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Shiprider program aims to sniff out drug traffickers on the water

The two high-powered speed boats meet in broad daylight near San Juan Island, just south of the Canada-U.S. border. Bags filled with millions of dollars worth of cocaine and methamphetamine are allegedly passed from the U.S.

The two high-powered speed boats meet in broad daylight near San Juan Island, just south of the Canada-U.S. border.

Bags filled with millions of dollars worth of cocaine and methamphetamine are allegedly passed from the U.S. boat to the Canadian boat, which police say is operated by a Vancouver Island man. The transaction is over within minutes.

As the two men speed back to their home ports, they have no idea the entire transaction is being watched, the culmination of a six-month drug-smuggling investigation spanning two countries.

When he docked in Victoria on Feb. 23, 2017, the Vancouver Island man was arrested by the RCMP. Mounties seized 55 kilograms of cocaine, 47 kilograms of crystal methamphetamine and a kilogram of heroin from the boat. The Washington state man, Gary Todd Horton, was arrested as he returned to Oak Harbor, Washington, and has pleaded guilty to conspiracy to export controlled substances. Authorities also seized $150,000 in cash, 15 firearms and ammunition, which were on display alongside clear plastic bags of drugs at an April 2018 press conference in Surrey.

The investigation represents one of the most high-profile cases handled by the Pacific Shiprider team, a program that sees the RCMP team up with U.S. Coast Guard officials to patrol both sides of the border in an attempt to nab smugglers and drug-traffickers.

“This was a major case for our Shiprider program,” U.S. Coast Guard Lt.-Cmdr. Blair Sweigart told the Times Colonist.

On a Thursday afternoon this month, a slate-grey RCMP rigid hull inflatable boat glides across the glassy water, just skirting the invisible Canada-U.S. border that splits Juan de Fuca Strait.

“It’s a big black hole out there,” says Shiprider spokesman RCMP Sgt. Michael Fox, as he looks out at the water from behind reflective-lens sunglasses. “And it hadn’t been covered off for so many years.”

It’s across this watery black hole that the RCMP and U.S. Coast Guard are trying to cast a net, snaring suspicious boats that blend in among pleasure craft and fishing boats that constantly crisscross Canada-U.S. waters.

“Not everyone out on the water is out there for sightseeing, fishing, that type of thing,” Fox says as whale-watching boats look for orcas in the distance. “Some are out for nefarious reasons.”

Canadian and U.S. law-enforcement officials first teamed up on boats in 2005 in a pilot project targeting smugglers on the Great Lakes of southern Ontario. The teams were deployed in 2006 to patrol the river between Windsor and Detroit during Super Bowl XL and were used again in 2010 during the Winter Olympics in Vancouver.

In 2012, full-time Shiprider teams were established in Surrey and Windsor and soon, teams expanded into Kingston and Niagara.

“[The RCMP] recognized a need to have a team in Victoria,” Fox says. Since 2016, seven Mounties stationed in Victoria have been working with U.S. Coast Guard officers out of Port Angeles, Bellingham and Seattle to look for smugglers around Juan de Fuca Strait, between the San Juan Islands and the southern Gulf Islands and up the west coast of Vancouver Island. Having both U.S. Coast Guard and RCMP officers aboard the same boat means the vessel can zigzag across the border and have the jurisdictional powers to make arrests on both sides.

“There’s really no border for us,” says RCMP Const. Shawn Paul, while standing in the middle of the boat, bracing for any bumps on the water. “If we find a vessel in Canadian waters, the Canadians are in charge. If we find a vessel in U.S. waters, the Americans take over.”

The U.S. Coast Guard can also call on the Department of Homeland Security, U.S. Customs and Border Protection and other national law-enforcement agencies.

A lack of cross-border co-operation resulted in a notorious drug smuggler from Metchosin walking free after his boat, the Western Wind, was stopped by American authorities in Juan de Fuca Strait in 2001.

Skipper Phil Stirling was found with 2.5 tonnes of cocaine aboard, estimated to be worth $300 million at the time. Because the boat was in international waters and heading toward B.C., the Americans handed Stirling and four others over to Canadian authorities. No charges were ever laid.

Stirling and four others were arrested in May 2006 off Vancouver Island after police found $6.5 million worth of marijuana on his fishing boat. Charges were laid, but later stayed.

Stirling is now serving time in a Florida prison after pleading guilty to a drug-conspiracy charge in relation to a 2011 arrest off the coast of Colombia. U.S. authorities found 381 kilograms of cocaine hidden in a sailboat.

The enforcement approach has changed drastically since Shiprider’s early days, says Fox. Instead of trying to stop and board as many vessels as possible to sniff out suspicious characters, Shiprider teams have moved to intelligence-led policing, which includes analyzing old drug-smuggling cases and keeping tabs on known smugglers and high-level dealers.

Sometimes, a surveillance investigation will start on land, and the Mounties will work backward to determine the source of the drugs, which often leads to the water.

“Let’s determine where the targets are, how they’re operating, so we can deploy the resources effectively to the targets,” Fox says.

Without getting into specifics, Fox says that’s how investigators targeted the men from Washington state and Vancouver Island.

RCMP allege that Horton and the Vancouver Island man met in the waters south of San Juan Island and transferred the drugs, which the Canadian transported back to Victoria. The B.C. man was charged in March 2018 with 11 drug and gun offences, including unlawfully importing a controlled substance, possession for the purpose of trafficking, possession of property obtained by crime and possession of a prohibited device, namely a .45-calibre Glock handgun.

He was released on bail with strict conditions, including a ban on travelling within one nautical mile of the U.S.-Canada border. He has not yet entered a plea and the allegations have not been proven in court. His next court date is set for November.

Horton admitted to having an agreement to unlawfully export cocaine and methamphetamine into Canada from the U.S., according to a plea agreement filed in U.S. District Court for the Western District. He admitted to transporting drugs by boat on at least four occasions, but only two smuggling trips are detailed in the court documents.

According to the statement of facts in Horton’s plea agreement, the two boats met on the morning of Dec. 15, 2016, for about five minutes. The boats were tracked by radar, and when the Canadian man returned to Victoria, he was observed by RCMP investigators unloading several large bags from his vessel.

Horton also admitted to piloting his boat near San Juan Island to meet his Canadian associate on the afternoon of Feb. 23, 2017. Horton admitted to handing over bags filled with cocaine and methamphetamine.

Horton said he was set to make $50,000 from the Feb. 23 operation and had already taken in tens of thousands of dollars for previous smuggling operations.

Horton is set to be sentenced in September. He could face a minimum of 10 years in prison.

The RCMP’s Paul used to work in the Victoria branch of B.C.’s anti-gang unit, the Combined Forces Special Enforcement Unit, before joining the Shiprider program in 2016. He sees a definite overlap in the suspects targeted through organized-crime investigations and cross-border drug smuggling.

“To bring a load of drugs or weapons into Canada, it takes cash,” Paul says. “Only the big players have that kind of cash.”

Shiprider teams do stop random vessels to enforce the small-vessel regulations under the Canada Shipping Act. Chatting with local boaters can often yield crucial intelligence, Fox says.

Boaters might tell the RCMP and U.S. Coast Guard about two vessels that travelled at high speed and met for a few minutes near the border before speeding away. Or someone might have seen a boat running at night with no lights, loitering near the Canada-U.S. border.

It’s impossible to identify a single area that’s used by drug runners, Fox says.

“When we make an interdiction, we run into displacement,” he says.

“The criminals that we’re looking at, if we’re hitting an area and being successful, they’ll move. They tend to move wherever they can to circumvent law enforcement.”

As a result, it’s a constant cat-and-mouse game.

But the Shiprider program has been crucial in levelling the playing field between drug runners and police, says Sweigart of the U.S. Coast Guard.

“Because the criminals don’t see [the border], they use it to their advantage,” Sweigart says. “It’s an artificial seam that can be exploited, and they’re good at exploiting it.”