By Raveena Aulakh
Special to Focus
An 18-wheeler trundled to a stop at the Queenston-Lewiston Bridge on its way into Canada. During an outbound inspection, a U.S. immigration-customs agent asked the driver if he had anything to declare. The man behind the wheel said no, the tractor-trailer was empty.
But he appeared nervous and wouldn’t make eye contact, so the agent asked him to step out of the cab. Uneasy and shaking, the driver almost stumbled out.
The trailer was sent for inspection where it was scanned with a special low-energy x-ray machine used to identify illegal drugs, guns or currency. It showed nothing.
A second scan was carried out, again detecting no abnormalities. A dog trained to sniff out narcotics was brought inside the trailer and noticed nothing suspicious.
Then, two agents noticed screws on the floor boards that appeared to have been tampered with. They removed the boards and found a hidden compartment stretching across the entire floor. Inside, they found 97 bricks of cocaine, more than 100 kilos, worth an estimated $4.4 million on the streets, according to U.S. authorities. The Sept. 8, 2010, narcotics seizure was believed to be the largest ever in the Western District of New York.
The driver, Ravinder Arora, a 31-year-old family man from Brampton, would plead guilty to the charge of conspiracy to export cocaine. .
Today, two years later, he languishes in a Buffalo prison awaiting sentencing. He faces a minimum 10 years to life behind bars.
For years, Indo-Canadian gangs in B.C. have been involved in cross-border drug smuggling, infiltrating the trucking industry and fighting turf wars that have often been bloody and vicious.
But now, members of southern Ontario’s Indo-Canadian community, in particular from Brampton and Mississauga, are increasingly being lured into the North American drug trade, according to Crown attorneys, lawyers, police and community leaders on this side of the border.
It is not difficult to understand why. An estimated 60 per cent of Ontario’s long-haul truck drivers are Indo-Canadian, making them logical targets for drug traffickers. They will gladly do long-haul jobs shunned by others that can mean being on the road for weeks. They don’t mind sharing the close quarters of a cab with a co-driver, and the job requires little more than a commercial driver’s licence.
“There are many (Indo-Canadian drivers) who just want to make a decent living,” said Manan Gupta, editor-publisher of Road Today, a monthly trucking magazine in the GTA. “But there are a few bad ones and their numbers are rising.”
“This is ruining our community’s name . . . drivers from Peel are looked upon suspiciously at the border,” he said.
Last month, a trial began in Windsor for transport driver Karamjit Singh Grewal of Brampton, accused of smuggling 82 kilos of cocaine across the Ambassador Bridge on April 12, 2009. The drugs were found between skids of California lettuce. Grewal has pleaded not guilty to possession and unlawfully importing cocaine into Canada.
On Monday, another trial starts for truck driver Kuldip Singh Dharmi, also from Brampton. He was arrested on Aug. 11, 2009, after Canada Border Services Agency officers allegedly discovered 117 kilos of cocaine in his tractor-trailer. He was bringing back a load of aluminum coils. He, too, is pleading not guilty.
And early next year, a trial is scheduled for Baldev Singh, again from Brampton, arrested in March 2009 while transporting California oranges across the Ambassador Bridge. CBSA officers allege the load included 69 kilos of cocaine. Singh is pleading not guilty.
Of the 15 to 18 significant drug seizures at the Windsor-Detroit crossing each year, about 70 per cent involve Indo-Canadian transport drivers, many of them recent immigrants to Canada, said federal prosecutor Richard Pollock.
“I am shocked when I hear the stories,” said Baldev Mutta of Punjabi Community Health Services, a social agency in Peel Region, adding it’s a problem few seem willing to address.
Ecstasy, marijuana and cocaine are the three major drugs smuggled between the U.S. and Canada. Ecstasy and marijuana travel south, cocaine travels north.
Until about a decade ago, cross-border smuggling was almost always by sea and air. As Mexican drug cartels replaced Colombian drug lords, cocaine smugglers started using land routes, specifically tractor-trailers to ship drugs from Mexico to the U.S. and Canada. For a while, Vancouver was where drugs were transported across Canada before hitting the Toronto area.
About six years ago, Canadian authorities determined that the Windsor-Detroit crossing was the preferred route of traffickers, although large drug seizures such as Arora’s have also taken place at Ontario crossings such as Sarnia, Fort Erie and Niagara.
Windsor-Detroit is the busiest border crossing, where more than 7,000 trucks cross daily. Homeland Security in the U.S. and the CBSA would not reveal how many trucks undergo the kind of extensive search that Arora was subjected to, but some sources say as few as 200 a day — about 3 per cent — are given a thorough check.
The sheer volume of traffic, in the eyes of traffickers, makes it a risk worth taking, says Richard Pollock, federal prosecutor in Windsor. For every illegal shipment caught, he estimates 200 slip through undetected.
So popular is Windsor-Detroit for marijuana smuggling that shipments are sometimes sent by land from Vancouver to Toronto, then on to Windsor and across to the U.S., according to a 2009 CBSA report.
One RCMP official referred to the drug trade as a continuous “cat and mouse game” as traffickers come up with more sophisticated means of smuggling and authorities develop better ways of detecting the illicit cargo.
In this mélange of drugs, Mexican cartels and Ontario border crossings, some Indo-Canadian truck drivers, as courts have witnessed, become willing or unwitting players in smuggling schemes.
Several years ago, Pat Fogarty, superintendent in charge of operations for the Combined Forces Special Enforcement Unit in B.C., said he noticed his drug smuggling investigations on the west coast had an Ontario link — they often involved the Windsor-Detroit crossing and Indo-Canadian drivers.
This nexus started showing up with alarming regularity. He also discovered a growing number of “truck co-ordinators” in Ontario — brokers linked to the drug trade who help find trucks to ship marijuana to the U.S. and cocaine into Canada — were Indo-Canadian.
“They (the brokers) find it safe to find truckers from their own community,” said Fogarty. “They also know that these truckers won’t disappear with drugs worth millions of dollars because these co-ordinators know where these truckers are from in Punjab . . . right down to their villages. They have them pretty much marked down.”
Once a truck driver ferries one drug shipment, it becomes impossible to refuse a second or a third, Fogarty said.
“They are trapped.”
It began innocuously enough for Arora.
He came to Canada from India about eight years ago and lived in the basement of an aunt and uncle’s house in Brampton. He had been driving a truck for a few years and had a clean record when he was approached by a man he knew at a Sikh temple in Mississauga. The man offered Arora a job, which for the first few months involved transporting legitimate loads across the border.
Then one day the man told Arora he could make extra money — $8,000 per trip — if his shipments included drugs stashed in a well-hidden compartment, according to the plea agreement.
Arora, soon to be married, agreed. At that point, he became part of an elaborate Brampton-based operation responsible for smuggling 1.5 tons (more than 1,600 kilos) of cocaine into Canada over two years. The group is also believed to have smuggled ecstasy and marijuana, as well as cash, into the U.S., according to court documents.
Over the course of 2009 and 2010, Arora admitted to smuggling at least five shipments of cocaine into Canada. During that time, he also got married in India and brought his wife to Canada.
According to the plea agreement, the modus operandi was simple: Arora would pick up the cocaine at a warehouse in California and truck it to a warehouse in Cheektowaga, a Buffalo suburb, where legitimate cargo — mostly produce — was stacked on top of the false floor, concealing the illicit cargo. After crossing the border, the drugs were then delivered to a warehouse in Mississauga for eventual street sale in the Greater Toronto Area.
Arora’s payment was not a huge sum of money. But it was extra money, and tax-free.
In a news conference in 2011, James Engleman, director of field operations for U.S. Customs and Border Protection, called it a professional job. “They spent a lot of time to build professional-quality concealment on these trailers,” said Engleman.
It’s likely that if Arora hadn’t looked nervous that day in September 2010, the operation may have gone undetected for a long time.
By the time Arora was arrested, his wife was pregnant. His lawyer, Parmanand Prashad, said his client regrets this decision more than anything else in his life.
No one wants to target Indo-Canadian truck drivers. Not the police, not lawyers nor community leaders.
They know it’s a sensitive subject and weigh their words carefully. And they are emphatic in saying most Indo-Canadian truckers are not involved in trafficking; only a small number.
But that number may be growing and, according to Windsor’s federal prosecutor, poses a big worry.
“It is mind-boggling how naive some people are,” said Richard Pollock, adding drug traffickers believe they will get away with it forever.
In most cases, suspects plead not guilty and say they were unaware of the presence of drugs in the trailer. Some stories told in court are heartbreaking, he says.
Gurminder Riar, 33, broke down at his sentencing in Windsor last year, telling Superior Court Justice Gordon Thomson he was innocent. “It is not justice. My parents, my wife is in India. I do care for them. I love them and they love me,” he told the court.
Riar and his co-driver, Jaswinder Aujla, both from Brampton, were convicted of smuggling 37 kilos of cocaine hidden among a shipment of ice cream originating in California.
Justice Thomson noted that the men’s tax records and spartan living conditions indicated they were not wealthy, but said they succumbed to greed in the hopes of a big payday. Riar was sentenced to 14 years, Aujla to 16 years.
Though sentences appear to be getting tougher, Sarnia federal prosecutor Michael Robb says it doesn’t seem to be a deterrent. “There is lots of money to be made,” said Robb, adding younger drivers are more likely to take the risk.
“If you look at their financial status, they have obligations and they have families come in from their home countries and they need to be supported,” he said.
Nachhattar Chohan, president of the Brampton-based Indian Trucking Association, said there is no doubt the trucking industry has been infiltrated by drug smuggling. And he suspects some transportation companies are started just to smuggle drugs, as was noted in an RCMP intelligence report in 2011.
“Some companies make so much money so quickly . . . so you doubt what they are doing,” he said.
That RCMP report noted customized compartments are built within tractor-trailers to conceal drugs and cash, and “criminal groups conceal their illicit activities through layers of company ownership, name changes and transfers and closures.”
But Chohan, who operates a fleet of 35 trucks and employs as many drivers, emphasized the vast majority of Indo-Canadian drivers earn an honest living. Thanks to “these (smugglers), CBSA agents think all transporters do this business,” he said. “They think all our truckers are involved in trafficking drugs. I feel shamed, very shamed.”
Prashad, Arora’s Mississauga lawyer who has represented as many as 50 truckers arrested on both sides of the border, has heard stories of how they were recruited: some were enticed with money, others with the promise of steady work.
He recalls a case where a young Mississauga driver was arrested with cocaine near Chicago. His elderly, widowed mother had just come from India, said Prashad. “She didn’t know what to do, he was her only child . . . she cried for hours in my office.”
In a Windsor courtroom , Karamjit Singh Grewal, 48, dressed in a lemon-coloured shirt, grey pants and a lemon turban, his beard flowing loose, stood next to his lawyer, Patrick Ducharme, and said softly: “Not guilty.”
It was the first day of his trial, on Sept. 17, where he is fighting charges of possessing and unlawfully importing cocaine into Canada.
(Ducharme recently defended one of five former Toronto drug squad officers in this year’s highly publicized corruption trial.)
In his opening statement, Pollock told the court Grewal was the sole occupant of a tractor-trailer when it stopped at the Ambassador Bridge on the night of April 12, 2009, for a routine check. Grewal told a CBSA officer the trailer was loaded with California lettuce and was headed for the Toronto area.
It was an innocuous load and Grewal’s papers were in order. He would have glided through except for two things: the officer asked him how long his trip to the U.S. was and Grewal was vague, replying “eight or nine days;” and, the officer also noticed that the trailer’s metal seal, though not broken, appeared to have been tampered with.
Grewal was referred to a secondary inspection. In a matter of hours his life began to unravel.
A closer inspection would result in the discovery of two white boxes and two plastic pails containing 82 kilograms of cellophane-wrapped cocaine between the skids of lettuce.
Ducharme pointed out that the metal seal was intact when his client was asked to open the trailer. So much so, he said in his opening statement, that Grewal had to break it off with a hammer, cutting his thumb in the process.
During the trial, Grewal’s 20-year-old daughter sat in the courtroom listening intently. She wouldn’t comment on the case, about the impact of her father’s arrest three years ago, or that he filed for bankruptcy in 2010.
Grewal’s trial ended last week. Justice Mary Jo Nolan will deliver a verdict on Dec. 10.
Arora’s sentencing has been postponed at least four times as he continues to co-operate with authorities on the vast drug-smuggling operation in which he became involved. (A permanent resident in Canada, he will probably be deported to his native India after serving a prison term.)
Since his arrest in 2010, he has disclosed information that has led to the arrest of three accomplices:
Parminder Sidhu, of Brampton, who hired Arora as a driver at his company, Prime 9, was arrested and then extradited to the U.S. on Feb. 7, 2012. Sidhu is charged with conspiracy to possess with intent to distribute cocaine and conspiracy to export cocaine.
When a search warrant was executed at Sidhu’s home, extensive drug ledgers were discovered, according to Arora’s plea agreement.
A home telephone listing was disconnected and a phone number for Prime 9 could not be located. Prime 9, according to documents, was incorporated in 2009.
Michael Bagri, a third associate from the Toronto area, was arrested in the U.S. Together with Arora, he has pleaded guilty to trafficking more than 1,600 kilograms of cocaine from the U.S. into Canada over two years, according to the U.S. Department of Justice. Bagri, 51, is yet to be sentenced.
As part of the same operation, Huy Hoang Nguyen, 27, of Massachusetts, also pleaded guilty in July to importing more than 100 kilos of marijuana from Canada into the U.S. He faces a minimum of five to 40 years in prison.
Meanwhile, Arora’s wife has fled to B.C. with their daughter, who was born last year. Prashad says there was fear of a backlash on Arora’s family after he pled guilty. His wife, in her late 20s, has visited Arora a few times at the Buffalo Federal Detention Facility in Batavia, N.Y., where Prashad says Arora has been incarcerated since his arrest.
Prashad says Arora has found religion: he now wears a turban, no longer eats meat, and prays. He has never met his young daughter.
Prashad talks to Arora’s wife often and says she doesn’t know what to do. “She can’t go back to India because her husband is here . . . but she doesn’t speak English too well so it is tough here, too,” he said.
“This drug trade has ruined three more lives.”
— Torstar News Service
By Raveena Aulakh