Accused Mexican meth importers released on bail because of COVID-19 fears
Provincial court decision reveals weaknesses in case trumpeted by police and border agency
A B.C. provincial court judge has released four Mexican men on bail over fears they might catch COVID-19 behind bars while they await trial for allegedly importing more than $1 million worth of methamphetamine.
The decision posted Tuesday also reveals weaknesses in a case publicized by both the Canada Border Services Agency and the RCMP a week earlier.
Even as he decided to release the four accused, Judge Mark Jette noted that provincial health officer Dr. Bonnie Henry said an inmate at the Okanagan Correctional Centre had tested positive for the novel coronavirus.
In the days since, nearly three dozen cases have been reported at Mission Institution.
"The conditions which are inherent to a custodial setting suggest that, most unfortunately, the battle will be lost here as well, with predictable consequences for inmates, staff, and the community at large," Jette wrote.
"I think that almost anyone who is paying attention to what has been going on all around us would have come to the same conclusion that I did."
'Weak at best'
The CBSA issued a news release last week trumpeting the seizure of 106 kilograms of methamphetamine at a container examination facility in Tsawwassen, B.C., in early February.
The border agency said it had worked with the RCMP's federal and serious organized crime over the following month to arrest and identify the four accused — Sergio Ivan Cota Garcia, Alan Jesus Hernandez Cedillo, Xavier Eduardo Hernandez Cedillo and Roberto Renteria Maldonado.
The men are charged with one count each of importation of a controlled substance and one count each of possession for the purpose of trafficking.
Jette agreed with defence lawyers who claimed the evidence was "weak at best" for the importing charges against three of the accused.
Rentaria Maldonado's name was allegedly attached to a phone number on the shipping information connected to the bust, but the Crown conceded that the evidence for all four of them was strongest in relation to the possession charge.
"But it is also far from the type of overwhelming case where convictions would appear all but certain," Jette noted.
Hidden in quarry stone
According to the decision, the drugs were allegedly concealed within about 1,000 quarry stone blocks imported from Monterey, Mexico. The CBSA estimated the value of the drugs at $13.5 million, but the judge said he was told it was worth about one million.
Police seized most of the drugs, but placed two blocks of methamphetamine back in the stones along with some tracking devices. The load was then moved to a transport company in Mission and from there to a warehouse in Surrey where surveillance began.
According to the decision, the four men were first observed at a nearby Tim Hortons and then at a liquor store. They were then allegedly seen going in and out of the warehouse where the bricks were located.
"Police heard noises consistent with the blocks being struck with an object. A short time later, the four accused were observed leaving the scene on foot. Police stopped and arrested three of the four," Jette wrote.
The fourth man turned himself in an hour later.
"All four accused had dust or dirt on their clothing which might be consistent with debris created by breaking up the quarry blocks."
No new electronic monitoring
Rentaria Maldonado has been living and working in B.C. since last June while the other three arrived in the province shortly before the seizure and claimed to be on holiday.
They all claim not to have criminal records in Mexico. Cota Garcia has a business degree and is married with a wife and three children. Rentaria Maldonado has a wife and a daughter in Mexico, where he worked in the tourism industry. The other two are brothers. One has a daughter and the other is single.
Judges in provinces across the country have recently been asked to weigh the strength of criminal allegations and the risk to the communities against the possibility that people accused of crimes will become sick with COVID-19.
"Although none of the accused claim to be particularly vulnerable to a more severe outcome if infected by reason of age or pre-existing conditions, there is no guarantee that their symptoms would be mild or non-life threatening," Jette wrote.
"There is a public health concern arising from the risk of spread of this illness to others, including staff, within the confined quarters of a jail setting."
A handful of guards at Mission Institution have also tested positive for the virus as well as inmates. Families and advocates for people who are incarcerated have warned that crowded correctional facilities will be ill-equipped to handle outbreaks of COVID-19.
Further complicating the situation, according to Jette's decision, "the B.C. Corrections Branch has advised that electronic monitoring is not available for new bail orders until further notice due to the global pandemic."
All four men have posted $10,000 bail and have agreed to live together in a house in Vancouver until trial, which the judge conceded could also be postponed in a judicial system struggling to cope with the coronavirus.