News Local

The largest drug seizure in OPP history has three men facing charges

By Patrick Bales, The Orillia Packet & Times

OPP Commissioner Vince Hawkes, left, and Deputy Commissioner Rick Barnum hold a hollowed-out quartzite stone police say was used to smuggle cocaine into Canada from South America. They posed for the media in attendance at a Monday morning press conference in front of a wall created by 1,062 kilograms of cocaine seized recently by the OPP. Patrick Bales/The Packet & Times/Postmedia Network

OPP Commissioner Vince Hawkes, left, and Deputy Commissioner Rick Barnum hold a hollowed-out quartzite stone police say was used to smuggle cocaine into Canada from South America. They posed for the media in attendance at a Monday morning press conference in front of a wall created by 1,062 kilograms of cocaine seized recently by the OPP. Patrick Bales/The Packet & Times/Postmedia Network

The OPP showed off the largest ever drug seizure of its nearly 110 year history Monday morning.

Three men have been arrested, accused of importing 1,062 kilograms of pure cocaine. The drugs were displayed by police during a press conference in four specially constructed glass containers, each with a dimension of about four feet tall by eight feet wide.

“This is a massive seizure, bigger than I've ever seen in my 33 years of policing,” OPP Commissioner Vince Hawkes said during the press conference at OPP Headquarters in Orillia.

Uncut, the cocaine - said to be 97% pure - is estimated to be worth about $60 million. Cut and on the street, police say the value sky rockets to at least $250 million.

Typically, cocaine found on the street is about 30-40% pure, OPP Deputy Commissioner Rick Barnum explained. Once cut and supplemented with filling agents, such as fentanyl, the amount of product increases to between 2,122 and 3,183 kilograms.

Police say the cocaine was brought to Canada from Argentina via ocean-going vessels. It would arrive in Montreal disguised in garden stones and transported into Ontario, where it would be distributed throughout the province and the entire country.

“This such a large amount that - cut several thousands and thousands of times - results in a lot of product that could be on the street,” Hawkes said. “More product than we'd see just for Ontario.”

The stones would be transported on pallets, inside 40 foot long containers, each stacked about four-to-five feet high. Mixed in among legitimate quartzite, random stones would be slightly hollowed out and filled with cocaine, before being resealed with concrete.

The discovery of the cocaine was not made by Canadian Border Service Agency (CBSA) drug dogs, but rather through a number of other investigative methods. Once seized, the dogs were used to see if they could sniff out the contraband, and were unsuccessful.

Barnum called the people behind the operation professionals. Without the investigative phase, it would have been “near impossible” to know there was any cocaine being smuggled at all.

“(The dogs) do amazing work, they really do,” Barnum said. “In this case, inside (the stones)... there was other masking substances on there to throw a scent. Once you seal it up and pile a bunch of other rocks around, you're not going to get that.”

Project HOPE began in March as an intelligence operation, Barnum said, with the first two accused arrested in May. The third accused was arrested in July.

With the investigation, police were focusing on persons who were bringing the cocaine the Greater Toronto Area. What they soon discovered was what Barnum called “an intercontinental smuggling operation,” later confirmed to have connections to Mexican drug cartels.

It isn't the first time the Mexican cartels have found a foothold in Ontario, the commissioner confirmed.

“We've seen that before, where there's a connection to Mexico and South America,” Hawkes said. “That's normal for our investigators who do this on a regular basis.”

Barnum explained during the question and answer portion of the press conference how Argentina isn't known as a cocaine producing country, and suggested it is merely a transportation link in this case. However, he couldn't elaborate on the specific origin of the seized cocaine.

Police believe the operation began in 2014, and are trying to determine how much cocaine would have entered the country during the last three years through the three accused.

The first two men charged were arrested after a traffic stop on Highway 410 May 1. The third was arrested July 10. The investigation led police to find the cocaine in a warehouse in Montreal, as well as a location in Stoney Creek.

The cocaine was not all seized at once, Hawkes said. The amount on display Monday was the end result of a number of different seizures as the investigation has progressed.

Luis Enrique Karim-Altamirano, 52, of Vaughan, Mauricio Antonio Medina-Gatica, 36, of Brampton and Iban Orozco-Lomeli, 45, of Toronto are each charged with importation of cocaine and possession of cocaine for the purpose of trafficking. Karim-Altamirano, the only of the three still in custody, was also charged with drive while disqualified.

Both Karim-Altamirano and Orozco-Lomeli are Canadian citizens, Barnum said. Medina-Gatica is a native of Costa Rica.

Karim-Altamirano will be in court for a bail hearing Wednesday.

Barnum refused to comment on if any of the the accused are cooperating with the continued police investigation, but said they were major players in the smuggling.

“These are well-placed individuals who had access to all of this cocaine,” Barnum said. “These aren't individuals that are sort of playing in this game. They are high-level players in importation and selling tons of cocaine.”

A variety of agencies contributed to the investigation, the OPP stated, including its own Organized Crime Enforcement Bureau and Provincial Operations Intelligence Bureau, as well as the CBSA, Peel Regional Police, the Financial Transactions and Reports Analysis Centre of Canada and the United States Drug Enforcement Administration.

pbales@postmedia.com

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