Ambassador — its daily truck traffic averages 7,000 or more — is the most vulnerable to smuggling on sheer traffic volume alone, said Koersvelt.
“That (trucking) industry would be very vulnerable to being used to smuggle anything, drugs or any sort of contraband into the border and into Canada, because so many trucks come and go,” he said.
“There’s definitely a lot more (cocaine) that gets through undetected,” he added.
Once it makes it into Southwestern Ontario, with its easy access to Toronto and densely-populated southern Ontario, cocaine — and other drugs — can quickly and easily be moved across the country. Organized crime is inevitably involved, said Western University criminologist Michael Arntfield. “London has always been coveted territory for organized crime groups,” said the former London police officer. “It’s in part why it would be a sought-after destination and distribution point for traffickers. It’s a jump-off point to huge markets.”
Besides its lucrative value, cocaine is also easily divisible, another potential draw for smugglers trying to secret it into the region in tiny cavities and overlooked areas in trucks, said Paul Whitehead, another criminologist at Western University.
“The amount of space required to try and hide the substance is relatively small,” he said, noting it can easily be hidden in clandestine places fashioned in cars and trucks.
Other contraband, by comparison, such as bootlegged smokes and booze, can stick out like a sore thumb.
“Even another drug like marijuana is bulky,” Whitehead said.
Drug-sniffing dogs and X-ray devices are among the weapons used at the border to intercpet the illegal flow of cocaine into the country. But for all the cocaine being stopped by the Canada Border Services Agency (CBSA) in Southwestern Ontario, how much gets in undetected is anyone’s guess.
The president of the union representing border officers says plenty still makes it over the border.
Budget cuts several years ago have strained the agency’s resources, leaving it with fewer agents and sniffer dogs in Southwestern Ontario, said Pierre Fortin.
“The number (of drug seizures) keeps going down. It’s certainly not because there’s less drugs coming into this country. As a matter of fact, I would say there’s more drugs coming into this country because we don’t have the sufficient officers to perform a job to increase these amounts of seizures.”
In the last 14 months, at border crossings and airports across Southwestern Ontario, authorities made 49 cocaine seizures adding up to 250 kg., according to the CBSA.
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SMUGGLER’S ALLEY BRIDGES
Where the Southwestern Ontario seizures took place:
- Ambassador Bridge, Windsor
- Blue Water Bridge, Point Edward
- Lewiston-Queenston Bridge
- Whirlpool Bridge
- Rainbow Bridge
- Peace Bridge
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While cocaine dominates drug smuggling into Southwestern Ontario, largely destined for markets elsewhere, it accounts for relatively far fewer violations of drug laws within the region than does marijuana, or cannabis. A breakdown of police-reported drug violations per 100,000 people:
London: Cannabis, 150; cocaine, 34; methamphetamines, 22; other, 63
Kitchener-Waterloo: Cannabis, 225; cocaine, 33; methamphetamines, 8; other, 50
Hamilton: Cannabis, 225; cocaine, 33; methamphetamines, 1; other, 34
Windsor: Cannabis, 116; cocaine, 27; methamphetamines, 3; other, 39
St. Catharines-Niagara: Cannabis, 119; cocaine, 33; methamphetamines, 4; other, 19