Canadian and American authorities are concerned about Alberta Mennonites bringing Mexican cartel drugs into Canada.
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Cocaine worth millions of dollars has crossed over the border and violence associated with the criminal activity is likely to ramp up, according to Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA) agent Jim Schrant in Colorado.
"Because of the lucrative nature of the drug trade, and to make sure that people pay on time and to make sure that people aren't being double crossed, it's a very violent enterprise," he said.
Schrant is quick to point out most of the Mennonite community members are hard-working, law-abiding citizens — but, like in every group, he says there are a few bad seeds.
Cocaine is costly in Canada, and Schrant says its value increases with every border it crosses.
"At the end of the day, the drug business, as vile and poisonous as it is, is a business," said Schrant. "And what they're going to look at is the most successful business model that they can and when you have high demand for a product, in this case cocaine, the further you get away from source of origin, the higher the prices go up.”
Strong ties with Mexico
Members of Canada's Mennonite communities began migrating to Mexico in the first few decades of the 1900s.
Several factors influenced the exodus: Canadian laws required children to attend school, keeping key farm hands out of the fields, and at the same time the Mexican government was trying to ramp up agricultural production in Mexico.
"They offered large land grants to farmers in North America," said Schrant. "Some of the finest farmers in the world are [from] the Mennonite community, so around the turn of the century there was a large immigration from the U.S. and Canada into northern Mexico, particularly the state of Chihuahua."
Schrant says eventually the cartels cozied up to their Mennonite neighbours, forming an alliance with some. But social problems, economic hardship and violence have driven hundreds back to the Canadian Prairies over the last two to three years.
With connections already generations deep, the cartels now have trusted allies in the north.
Farmer caught with cocaine
Several recent cases highlight the problem.
Jacob Fehr was sentenced last week to seven years in prison for bringing cartel cocaine from his former home in Chihuahua, Mexico, to Calgary.
Fehr moved to Peace River in 2007, but he was caught smuggling the drug at the Coutts border crossing in January 2011.
The 38-year-old testified in his own defence, telling the judge armed cartel members threatened his family. He said it was his third trip to Alberta, which would have completed his commitment to the cartel, when he was caught with two kilograms packed into his SUV. His wife and four daughters were in the vehicle at the time.
"Cocaine is considered a pernicious drug and the effects on society are extremely detrimental," said Crown prosecutor Frank Polak after Fehr was sentenced. "It is not indigenous to Canada, so it has to be brought in, so the importation charge is particularly concerning."
Polak is in the middle of another drug trial involving two defendants in Lethbridge.
Authorities charged Abram Klassen and Jacob Dyck with importing cocaine, possessing cocaine for the purposes of trafficking, and conspiracy to import cocaine after they seized 16 kilograms of pure cocaine at Coutts and Great Falls border crossings.
The seizures and charges were the result of a 15-month, cross-border investigation.
Seven people were charged last year after U.S. officials seized thousands of kilograms of cocaine headed for the small southern Alberta town of Grassy Lake where about 600 people, mostly Mennonites, live.
Manslaughter guilty plea
Luis Alfonso Ochoa-Gamez will also be sentenced in the fall after pleading guilty to manslaughter for the killing of Mauro Hernanzez-Renteria after a drug deal went wrong.
Both Ochoa-Gamez and Hernanzez-Renteria are from Mexico and the crime is connected to one of southern Alberta's Mennonite communities.
In a statement, Canadian Border Services officials wrote that they recognize "the importance of proactive intelligence-based approaches to monitor the cross-border movement [of] contraband, including narcotics, and to enhance interdiction support."
"Regardless of a method of concealment, whether in a traveller’s suitcase, the load of a commercial shipment or in the dashboard of an automobile, by using contraband detection equipment, training and experience, CBSA officers are able to locate drugs and other contraband even when the most unusual and sophisticated concealment methods are used."
The DEA works closely with RCMP, Canadian Border Services and other local police agencies, but Schrant acknowledges tackling the problem in Alberta means tracing the criminal organization to its violent and well-established network back in Mexico.
"It's like eating a horse, you do it one bite at a time," he said. "It's important work. You look at the violence that's spread throughout Mexico as a result of these cartel activities, the violence that we've experienced here in the United States in this case and others some of the drug-related violence that's extended to Canada and it's the motivation for maintaining this fight."