Pubdate: Sun, 15 May 2011
Source: Calgary Sun, The (CN AB)
Copyright: 2011 The Calgary Sun
Author: Michael Platt
Bookmark: (Marijuana - Canada)
Bookmark: (Cocaine)


Airport suspected cross-border smuggling centre

The drone of small aircraft is well known to anyone living just west
of Calgary - but it seems a different kind of buzz may be fuelling
single-engine flights at Springbank Airport.

It comes as a shock even for those familiar with the busy airstrip,
but Springbank is suspected to be a major hub for drug smuggling to
and from the U.S.

At least that's what Canada's Senate believes.

"It's a primary drug entry point into the country," Senator Colin
Kenny told the Sun.

"It's a traffic way to the United States for marijuana from B.C. and
all sorts of narcotics and guns coming back."

The ex-chair of the National Security and Defence committee - a
position the Liberal senator recently lost as Chamber control went
Tory - Kenny says Springbank has long been seen as a smuggler's dream.

With no permanent customs staff, Kenny said the bustling airport is a
natural place for flying drug mules to land, and a long-discussed
concern for senators sitting in Ottawa.

"How long does it take a customs officer to get from Calgary to
Springbank?" said Kenny.

"When you go to land, you call up, and the customs officer decides if
he's going to make the half-hour drive to Springbank or not to do the

That assessment is accurate - officials with Canada Border Services
Agency confirm that despite 362 flights arriving from the U.S. in
2010, Springbank still has no permanent customs office.

"We're not in a position to provide permanent service at Springbank,"
said Lisa White, CBSA spokeswoman.

"We have to carefully weigh and respect our security responsibility
with fiscal restraints."

Flights inbound from the U.S. are only required to notify customs of
their arrival two hours before landing, along with the names of the
pilot and passengers aboard.

If there's any reason for suspicion, a customs official will drive in
from Calgary to check things out - otherwise, it's a simple Welcome to
Canada, and the plane is free to land and unload.

Kenny said the lax Springbank security is a concern in Ottawa: A few years
ago, a group of senators studied Alberta border security and Kenny said
Springbank was raised as a problem spot.

"We came out here and spent a day talking to people about Springbank
and it's a huge issue, huge - people use it as a natural place to
land," he said.

RCMP Sgt. Patrick Webb confirms Springbank has been on police radar in
the past as a departure point for narcotics - but he says there's no
way of knowing how many shipments slip under law enforcement radar.

"I know we've investigated drugs leaving that location, but how can
you know how many are missed?" said Webb.

"Some farmer could have a landing strip somewhere, so it's certainly
not just Springbank that's a potential problem."

In 2009, officials at Springbank were alerted by RCMP about the
arrests of two private pilots, who were discovered running drugs
across the border.

And in 2006, Calgarian Daniel Raymond LeClerc was nabbed while
refuelling in California and found to have $30 million worth of
cocaine in his Canada-bound plane.

Whether such shipments are ever unloaded on the Springbank tarmac is a
question even the Senate security committee can't answer.

Kenny said it would make more sense to ditch the drugs early and
simply land at Springbank, clear of criminal evidence and suspicion
from others using the airport.

"You start flying through the mountains and it's incredibly difficult
to detect a light aircraft," said Kenny.

"Now, with GPS devices, you don't even have to land with your drugs at
Springbank - you just push them out the door onto a farmer's field and
have a colleague pick up what you've smuggling very easily."

Though he believes the senator may be exaggerating about Springbank's
role as a drug-smuggling hub, airport general manager Larry Stock says
a drug dump would be simple for any pilot.

"That is possible - and you wouldn't even have to descend, because
there are areas where the terrain rises high enough," said Stock.

An unexplained descent or a suspicious flight path would show up on
radar - and Stock says current rules require all planes to file and
follow specific flight plans.

He wonders why Springbank is high on the Senate's radar and not an
airport like Abbotsford, which is closer to the U.S. and to the B.C.
drug market.

"Springbank to the U.S. is much further than Abbotsford to
Washington," said Stock.

Of course, the custom rules apply to contraband coming into Canada -
when it comes to shipping drugs out, Stock concedes that there's
nothing to stop a pilot from packing his plane full.

Neither the U.S. nor Canada checks the cargo of a private plane before
take-off, which means anyone wanting to take off from Springbank or
another small strip with a load of local weed, would have no problems
at all.

"That's certainly possible," said Stock. 
- ---
MAP posted-by: Richard Lake