By Lethbridge Herald on September 21, 2013.
Grassy Lake has become a destination for Mexican drug smugglers. Southern Alberta Newspapers photo by Greg Price
Last June, two southern Albertans and a man from Mexico were charged in a $2-million drug bust.
Taber’s Abram Klassen and Coaldale’s Jacob Dyck, along with Chihuahua, Mexico man Isaak Banman, were all charged with importing cocaine, possessing cocaine for the purposes of trafficking and conspiracy to import cocaine.
Those charges stemmed from a March 22, 2012 drug seizure in Coutts, where six kilograms of cocaine were seized, and a July 27, 2011 seizure where 10 kilos were seized in Great Falls, Mont.
Late last week, more charges were laid in connection with that case, as a federal grand jury in Denver returned a nine-count indictment charging seven individuals with conspiracy to distribute and possess with intent to distribute 1,000 kilograms or more of marijuana and use of a communications device to facilitate drug trafficking.
According to James Schrant of U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration, and resident agent in charge of the investigation, based in Western Colorado, information collected led investigators to believe cocaine was the drug of choice being imported to the Great White North, and that it was destined for Grassy Lake, a small town 15 minutes east of Taber on Highway 3.
“This multi-year investigation revealed significant quantities of cocaine that was being transported from Mexico through the U.S. and ultimately to points in Canada, including several locations in Alberta, Canada for distribution. To date, this investigation has resulted in seizures of 30 kilograms of cocaine, those 30 kilograms were seized at and near the U.S./Alberta, Canada border as they were being transported northbound.”
Schrant said investigators used informants and undercover officers and conducted wire intercepts to determine Grassy Lake was the end point for the drugs.
“We’ve been conducting an investigation targeting an organization based in Mexico,” he said. “It actually started in 2009 and 2010, and during that time we’ve worked closely with the RCMP there.
Trucks carrying farm equipment transported the marijuana through the United States, as Schrant added just because the drugs were destined for a relatively remote rural area, that did not mean the operation was not very involved. He said tractor trailers hauling machinery were used to smuggle drugs, drugs which were neatly concealed in “elaborate” compartments.
Many of those charged are members of the Mexican Mennonite community, according to Schrant, as those indicted by the grand jury include Eduardo Tellez-Ponce, Ulises Castillo-Meraz, Abraham Friesen-Remple, Enrique Harms-Groening, David Loewen, Juan Reimer and Pedro Dyke-Friesen.
Law enforcement officials are searching for the other six defendants in this case, all of whom are considered fugitives and many of which are believed to be outside the United States.
“This group is largely the command and control and the shot callers, the heads of the organization that we are starting to round up now,” said Schrant. “The vast majority of them are from Mexico, but they have deep, historic ties to Canada.”
But it is the ties to Mexico that worry Schrant, as he added those under investigation have links to the Juarez drug cartel in the Mexican Mennonite community in the state of Chihuahua, Cuauhtemoc, Mexico, small rural town south of Juarez.
“It’s one of the largest and most violent drug cartels in the world,” he said, and added that small town is where many of the Mennonite faith have settled over the years.
That small-town familiarity is likely one of the reasons Grassy Lake was selected as a destination for the drugs.
“They often feel more comfortable in rural areas,” said Schrant, who added areas such as Grassy Lake, where a law-enforcement presence is not as frequent as it would be in a large urban area, are often selected as drug-trafficking destinations.
Schrant went on to say it all adds up to a worrisome situation here north of the border.
“Canada is experiencing what the United States has been experiencing for several years,” said Schrant, who added when there is a demand for drugs, organizations will work to fill that demand.
The success of this investigation is proof efforts to slow down the flow of illegal drugs are making a difference, he mentioned.
“Organized crime is evolving out of Mexico and when it starts to inhabit Canada, as it has in the United States, the RCMP has shown a willingness to learn and adapt from what we have experienced here.”
Schrant added law-enforcement officials in southern Alberta do need to be prepared, however, as it’s likely drug-trafficking activity in the area will continue.
“We’re seeing considerable violence here in the United States, and I think it would be prudent for law-enforcement agencies there, and anywhere where this activity is taking place, to be prepared.”
Lastly, he added one of the things he wanted to make clear with the investigation is to ensure all Mennonites are not painted with the same brush.
“There are always going to be bad seeds and this is in no way an indictment of the Mennonite community in large.”
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