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Drugs

How Canada is Helping Nab Thousands of Kilos of Blow in the Caribbean

The Royal Canadian Navy, with the help of high-tech surveillance aircraft, has been aggressively pushing to seize contraband in international waters.
April 14, 2015, 7:23pm

Look at that speedboat action. Photo via Government of Canada

In the last month alone, the Canadian Armed Forces—decked out with patrol ships, surveillance aircraft, and submarines—helped seize nearly seven tons of cocaine from drug cartels smuggling contraband across the Caribbean.

It's the scene of an increasingly high-tech confrontation between an international coalition and South American gangs.

"It's a huge ocean," Lieutenant Commander Christopher Rochon told VICE from onboard one of the ships patrolling the Atlantic. "Trying to find a small boat that's trying to avoid detection is very difficult."

It's all a part of Operation CARIBBE. So far in 2015, the mission has netted Canadian soldiers thousands of kilos of blow and deprived a lot of partygoers in the northeast of a good time.

Canada's ships, planes and subs have been doing logistical support for American law enforcement in the Caribbean basin, the eastern Pacific Ocean, and the coastal waters of Central America.

The American Coast Guard are the ones actually boarding the suspected vessels and wrestling the smugglers into handcuffs. Canadian resources are primarily used to surveil the area, patrol the waters, and provide defensive support if needed.

Operation CARIBBE is the Canadian version of a larger international effort to police the coke trade led by the American Coast Guard, with several continental and European allies contributing to the now over nine-year-old mission. The multinational effort conjoins with Operation MARTILLO—an American-led effort part of the war on drugs.

But that doesn't mean Canadian ships don't find themselves surrounded by cocaine every once and awhile.

HMCS Glace Bay with an American Coast Guard chopper. Photo via Government of Canada

In one instance, crew members on the HMCS Nanaimo came across 50 one-kilogram packets of coke, floating freely without any traffickers in sight.

That find, made "over several miles of ocean" off the coast of Central America, continues to perplex the CAF. "There were no vessels in the immediate area and the source of the cocaine remains unknown," reads a Department of National Defence release on the incident. The cocaine was possibly jettisoned after the smugglers realized that the coast guard was after them.

Rochon laughs that one off. He's commanding HMCS Whitehorse, one of Nanaimo's sister ships and spoke to VICE via a satellite phone.

"A lot of these guys, if they think they're caught, it's something they will do, perhaps thinking it will save them from a later prosecution," he says of smugglers who jettison their cargo. "For us, that's a win. That's a whole bunch of cocaine."

The navy isn't messing around on this mission. They've committed ten ships to CARIBBE, which includes seven coastal defence vessels; a guided missile frigate, HMCS Winnipeg; and one Iroquois-class destroyer carrying Sea King helicopters. In previous years, the navy also kicked in Canada's fleet of old-as-hell subs: HMCS Victoria and HMCS Chicoutimi, the latter of which had a problem with suddenly catching fire. The subs are "bottomed," meaning they rest on the ocean floor, where they can clandestinely surveil vessels in the area.

The subs are no longer part of the mission, and Rochon says he's bummed out about that.

"My view is that they would be a ridiculously valuable resource," he says.

But what the mission does have is one of Canada's sought-after Aurora CP-140 spy planes.

The Auroras' high-tech imaging—radar, electromagnetic, infrared, sonar and the old-fashioned camera kind—means the navy can pinpoint suspicious crafts laden with fun-powder over vast stretches of otherwise empty ocean.

The CP-140s, which are 30-year-old aircraft stuffed with state-of-the-art surveillance equipment, were previously deployed during the Canadian mission in Libya, and are now being used to identify bombing targets for the CAF in the fight against the Islamic State.

The Auroras, as one Kuwait-based Air Force commander deployed against the Islamic State told VICE, are "one of the best equipped assets here to do a surveillance mission."

HMCS Calgary along with American and Mexican ships. Photo via Government of Canada

In other words, let's say you're ripping through international waters on your speedboat. Maybe you're flying a pirate flag. You've got a few beers in the cooler and enough food for the afternoon.

There's a good chance one of those multi-million dollar military surveillance planes are overhead, running your face through international databases to figure out whether or not you're a drug smuggler.

Rochon couldn't confirm that the Auroras are being used to that degree—generally, they're most useful for getting widespread imagery despite cloud cover—he did say that they've been a valuable asset to keep tabs on fleeing ne'er-do-wells. Mainly, they can tag suspicious vessels and the ships can do a followup.

"When targeted, they're the best asset to be able to follow a contact," he said, but couldn't elaborate much on just what sort of imagery they are obtaining.

The Americans also began deploying drones as part of the mission in 2013. The Pentagon is also, thanks to some painful spending cuts, sending a blimp.

As for what sort of things tip off the navy and coast guard to boats potentially heaving with cocaine? Rochon wouldn't say.

Generally, once a shady boat is flagged, that information gets passed back to an inter-agency task force to suss out whether the ship is a ferry for nose candy, or just a boat looking to host monkey knife fights.

In the past, the Canadian mission has bagged millions in cocaine and in 2011 they helped seize over 200 metric tonnes of coke worth they say is worth $4 billion (according to "street prices in Miami.") But, as usual, when law enforcement prices street drugs, that number is likely quite inflated.

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