By Monique Muise, Postmedia News May 14, 2014
Police forces on both sides of the Canada-U. S.
border have dealt a major blow to an illegal tobacco ring that they say was linked to the Mafia and aboriginal organized crime.
Officials from the Sûreté du Québec, the Canada Border Services Agency, the RCMP and the U. S. Department of Homeland Security were on hand Wednesday as 400 officers fanned out in Montreal and the surrounding regions and began raiding dozens of properties. Among the locations targeted just before dawn were homes in St-Leonard and Valleyfield and a strip club in Dundee, near the border.
In all, $ 7 million worth of contraband was seized and 28 people arrested. Police are still searching for seven people linked to the criminal ring, which allegedly involved close collaboration between the Mafia and aboriginal organized crime.
Residents of Kahnawake said it was the first time they'd heard police refer to "aboriginal organized crime" and said the raids will affect many members of their community who depend on the cigarette industry to make an honest living.
"It benefits the whole community both directly and indirectly," said Peggy Mayo, a former chief of the band council. "Why would the local government have supported it for the past 25 years if the Mob was involved?" Christine Zachary Deom, a chief on the band council, said that even though making and selling cigarettes is controversial - "we're not making baby food" - it's a source of income close to home."
According to the head of the SQ's organized crime division, Michel Pelletier, dismantling the complex system that brought unprocessed tobacco over the border from North Carolina was also a collaborative effort. In addition to provincial and federal police forces, officers from municipal bodies in various towns, along with several from the Akwesasne Mohawk Police Service, were instrumental in the investigation.
The probe into illegal tobacco imports is the largest ever conducted in North America.
Police believe that the unprocessed tobacco was initially purchased in bulk by the Mob and then transported over the border hidden in shipments of cedar mulch. It was then resold to buyers on the Akwesasne and Kahnawake First Nations reserves, who processed the contraband and distributed it.
The two organizations divided the profits, Pelletier noted, with the Mafia taking 60 per cent and the aboriginal groups taking 40 per cent.
Officials in Quebec first got wind of the operation, allegedly masterminded by businessman Nicola Valvano, in September 2012 following a tip from U. S. authorities. Several of the men arrested on Wednesday have been linked to alleged Mob boss Raynald Desjardins, who is in prison.
"This case ... has a direct impact on both of our countries," U. S. Homeland Security official James Spiro said at a news conference on Wednesday.
"When we take contraband and money from criminal groups, we're significantly impacting their ability to operate."
In total, officers raided 32 locations and seized $ 450,000 in cash, 40,000 kilograms of tobacco, 1,300 marijuana plants, 14 vehicles and one gun.
The 28 people in custody and the seven still on the lam are facing charges of fraud, sale of contraband and gangsterism.
Police estimate that their 18-month investigation and the ensuing arrests will put an additional $ 10 million in the government's pockets. Even as the number of smokers in Quebec has decreased in recent years, Pelletier said, tobaccorelated tax revenue have risen - a sign that the police crackdown on illegal tobacco is having an effect.