Vol. 78, No. 1External submissions

Bags of drugs in a box.

Dismantle or disrupt

Strategies targeting higher-level drug traffickers

With a disruptive strategy, police seize drugs and arrest those who show up to receive the delivery. Credit: RCMP


In recent years, the RCMP has moved from a preferred dismantle strategy to a more pragmatic disruption strategy in the investigation of higher-level drug traffickers. This article analyzes the reasons behind this change and the relative benefits and disadvantages of these differing investigative techniques.

Dismantle strategy

Historically, the RCMP has employed a dismantle approach to the investigation of drug trafficking networks, with the aim of arresting and convicting the majority of players involved in these criminal enterprises. In particular, the goal has been to take out the highest level of dealers — commonly referred to as "cutting off the head of the snake."

The dismantle strategy aims to arrest most or all of the participants in a drug ring and eliminate them as a functioning group. Most are convicted of conspiracy to traffic or import narcotics under Canada's Controlled Drugs and Substances Act.

Suspects come to the attention of the police through a variety of sources, which can include informants, banking personnel, customs officials and other law enforcement agencies and investigations. Once a drug trafficking organization is identified, the RCMP will gather intelligence about participants, locations, modus operandi, contacts and the organizational structure of the group.

Investigators will develop an operational plan that includes a detailed proposal on how to investigate and convict those involved in this target group. They will consider legal issues, logistics, laws of other countries, personnel requirements, electronic and physical surveillance, use of informants, undercover officers and stings, translation services and budget.

Supervisors will approve or reject a proposal based on costs versus benefits, feasibility of the operation, size of the group, quantity and type of drugs dealt, violent behaviour and security risks to the country.

Major investigations of higher-level drug traffickers typically require large budgets to fund the cost of salaries, surveillance, translations, travel and accommodation.

It is not uncommon for a single project to take several years and cost millions of dollars. Most arrests are made after the project is complete so as to avoid alerting dealers who are under investigation.

The dismantle strategy involves so much time and personnel that the costs of investigating a single group is often prohibitive, which is why large and violent drug trafficking organizations are the ones targeted.

A major concern with this strategy is that there are often insufficient resources left over to investigate smaller non-violent groups, who are allowed to operate with relative impunity and may even take the place of the criminal organization that has been eliminated.

This problem occurred during the RCMP's Montreal Currency Exchange sting between 1990 and 1994. The RCMP identified 25 separate drug syndicates, but it had sufficient resources to investigate only two groups.

Although 57 suspects were charged with drug-trafficking and money-laundering offences and $16.5 million in cash and property was seized, $125 million in drug money was laundered and members of the other 23 drug-dealing groups continued to operate without interference.

Critics within the police force, the media and Parliament faulted the RCMP for providing a money laundering service for the benefit of criminals, some of whom were members of international drug cartels.

Disruptive strategy

In recent years, the RCMP has gradually moved to a disruptive strategy in the investigation of drug traffickers.

This is more opportunistic, requires fewer resources and targets a large number of drug networks. The disruptive strategy focuses less on taking out higher-level dealers and more on increasing the costs and difficulties of conducting a criminal enterprise.

How the RCMP targets organized crime

The RCMP has evolved from targeting illegal commodities to targeting organized crime groups and networks that are often involved in a range of criminal activities, including the production and distribution of illicit drugs.

As a result, the RCMP is better positioned to respond to a range of threats and criminality.

The current model allows for greater situational awareness of the threat environment, enables analysis of emerging trends, and helps identify national and international connections among investigations.

It has also helped the RCMP better capture results and improve performance management.

Because investigative resources and efforts need to be focused against the highest threats and priorities, the RCMP's Federal Policing program uses a prioritization tool.

Investigators must outline, for example, the level of threat to Canada's economic and social integrity, and its strategic relevance to the priorities of the government, the law enforcement community and international partners.

Federal Policing investigators are always exploring and deploying a range of investigative tools to successfully disrupt and dismantle transnational organized crime groups and networks involved in drug production and distribution. This is increasingly dependent on collaboration with international partners and joint investigations that disrupt criminal activities outside of Canada.

Source: RCMP Federal Policing program

The goal is to disrupt the flow of drugs by intercepting narcotics, making immediate arrests of couriers and dealers at all levels of the drug chain, and seizing cash and other assets.

The loss of product, money and personnel makes it increasingly difficult and costly for traffickers to run their illicit business. Dealers are forced to change plans and personnel, and cope with flow reductions, increased costs, dissatisfied customers, debt payments, loss of trust and credit, damage to reputation, conflicts and fear of informants. Ideally, a disruptive strategy makes it difficult for traffickers to close deals and may even put them out of business.

The police will also seek the assistance of other agencies to help disrupt the flow of drugs.

The RCMP will alert the Canada Border Service Agency of the movements of drug couriers and have them searched and arrested at the border.

Immigration may be used to refuse foreign nationals entry into the country or to deport those involved in drug dealing. Revenue Canada can be alerted to the spending habits and income of dealers, who can be investigated for income tax offences. Currency exchange and proceeds of crime laws are used to lay money laundering charges and seize assets.

The necessity of having to cope with ongoing legal problems restricts dealers' movements and leaves them with fewer resources available for the drug business.

The use of a disruptive strategy is illustrated in the Vancouver Currency Exchange sting between 1993 and 1996, which led to the arrest of 120 suspects in Canada and the United States and the seizure of 800 kilograms of cocaine, $2.5 million in cash and millions of dollars in assets.

The RCMP arrested operatives at various levels and made frequent drug and cash seizures in an attempt to disrupt the interactions of as many dealers as possible.

Comparing and contrasting the two strategies

The dismantle strategy requires planning and is relatively slow moving and deliberate. In contrast, the disruptive strategy is fast moving and opportunistic.

The differing approach to the handling of drug seizures can be used to illustrate each. If, for instance, the RCMP becomes aware of a large shipment of narcotics, a dismantle strategy requires it to follow the delivery to identify the end recipients.

This is an expensive and labour-intensive approach that requires a surveillance team, technical support and global co-ordination.

Officers will gather intelligence on the group, prepare an operational plan, amass all necessary resources, and begin a major investigation that culminates in a large number of arrests months or years later.

A disruptive strategy would have the police seize the drugs and arrest those who, with knowledge, show up to receive the delivery.

This results in the arrest of lower-level operatives such as couriers and mules, but seldom leads to the arrest of higher level dealers.

"Making quick drug seizures means that we are picking off the low-hanging fruit. We disrupt the higher-level dealers but may not be able to convict and imprison them," says one RCMP officer.

Others argue the same thing happens with a dismantle strategy since only a few drug syndicates are targeted and high-level dealers in the remaining groups are not investigated and charged.

The RCMP is results-oriented and has traditionally measured success by the number of arrests and convictions of higher-level dealers and the dismantling of their criminal organizations.

It is more difficult to quantify and measure success with the disruptive strategy because the impact on traffickers' ability to consummate deals is often unknown and preventative to some degree. Drug seizures and the arrest of couriers and mules are not as impressive as the arrest of major drug traffickers.


The dismantle and disrupt strategies are not mutually exclusive.

The RCMP continues to target large violent drug syndicates with the goal of removing these groups from society through arrests and incarceration of the main players.

Nonetheless, the high cost of the dismantle strategy and the need for more efficient use of limited resources has led the police to adopt disruptive techniques that diminish the flow of drugs, increase costs for dealers, damage profits, and create problems with payments, credit, trust and reputation.

Like many government agencies, the RCMP is faced with increasing financial constraints along with new and greater demands for its services.

The force's Serious and Organized Crime Unit has replaced its drug sections and drug trafficking is no longer the highest priority.

Serious fraud, bank and stock embezzlement, human trafficking, terrorism and threats to Canada's border security are given high priority. Internet crimes have also increased in number and seriousness, resulting in increasing demands on RCMP investigative services.

In addition, society has changed and the use of certain illicit drugs is increasingly viewed by the public and the police as less of a threat than many other crimes.

There is greater acknowledgement that prohibition has not worked and that new dealers quickly take the place of those arrested and drug trafficking continues unabated.

The RCMP is often faced with an either/or choice in confronting criminal organizations.

It continues to use a dismantle strategy to deal with the most serious and violent drug syndicates but increasingly rely on disruptive strategies to target a greater number of drug traffickers.

Dr. Frederick Desroches is the author of The Crime that Pays: Drug Trafficking and Organized Crime in Canada.

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