The RCMP raided a secret laboratory producing illicit drugs in Coquitlam, British Columbia, after a year-long surveillance operation. The large-scale drug operation is linked to distribution in the western US, eastern Canada and England.
Overhead, the full moon shone in a cold, clear sky, fully restored from the eclipse that had drawn observers out into backyards all across North America earlier in the evening. But in a nondescript industrial mall in the Vancouver suburb of Coquitlam, no one was looking up. The eyes of several plainclothes RCMP investigators were focused on the surreal image of six men dressed like a space-travelling SWAT team in white isolation suits, breathing gear and bulletproof vests. Using keys seized from suspects arrested earlier in the day, the men-members of the RCMP’s Vancouver drug section-cautiously opened a grey steel door into one of half a dozen units in a two-storey concrete building. Several gripped their holstered service revolvers in rubber-gloved hands, a precaution that proved unnecessary. There was no one inside. Instead, what the elaborate raid uncovered was just what the police were expecting: a gleaming laboratory dedicated to the production of illicit drugs. “This was huge,” said RCMP Staff Sgt. Ken Ross, who led a series of raids and co-ordinated arrests last week after a three-month investigation. “This was global.”
According to Ross, the hidden lab is one of the largest ever uncovered in North America, with computer links to drug networks in Europe and the United States. Police believe that the clandestine operation has been churning out staggering quantities of ecstasy (MDMA)-one of a growing constellation of so-called designer drugs-and more traditional drugs like LSD for at least four years. The RCMP has been monitoring a group of suspects for about a year, said Ross, but its investigation stepped into high gear only after it received detailed information about the lab in early summer. “We had their houses wired, their cars wired,” Ross said. “We knew when they got up in the morning. We knew when they farted.”
Late last week, that surveillance suggested that several of seven key suspects were preparing to leave the country. And on Sept. 26, investigators secured a warrant to search the suspected lab and several other locations in and around Coquitlam. The RCMP’s entry team-one of three in the country that specialize in searching suspected drug labs-was prepared for risks ranging from booby traps to haphazardly stored hazardous chemicals. Instead, they found a spotless and expensively equipped lab that left an envious police chemist Richard Laing to remark: “It’s nicer than mine.”
More shocking than the professionalism of the clandestine operation, though, was its scale. In drug laboratories previously raided by police in the United States, investigators have seized reaction flasks-containers in which the under- ground chemists prepare their wares-that were typically no larger than a household cooking pot. The heavy steel flask discovered in Coquitlam was a staggering four feet in diameter and five feet high-hinting at production batches of head-spinning proportions.
As searches continued over the next two days, police found further evidence of a long-running enterprise. In addition to large quantities of LSD and ecstasy, investigators found recipes for a wide variety of other drugs as well as dated samples indicating that production at the site may have begun as early as 1992. In a unit next door to the lab, said Ross, “we’re finding money. There’s gold bullion. There’s silver. There’s guns.”
The next day, prosecutors laid charges before a justice of the peace against two women and five men. Now, the investigation turns towards the potential destinations of the drugs being manufactured in British Columbia. According to Ross, a conspiracy centred in Coquitlam had links to drug distribution networks along the west coast of the United States and in England, as well as in Eastern Canada. “The reason these guys are in Canada,” said Ross, “is because they can get the precursor chemicals [ingredients] here legally. They can’t in the States,” where many of those ingredients are closely restricted. Communications among the sellers and buyers, he added, were conducted via the Internet using coded electronic mail.
The B.C. lab may turn out to be the most sophisticated drug production centre yet uncovered by police in Canada. But investigators say it is unlikely to be the last. “These are the drugs of the future,” observed Ross. But for at least one lab, the days of making and shipping drugs with impunity are now definitely in the past.