New Brunswick

How Burtts Corner became centre of Canada's largest drug bust

In April 1989, after Fernado Agusto Mendoza Jaramillo and Jose Aligalindo-Escobar headed for New Brunswick from Colombia in a two-seater plane, everything went wrong.

With a plane crash and attempted prison break, it would make a great movie

The RCMP were supposed to cut down trees so the pilots could land the plane. They didn't. (CBC)

In April 1989, Fernando Agusto Mendoza Jaramillo and Jose Aligalindo-Escobar boarded a small plane in Colombia.

Their mission was to make a delivery.

Their cargo, 500 kilograms of cocaine.

Their destination, a small airstrip in Burtts Corner, N.B.

Their journey would eventually lead to what was, at the time, the largest drug bust in Canadian history.

They crashed the plane.

Drug lord eyed province

About a year and a half before the flight, the Colombian drug cartel, headed by Pablo Escobar, began targeting New Brunswick as a route to smuggle drugs into North America.

But the cartel had a mole — Douglas Jaworski, a Canadian pilot who worked for the cartel but flipped.

The RCMP paid Jaworski $200,000 to be an informant.

Unbeknownst to Jaramillo and Aligalindo-Escobar, the RCMP had already been made aware of their plans.

Police were tipped off by Jaworski, and were in place to greet the Colombians.

Best-laid plans

Officers had intended to follow the drugs to their final destination, undercover.

But there was a hiccup.

"The undercover police [were told], 'We can land the plane in this field, but you got to cut down, chop some of the trees that were in the flight path," said Martin Kerbel, a Toronto-based criminal defence attorney who represented Jaramillo and Aligalindo-Escobar.

"The police forgot to do that."

Police seized 500 kilograms of cocaine from two Colombian men who crashed a small plane in Burtts Corner in 1989. (CBC)

Undercover RCMP officers, now buying for time, met with the Colombians and said they would help get them, and the drugs, to Toronto.

The men believed they would be able to catch a flight from Toronto to South America. They were mistaken.

They were arrested and sent back to Fredericton to face charges of importing a narcotic, and possession for the purposes of trafficking.

It was while they were awaiting transfer that Kerbel first met his clients.

He was about to head out to lunch with his wife and nephews and wasn't going to take the case, but he changed his mind. It interested him.

"They were pretty nice guys to be frank," said Kerbel.

Height of folly

The two men first appeared in Fredericton provincial court on April 7, 1989.

This was not a typical case for the area according to Louella Wood, a crime reporter who covered the case for The Daily Gleaner.

"I think people were just mystified that this would actually happen here," said Wood.

Fernando Agusto Mendoza Jaramillo (left) and Jose Aligalindo-Escobar (right) being led out of the Burton Courthouse. (CBC)

"You watch movies where this kind of thing happens."

On May 19, the two men appeared before Judge James Harper seeking bail.

Kerbel argued for bail of $200,000 for each of his clients, but Harper wasn't convinced.

"I believe it would be the height of folly to permit either accused to be freed on bail pending trial under any conditions whatsoever," Harper said, as reported in the Daily Gleaner.

Prison break

When Kerbel was on his way to Fredericton for his clients' preliminary hearing, he saw four Hispanic men sitting on the plane with him.

This seemed out of place to him for a late '80s flight to New Brunswick.

"I walked over to them and I said, 'Excuse me, are you people going to go see … the two pilots,'" said Kerbel.

"They turned white and said, 'No, we're going to Saint John.'"

Kerbel said he asked a local lawyer who had been acting in his stead to warn the RCMP, but he didn't.

Some of the weapons seized from the Venezuelans whom police believe planned to break Jaramillo and Aligalindo-Escobar out of jail. (CBC)

On Sept. 13, four Venezuelan men were arrested in Edmundston carrying an arsenal of weapons.

They included an Uzi, Russian 762x369 assault rifle, Israeli 565 assault rifle, six 9mm pistols, a .22-calibre pistol, tear gas, a deactivated Japanese grenade, burglary equipment, Taser, camping equipment and more than 3,000 rounds of ammunition.

The RCMP would later allege the men's ultimate goal was to break Jaramillo and Aligalindo-Escobar out of the Fredericton jail.

While Kerbel can't be 100 per cent certain the men he saw on the plane were the men later arrested, he believes they were.

Interestingly, the men had later asked Kerbel to represent them.

"I said, 'I don't think that's a very good idea,'" said Kerbel.

The men pleaded guilty to conspiring to commit a prison breach by force or violence and were each sentenced to 10 years in prison.

Increased security

The unusual for New Brunswick events led to increased security around Fredericton every time the men made an appearance in court.

"They had police up on City Hall where the big clock is," said Wood.

"They had police officers positioned up there with weapons … Bob Wilson, a photographer, took a photo … they dubbed it 'Colombian Time.'"

A Fredericton police officer on a roof in downtown Fredericton during a court appearance of the Venezuelan men accused of conspiring to break into the Fredericton jail. (CBC)

Fredericton police posted officers armed with machine guns and sniper rifles on roofs overlooking the courthouse.

They also closed down parking lots and buildings around the court.

Eventually, the case would be moved to the Burton Courthouse, which police believed would be easier to secure.

Guilty

On the morning of Nov. 13, Jaramillo and Aligalindo-Escobar pleaded guilty to importing cocaine.

Kerbel said it was always his intention to try and cut a deal for his clients, considering the circumstances.

"There would be no defence," said Kerbel.

Kerbel did work out an agreement with the Crown but this agreement was not followed by the judge.

While judges often accept joint sentencing recommendations, they are not legally bound to follow them.

He sentenced each of the men to 22 years in prison. They would be eligible for parole in six years.

Kerbel kept in contact with the men while they served their sentences at the penitentiary in Renous.

"They were helping teach the other inmates Spanish, teaching them computers," said Kerbel.

"They really liked them. They didn't want to let them go."

Kerbel says the men were released three or four years after sentencing and sent back to Colombia.

He's not sure what eventually happened to the men, but he maintains the men weren't hardened criminals.

"It was Colombia," said Kerbel.

"There was no way they could [earn a living.] They going to work for pennies an hour?"

ABOUT THE AUTHOR

Jordan Gill

Reporter

Jordan Gill is a CBC reporter based out of Fredericton. He can be reached at jordan.gill@cbc.ca.

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