The Fifth Estate investigates DEA presence in BC

The following is a transcript of a CBC Fifth Estate Program that aired early in the year:(Transcribed by Reverend Damuzi)

The US is constantly being reminded that Canada is a country of regions with unique interests. In British Columbia, for example, there is unique interest and big business in a product that’s banned by law. It’s marijuana, a best selling variety known everywhere as BC Bud.

West coast growers have been making a lot of money on BC bud and in general the authorities seem inclined to set it slide. But then it became a hot commodity for export south of the border and that’s where our story starts. Because that’s when Uncle Sam got mad about BC bud and flexed some muscle south of the border.

The story is told by our colleague from BC, Gloria Macerenko.

A dead end road in the middle of nowhere. No fences or barriers, just footpaths that lead to a ditch. You’d never know that this is the border between BC and Washington State. US border patrolman Tom Serrindino used to work the Mexico border, now he works the border of Canada.

Serrindino: “I’m looking for cars, people, any suspicious activity.”

Serrindino has a mission: to defend the US border. To him and many Americans, this is war.

Serrindino: “This is a war. The US is being infiltrated by illegal aliens, by drug smugglers, by terrorists, criminal elements of other countries that are trying to gain footholds in the US. And this is one way for them to do it.”

It’s marijuana smugglers from BC that are gaining footholds here. They are walking across these ditches with bags full of the stuff. It’s upsetting the Americans so much that they are making this their new front in their war on drugs. The enemies are Canadians like Peter Roberts, a small time marijuana courier, one of the few who has been caught.

Peter Roberts: “‘Put your hands where I can see ’em, shut it off , drop your keys, put your hands were I can see em.’ I could feel that bullet straight through my head.”

Roberts is a retired logger who’d never been arrested in his life. He was trying to make some quick cash by hauling some marijuana across the border. The authorities would also like to get their hands on Peter’s son, Justin, who’s still back in their hometown of Malaqua, BC. Justin is suspected of helping his dad make his runs. It’s a booming business.

Justin Roberts: “Well there’s lots of money to be made in it you know. From the next door neighbour to myself to the guy who grows it. What happened to dad was a bit of an eye-opener to everyone up here. They know what not to do now.”

In this small logging town, people are used to finding new ways to make money. And at the Malaqua cafe, many think that selling pot is no big deal.

Elderly woman: “I think most of us feel the same. Live and let live. You do what you have to do.”

Middle aged man: “There’s lot of pot out here.”

What do you mean?

“It grows. There’s lots of unemployment.”

Selling product to the US is how people around here have always gotten by. For a long time the money came from logs, taken out of the forest. Now the mills are closed and marijuana has taken over as the cash crop. The plants here actually produce some of the best marijuana, known around the world as BC Bud.

Marijuana growing is a major underground industry. Police figure that BC growers make about $3 billion a year. They make most of that selling to Americans. While the US fights its major war against all drugs, many people in BC have a much more relaxed attitude about marijuana. And up until very recently, that included the police. A couple of years ago in the Cannabis Cafe in Vancouver, users smoked openly, just like they do in Amsterdam. The cafe sold seeds to some of the estimated 8,000 growers around Vancouver, who were seldom charged. 90 percent of those who were charged, didn’t go to jail. Most just got a fine. One BC judge justified the leniency by saying that “moderate use of marijuana done by a healthy adult, is not harmful to health.”

Border cop: “Yeah marijuana was seized in this sealed compartment in this pickup truck.”

The American drug warriors at the border were beginning to get really annoyed at BC’s attitude. US customs agents were seizing stuff that would have sold in California at $6,000 a pound.

In May of 1998, the US summoned Canadians to this Seattle Hotel. The RCMP and Vancouver police came, along with BC’s attorney General. Washington’s attorney general, Christine Gregoire, laid down the law.

Gregoire: “What came out of our summit was a very clear encouragement to BC, to enhance its penalties, to enhance its prosecutions, to enhance the time in which it makes those prosecutions, so that they’re much more effective. BC’s attorney general at the time, Ujjal Dusanjh, came on side.

Dusanjh: “There were discussion with the RCMP and other police officers present from the other side of the border and there was a general agreement to cooperate with each other.”

Then, the same month, the Americans hosted a bigger meeting on border crime, in Washington. US attorney general, Janet Reno, met with Canada’s then solicitor general, Andy Scott, who gave Reno a mountie hat. Scott also gave Reno what she wanted. A special team of RCMP officers sent to the border to protect the US from Canadian marijuana couriers.

Police from the two countries are now getting together like never before. These days Mike Fuego, from the US DEA comes up to Vancouver once a week to meet with the RCMP.

What do you talk about?

Fuego: “We talk about the current ongoing cases in both countries that affect their efforts. If there is a case that is most of it is going to be in the States, I will assign an agent to go up there and physically meet with and sort of help them.”

When the DEA talks about helping other countries, it sometimes leads to scenes like this (cops shown with guns entering a building). DEA agents have moved into other countries around the world to fight their drug war. They’ve arrested people in places like Mexico and Colombia, and hauled them into US court. US law also allows them to seize people’s assets and keep the stuff for government use.

Fuego (laughing): “I mean my government car was beautiful, wasn’t it?”

Gloria M: Yeah, really smooth.

Fuego: “A 97 Mercedes that we seized off of a ah [clears throat]US person that came down with 80 pounds of BC bud.”

That kind of thing worries people like Michael Boltin. He’s one of Canada’s top experts in international law and drug cases. He thinks that the DEA will move right into Canada if they’re allowed to.

Boltin: “We don’t want them to treat us like they treat Mexico. As if there were no border. No foreign state or its law enforcement agency has any right to investigate in Canada. Foreign states cannot carry on law enforcement activity in Canada. that would be an infringement of Canadian sovereignty and that makes the border meaningless. People in Malaqua, BC sure feel like the Americans are infringing on their town.

Middle aged woman: “I think they should look after their own. We should look after our own.”

Middle aged man: “It’s all blown out of proportion. I mean you got a couple kids …”

The local kids first caught the attention of American agents at the border when one of them came through carrying a hockey bag of marijuana. And got caught. The US called on the RCMP and asked them to find others who got away. The courier they caught said a logger from Malaqua was the supplier, 28 year old Colin Martin. The RCMP got a special budget for an investigation, and brought their new American friends in on the case.

Then the RCMP go to great lengths for the US cause. A US agent helps the RCMP put a tracking device in one of the Martin family trucks. Police from both countries follow the truck through back roads on either side of the border, for weeks on end. Twice the RCMP arrest Colin Martin with piles of US money but then let him go. The RCMP even sit and watch as the group goes into an airport loaded down with hockey bags bound for the US. The RCMP don’t plan to charge anyone yet, because they’re trying to help the Americans build a conspiracy case.

They get permission to tap Colin Martin’s phone and he knows they’re onto him. They hear him saying, “in BC the police are very lax and don’t have the money to do these investigations. The DEA are doing the investigation.”

The RCMP seem to agree. An investigator writes, “The comments of Colin Martin should be noted. the sad reality is that it’s not far from the truth.”

By the summer of 1999 the RCMP have been watching for a year and they still haven’t charged anyone. Corporal Grant Lernit of the RCMP claims they were going after bigger fish.

Lernit: “There are bigger elements to it than the lower-level individuals who are working, the couriers, the bagmen in between, those little guys are working toward the upper end, they are working up the ladder.”

But the Americans still see the litte couriers and bagmen as a real threat.

Border cop: “We’re under attack, little by little, little pieces at a time, and I think that this northern border is an area that needs to be … that needs to be tended to.”

When we come back, how far the RCMP might go to help Uncle Sam, and what Uncle Sam might do if we refuse.

Lampman: “We surely are not going to hesitate to go ahead and unilaterally meet our commitment to our citizens.”

Gloria M: “Which means clamping down at the border?”

“If it meant that, we would do it.”

By the summer of 99, in the BC interior, the RCMP are deeply involved with the US DEA, going after marijuana exporters. In their enthusiasm to help the Americans, the RCMP have done some questionable things. When they tap the phone of a suspected marijuana exporter, they also share what they hear with the US DEA. Then, even when their investigation is wrapped up, they keep listening anyway until the US can start its own phone tap. International legal expert Michael Boltin says that’s crossing the line, allowing a foreign government to listen in on a Canadian wiretap.

Boltin: “That should never happen. That affects the privacy of individuals in Canada. And that is an unwarranted intrusion into Canadian domestic affairs, and a blurring of the border that should never be allowed.”

The border also gets pretty blurry when the Americans cook up a scheme to trick a Canadian into US prison. The RCMP tell the Americans that one of the marijuana runners is crossing the border. US agents follow him by air along mountain roads for two days and eventually arrest the guy with 43 pounds of marijuana in his vehicle. It was Peter Roberts, the courier.

Roberts: “The next day, ’24 hours later, ‘roll em up, you’re out of here.’ I couldn’t believe my eyes, I couldn’t believe my ears either. They let us go.”

Roberts goes back to Canada, a free man. Because police on both sides are worried that if they charged him at that point, it would alert his bosses. Ten days later, RCMP raid seven homes in the Malaqua area. In three of them they find about 1,000 plants, and a bunch of growing equipment. The RCMP charge several people with conspiracy to export marijuana. Charges are also laid in the US. Peter Roberts then gets this surprise letter from US customs.

Gloria M reads letter: “The state of Washington has declined to press charges in this case. Therefore the government is obligated to return seized items to you. You are requested to personally pick up these items as your original signatures are required.”

Roberts: “So I phoned and I said, yup, we’ll meet you at the border. I had no idea what was going to happen so I said to my wife, well I guess we can go get our truck.”

Gloria M: “But why would you agree to go?”

Roberts: “Well, because I believed what the letter said: ‘no charges, come get your stuff.'”

It was a trick. US officials are waiting, and arrest Robert as soon as he shows up. The US DEA call this kind of tactic a ‘rouse’, something they do all the time.

Fuego: “Oh I imagine you could, through a rouse, if you knew someone who knew the guy, have him come down for a coffee someplace and then arrest him. Oh, you know, we would do that. But we wouldn’t go up into Canada and arrest.”

As if rouses and eavesdropping weren’t enough, there was something else about the US/RCMP cooperation that upset people in the BC town of Malaqua much more, and that was how one man profited in the end, a man that they think should have been a target for the RCMP.

He was a local cocaine dealer, who lived here. Dennis Dober had been selling to local young people like Jay Martin for years.

Jay Martin: “Oh everybody knows he was the dealer. He was the only guy around with coke.”

Gloria M: “Even the police?”

Jay Martin: “Yup. The police knew.”

The RCMP told Dober they wouldn’t charge him for dealing cocaine, if he would befriend the marijuana growers and help the RCMP bust their operations. He was hired as a confidential informant, who wouldn’t testify. Dennis Dober fed the RCMP information for months. Then, after the suspected marijuana runners were charged, Dennis Dober got a big pay-off. The RCMP gave him $440,000 and paid to move him out of town. In exchange, he has now agreed to testify in Canada and the US. Jay Martin’s wife, Shelley Tessier, can’t believe the RCMP made her husband’s cocaine dealer rich.

Shelley: “They gave him $450,000 for ruining people’s lives around here and he doesn’t have to go to jail. He can do whatever he wants. And spend a half million dollars.”

The RCMP claimed they weren’t paying for testimony, they were just compensating Dober, because they had revealed his identity to the suspects.

Gloria M: “How do you get to a number like that? For some people ? it floors them when they hear this number.”

RCMP officer: “When you are making a determination like that you have to look at what is going to be required. In order to adequately provide the safety needs for a person who has agreed to the process where there has been any kind of disclosure that would compromise that individual’s safety and the safety of their family.”

The RCMP won’t say anything else about their deal, or where they got the money. It’s possible some of it could have come from the Americans. The US DEA pays informants in other countries all the time.

Fuego: “Say the RCMP have a source of information, and it directly leads to a seizure down here in the US. We will pay money, pay a reward through the RCMP, to their source.”

Lawyer Michael Boltin says that in effect is putting paid foreign agents to work on Canadian soil.

Boltin: “That’s an outrageous thing. I believe that most Canadians, including most members of parliament are not aware of that. It’s a shocking thing, and its bound to breed corruption, its bound to breed entrapment or bring innocent people into crime. It’s bound to breed perjured testimony. It’s a very bad sign.”

But why? Why would the RCMP go to so much trouble to help a foreign government go after smugglers? in BC yet, where the attitude toward marijuana is tolerant to say the least? Well at the time the US wasn’t just pressuring Canada to cooperate on drug cases, it was also threatening to retaliate, in a big way if the RCMP didn’t come through.

Background voice: “Subcommittee on immigration claims will come to order …”

In 1999, Texas congressman Lamar Smith was one of the most vocal Americans upset about BC marijuana smuggling. He wanted congress to put a law into effect that would close the open border. All Canadians would be considered aliens, who would have to register to cross. It would have been a huge border clamp down and Canadians would have had to wait in line for hours. Mick backed down only after Canada agreed to do more joint investigations like the BC drug case. Mick has even sent his chief of staff, John Lampman up to Canada to meet with high-ranking members of the RCMP.

Gloria M: “What if Canada doesn’t come through with some resources to keep up its end of the deal?”

Lampman: “I think what we’re looking at there is unilateral action by the United States. The United States is not going to fail to meet its commitment to its citizens. We want to do it with the cooperation of our neighbours, and that is the preferred way to go. But if Canada, for whatever reason, should fail to meet its part of the cooperative effort, we certainly are not going to fail to go unilaterally ahead and meet our commitment to our citizens.”

Gloria M: “Which means clamping down at the border?”

Lampman: “If it meant that, we would do it.”

There are many people in Vancouver who think that Canada shouldn’t be caving into that threat, that RCMP should be paying more attention to drugs coming into Canada from the US. In a recent survey, 64% agree that police are spending too much time and public money arresting marijuana growers. That instead, they should be focusing on people who sell hard drugs, like Heroin, and Cocaine.

Cocaine is a huge problem for Vancouver. In 1999, 158 cocaine addicts like Mandy Blake-Moore died of overdoses in BC. Mandy Blake-Moore died a couple days after this video tape was shot. Police on both sides of the border believe that this Washington state highway is a pipeline that brings cocaine into BC from the US. People drive up hauling loads of Cocaine from California. Sometimes they bought it with the money they made selling BC pot.

Fuego: “We are seeing the pot go down, and then we are seeing these huge shipments of cocaine going up. If you can smuggle it with a backpack, crossing the berry fields on the way down, you can do the same thing with taking cocaine up. The chances again of getting caught … there’s great odds.”

At the border, the cocaine runners can just park at the border, and then walk into Canada. The US border patrolmen are looking the other way, watching for marijuana runners coming from the north.

Border pig: “These berry bushes make it hard to see into …”

They didn’t catch ANY of the cocaine that people packed through the BC/Washington border this year. The RCMP didn’t get much either. In 1999, when they were going after BC marijuana, RCMP cocaine seizures dropped to the lowest amount in 7 years. 15 tons of cocaine get into Canada every year through various ports of entry.

Neil Boyd: “It’s true prices have dropped in relation to inflation. Availability has increased.”

Criminologist Neil Boyd has been telling Ottawa’s Senate Committee on Illicit Drugs that Canada should get its priorities straight, and get out of the US war on marijuana. He’s been writing about Canada’s drug policy for years.

Boyd: “All of this effort by America is helping their quote problem with marijuana. It isn’t helping us deal with our heroin overdoses. It isn’t helping us deal with our cocaine problem. And it’s a really bad deal for us. It’s another example of the subtle and not so subtle way that America bullies the world.”

Back in this part of the world, Malaqua BC, the irony is that the deal between the RCMP hasn’t even given the Americans what they wanted. It’s now been a year and a half since Colin Martin and the other accused pot smugglers were charged, and they still haven’t gone to trial. It may be years before there’s a trial, if ever. They’re challenging the wiretap, the payment to the informant, and the American involvement. The thousands of hours and all the money the RCMP put into their investigation has put only one Canadian in jail, Peter Roberts, the marijuana courier, a 62-year-old diabetic who is doing 5 years in US federal prison.