Canadian authorities say they uncovered an international drug smuggling plot this week with links to Mexican and Colombian cartels, leading to charges against 15 people, including a woman who had a security clearance at one of the country's largest air force bases, a member of the coast guard, and a former Olympic snowboarder.
The two-year long investigation — dubbed "Operation Harrington" — originated in the maritime province of Nova Scotia, and ultimately uncovered eight separate alleged conspiracies to import guns and drugs into Canada. Police seized cash, weapons, vehicles, and more than 200 kilos of coke in three days of raids.
Residents of Nova Scotia, Ontario, and Quebec now face 45 separate charges in connection with the case. According to the Royal Canadian Mounted Police (RCMP), the international ring plotted to import cocaine from Antigua, Brazil, Colombia, Guyana, and the United States.
A senior RCMP official called the bust "a milestone" in the agency's fight against transnational crime. The case offers a glimpse into the complex battle Canadian authorities are waging against drug smugglers, who have already infiltrated important points of entry in the country. An increasing number of Mexican cartel operatives are reportedly moving north. The Vancouver Sun reported last year that the Sinaloa cartel, La Familia, and other drug gangs are installing representatives in British Columbia and Alberta to handle business.
Employees of the Royal Canadian Air Force, the Department of National Defence, and the Royal Canadian Coast Guard have been charged in connection with Operation Harrington, the RCMP said.
Darlene Richards, 54, a resident of Nova Scotia and civilian employee of the Royal Canadian Air Force, was charged with two counts of "conspiring to import and traffic cocaine from countries unknown into Canada."
Lieutenant Sylvain Rousseau, a spokeswoman for the Canadian Air Force, confirmed that Richards worked on the base as an administrative assistant to the commanding officer of 413 Transport and Rescue Squadron. As a result, she held a security clearance and had access to restricted areas inside 14 Wing Greenwood, the largest air force base on the east coast of Canada.
Rousseau told VICE News that Richards underwent a security screening process before her posting, but added that Richards no longer has access to restricted areas of the base. Rousseau would not confirm whether Richards had used her access or security clearance for her alleged drug smuggling activities, saying that information was now "in the hands of the criminal justice system and the investigation by the RCMP."
The Canadian Coast Guard said its employee charged in the case works "in a junior position aboard a vessel in the Coast Guard fleet." A Fisheries and Oceans Canada spokesperson contacted by VICE News would not confirm whether the Coast Guard member was involved with the smuggling scheme while on duty, citing the ongoing criminal investigation.
Also charged in the bust is Ryan Wedding, a former Olympic snowboarder, who failed to appear Tuesday for his arraignment in a Montreal courthouse and remains at large.
In 2002, Wedding was a member of Canada's national snowboarding team that participated the Salt Lake City Winter Olympics. Wedding was later sentenced to four years in jail in California after he was convicted of conspiring to possess and distribute 24 kilos of cocaine.
The National Post reported that Wedding, now 33, told a US judge at his 2010 sentencing that he was "ashamed that I became part of the problem" because he had always mentored and encouraged kids "to join sports and stay in school, stay clean, you know."
Wedding now faces two counts of conspiracy to import cocaine, conspiracy to traffic, and one count of cocaine trafficking.
Operation Harrington began in the spring of 2013 after the RCMP received a tip that someone was attempting to import drugs from South America to Nova Scotia. The investigation ballooned to eventually involve a dozen law enforcement agencies.
"As a criminal operations officer in Nova Scotia, I can tell you, it is not often that a file of this magnitude and complexity occurs," RCMP Chief Superintendent Marlene Snowman said at a press conference Tuesday.
The operation is just the latest in a string of high profile smuggling busts in Nova Scotia. In January, six men were arrested after the RCMP foiled a plan to import more than 200 kilograms of cocaine into the Port of Halifax via the Panama Canal.
In November, 400 bricks of cocaine — all wrapped in Louis Vuitton logos — were seized in the Port of Halifax, along with more than 1,200 cases of wine in an Argentine shipping container that had passed through Panama.
And last spring, in the same port, 46 kilograms of cocaine were found in a commercial shipping container bound for Montreal, again originating from Panama.
This also wasn't the first time organized crime groups had successfully infiltrated important points of entry to Canada. In 2006, a Canadian Border Services agent and 10 airport employees were arrested in Montreal for helping the city's Italian mafia import cocaine through Pierre Trudeau Airport. Two years later, catering workers were also caught helping import cocaine through the airport.
Brigitte Noël contributed reporting.