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Recession driving more truckers into organized crime: RCMP

In these hard economic times, more honest truck drivers are being lured into carrying illegal goods, and then gradually trapped in the lifestyle.

That was the finding of a report by the RCMP criminal intelligence branch, which marks the first time the RCMP has studied the problem from a national viewpoint. The 2010 report was obtained by the Tyee under the Access to Information Act, although partially censored for security reasons. You can read it here.

The trucking industry employs over 400,000 people in Canada, and the average fulltime driver earns $858 a week. The industry is dominated by small for-hire carriers and independent owner/operators whose main role is to haul freight for others.

These drivers are most vulnerable, because they are striving for economic viability due to the recession, more competition, and stricter new security and environmental rules. "This is an enriched opportunity for organized crime to offer financial incentives to supplement flagging incomes," the report notes. The industry was also hit hard by skyrocketing gas prices last year.

The report also warns of a middleman broker who serves as the key link between criminal groups and truck drivers. This person is a specialist who recruits, pays, and sometimes terrorizes truckers into carrying illicit drugs, cash, and illegal migrants.

Money spent to transport illicit cargo is a small cost of doing business for criminal groups, but is a "significant incentive" for drivers. For example, a trucker can be paid $28,000 to move $12 million worth of cocaine from California to Montreal.

Besides cocaine and cash, the cargo can include illicit tobacco, marihuana, ephedrine, and Ecstasy, which are often packed in increasingly sophisticated compartments built into tractor trailers. Moving large amounts of cash may be the criminals’ peak of success, showing a high level of trust and elevated status. (Cocaine is the illicit product most often caught entering Canada at the border, while marijuana is the drug most often trucked within the country.)

Loads are often guaranteed, sometimes with money provided up front by the transporters. The trucker criminal "specialists" are held responsible for illicit cargo that has been lost, stolen or seized, often resulting in a nightmarish cost.

"For illicit cargo that is missing, the transporter is expected to provide compensation or risk harsh consequences, including extortion and violence," the report says. "Violence associated to lost cargo includes beatings, kidnapping, and murder.

"Discipline is usually meted out from within the transportation group at the behest of the larger criminal organization or to deal with internal disputes. Loads stolen or seized from drivers provide leverage for further exploitation by crime groups, often resulting in an indentured arrangement in which the driver is drawn further into the criminal activity and required to move illicit commodities at no cost, to fulfill the debt."

The ease by which trucking companies can be formed makes the industry especially attractive, which leads to a continued proliferation of "illicit trucking companies." Criminal groups conceal their illicit activities through layers of company ownerships, name changes, transfers and disclosures.

They benefit from fragmented regulatory oversight, which is so complex that it is difficult for police to track at what point in the chain the criminal activity occurs. "Organized crime groups own and operate trucking companies in relative autonomy, without close government or industry scrutiny," and all these factors give them a "considerable advantage" over the police.

Trucking crime occurs in every region. Three quarters of truck traffic that crosses the Canada-U.S. border pass through Ontario and Quebec, which have about 31,500 owner/operators. Most of the criminal groups the RCMP examined have companies based in Brampton and Mississauga.

Although British Columbia and Yukon (with 7,400 owner/operators) accounts for just 10 per cent of the cross-border truck traffic, B.C. is a major source for marijuana growing and export, and cocaine enters B.C. in multi-million dollar amounts.

More interdictions of commercial trucks means a short term inconvenience for criminals, forcing their shift to other modes, such as aircraft, boat, or the movement of more frequent and smaller loads. Doing so in private vehicles and rentals will increase the importance of warehousing.

Moreover, since smaller companies are finding cross-border trade less affordable (which some experts say might even challenge their ability to stay in business), criminal specialists may find ways to infiltrate and compromise larger trucking companies, in order to keep transporting their cargo abroad.

The RCMP report made a number of other points:

- The United States has refused full cross border access for Mexican truck drives as required by NAFTA, but this dispute may soon be resolved in Mexico’s favour. If so, this could create a "turf war" amongst Canadian and Mexican criminal groups for their share of American drug buyers. "Competition may create a realignment at the border, with Mexican criminals moving cocaine north and Canadians moving marihuana and cash south into the U.S."

- The face of trade is changing in North America, and crime patterns evolving with it. Some large inland transport centres are being planned, such as the Global Transportation Hub in Regina, and this will displace some port crime, as cargo distribution moves to inland ports.

- Governments are always striving in principle to streamline commercial transportation, but without compromising security. Security regulations such as the Western Hemisphere Travel Initiative requires Canadian and American trusted drivers to have a FAST pass to more quickly get through the borders. Yet, "stolen or fraudulently acquired FAST passes within commercial trucking demonstrate the vulnerability of these measures to organized crime."

There is now about $800 billion worth of trucking commerce yearly between Canada, Mexico, and the U.S., the largest venue for trade in North America, much of it fueled by the 1994 passage of NAFTA. This amount is expected to double, and in some cases quadruple, by 2020 on NAFTA trade corridors.

Over 37,000 trucks cross the Canada-U.S. border every day, and trucking will continue to expand, outpacing rail, sea and air transport. The industry estimates that 375,000 new drivers will be needed in the next decade to meet demand.

Stanley Tromp, a journalist based in Vancouver, is a regular contributor to The Tyee.

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