Gangs infiltrate Canada's airports

Critics say the lax security has created 'fertile ground for terrorism.'

zuma press/newscom
Weak link? Gaining access to airport jobs, such as the recent refueling work pictured here in Toronto, has made it easier for gangs to conduct smuggling operations, critics allege.

Organized gangs and smugglers are infiltrating Canada's biggest airports, providing a breeding ground for international terrorism, critics say, citing information from a recently revealed federal police investigation.

A two-year probe by the Royal Canadian Mounted Police (RCMP), the country's national policing agency, shows that 58 organized gangs are smuggling drugs into the country's airports, including Toronto, Montreal, and Vancouver. Many of the gang members are airport employees, including baggage handlers and customs agents, who have used their security clearances to thwart the law.

The findings shatter widespread notions that airport security has been significantly bolstered since the terrorist attacks on the World Trade Center in 2001, according to some of Canada's leading national security experts. It's also angered lawmakers, who say previous warnings have gone unheeded.

"This report should certainly rattle Canadians and even those beyond our borders,'' says Sen. Colin Kenny, who was appointed to lead the Canadian senate committee on national security and defense after the 9/11 attacks. "Where you see organized crime taking place, you have a fertile ground for terrorism."

A 22-page declassified summary of the investigation was leaked to Canada's Globe and Mail newspaper last week.

Although the RCMP's report didn't focus directly on terrorism, it warned that airports compromised by criminal activity could easily be exploited by sophisticated terror groups. "Staff can be bribed to ignore criminality or paid large sums to assist in drug trafficking or theft," the RCMP report concludes.

The RCMP says a criminal record is no barrier to landing an airport job. The agency also says technological impediments and a lack of resources hampers federal officials from sharing employee information with police that would allow for better employee screening.

Pierre Perron, the RCMP's director of criminal intelligence, says he hopes that the report will provide an impetus for agencies to work together more effectively. "Ultimately, we see this as a good news story," he says. "It will allow us to find ways to close those gaps."

Similar shortcomings were pinpointed six years ago in a report penned by Senator Kenny's committee, which found that passenger inspection had been tightened but security remained "flimsy" behind the scenes. Most notably, ground crews were not being scrutinized with the same rigor applied to passengers. The RCMP report confirmed this, finding that fewer than 1 percent of employees assigned to high-security areas are screened either on their way in or out of the airport. Kenny says workers should be inspected just like passengers.

A spokeswoman for Transport Canada told the media that her department is reviewing the document and is "developing a comprehensive response."

Some security experts downplayed the RCMP's findings and say that airports aren't the biggest target of organized crime. "What's surprising is that it's been so persistent. It's not new and it's not unique to Canada," explains Wesley Wark, a University of Toronto professor who specializes in security issues. "The reality is that criminality is a much larger problem at the ports than at the airports."

Since 9/11, police have tightened security at Canada's ports and implemented measures to better screen dock workers, Professor Wark says.

Charles Schembri, a Toronto resident and frequent flier, said he hopes the RCMP report will be a wake-up call to politicians. "They should be making airport safety a priority," Mr. Schembri says. With the current instability in Canada's Parliament, in which a coalition of parties recently threatened to topple Stephen Harper's party, however, he speculates that the impasse will probably stall any government action on airport security.

The RCMP investigation examined hundreds of police files at Canada's eight largest airports between 2005 and 2007 and concluded hundreds of people were involved in criminal activity at airports, including almost 300 current or former airport employees.

The report also claimed the drug most commonly smuggled into Canada is khat – a leafy East African plant with narcotic qualities. The policing agency also uncovered dozens of conspiracies to smuggle cocaine from the Caribbean to Vancouver and Latin American heroin to Toronto.

Major busts in Montreal, Toronto, and Winnipeg during the study period have winnowed the ranks of criminals on airport payrolls. Even so, the RCMP says many criminals were still employed at airports at the conclusion of their study.

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