How Mexico’s drug gangs set up shop in Vancouver

AP Photo/Bullit Marque

Infamous Mexican cartels like Sinaloa and La Familia have sent representatives to the Lower Mainland to broker drug deals with local gangs, The Vancouver Sun has learned.

A Sun investigation has uncovered increasing links between B.C. drug gangs and the notoriously violent cartels that have wreaked havoc along Mexico’s northern border.

For years, local crime groups travelled south to the U.S. and Mexico to work with the cartels. Police now confirm that the Mexican crime groups have moved members north so they can be on the ground in B.C. and other parts of Canada. Calgary Police recently revealed that cartel members are also operating in that Alberta city.

Vancouver Police Supt. Mike Porteous said the cartels have changed their business model, currently preferring to have their own people based in Canada to arrange cocaine shipments into the country.

“The interesting trend that I think we’ve seen over the last couple of years is the cartels are bypassing the middleman,” Porteous said in an interview. “So they are bypassing Tom Gisby and Larry Amero and guys like that.”

Metro Vancouver gangsters like Gisby and Amero used to travel to Mexico to make their deals. Gisby was shot dead inside a Starbucks in Nuevo Vallarta in April 2012. Amero, a full-patch Hells Angel, was arrested in Montreal in November 2012 as an alleged leader of an international drug ring that worked with Mexican cartels to import and distribute about 75 kilograms of cocaine per week. He is awaiting trial.

The exact number of cartel agents in the Lower Mainland is hard to pinpoint — they often cross the border illegally and are deliberately low-key, said Porteous, the officer in charge of Vancouver Police investigative services.

“They are not as identifiable — they are not driving around steroided-up … They are pretty business-like. They fly under the radar,” he said. “The people that they have here are actually very influential. And they come and go of course. But the people they have here are the people who can get stuff done.”

He estimates the high-level cartel reps in the region at somewhere between 12 and 25.

“I would say bosses — a dozen, a couple of dozen — but then they have all their little tentacles,” he said. “Even if you have six or 10 or 12, then they are going to reach out to all of the other existing gangsters that they partner with and then that becomes their group.”

The RCMP’s internal newsletter, The Gazette, published an article last year noting the increasing numbers of cartel members in Canada.

“More recently, there’s been evidence of a definite cartel presence in Canada, specifically Mexican cartels. The roles of those individuals within Canada are very much those of gatekeepers, involved in the importation and distribution of cocaine, as well as logistics and money laundering/currency movement,” the article said.

Asked for more information about cartel members who’ve moved to Canada, RCMP Sgt. Greg Cox told the Sun: “While there are people in Canada working for Mexican organized crime groups, for operational reasons, we aren’t in a position to provide any additional details on this.”

He said RCMP intelligence has “established that Mexican cartel influence has increasingly affected criminal markets in Canada.”

“Consequently, criminal activity in Canada linked to Mexican cartels has become a national priority for the RCMP,” Cox said.

The Vancouver Sun found major Vancouver cartel links in several U.S. prosecutions of Mexicans in the Sinaloa and La Familia gangs.

More than $8 million owned by the Mexican gangs was laundered in Canada in one investigation. Most of that — almost $7 million — was delivered to a U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration agent working undercover with Vancouver Police.

AP Photo/Bullit MarqueArrested Canadian nationals James Clayton Riach, left, and Ali Memar Mortazavi Shirazi wait for their inquest proceeding at the Department of Justice in Manila, Philippines, Thursday, Jan. 16, 2014.

Three Mexicans living in Canada and a Vancouver man were arrested in the case and deported to the U.S. All have since pleaded guilty.

One of the men — Vancouver’s Ariel Julian Savein — will be sentenced in January 2015 for laundering $811,850 of La Familia’s drug profits.

When B.C. gangsters James Riach, Barry Espadilla and Ali Shirazi were arrested in Manila last January for allegedly operating a major synthetic drug network, police there said the Canadians were working on behalf of a Mexican cartel.

The RCMP later passed intelligence to the Filipino National Bureau of Investigation about a purported cartel plot to kill Riach.

Trials for the three Canadians are currently underway and expected to last into 2015.

Susana Gonzalez/Bloomberg

Susana Gonzalez/Bloomberg Bloomberg’s Best Photos 2014: Drug trafficker Joaquin “El Chapo” Guzman is escorted to a helicopter by Mexican security forces at Mexico’s International Airport in Mexico city, Mexico, on Saturday, Feb. 22, 2014.

The cartel links continue to be investigated by authorities in Manila, one source said this month.

Several Mexicans have been arrested in Canadian drug investigations in recent years.

In September, Niagara Regional Police announced Jamie Ortiz of Mexico City was among 14 arrested in a massive cocaine smuggling operation involving cartels and Canadian organized crime.

In Kelowna in August, Salvador Ascencio-Chavez was sentenced to 13 years for smuggling 97 kilograms of cocaine into Canada in September 2010 with two B.C. men. At the time, Ascencio-Chavez was living in B.C. illegally after having been deported following an earlier cocaine importation conviction.

Last May, 19-year-old Mexican Andy Garcia Macias was sentenced to six years after smuggling nine kilos of cocaine across the border in January east of Osoyoos Lake.

“Information from various investigations indicates that the cartels importing drugs into Canada continue to seek new smuggling methods,” the RCMP’s Cox said.

“Drugs have been seized from shipping containers, private boats, and commercial planes that have originated out of, or travelled via, Mexico and/or South America. Commercial and private vehicles are also used to smuggle drugs believed to have originated in Mexico into Canada via the U.S.A.,” he said.


AFP PHOTOSTR/AFP/Getty ImagesView of one of the graves at Diamante ranch in Nopaltepec, Veracruz state, Mexico on, June 18, 2014, where the bodies of at least 28 people have been exhumed. The bodies were found by members of an army patrol at an abandoned ranch in Veracruz –a stronghold of the Zetas, one of Mexico’s most bloodthirsty cartels.

Victor Manjarrez, a professor at the University of Texas at El Paso, isn’t surprised by the cartels’ move into Canada.

“When you talk about the Sinaloa gang and the others — people often forget that these cartels are businesses,” he said.

Increased American enforcement along the U.S.-Mexico border has impacted the cartels’ ability to make money, said Manjarrez, an expert on border management and security and a former law enforcement officer.

“If you are a Mexican drug lord — a cartel member — and you are looking at this and saying, geez you know in the last 10 years the United States government has doubled the size of the agency responsible for enforcing them … The cost of doing business is going up all the time. So what do you do? You circumvent that and you look for new markets.”

The volume of commercial and vehicle traffic back and forth over the 49th parallel creates what Manjarrez calls “border clutter.”

“The criminal element definitely tries to exploit that. What you are seeing though in places like Vancouver and other places in Canada, you are starting to see recognition by cartels that there are other markets beyond the United States.”

He said the cartel contacts in Canada would be “trusted up and comers.”

“It’s either a family member or a family friend — someone they trust with that franchise. It helps if they’re able to get legal entry documents.”

Sylvia Longmire, a drug analyst and author of Cartel: The Coming Invasion of Mexico’s Drug Wars, said the cartels partner with local gangs if they see a good business opportunity.

“They just find whatever the lucrative drug market is and where the demand is and then they partner up with the local gangs on the street,” she said in an phone interview from Tucson, Arizona.

“You are going to have that I-5 corridor that makes transport back and forth pretty easy.”

Despite the arrest in Mexico last February of Sinaloa leader Joaquin (El Chapo) Guzman, the powerful cartel is still going strong, Longmire said.

“They have succession plans in place for quite some time because this is the life. They know that anybody can get caught or killed at any moment.”

Porteous said Vancouver Police and their law enforcement partners in the RCMP, the Canada Border Services Agency and in the U.S. have gathered a lot of intelligence on the cartels’ presence in Canada.

“We are well aware of it and it is a priority for us,” he said. “We actually know a lot about this. This is a big deal so we work hand in glove with the U.S. authorities and with the RCMP on this.”

Vancouverites should not fear the onslaught of Mexican-style cartel violence, because the people who’ve come here don’t want trouble, Porteous said.

“If people read ‘Oh my God, the Sinaloa cartel is here, La Familia Michoacana is here,’ then think all of a sudden we are going to have bandoleros and guys with AK-47s in the streets. That’s not what it is here.”

The cartels pose little threat of violence in this country, but the drugs they bring in do lead to deadly confrontations between B.C.-bred gangs who fight over control of the market, Porteous said.

“I would prefer not to see the drugs come into town at all because once they come in, that perpetuates violence,” he said.

“We want to pick it off south of the border or in a different country or wherever — because once it comes into Vancouver, then there are issues.”

AP Photo / Eduardo Verdugo

AP Photo / Eduardo VerdugoIn this Sept. 5, 2014 photo, weapons allegedly seized from gangs by the military are displayed at a military base in Ciudad Mier, Tamaulipas state, Mexico. Two rival gangs, the Zetas and the Gulf cartel, which use Tamaulipas as a route to ferry drugs and migrants to the United States have diversified their business, selling stolen gas and crude to refineries in Texas or to gas stations on either side of the border.

He said the two main cartels with representatives here are Sinaloa and La Familia, though police have also seen people from Los Zetas, notorious for its extreme violence, including torture and beheadings.

The cartel representatives are willing to work with any low-to-mid-level crime group in B.C. including gangs like the Hells Angels, the Independent Soldiers and “Middle-Eastern organized crime,” Porteous said.

And while much of the cocaine and methamphetamine they bring in to B.C. is for local distribution, Porteous believes a lot of it is also destined for Southeast Asia, Australia and New Zealand.

“Vancouver is an international hub for distribution to Southeast Asia and other countries across the water, where as you know the prices are significantly higher,” he said.

Law enforcement agencies are using whatever means they can to deal with the cartels in Canada, Porteous said. If they’re here on expired visitor visas, the CBSA will target them. If police in any jurisdiction can build cases against them, they’ll be prosecuted, he said.

And police will go after the drug trade profits.

“You have to remember that it is a two-way street. If you are bringing in hundreds and hundreds of kilos of illegal drugs — cocaine, methamphetamine or heroin — into Vancouver and you are generating profit from those sales, then you have to try and move the money out, which is an issue,” Porteous said.

“The biggest thing for us is to disrupt [the cartels] because in my experience as a police officer, criminals will go to an area where it’s easiest for them to work,” Porteous said. “But if it’s disruptions through prosecutions in Canada, prosecutions in the United States, deportations, seizures, our goal is to make it an unpleasant environment for them, to make them go and do their business out of a different city.”

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