Boats, cars, couriers: drugs are coming to Cape Breton in multiple ways, police say
This story is part of a CBC Cape Breton series that examines illicit drug use on the island. Click here to read more stories in this series.
Cocaine shipped by courier or stuffed in luggage. Packages surreptitiously thrown into the ocean and transported ashore by fishing boats using a set of coordinates.
Cape Breton Regional Police said cocaine was arriving on the island by several routes.
“Like the movie Planes, Trains and Automobiles, you know, there are many ways to get here because we’re an island, ”said Constable John Campbell, who spent four years working with the department’s street crime unit.
“We see pure cocaine when it comes in, when it is brought into the island, then when it is transmitted to the different levels of trafficking, and then it is cut off accordingly.”
A glimpse into the history of drug trafficking in Cape Breton shows that smugglers are active on the island best known for its rugged beauty, sprawling coastline and mountain views.
In Campbell’s opinion, the most common way to transport drugs is to have them driven to Sydney from Halifax.
In addition to that, there are the Marine Atlantic ferries that commute annually for approximately 300,000 passengers between North Sydney, NS. and Newfoundland.
“You look at Marine Atlantic and all these RVs in the summer and the semi-trailers and the containers and everything, you would be naive to think that there is no smuggling of a certain amount in these, that this either tobacco, cocaine, marijuana, firearms. Campbell said.
The history of the seizures of the island
Large cocaine seizures have been reported in Cape Breton over the past 20 years, including in the summer of 2004, when police found $ 10 million worth of stimulant hidden on a ship in Sydney Harbor.
Police found another $ 1.4 million worth of cocaine in the backpack of a Winnipeg man in 2010 as he attempted to board a Marine Atlantic ferry in North Sydney.
At that time, local police reported the bust as the largest in their department’s history. That same year, the very first organized crime charges were laid in the Cape Breton Regional Municipality with 16 people accused of being part of an elaborate drug ring.
Another case related to the ferry service dates back to 2016, when security guards discovered two kilograms of cocaine allegedly in a passenger’s suitcase at the North Sydney ferry terminal after being selected for a random check.
A Nova Scotia judge later ruled that the search violated Ontario human Charter rights because he was unlikely to know he could have refused the search. A drug charge against the man was subsequently dismissed.
A year later, in 2017, the Nova Scotia RCMP announced the results of an international investigation that began in Cape Breton and known as Operation Halfpenny.
The nearly two-year investigation uncovered a conspiracy to import into Canada more than a ton of cocaine from Colombia. Three Cape Breton men were charged with trafficking, with RCMP claiming the cocaine was destined for the streets of Nova Scotia and the provinces of Canada.
Small ports an attractive choice
When it comes to importing cocaine, small ports such as North Sydney might be seen as an attractive choice.
“Atlantic Canada is not necessarily a big market for drugs, but it is a major entry point or conduit for cocaine from Colombia or Mexico,” said Stephen Schneider, criminologist at the St. Mary’s University in Halifax.
Schneider, who has been researching organized crime since the late 1980s, said large amounts of cocaine arrive in Canada in two ways, either through land entry points along the Canada-U.S. Border or by seaports and sea container shipments.
In particular, Schneider said sea ferries are seen as an easier place to avoid law enforcement and control.
“Certainly the bad guys are always looking for ways to get around law enforcement and avoid the big sea container ports or use sea ferries as a way to get around that,” he said.
“There is a lot less safety aboard Marine Atlantic ferries, or any ferry for that matter.
CBC News sent interview requests to Marine Atlantic and Transport Canada, which oversees its safety regulations, and both requests were turned down.
Marine Atlantic spokesperson Darrell Mercer released a statement saying the crown corporation is undertaking a random check at its terminals.
Mercer said any problem related to illegal activity is “directed to the appropriate authorities for follow-up and investigation.”
Carrying out a losing battle
Schneider describes a David versus Goliath situation when asked about stopping the flow of drugs to Canada.
“Law enforcement is really a losing battle because we simply don’t have the resources to effectively screen every sea container passing through a port, let alone detect drugs on the port. [them],” he said.
“It’s really just a punch. You can spend years and hundreds of thousands and millions of dollars trying to break down a large drug trafficking organization, and then 10 more will appear in a vacuum.”
Instead of focusing their attention on stopping drug trafficking, Schneider suggests governments spend more money on helping people.
“The best investment we can make to fight street drugs is to reduce demand by increasing our health care resources and our mental health and addiction resources,” he said.
“There are some battles won, but in general we have lost the war on drug trafficking and organized crime. And the real hope is just to try to control it and minimize the damage. But even that is an extremely difficult thing to do. “