Booming maritime trade provides opportunities for drug and car smugglers

MONTREAL — On a crisp day in early March, Tony Boemi looks out on the stacked shipping containers that stretch into the horizon of the 26 kilometre-long Port of Montreal.

“We’ve been going up tremendously,” the port authority vice-president says.

Traffic at Canada’s second-largest port rose nine per cent in 2018 to the equivalent of more than 1.6 million 20-foot containers for the fifth straight year of record volumes, prompting concerns the docks will be overloaded by 2022. Vancouver and Halifax, the largest and third-largest ports, respectively, also saw record container traffic last year.

“I’d be lying if I said we weren’t struggling with managing the sudden surge,” Boemi says.

Driving the boom is Canadian demand for clothing, appliances and other consumer products made in Asia, as well as a new free trade agreement with Europe.

However, the surge in traffic comes with a downside: The additional containers present an opportunity for criminals to capitalize on limited law enforcement resources and hide more contraband among the legitimate goods.

Bud Garrick, an investigator with Presidia Security Consulting and former deputy director-general of the RCMP’s criminal intelligence service, said imported drugs and exported stolen cars constitute the biggest smuggling problem, with authorities nabbing only a small fraction of the spoils.

“Marine ports are an attractive environment for individuals with ill means and mind to smuggle things into Canada,” he said. “The amount of cargo — shipping containers — that moves in and out of ports is phenomenal…It’s a magnitude problem.”

The criminal allure of ports is simple. Airports are under too much scrutiny, and air freight is costly. Overland smuggling does occur, but on a smaller scale.

“Trying to intercept smuggled cargo at a port is expensive and disruptive, and you’ll never have enough resources to catch most things through random screening,” Peter Hall, an associate professor of urban studies at Simon Fraser University, said in an email. “Mostly [the CBSA] focus on screening for terrorist and bio-hazards.”

A 2015 federal auditor general’s report found that the Canada Border Services Agency “did not fully have the necessary authorities, information, practices and controls to implement its enforcement priorities and prevent the export of goods that contravene Canada’s export laws.”

Just like legitimate trade, black market port activity works both ways. Incoming ships bring drugs such as cocaine and heroin, while outbound ships contain a growing number of stolen vehicles.

“The most prolific is actually in Alberta,” said Henry Tso, vice-president of investigative services at the Insurance Bureau of Canada. “A lot of the cars are being shipped from Alberta to various ports in Canada, mainly Vancouver.”

More than 25,000 vehicles were stolen in Alberta in 2018, part of a 50 per cent increase over the past five years that stems in part from overseas demand for high-end pickup trucks and SUVs.

The thefts, which recent cases have linked to criminal organizations in West Africa, northern Europe, the Middle East and China, rely on human as well as technological flaws.

“Certain docks, there are some you know are run by organized crime. Even in Quebec, like the Montreal ports, one terminal is clean, the other one is not clean,” said Tso.

“The major issue is corruption,” said Anthony Nicaso, who has authored more than two-dozen books on organized crime.

“There is no political will to fight organized crime,” he said, “probably because money does not stink, so who cares — money is money.”

Back at the Montreal port, Boemi estimates the CBSA thoroughly inspects about three per cent of containers that roll through the port. The CBSA declined to give statistics, but noted that screening devices such as gamma-ray detectors — which sense radioactive material — scan each container.

“The CBSA requires marine carriers to electronically transmit marine cargo data to the Agency 24 hours prior to the loading of cargo at a foreign port. This requirement allows the CBSA to effectively identify threats to Canada’s health, safety and security and take actions prior to cargo and conveyances leaving foreign ports,” the CBSA said in an email.

A Canadian Senate report from 2006 found that 15 per cent of stevedores and more than two-thirds of checkers who worked at the Montreal port had criminal records, along with more than half of the workers at an outside company contracted to pick up waste and maintain ships at the docks.

In an effort to boost security, the Port of Montreal now requires that truckers with Transport Canada security clearance have their fingerprints scanned upon entry.

The port and CBSA have signed on for a trial run of blockchain technology that aims to better secure and streamline freight shipping.

Jean-Pierre Fortin, president of the Customs and Immigration Union representing some 10,500 CBSA employees, is not satisfied.

“With stolen cars, with drugs, with guns, we need to increase our capacity to monitor this properly,” he said.

Christopher Reynolds, The Canadian Press

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