| | 11-04-2012, 09:19 AM Thread Author #1
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Drug network far bigger than police thought
‘Tentacles’ stretch across North America, into Europe
Drug network far bigger than police thought. Staff Sgt. Joe Maggiolo of the Niagara Regional Police joined representatives from other law enforcement agencies Friday afternoon at Niagara Regional Police headquarters in downtown St. Catharines to discuss details of arrests and charges laid as part of Project INK 2. A one-day massive raid took place across the country on Thursday, with arrests made in Ontario, Quebec and Vancouver. On the screen behind Maggiolo are two suspects wanted on Canada-wide warrants. Scott Rosts/Staff Photo
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Niagara Regional Police say it was unweaving a web of technology that helped them break down an extensive importation and trafficking of cocaine that was bringing as much as $40 million of cocaine a week into Canada.
During a media conference at Niagara Regional Police headquarters Friday afternoon, Staff Sgt. Joe Maggiolo said police partners from across the country, and in the United States, tapped into technology as they entered into the second phase of Project INK, an investigation into a major international organized drug network responsible for the large-scale drug importation and trafficking of cocaine into the country. Maggiolo said the investigation culminated in a major raid across the country Thursday, with in excess of 1,100 police officers arresting more than 100 people in Ontario — including two in Niagara region, British Columbia and Montreal. The international criminal organization, he said, has “tentacles” stretching across North America, down to Mexico, where it is alleged the drugs may have originated from the Zetas cartel in Reynosa, and all the way into Europe.
“Technology plays a big part... that technology led to Project INK part two,” said Maggiolo. “The criminals use that technology to their advantage.”
That technology, he said, is a new system dubbed “PGP”, or “pretty good privacy”, which essentially utilizes a smart phone as a communication source. Criminals are using the technology to communicate through encrypted text messages, a system used in military fields.
“It’s not a phone — just text messaging,” he said. “The networks are using this device to discuss their dealings. We were able to get involved in the PGP device which really solidified a lot of cases — not only us, but assisting in Vancouver, Montreal and Ottawa. The material we received from this device was actually probably involved in several key investigations throughout Canada.”
The investigation into that technology, he said, started with the May arrest of Nick Nero, who is considered the “kingpin” in the organization, and others arrested at that time.
“The evidence we gathered from the warrants led us to these devices and we were able to analyze,” Maggiolo said. “It took us some time, maybe four months, to analyze the data and see what it was all about. From there we were able to share that with our partners.”
He said, arrests in Quebec, for example, were made based on that information taken off the devices.
The devices, said Maggiolo, run off servers in other continents, such as Europe or South America, so it’s not something accessible. This means police have to acquire the devices to access the information. To further complicate things, police don’t have the financial resources to truly tackle the technology, he said.
“The criminals feel confident in the messaging — they can put a lot of detail in it,” he said. “It’s not something you can buy on the street.”
That technology helped in the multi-jurisdictional arrests Thursday. The joint-forces operation, including Niagara Regional Police Service, York Regional Police Service, Toronto Police Service, Ontario Provincial Police – Biker Enforcement Unit, Canada Border Services Agency, RCMP - Integrated Proceeds of Crime Unit, the Department of Homeland Security – Border Enforcement Security Task Force, Vancouver Police Department – Organized Crime Section, Correctional Service of Canada, Surete du Quebec, and Montreal Police executed a co-ordinated series of arrests and search warrants that resulted in the arrests of several of the 6 individuals. There were three search warrants executed, including two in Woodbridge and one in Port Robinson in the Niagara Region.
Charged were 35-year-old Nicola (Nick) Nero, who was also charged last spring. Nero, who is currently in prison in Kingston but previously lived in Niagara-on-the-Lake, faces charges of conspiracy to import, conspiracy to traffic and being part of a criminal organization. Also charged from Niagara were Tawnya Del Ben Fletcher of Niagara-the-Lake, 27, and Nebojsa “Nasho” Dronjak of Niagara Falls, 39, who are both facing charges of conspiracy to import, conspiracy to traffic and being part of a criminal organization. Also arrested and facing similar charges were Alfonso Inclima of Woodbridge and Mohamed Reza Amin Torabi of Vancouver, while 39-year-old Martino Caputo of Toronto and Rabih “Robby” Al Khalil of Montreal, 35, are both wanted on Canada-wide warrants.
Caputo, said Maggiolo, was Nero’s “right-hand man” and “well known to members of the organized crime family in Toronto, New York and Montreal.” Police are seeking any information on his whereabouts, while they believe Khalil is believed to have possibly fled to Mexico.
“They were the ones tied to Montreal... they’re both key figures to this organization,” said Maggiolo.
Asked as to how active Nero continues to be in the operation, as well as Fletcher, Maggiolo did not want to provide too much information, other to confirm that Fletcher did play a part in the organization, and that the organization was still operating despite Nero being incarcerated.
The two previous breaks in the case, said Maggiolo, were all “stepping stones” in dismantling the much larger pieces of the criminal organization. Cocaine prices, he said, have skyrocketed due to the “dent” police have put into the illicit trade, not only in Niagara, but in loops of the Greater Toronto Area, and across Canada.
“Nick Nero was the centre of the organizational group. We didn’t realize (at first) how big this individual was... but we shortly found out,” Magglio said, noting Nero also was associated with bikers.
“We had a strong team effort that we knew there was more behind this. I think we were successful in working right to the top,” he said. “Nick is the kingpin with his other cohorts. He is responsible for a lot of cocaine being distributed throughout not just Niagara region, but across Canada.”
Still, he said, it’s tough to say just how large the organization is, considering the large geography it covers and all the different roles.
“There are different levels to it — you have guys involved in financing, transportation, and the people distributing it,” said Maggiolo.
Police do feel they have much more information on the numbers. Maggiolo said the organization was bringing in 400,000 grams of cocaine a week that started from Mexico and was smuggled into the U.S., and then Canada. The proceeds of the sale of the drugs were funneled back to Mexico.
“The street value of that is over $40 million a week,” he said. “By the end of the year these organizations stand to bring in roughly $1.9 billion off the street.”
The many “tentacles” of organized crime, he said, had all kinds of different methods.
“They utilized boats, airplanes and utilized the ports in Montreal and Vancouver,” said Maggiolo, adding it would come through Mexico, L.A., to Chicago, Buffalo, and into Canada.
In Niagara, he said, a variety of methods were being used.
“The most common being utilized is the transport truck industry coming through the borders. Niagara Region is unique because of its proximity to our American friends. We have the border crossings, the river... it’s easy to facilitate,” Magglio said. “We’re quite aware the bridges were being utilized to bring in drugs. From past investigations we discovered the Niagara River was also being utilized.”
Some of the trade, he said, included the crime organizations actually taking marijuana and ecstasy over the border into the U.S., and exchanging it for cocaine. He said dinghies were utilized for some of the trade, on lower and upper ends of Niagara River.
“They were utilizing the dinghies late at night, coming across,” he said.
In other areas of the country, there were drugs coming in via private jets, or in containers on ships into ports of Vancouver and Montreal.
Maggiolo has actually retired from the service, but said the work will continue. He said Niagara Regional Police will continue to work with their partners, and Shawn Clarkson has already filled his position and will take over the lead of the investigation.
“More and more information is being identified,” he said. “We thought we resolved this in May, but then we found out we walked into a major network.”
Maggiolo said police will continue to work down the chain and try to stop the trafficking of the drugs from the point of distribution.
“Dealing with the Mexican authorities is tougher, but as long as we can identify the routes and identify the people involved in the United States and Canada, we can go after the people involved in it,” he said. “Cocaine is a serious problem. We’re trying to address it ... but you have to understand the cartels are massive. Their tentacles reach all over the world and they’re ruining lives and families. We want to eradicate that issue.”