A murder. A cocaine ring. A kidnapping.
The list of crimes that were alleged to have been committed by the upper echelons of the Montreal mafia were long, but Crown prosecutors are giving up on securing convictions for most of those charges, as it drops its wide-ranging case against more than three dozen accused mobsters.
It comes after years of legal wrangling over secret police surveillance techniques that the government has worked to keep under wraps. The Crown’s unwillingness to disclose how police tracked and intercepted encrypted BlackBerry messages appears to have led to the case’s unravelling, according to La Presse.
Prosecutors told a Montreal courtroom on Tuesday that they would not be proceeding with its case against 36 people — one of whom has since died — who were facing cocaine trafficking charges, as well as accusations of kidnapping and arson. The prosecutors don’t need to provide a reason for why they are ending, or ‘staying,’ the charges.
The arrests were made under Operation Clemenza, an investigation run by the federal Royal Canadian Mounted Police, which culminated in 2014.
VICE News has reported extensively on Clemenza, and an associated murder trial that resulted in a number of convictions in 2016.
Court documents revealed how the RCMP had obtained the global decryption key for consumer-grade BlackBerrys in 2011, directly from Research In Motion. They also detailed how police used powerful cell phone tracking technology to surveil the suspected mobsters throughout Montreal — but that the technology didn’t always work.
Government lawyers fought for months in the murder case to keep details of their BlackBerry decryption program secret, fighting defense counsel all the way to the Quebec Court of Appeal, contending that releasing the information could thwart future police investigations.
The motion at issue at the appeal court — which would have compelled Crown lawyers to hand over the global decryption key and to hand over technical details on the RCMP’s phone-tracking technology — died when six men confessed to conspiracy to commit murder in 2016. A very similar motion is likely at play in the case that was put to rest on Tuesday.
The RCMP also refused to disclose anything about their cell phone tracking hardware, and won’t even admit they the owns the devices, usually referred to as Stingrays or IMSI catchers — although documents obtained by VICE News show they do, and they use them.
The RCMP and Crown lawyers have fought to keep even this much information out of the public eye. VICE Media had to go to court to ensure that this information remains in the public domain.
The end of the Clemenza proceedings is the latest blow to a government effort to root out organized crime in Montreal.
In 2015, prosecutors had to drop a slew of charges against Hells Angels bikers, after serious abuses of process were discovered at trial.
Amid all of this, Montreal’s criminal underworld is in tumult. Targeted killings, firebombings, and drive-by shootings have surged as a power struggle emerges — with many mafioso vying to fill the void of its imprisoned members, only to have many of them back on the streets within months.