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Investigators lay out packages of heroin on the pavement in a parking lot.

Tackling transnational organized crime

Federal and local police partnership mitigates risk of lethal drug

Investigators in Johannesburg, South Africa, seize 19 kilograms of heroin as part of Project Phototaxis, eliminating the threat of this lethal drug from the streets in Canada. Credit: Sgt. Fiona Wilson, Vancouver Police Department

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A few years ago, a very potent strain of heroin began hitting the streets of Vancouver, creating a public safety threat in the form of potential overdoses and violence.

When E Division investigators with the Federal and Serious Organized Crime (FSOC) unit identified a group of Vancouver-area individuals involved in importing large amounts of the drug, they partnered with the Vancouver Police Department (VPD) to deal with the threat.

"The inclusion of VPD was critical to the investigation because of their knowledge of the urban area where the targets were most active, as well as their extensive experience, historically, combatting the heroin concerns in Vancouver," says RCMP Insp. Cal Chrustie, FSOC.

Together they started Project Phototaxis, an investigation that began in June 2013 and focused on allegations that the heroin shipments originated in Afghanistan, the largest heroin-producing country in the world.

From Afghanistan, the heroin would travel to Africa, then on to Europe with a final destination of Canada for distribution to major cities — Vancouver, Calgary, Toronto and Montreal.

Threat mitigation

Project Phototaxis ended in May 2015 with 28 arrests and the seizure of 37 kilograms of heroin from various locations in Canada, including Vancouver, as well as in Belgium and South Africa.

"We smashed the distribution and supply networks so significantly that our Liaison Officers and partner police agencies abroad aren't seeing any activity there," says Chrustie.

Criminal Intelligence Service Canada, a government organization that provides intelligence products and services to police agencies, has even removed the organized crime group from their national threat assessment, says VPD Supt. Mike Porteous.

"It was important to mitigate that risk because we do have people consistently dying from lethal levels of heroin," adds Porteous. "To be able to remove that threat is a no-brainer for a partnership with the RCMP."

The two organizations travelled well beyond Vancouver's borders, working with the Canada Border Services Agency (CBSA), as well as international agencies — the South African Police Service and the Belgium Federal Police — sharing information and resources to dismantle the trafficking ring.

"If we prevent even one fatal heroin overdose, then that's success," says Porteous. "It's hard to quantify that, but the level of potency of that heroin that was coming into the streets of downtown Vancouver was very high, and I guarantee you that we saved some lives as a result of it."

With the majority of arrests and seizures taking place in other countries, Chrustie says the success of this operation is a great example of an investigative strategy, and he expects this to be a trend in tackling transnational organized crime of the future.

Porteous says that enforcement in other countries has a greater impact in Canada beyond just prosecution.

"It eliminates lethal drugs from hitting our streets," he says. "When you disrupt those types of networks locally, usually that generates violence and infighting between organized crime figures and gangs on our streets. This way it shields Canada from these implications."

A task force emerges

Project Phototaxis is just one of dozens of successful examples of positive outcomes of the collaboration between the RCMP's FSOC and VPD since forming a new joint task force a couple of years ago.

The two organizations have a long history dating back to the 1980s, when they had a highly respected integrated enforcement team called Street Crew. The team ceased operations in the new millennium.

VPD and FSOC managers recognized that the way forward for policing transnational organized crime in Vancouver was to revisit the integrated team concept.

"We created a new version of the task force that was more transnational in nature to modernize the concept with VPD," says Chrustie.

In an effort to build upon the original concept, the task force has developed an intimate working relationship with the U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration, Homeland Security investigations and CBSA, conducting collaborative operations amongst all agencies.

The new task force focuses on tackling the highest level of transnational targets operating in Vancouver, which is recognized as a major Canadian hub of activity.

"You have Vancouver police members working side-by-side with RCMP members," says Porteous. "They don't consider themselves to be an RCMP member or a VPD member, they're part of this task force and it's working great."

Reprinted with permission from the Pony Express (No. 4, 2015).

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