DRUGS: Truckers crossing Canada-U.S. border may be unwitting drug mules

Kuldeep Singh Dharni (right), accused of smuggling 100 kg of cocaine worth an estimated street value of $10 million, was acquitted of all charges. At left is his lawyer Patrick Ducharme outside the Superior Court of Justice in Windsor, Ont. Jason Kryk/Postmedia News

CRAIG PEARSON
POSTMEDIA NEWS

As Kuldeep Singh Dharni rolled his tractor-trailer up to the Ambassador Bridge customs booth, an agent’s drug senses started tingling.

It was 8:30 p.m., Aug. 10, 2009, and Canada Border Services Agency officers had a “look out,” or tip, to focus on long-haul trucks they did not recognize.

So the agent sent the clean-cut Brampton, Ont., trucker and his load of aluminum coils to secondary inspection – where the then 36-year-old’s life unravelled in a string of legal troubles, expenses and $10 million in cocaine. He said he had no idea about the coke. A Windsor judge believed him.

“I accept you, Mr. Dharni, as a person of good character,” Ontario court Justice Thomas Carey said in his decision last month.

Dharni was found not guilty of importing 100 kilograms of cocaine.

His case represents a trend that a Windsor defence lawyer predicts will grow: narcotics spirited across the Canadian-American border inside eighteen-wheelers filled with legitimate product.

On Tuesday, Goran Maslic, 37, and Christopher Boronka, 29, were found not guilty of importing 45 kilograms of cocaine in peppers Sept. 14, 2009. Next week, a decision is pending in the case of Karamjit Singh Grewal, 48, who was found bringing 82 kg of coke in a cargo of lettuce April 12, 2009.

Two more significant cocaine-in-truck trials start in Windsor next year.

The recent trials are connected to a raft of major busts in 2009, when Canadian customs officers found almost $62 million in 43 seizures in Windsor. In 2010, CBSA offices found $1.1 million, in 2011 $6.7 million, and through September of this year, $4.7 million – all at the Windsor border alone.

“The borders have tightened up significantly since 9/11,” said lawyer Patrick Ducharme, who successfully defended Dharni, among others. “Real drug importers are not going to take the chance any more. They’re not willing to face life imprisonment. They’re going to make someone else take the risk.

“That’s why I think it’s more likely than not that almost every driver doesn’t know.”

Defence lawyers says it’s relatively easy for bad guys to hide drugs in an unsuspecting mule’s truck, and thereby avoid any risk of jail. Prosecutors, however, says it’s easy for truckers to claim they did not know about the drugs they transported across North America’s busiest border.

“It’s my belief that the ruthless importers of drugs are smart in selecting drivers who are unsophisticated, more naive,” said Ducharme, who successfully defended two similarly accused besides Dharni.

Ducharme also represents Grewal, whose decision comes Monday. Plus, Ducharme has two major importing trials lined up next year. The veteran lawyer thinks part of the problem surrounds investigators who simply charge drivers without much other leg work.

“The investigators grab the truck driver and say, ‘You’re charged,’ and that’s pretty well the end of the investigation,” he said.

Border officials, however, say stopping drugs is paramount.

“CBSA is committed to the safety and protection of all Canadians,” said Diana Scott, CBSA spokeswoman. “We continue to be vigilant in our enforcement efforts at the border. Stopping the smuggling of illegal drugs at our borders plays a big part in tackling crime and making our communities safer.”

While Ducharme thinks unwitting drivers often ferry drugs across the border, the federal prosecutor who handles most major importing cases in Windsor argues the opposite, based on expert testimony.

“They have said there is simply no such thing as a blind mule,” Richard Pollock, who has prosecuted more than 50 drug-importation cases in the last 20 years, said. “It doesn’t work that way.”

In the last two years, Pollock has secured a number of lengthy sentences.

But Pollock acknowledges that a number of accused have walked.

The illicit phenomenon makes all truckers look bad – perhaps especially Indo-Canadian drivers, whose names pop up disproportionately among the accused.

Manan Gupta, editor/ publisher of Road Today, a monthly publication focused on the South Asian trucking community in Canada, said while some truckers are unwitting dupes, others are swayed simply by greed. He said Canadian truckers typically earn just $5,000 to $6,000 a month, driving 10 to 11 hours, five days a week.

Meanwhile, the white powdered fallout continues.

Take Dharni, the family man acquitted last month of importing 100 kilos of cocaine. The feds have already informed him they’re appealing his case.





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