Peel police recently celebrated a major drug bust, but is the force making a dent in the region’s complex criminal networks?
About a year ago, police began an investigation into a drug trafficking ring operating in Peel. Over the ensuing months, the probe would uncover a sprawling, international enterprise and lead to the largest drug seizure in Peel Regional Police history.
Project Zucaritas was led by the Specialized Enforcement Bureau and resulted in the seizure of $25 million worth of illegal narcotics—including 182 kilograms of methamphetamine, 166 kilograms of cocaine, 38 kilograms of ketamine and approximately $70,000—resulting in numerous drug trafficking arrests, following 11 months of investigative work.
With support from investigative bureaus in the U.S., Peel police uncovered a scheme involving commercial businesses transporting illegal drugs across the border directly into Peel and surrounding areas of the Greater Toronto Area. Investigators identified two transfer hubs allegedly involved in the distribution process: North King Logistics, a commercial trucking company in Milton and Friends Furniture, a business located at 2835 Argentia Road in Mississauga.
Drugs were being concealed in the rear of tractor-trailers and within legitimate loads of goods, explained Detective Sgt. Earl Scott, the lead investigator.
It was a significant achievement for Peel police, and one they took time to celebrate. During a press conference on October 26, detectives stood before heaps of seized drugs packed into plastic bags, and cash piled across several tables.
“Drugs are becoming more commonplace and seizures are getting bigger,” Scott said.
The end result of an 11-month investigation by Peel Police and other law enforcement organizations.
(Peel Regional Police)
While officials say this bust will cause significant disruption to the region's drug trafficking networks, it highlights the scale and complexity of drug trafficking within Peel and raises questions about whether Peel Police are truly prepared to deal with it.
“The reality is organized crime has no boundaries,” deputy chief Nick Milinovich said. “As invested as we are in different techniques and different processes in order to catch them, they are equally as invested in protecting their enterprises and continuing to benefit and profit from that.”
Press conferences like those for Project Zucaratis serve multiple purposes for police. They are a signal to residents of the work police are doing in the community—a visible display of the “protect and serve” mantra. It can be a pirate’s warning to other drug traffickers in Peel that officers are out there, and getting results. But these photo ops can also have the unintended consequence of skewing public perception.
Headlines and images of significant operations and large seizures can create a dark narrative of a region infested by the drug trade. But when looking at police data, this does not appear to be the case. Charges for trafficking, production and possession have been decreasing, with drug-related charges dropping from 2,631 violations in 2017 to 1,580 in 2021, according to Peel Regional Police’s five-year summary.
The most recent data detailing the variance from 2020 to 2021 showed drug violations were down 3.2 percent, from 1,633 violations in 2020 to 1,580 in 2021.
More specifically, trafficking, production and distribution related offences were down 19.2 percent between 2020 and 2021 with 490 offences in 2020 and 403 in 2021. Possession was up 1.1 percent during that same time.
Peel police’s annual report also noted that 1,101 people were charged with drug offences in 2020 and 1,086 were charged in 2021.
So with the vast majority of drug-related charges declining, how does it explain Scott’s statement that drugs are becoming “more commonplace and seizures are getting bigger”.
If police statistics indicate that drug crime is on the decline, but frontline officers and investigators are dealing with the opposite, it suggests a much scarier reality than simply a region being infected with a growing drug trade. It suggests a region being infiltrated by organized criminal networks and a police force without adequate resources and expertise to effectively fight the problem. A crime can only become a statistic if an officer is there to record it, so if the stats remain low, but senior officers acknowledge a growing trend and anecdotal proof such as headlines about drug trafficking become more common, it raises concern that Peel’s drug crime problem is getting worse.
It may not only be a lack of public safety resources contributing to the trend; the complexity of groups behind these organized crimes and the demand for their products is making it harder for law enforcement to deal with all of it.
“I think you're always at the mercy of how sophisticated the criminals are,” Todd Moore, formerly of the Peel Police investigative unit that dealt with organized crime, told The Pointer. “Once new methods are discovered, they pivot and think of a new strategy to conceal the illicit drugs.”
One of the major factors contributing to the success of organized crime syndicates is the complexity of the organizations and how they operate, resulting in more time, effort and money to get the investigative resources and experience required to disrupt them.
Peel Regional Police Chief Nishan Duraiappah is requesting an 8.2 percent budget increase for 2023 in order to hire 70 new officers.
(Chief Nishan Duraiappah/Twitter)
Some cases, like Project Zucaritas, can take several months of investigative work to zero in on the operations of a single group, meanwhile, there could be dozens of similar criminal networks operating quietly out in the community running the same kinds of dangerous enterprises.
The number of simple possession violations declining could suggest resources are being directed toward larger groups, taking the focus away from street-level crimes involving small amounts of drugs, charges that can often be beaten, to instead address the problem at its source.
With over 30 years of experience, Moore says many of the crimes that are commonplace in the community can have their roots in organized crime. Crimes like illegal gambling and cargo theft are money-making machines to help fund bigger projects and investments, the most profitable being drug importation.
“Bad guys are always trying to stay one step ahead of investigators and trying to be creative and new methods to use,” he explained.
When it comes to enforcement in Peel, Moore says it’s not so much that there’s a lack of resources or attention being invested into the issues of drug trafficking and organized crime, but that the syndicates themselves are just becoming more complex.
“There's a lot of money at stake to be lost,” he said. “So I think they're very methodical on how they're going to be successful.
“You’re buying 100 keys of cocaine for $8,000 a key, that's $800,000,” Moore explains (a key is a kilogram). “No one wants to lose that money. So you're pulling out all the stops to ensure that that load doesn't go missing, because at the end of the day, somebody's owed money, or somebody's going to lose money.”
Kash Heed, a former chief of the West Vancouver Police Department and former superintendent with the Vancouver Police Department, said a key contributor behind why areas like Peel and the GTA are starting to see more common occurrences of larger drug seizures is because there's such a demand for the products.
“When you have an increasing demand within our country for these particular drugs, whether it's cocaine or methamphetamine or ecstasy or some of the other drugs, the drugs will find their way to the supply,” he said. Heed was B.C.'s public safety minister and solicitor general after a career in policing that focused on organized drug crime as well as South Asian gang activity.
Typically, drugs enter the country by three different modes of transportation: ship, plane and ground, ground transportation being the easiest to coordinate and most popular method for organized crime syndicates.
“They will often use transportation systems that are very similar to the way we transport other goods from one country to other countries, whether it's by land, sea or air,” Heed explains.
With ground transportation being the most popular method of drug importation and Peel known to be a major trucking hub in Canada “you're going to get that one percent that are going to exploit the system and see where they can make money and be involved in criminality,” Moore said. “So I think that's why when you see seizures a lot of time they are related back to Peel.”
In North America, especially Canada, organized crime groups often own their own trucking companies as a front for their criminal activities. For those who don’t, they partner with semi-legitimate trucking companies that are open to assisting with transporting drugs across the border.
“The trucks are commodities delivered stateside,” Moore explained. “Then either a corrupt trucking company or a trucking company is assigned to go pick up a trailer and many times… it could be concealed in the back of the trailer in boxes or within pallets.”
Quite often, he said, if corrupt trucking companies are involved they will have their own modified trailers with concealed compartments and unless you know what you're looking for, it can be very difficult to find.
“Drug trafficking has been a major issue in the trucking industry, contraband has been a major issue in the trucking industry but it’s a very small percentage of the industry and the unfortunate part is that the entire industry gets painted with the same brush,” Kim Richardson, president of KRTS Transportation Specialists Inc. told The Pointer.
When looking at a drug seizure like Project Zucaritas, Moore said while it may be a temporary deterrent to these organized crime groups it’s not going to make much of a dent in the criminal activity and goings on in the drug community in Peel.
“I think a big bust like this, they might pump the brakes for a little while until the heat subsides, but it's way too profitable for them to ever stop”.
When looking at organized crime groups, there’s often a hierarchy that takes place, Heed explained, and the people at the higher end of the operation rarely suffer any significant consequence.
“It’s disrupted a certain line,” Heed said of the recent bust. “At the end of the day, will it make a significant difference? No.
“When you have these large amounts of seizures, when you start to track the cost, you will see again, it's the elasticity of supply and demand when there's less supply but a higher demand, the costs usually go up.
“You’re not going to arrest your way out of this particular problem, you’re not going to seize drugs and think that that’s going to get you out of this problem,” Heed added.
“The supply will always make its way to the demand of this particular product, no matter what we try and do, no matter how many resources we employ here, no matter how much money is spent on the enforcement side of it.”
For years, Heed has advocated for a balanced approach to dealing with drug trafficking and organized crime. This approach combines enforcement with programs to lower the demand for the product, what are called upstream rather than downstream solutions, which he says is where we’re failing in Canada.
“There's such a demand for the product, that no matter what, the supply will make its way, no matter what we try and do to block it,” he said.
As for possible strategies to try and thwart these kinds of organized crime operations, Moore said it has become a “societal problem in the sense that these groups are operating and there is a form of willful blindness,” but there’s also a ripple effect.
“These drugs are being divvied up to a multitude of different drug traffickers within Peel and in the Greater Toronto Area,” he explained. “And they're selling to different markets, some are selling to high school kids and university kids and college and restaurants and bars, so it does affect everybody.
“It sounds easy, but it's difficult to kind of penetrate those groups and just understand what is going on with the Peel Region.”
In Canada, Heed said people often believe the theory that if more money is spent and invested into the law enforcement side, forces are going to be able to deal with these societal problems. But that’s not the case with the nature of these organized crimes, he says.
“It has to be a balanced approach,” he reiterated. “Twenty-five million here may be a cost of doing business for someone, but it's not going to make any difference to the drugs that are on the streets in the metro Toronto area. Not one bit of difference at all.”
Getting away with these crimes also enables syndicates to become more emboldened and with growing demand, these groups are going to expand the market in whatever way they can, often increasing the amount of drugs available in their supply chain to street-level traffickers.
“When you start to get these large quantities of drugs taken, they will have some type of disruption but not a long-term disruption in drug trafficking,” Heed explained.
He believes police aren’t going to be the ones to stop these complex networks, but that it will be the policymakers at higher levels of government.
“When you look at the balanced approach here, you've got to look at ways to reduce that demand, whether that's through prevention, whether that's through treatment, whether that’s through harm reduction, and of course, law enforcement has a role, but you've got to take those other main pillar approaches to dealing with the situation to hit that balance so we can start to bring down the demand for this particular product,” he emphasized.
“The supply will make its way to where the demand is, it's just simple economics,” he added. “And they’ll take whatever risks they can to take it to get it to the market too.”
There are a lot of costs to run these projects, Moore agreed. It’s not an issue of resources, it’s that the syndicates are becoming more creative, complex and sophisticated.
“In order to dismantle and disrupt, it's a continuous cycle,” he explained, “you have to stay up to speed on the new techniques being used by the bad guy, so it's almost like a cat-and-mouse game.”
Moore, Heed and other policing experts have stressed that police forces need to be properly equipped to tackle complex organized drug syndicates. A question Peel’s force has faced scrutiny on.
Major crimes, for example, in South Asian communities have received significant attention. The bombing of a Mississauga restaurant, Bombay Bhel, was widely believed to be related to criminal activity, but no arrests have yet been made since the 2018 incident.
A lack of resources and expertise to focus on South Asian drug crime could hinder work to protect Peel residents.
The high profile discrimination case launched about a decade ago by now former officer B.J. Sandhu, who successfully proved systemic issues plagued Peel police, revealed a disturbing lack of concern and expertise around South Asian crime.
Testimony by now former senior officers in the human rights case included alarming information about a force that ignored increasingly significant crime in communities that now make up the vast majority of Peel. From the lack of officers who ‘speak the language’ of criminals, the inability to infiltrate and get intelligence on these organizations and the apathy toward developing officers with the cultural competency and investigative skills to address growing areas of crime, the Sandhu case painted a picture of a police force not prepared for the reality of crime in its jurisdiction.
Moore acknowledges that the nature of organized crime makes it difficult for any force to deal with.
“At the end of the day, it's not going to go away. There's too much money to be made.”
Peel doesn’t have a strong history of being immune to the world of drug-related organized crime. In March 2019, Peel Regional Police unleashed Project Baron – which resulted in one of the largest collections of weapons and drugs seized in the region’s history.
Nearly 30 high-power firearms (16 handguns, four shotguns, six rifles), high-capacity magazines, 1,500 rounds of ammunition, a bullet-proof vest, and nearly eight kilograms of assorted drugs, including meth, cocaine, heroin and fentanyl totaling 1.2 million worth of narcotics were obtained.
The nearly three-month investigation was led by the Peel police Vice, Narcotics and Street Level Organized Crime Bureau and culminated in six consecutive raids on locations and vehicles across Peel Region and Toronto.
Firearms and narcotics seized during Project Baron.
(Peel Regional Police)
In August of this year, Peel police also seized 90 kilograms, an estimated $12 million worth of drugs, in a recent bust resulting from a months-long investigation spanning from June 2021 labeled Project Warrior. Four people were charged in relation to the investigation.
The latest major bust in October, linked directly to trucking operations, is the latest evidence that organized drug crime in Peel, as the lead detective said, is becoming more commonplace.
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