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A battle won in the war

against drugs

 

By Timothy Appleby / Globe and Mail

When a small army of police finally descended on the outwardly respectable Woodbridge, Ont., home of cocaine baron Alfonso Caruana in the early hours of July, 1998, wrapping up a three-year, problem-racked investigation that had reached around the world, the raid came as small surprise to the increasingly antsy mobster. In the weeks and months before, wiretaps showed that Caruana knew he was under surveillance, after a lifetime of staying one jump ahead of law enforcement. Indeed, he seemed all but resigned to being arrested. But outside the immediate circle of cops and criminals, just about everyone else was astonished. And what stirred amazement was the sheer scale of the long-running enterprise controlled by the quiet, unassuming Caruana and his two brothers, Gerlando and Pasquale.

The immediate haul was small. Only a comparatively modest 200 kilograms of cocaine were netted in Project Omerta, the multi-force police operation that scooped up Caruana and 13 others in Canada, Texas and Mexico. The cash, jewellery and bonds seized were worth less than $2-million, dwarfed by the cost of the investigation, which approached $9-million. But the significance of taking down Carauna and his associates went far beyond. Over the years, Sicily's Caruana-Cuntrera crime clan, whose expansion into the global drug trade dates back to the 1960s, had moved literally tons of heroin and cocaine from source to market, worth billions of dollars. And while Caruana has by now assuredly been replaced as leader of the Caruana-Cuntrera's Canadian franchise, he was, by every estimate, a major-league player.

In the memorable sound-bite of RCMP Inspector (now Chief Superintendent) Ben Soave, who heads the Combined Forces Special Enforcement Unit that dismantled the enterprise, this was the Wayne Gretzky of drug-trafficking. In this flawlessly researched, superbly written account of Caruana's empire, Lee Lamothe and Antonio Nicaso have rendered a public service that will not easily be duplicated. Dozens of books have been written about the mob in Canada, but Bloodlines is in a class of its own, one of the absolute best. The reason is evident.

In-depth crime reporting depends on credibility, trust and access to police secrets. And because of their expertise and track record -- Lamothe is a long-time Toronto Sun reporter turned consultant; Nicaso, co-editor of Toronto's daily Italian-language Corriere Canadese newspaper, has written nine books about organized crime -- the authors were privy to the innermost machinations of the massive Caruana investigation, notably the wiretap evidence.

And, no less critical, the writers were able to draw on their array of underworld contacts to flesh out their compelling story. Two core themes emerge, both lending powerful ammunition to the thesis that Canada's new money-laundering and currency-reporting laws are long overdue. The first is the fact that multinational drug-trafficking by Sicilian expatriates -- and many other ethnically based criminal enterprises -- went largely undetected for many years. Originating in the town of Siculiana, tightly interwoven by marriage and the ceaseless thirst for profit, the Caruanas and Cuntreras, were part of that exodus, which only became apparent with New York's 1978-1984 Pizza Connection investigation.

The second reality, also unpleasant, is that because of its relatively lenient laws, Canada has been, and still is, regarded as something of a haven for serious bad guys. It was scarcely an accident that after being sentenced in absentia by an Italian court to more than 20 years for drug-trafficking, Caruana headed back to Canada, where he lived almost invisibly. Only the careless wire-tapped remark of an associate brought police surveillance crews to Toronto's Sutton Place Hotel in June, 1995, where Caruana's daughter was being married in suitably lavish style. So began the efforts to nail him and his partners in crime, and a bumpy investigation it was, at least in the early stages. There were budget shortfalls, major translation difficulties, friction with police forces in other countries (notably the U.S. Federal Bureau of Investigation) and infighting within the RCMP itself. The targets of all the attention, meanwhile, were seasoned veterans at eluding detection. A major breakthrough for police came when they cracked the coding system used for the telephone calls that went from Canada to points around the world. When Caruana and his brothers pleaded guilty to conspiracy charges last year, earning long prison sentences, they did so because the wiretap evidence against them was overwhelming, and because under police pressure one of the other key players -- the Venezuela-based middleman connecting Colombia's cocaine cartels to the Caruana-Cuntrera pipelines into Europe and North America -- had "rolled over" and cut a deal whereby he would testify against the rest of the gang.

By then, Alfonso Caruana had come a long way from the day in 1968 when he first arrived in Canada by ship and presented himself to Halifax immigration authorities as "an electrician." The stock in trade of the Caruana-Cuntrera organization was not just drug-smuggling, but also money-laundering for other criminal enterprises. And in the absence of any currency-reporting laws, Caruana washed cash in quantities that were staggering. In an eight-month period in 1981 alone, RCMP Sgt. Mark Bourque was able to show in an earlier investigation that failed to nail Caruana on criminal charges, the mobster shovelled more than $21-million through his bank accounts at the City and District Savings Bank in Montreal. Some days, he would literally drive up to the bank with a pickup truck loaded with bags of money. Federal authorities pursued him with a bill for almost $30-million worth of unpaid taxes, interest and penalties. So in 1995 he filed for bankruptcy, claiming assets of just $250. And along the way, the group also cultivated plenty of useful political connections.

According to the authors, the governor of the Mexican state of Quintana Roo was a particularly useful friend, reportedly pocketing tens of millions of dollars from drug cartels. Another acquaintance was Alfonso Gagliano, a longtime Liberal Party heavyweight in Quebec and currently federal Minister of Public Works. After a 1978 gangland slaying in Montreal, La Presse reported that Gagliano was the bookkeeper for Caruana's cousin Agostino Cuntrera, subsequently convicted of murder. Other alleged connections between Gagliano and organized-crime players are duly noted. More than anything, the Caruana-Cuntrera investigation illustrates how organized crime has become a truly global entity.

The operation's eventual success also offers some hope that police agencies in different countries will be able to transcend their often selfish national interests and work together. This episode marks just one battle in a protracted war that will stretch out indefinitely, not least because in the eyes of many, organized crime is a vague, distant phenomenon that is usually someone else's problem. By bringing this particular group of players so vividly to life, Bloodlines hammers home the truth that real-life mobsters are here in our back yard. Perhaps living on a quiet street in, say, Woodbridge.

Timothy Appleby is a member of the editorial board and a former long-time crime reporter for The Globe and Mail.

June 23, 2001