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Communities that cross continents

Person with duffel bag walks through rows of drugs laid out.

Operation Lionfish led to the seizure of more than $822 million (USD) in drugs. Credit: Nicola Vigilanti

Canadian agencies help intercept drugs, weapons

By Sigrid Forberg

When Cpl. Bradley Kristel, a drug investigator from British Columbia, was approached to travel to Central America to help in an INTERPOL operation, he was a little unsure at first.

“I didn’t know why I was going down there,” says Kristel. “I was told they were looking for a Spanish-speaking organized crime and drugs investigator and I fit the bill, but they couldn’t tell me exactly what I was going to be doing down there.”

Kristel ended up taking part in Operation Lionfish, an INTERPOL initiative that consisted of three phases: training, capacity building and operations.

Funded by the Canadian Department for Foreign Affairs, Trade and Development (DFATD), Lionfish involved more than 34 countries and resulted in the seizure of nearly 30 tonnes (30,000 kilograms) of cocaine, heroin and marijuana, with an estimated value of $822 million (USD).

The operation also resulted in 142 arrests and the seizure of 15 vessels, eight tonnes of chemical precursors, 42 firearms and approximately $170,000 (USD) in cash. And while the results of the operation were significant, it was the communication and co-operation between all the agencies involved that made Lionfish a success.

International involvement

The RCMP first got involved in Lionfish in March 2013 while Insp. Glenn Martindale, then-director of the INTERPOL Ottawa national Central Bureau, was at INTERPOL headquarters in Lyon, France. Martindale was presented an operation that was going to be taking place in the Americas.

“I thought, since we co-ordinate all of Canada’s law enforcement participation in INTERPOL activities, that this was an opportunity for both Canada and the RCMP to help potentially curb the trafficking of drugs and weapons into our country,” says Martindale. “How could we not participate?”

So he spoke with A/Commr. Dale Sheehan, also an RCMP member who is currently seconded as the director of capacity building and training at INTERPOL, and who was equally enthusiastic about a potential Canadian involvement.

“The RCMP is a valuable asset in all of my programs: they send subject matter experts, operational experts, technical experts,” says Sheehan. “And clearly the RCMP’s reputation on an international scale is well-recognized.”

He adds that a relationship between the RCMP and INTERPOL comes naturally, due to RCMP Commr. Bob Paulson’s role as delegate for the Americas on the Executive Committee of INTERPOL.

Communicating openly

Once they had determined to be involved and secured funding, they had to decide who to send down to represent the force.

There were several good applicants, but Kristel, who spends the majority of his vacation time volunteering at animal shelters in Central America, was fluent in the language and aware of many cultural practices and attitudes.

So making the trip, Kristel was aware that many of the countries in the region faced challenges when it came to collaboration. In fact, Saul Hernandez Lainez, the head of the INTERPOL Regional Bureau for Central America in San Salvador, El Salvador, says nothing like this had ever been attempted before, especially with so many countries involved.

“Communication between agencies was initially not very easy because it was the first time for something of this size,” says Hernandez Lainez. “However, we observed that little by little, the difficulties in communication were surmounted in time for the operation.”

It wasn’t just that co-ordination between different states was a challenge; there were some countries that didn’t even have open lines of communication between their own agencies.

Hernandez Lainez adds that while it’s easy to get the impression that certain countries are better able to communicate or are more organized than others, it’s INTERPOL’s responsibility to support all its member countries.

“Operation Lionfish truly represents a great success for INTERPOL because it showed the capacity of the organization to create spaces for discussion that allows this type of activity to move forward through such an ambitious operation,” says Hernandez Lainez.

With the help of fellow organizations like Europol, the Carribean Customs Law Enforcement Council and the World Customs Organization, INTERPOL, as an organization, was able to bring something to the table that helped facilitate a level of communication that few other agencies have.

“We provide a platform that doesn’t politicize and is really focused around policing needs and capabilities,” says Mick O’Connell, the Director of Operational Police Support for INTERPOL and the chair of the INTERPOL Integrated Border Management Task Force. “I think that may relax some sensitivities, if they exist, in national and regional contexts.”

Huge impact

Rafael Pena, Head of the INTERPOL Regional Bureau for South America, based in Buenos Aires, Argentina, joined Hernandez Lainez in expressing his satisfaction with the outcome of Operation Lionfish.

Because of the significance of the seizures and what was seized, it sends a clear message that law enforcement, as a whole, is committed to combatting the organized crime groups operating in the area.

Hernandez Lainez, who also coordinated for Operation Lionfish, says that INTERPOL knows for a fact that several organized crime groups were impacted by the seizures from Lionfish.

“We can confirm that organized criminal networks suffered from the consequences of INTERPOL’s rallying almost 40 countries in the region,” says Lainez.

Lainez attributes a great deal of that success to the RCMP and the Canadian government’s participation and involvement in the funding for Operation Lionfish. Working with Kristel, and having support from an analyst in Ottawa, allowed the operation to grow in ways that many of the agencies in the area couldn’t have supported with their current infrastructure and tools.

For Martindale, the RCMP’s involvement was about more than just lending a hand to fellow police agencies.

“We try and participate in things where we can be leaders and good law enforcement citizens around the world,” says Martindale. “But also, we know that by tackling it outside of our borders, we’re potentially preventing the crimes from coming to our country.”

Stopping the flow

While Central America might not seem exactly like Canada’s backyard, Sheehan says both the RCMP and Canada certainly see the effects of their participation in operations like Lionfish.

In Canada, the sheer scale of drugs seized over the two-week operation will have a huge impact on the work drug investigators undertake. For Kristel, who’s been investigating drug cases for eight years now, the volume of drugs taken off the street is almost unheard of.

“Over the eight years I’ve been with drugs, with 30 investigators working, we’ve probably seized 100 units of heroin,” says Kristel. “I don’t think people realize the kind of effect seizing 30 tonnes of cocaine is going to have on the supply in Canada.”

While it’s impossible to say where exactly the drugs were headed, investigators believe they were likely destined in equal parts for Canada, the United States and Europe.

Kristel says that once those drugs reach Canadian shores, the distribution is so complex and sophisticated that it makes it very difficult even for highly skilled investigators to lay their hands on even close to the amount they seized in two short weeks.

And the resources required to conduct those investigations once the drugs reach Canada are significantly more than what it takes to work together with other agencies to cut off the flow of drugs at their source.

“It takes informants, countless hours of surveillance and untold amounts of money to try and seize a fraction of what we seized down there. It would cost millions of dollars,” says Kristel. “By just sending me down there, we saved countless hours on drug investigations.”

Kristel adds it’s not just the law enforcement costs Canada saves in the long run. From a big picture perspective, spin-off costs like health care or drug-related deaths that are saved need to be factored in as well when evaluating the many successes of these kinds of operations.

Lessons learned

Because of the importance that training played in Lionfish, not only did Kristel serve as an extra body throughout the investigation, he also brought the Canadian perspective and techniques to the table.

While he was impressed by the calibre and professionalism of the police officers he met, he realized their training at times was limited. So he did his best to help fill in the gaps for the investigators down there.

An important part of what he tried to leave them with was to look at investigations from a different perspective.

“They were more interested in grabbing the drugs, arresting people on the scene and they’d call that a win. Canadian investigators look at that as a limited win,” says Kristel. “We brought them a new dynamic for utilizing information better and developing sources.”

For an investigation to be a complete success, Kristel says investigators need to dig deeper and try to get at the criminal organizations where it counts by developing sources, conducting covert operations and targeting higher-ranking individuals. But to do that, collaboration is a must.

O’Connell adds that by the end of the operation, it was clear to the agencies involved that this approach was considerably more fruitful than when they each attempt to tackle the issues on their own.

“The real value is that in a difficult and fractured neighbourhood, we’ve shown that we can harmonize the collective will of disparate law enforcement agencies to work together over a steady period, while thinking about sustainability for the future,” says O’Connell.

Looking forward

Hernandez Lainez adds that Lionfish can now be held up as a best practice for future operations in the area, whether they involve drugs or not. It also shows the added value of the regional bureaus in supporting the member countries in their fight against drug trafficking and organized crime.

“There is no doubt that this type of interagency communication is going to serve in future operations and future activities,” says Hernandez Lainez. “Communication is vital in this type of exercise and without it, the efforts by all those agencies couldn’t have been synchronized.”

Having now seen the great effects of synchronizing their efforts, the member countries involved in Operation Lionfish are working on keeping their lines of communication open, whatever they’re working on.

Investigators in Central America are still putting together final tallies, writing reports and drawing different aspects of the investigation to a close, but they’re also looking to the future and discussing potential further operations.

That enthusiasm and eagerness is also shared by their counterparts in both North America and Europe. Kristel says it was the coolest thing he’s participated in over his 17- year career with the RCMP. Sheehan adds it’s operations like this that help put into perspective how few borders remain when it comes to crime.

“The RCMP’s goal is to provide Canada with safe homes and safe communities, and this is just another way we can do that,” says Sheehan. “And it doesn’t hurt to show our members a global perspective that what happens in small-town Canada could be the offset of what happens on another continent.”

Marijuana use in schools

Operation Lionfish resulted in the seizure of more than 30 tonnes of drugs. While it’s impossible to know exactly how much of that seizure was destined for Canadian shores, even a small fraction of that amount can translate into a serious problem for Canadian communities.

One metric tonne is equal to 1,000 kilograms (1,000,000 grams).

Each gram can produce approximately three marijuana cigarettes (joints), which means one tonne could produce three million joints.

In the Ottawa region, there are approximately 35,000 high school students. One tonne of marijuana would provide a supply of roughly 85 joints to each of those students.

A heavy habit for a high school student would be the consumption of one to two grams of marijuana per day, and/ or three to six cigarettes per day.

In other words, one tonne of marijuana could supply a heavy habit for up to one month for each of the high school students in Ottawa.

— Sigrid Forberg