RCMP Drug Operation Claims Lives

Eugene Uyeyama appeared to have it all. After 12 years, the woman of his dreams had finally said "yes," and married him. He and his new bride, Michele, had just returned from a luxurious two-week Caribbean cruise, and were looking forward to their first Christmas as husband and wife. Michele busied herself with preparations in the couple's $400,000 home in suburban Vancouver, built into the side of a cliff, with a pool and deck and a spectacular view of the Coastal Mountains and the Burrard Inlet. Michele wanted to get pregnant, and shopped for baby clothes while picking out gifts she and Eugene planned to exchange with family and friends during the holidays. But the veneer of blissful domesticity masked a darker reality of drug running, weapons dealing and divided loyalties. And in the early hours of Dec. 21, 1995, that world caught up to Uyeyama and his bride when mysterious visitors paid a call on the newlyweds - and left a record of ashes, smoke and the acrid stench of burnt flesh.

Firemen and police who arrived at the ocean-view home that night were left reeling. According to one of them, it appeared as if Eugene, 35, and Michele, 30, had been tortured before being strangled to death. Their bodies had been doused with gasoline and set on fire. The gruesome murders understandably provoked fear and anguish among those closest to the victims. "Eugene was a very pleasant guy - very friendly, very upbeat," lamented Uyeyama's lawyer, Richard Israel. "All Michele wanted was to have a baby and live a normal life," says a friend who worked with her at a local grocery store. "She was hit on the head, strangled and set on fire. The image of her being carried out of the house in a body bag will flash through my mind every day for as long as I live." Few offered a motive. One of Eugene's brothers suggested to a reporter that a home invasion had gone wrong. Police muttered vaguely that the deaths had been drug-related.

They were. Maclean's has learned, after a 10-month investigation covering six cities in three countries, that Eugene Uyeyama was the most prized and well-connected informant recruited by the RCMP on the West Coast in years - perhaps ever. He and his wife were slain as the result of an "internal security review," to use the words of one intelligence official, ordered by Colombia's powerful Cali cocaine cartel. More alarming, the double homicide is only the most macabre chapter in a killing spree that claimed the life of another RCMP informant last March in Montreal and at least five - perhaps as many as eight - other victims.

According to Insp. Gary Bass of the RCMP's major crimes section in Vancouver, all of the deaths stem from large-scale cocaine trafficking operations that the force has been investigating for at least a year and a half. But during that time, the Mounties' work has been marred by mishaps and tragedy. In fact, Maclean's has learned that, in addition to the deaths, more than $350,000 in drug money and as much as 350 kg of cocaine slipped through the fingers of RCMP surveillance teams last spring. A former Colombian drug trafficker says that associates of his were among the dealers who ended up selling the missing drugs on the street. "In this case, the RCMP didn't do what they were supposed to do," says the source, who requested anonymity for fear of retribution. "They care more about making a name and bragging about how much dope they caught - not how much they lost. Kids are using the dope they lost - getting high, committing robberies and doing crack." Sgt. Glen Oickle, who directed part of the investigation out of the RCMP's Newmarket, Ont., detachment, says that he is prohibited from responding to the allegations because he will be a witness in an upcoming trial against a dozen of the accused. "It would be very unethical and unprofessional of me to be discussing it at this time," said Oickle.

The incursion of violence and drugs into Canada flowed north from the Andean highlands of Colombia, a country whose sultry, tropical scenery can be every bit as intoxicating as its most successful export. The cocaine trade is the most profitable sector of the $540-billion-a-year global drug trafficking industry. Colombia's Cali cartel, with earnings of about $10 billion a year and operations in dozens of countries, is the world's largest supplier of the highly addictive narcotic. Its biggest wholesale customers north of the United States live in Montreal, and the busiest smuggling routes into Canada eventually lead to Mafia families, Colombian mobsters and biker gangs based in that city. It is hardly surprising that all large-scale cocaine seizures for much of the past decade have gone down in the eastern half of Canada. And while drug lords have routinely shipped cocaine from Colombia to Central Canada through Vancouver, the traffickers have faced little heat on the West Coast.

Until September, 1995, that is. That month, a 46-year-old Colombian immigrant named Rodriguez Ernesto Albornoz tipped off the RCMP that a Montreal crime family was dispatching a team to pick up a load of 120 kg of cocaine in Vancouver. Albornoz would travel with them. Little is known about him, or how the RCMP turned him into an informant. He arrived in Canada from his native Colombia as a landed immigrant in 1975, and settled in Montreal. His wife, Maria, followed in August, 1987, but the marriage failed. That same year, Albornoz had his first run-in with Canadian authorities: a charge of possession for the purposes of trafficking that landed him a sentence of two years less a day. He was later convicted on a weapons charge. More recently, neighbors say, he pursued a playboy lifestyle - partying with friends at the apartment where he lived alone, dressing up and going out to clubs like Montreal's Las Palmas. He was also linked to a mobster who is currently awaiting extradition to the United States on a murder charge, and at some point, Albornoz had a rape count and drug charge against him dropped.

On the weekend of Sept. 24, 1995, Albornoz accompanied a pair of Montreal mules and their overseer to Vancouver. According to a B.C. provincial court transcript dated Dec. 1, 1995, RCMP surveillance teams were waiting, and they followed the suspects to various meetings - and ultimately, to a run-down safe house high on a hill in the city's east end. The address: 2981 East 5th Ave. (the house has since been rebuilt and has new occupants). Police watched as the two couriers carried three or four large duffel bags from the safe house to a car, bags that were later transferred to a Ford Aerostar minivan.

What happened next is one of the few things the RCMP have made public. The two couriers were arrested 70 km east of Vancouver, near Abbotsford, driving the minivan east on the Trans-Canada Highway. The two men, who were to receive $25,000 each for their work, quickly and quietly pleaded guilty to one count each of possession of a narcotic for the purpose of trafficking, and were sentenced in B.C. provincial court on the first day of December to seven and five years in prison. Albornoz, the informant, walked. And, curiously, so did the man who is cited in the court transcript as the overseer who transferred the bags to the Ford Aerostar - Sylvain Malacket of Montreal.

The greatest mystery, however, surrounds an event at the safe house three days after the highway seizure. According to an RCMP news release on Oct. 2, the force's drug section raided the residence and seized 150 kg of cocaine, an AR-10 assault rifle and at least $190,000 in cash. What the news release does not say is that no one was charged in the seizure, although four or five suspects were taken into custody and released. One of them was Eugene Uyeyama.

The officer in charge of the raid, RCMP Sgt. Wayne Schauer, told Maclean's that Uyeyama and the others were released because there was insufficient evidence that they had "knowledge, consent and control" over the contraband - the legal test for convictions in drug cases. But according to a source close to Uyeyama, the real reason was that the drug trafficker "rolled over" and decided to become an RCMP informant that very night. In exchange, the RCMP, in essence, gave Uyeyama a "Get out of jail free" card by not charging him. The source adds that the Mounties let all of the suspects go because they did not want to single Uyeyama out with special treatment. "Everyone walked because they [the RCMP] wanted to bury the fink," he says.

Uyeyama constituted a breakthrough of monumental proportions for the RCMP. His last straight job had been more than a decade earlier at a B.C. Packers fish plant. Since then, he had fenced stolen goods and, at the time of the bust, was rising up the ranks of an organization controlled by a local Colombian-born drug lord. "Eugene was big time," says one source. "He was dealing in multi-kilo shipments."

He also began supplying the RCMP with very accurate information, including tips about black-market weapons. But it was in early October that Uyeyama handed the force's Vancouver drug squad a lead that would result in one of their biggest seizures ever. On Oct. 5, he gave detectives an aluminum pot, explaining that he had stolen it from a recent shipment of cocaine that had arrived in Vancouver concealed in cookware. Each of the pots, produced by a cartel-run factory in Colombia, was manufactured with false bottoms containing 27-cm pancakes of cocaine. According to a confidential Maclean's source, a shadowy Colombian who operated out of Toronto, Jorge Quintero, removed the cocaine with an accomplice in a Vancouver-area garage using power tools. The RCMP followed up Uyeyama's tip by asking Canada Customs in Vancouver to intercept any future shipments of cookware originating in Colombia.

While the police were no doubt delighted, they did not reckon with the ruthlessness of their opposition. Not long after the Vancouver seizures and Uyeyama's tip, the cartel sent an intelligence team to Canada to investigate leaks within its organization and to interrogate Canadian associates. Some investigators say the team consisted of a man and a woman. But according to Colombian sources, two or three other Cali agents accompanied the couple. "They were working with the couple," said one source. "They were all very presentable, not your regular Mickey Mouse bullshit."

It is not known which particular event triggered the team's mission. The Cali "narcos" are highly sensitive to seizures because they guarantee delivery of all shipments. After two shipments were intercepted in Canada in 1995, the cartel demanded that the Montreal mob pay in advance for future deliveries. Were the Cali bosses angered by the 270-kg seizures in Vancouver in September? Or did they act because they had learned through their own extensive network of informants - which could reach into the ranks of Canadian law enforcement - that Uyeyama had rolled on the organization?

What is known, according to several sources both in and outside of the police, is that local traffickers in Vancouver and Montreal assisted the cartel's intelligence team - and that the Uyeyamas were slain on orders from Cali. "This had been a safe and established route that had gone wrong, and that justified an internal security review," one intelligence official says. "They knew they had a leak, they looked around at who was who, and they got the right people. Their intelligence is 10 times better than ours, and the case you're working on is the proof of that."

In fact, Maclean's has learned, suspicions that the cartel identified the informants by bribing a Canadian law enforcement official ran so high that the RCMP launched a mole hunt of its own ranks and other agencies. "They're looking for a leak," says one Mountie. "But they won't find one. I work with these guys, and I know them."

To date, the RCMP has said very little publicly about the strange and terrible events of late 1995 in Vancouver. But Uyeyama's short-lived career as an informant bore fruit for the force. Last June, with great fanfare, the Mounties announced that they had seized 400 kg of high-grade cocaine smuggled into Vancouver in a sea container full of cookware. At the same time, the force announced the seizure of a related shipment in Toronto, in which cocaine had been concealed in the heads of rag mops. The two shipments were already in motion the day the Uyeyamas were slain, and Maclean's has learned that the load of cocaine hidden in the mops, estimated by the RCMP to be 500 kg, originated from the same cartel-run factory in the city of Cali that produced the pots and pans. (The factory also manufactured cardboard in which cocaine was hidden in the corrugated lining.)

The shipment of cocaine-laden cookware arrived in Vancouver in a 12-m sea container aboard the M. V. Los Angeles on Feb. 12, 1996. As a result of Uyeyama's tip, Canada Customs immediately red-flagged the container for a drug inspection. Four hundred kilos of cocaine were discovered sealed in the bottoms of the pots and pans. The RCMP removed all but 25 kg and initiated a controlled delivery of the container. As local handlers on the cartel's payroll arranged for the shipment to be trucked to Toronto, they had no idea it would be driven across the country by undercover RCMP officers posing as truck drivers, with surveillance teams in tow.

The tractor trailer left Vancouver on Feb. 21, destined for a warehouse at 960 Alness St. in the Toronto suburb of North York. Meanwhile, RCMP officers based in the Toronto area sneaked onto the premises and installed a video camera and listening devices. At that point, they discovered that the facility contained thousands of mops in boxes with Colombian markings. The investigators traced the goods to a shipment of 10,000 mops that had left Colombia on Dec. 5 and arrived in Toronto, via New York City, on Jan. 30. According to a 29-page application for a search warrant filed in Ontario provincial court last June, the name of the receiver on the bill of lading was Jorge Quintero - the same person who signed for the cookware shipment when it was delivered to the warehouse on Feb. 27.

Uyeyama's tip about the cookware had now led the RCMP to two major shipments. The mops had been brought to the warehouse by local mules on or about Feb. 13. Mobsters in Montreal were the buyers of both the pots and mops shipments. But sources in Colombia suggest that the Cali cartel's intelligence network was so effective that the bosses learned early on that the mop and pot shipments had been compromised - and were furious. Still, they did not tell the mules handling the drugs in Canada.

The RCMP in Toronto kept the warehouse under surveillance from Feb. 25, when they installed the bugs, to June 3 of last year, when arrests were finally made. But contrary to the Mounties' self-congratulatory media release, the operation was plagued by problems. According to the search warrant application, RCMP surveillance teams lost track of suspects leaving the warehouse with evidence on at least three occasions. On March 12, the RCMP video monitor inside the warehouse captured two suspects sorting through mops and pots. Each of them left carrying a large box "that was believed to contain some cocaine," says the court document. RCMP officers followed the pair to a high-rise apartment building, but lost them inside. The two suspects emerged empty-handed, and although the apartments of two co-conspirators who lived in the building were later raided, no cocaine or pots were found.

In subsequent weeks, the RCMP observed an unidentified male leave the warehouse carrying a bag they believed was full of pots containing cocaine. The man was not arrested, nor were the contents of the bag recovered. But the most troublesome incident occurred on the morning of March 17 - a Sunday. The warehouse video captured two suspects sorting through mops, then loading them into a U-Haul truck. RCMP officers tailed the vehicle in light traffic to the Toronto neighborhood of Parkdale, not far from an on-ramp to the Gardiner Expressway, a freeway that crosses the south end of Toronto, next to Lake Ontario.

In the search warrant application, the RCMP officer who filed the document says: "I believe that the cargo in the U-Haul (mops)...contained cocaine," but that "surveillance was terminated due to the fact that both individuals were continuously looking in all directions." At least one expert in surveillance who is familiar with the case doubts that explanation. "You wouldn't terminate just because the suspects are looking around," says the expert, who requested anonymity. "I mean, what do you expect them to do when they're driving around with a truck full of coke? The truth is the RCMP lost them."

Just how much cocaine was in the truck may never be known. But a good indicator surfaced just five days later. One hundred kilometres west of Toronto, in the city of Cambridge, local police stumbled onto a strange scene. Acting on a tip, they raided the second floor of an auto-glass shop and discovered three Colombians wearing surgical masks. They were removing cocaine from clear plastic rings and using a hydraulic press to make the narcotic into bricks. The plastic rings had come from the handles of mops. According to an agreed statement of facts filed in Ontario provincial court in December when the Colombians pleaded guilty to one count each of possession of a narcotic for the purpose of trafficking, police recovered 10,757 gutted plastic rings and 38 kg of cocaine. Given that each ring held more than one ounce of cocaine, the crown argued that the accused had already processed and distributed 348 kg of cocaine by the time of the raid.

Was the truck that left the Toronto warehouse on March 17 carrying the same mops that were disassembled in the auto-glass shop? Last June, RCMP Const. Kenneth MacDonald told a Maclean's reporter outside a Toronto courtroom that the force is convinced that it was. While it is possible that the traffickers delivered some of the mops to the auto-glass shop on an earlier date, Maclean's has learned that the Colombians set up their operations in the Cambridge facility only a day or two before the U-Haul left the warehouse on March 17. "The RCMP knew that they'd lost the dope but they figured they could cover it up," says the Colombian ex-trafficker, who is familiar with the pots and mops case. "All of that coke was sold." The former dealer adds that up to $400,000 in proceeds from those sales was ferreted out of an apartment at 15 Martha Eaton Way in west Toronto while it was under surveillance by the RCMP. The funds were smuggled out of Canada and to the cartel in Colombia.

As if those mishaps were not enough, tragedy struck again. Days after the arrival of the shipments in the Toronto warehouse, the long arm of the cartel reached for Ernesto Albornoz. He was shot in the head on March 7 in his apartment in the northeast end of Montreal with a .22-calibre handgun. His corpse, sitting in a large pool of blood, reeked when it was discovered days later. A weapon of choice among professional assassins, a .22 is a relatively quiet gun, firing a small-grain slug that often disintegrates on impact, making it difficult to match bullets to a gun through ballistics tests. Investigators were later told that a couple from Cali had visited Albornoz before his death to question him about who helped police finger members of their organization. The RCMP have yet to issue a news release or any kind of public notice about Albornoz's murder.

On June 3, 1996, RCMP units across the country finally took down the conspiracy and prepared their big announcement of the bust. In Vancouver, three mules who received the cookware shipment and arranged for its trip east were arrested and escorted to Toronto. They pleaded guilty to trafficking charges last August. The three Colombians apprehended in the auto-glass shop, and eventually nine others, were charged with conspiracy to traffic and import cocaine in connection with the Toronto warehouse and the cookware shipment. They are scheduled to appear for a preliminary hearing on April 1 in Toronto. Jorge Quintero, who was supposed to be under RCMP surveillance at the time of the arrests, remains at large.

One name that did not make it into the RCMP's June 5 press release was Sylvain Malacket. He was arrested in Montreal shortly before the others and then escorted by police to Vancouver. On June 5, 1996, he was formally charged for his role in the September, 1995, transaction in Vancouver surrounding the 120 kg that were seized on the Trans-Canada Highway. At 33, Malacket lived in the Montreal suburb of Laval and was long known to Quebec authorities as an enforcer who helped collect drug debts, a courier and an ounce-dealer of cocaine. He was released on June 21, after posting $150,000 in bail. The following month, homicide detectives from both Vancouver and Montreal interviewed him as part of their investigation into the murders of the Uyeyamas and Albornoz. They concluded that Malacket knew who the killers were but refused to co-operate, claiming that he feared for his safety and that of his family.

Since the beginning of their investigation, the Mounties have clearly gone to great lengths to suppress public knowledge of many facets of the trafficking operation - and many questions remain unanswered. There are still no arrests in the Uyeyama and Albornoz murders. Who ordered the killings, and who exactly carried them out? Is there a cartel mole among police? There have apparently been at least five other related murders, and while it is known that some of them occurred in Cali, who were the victims, when were they killed and how do they tie into the case? One strong possibility is a connection between Uyeyama's death and the unsolved murders of five drug dealers or associates at a farm in Abbotsford, B.C., on Sept. 11, 1996. And how could the RCMP have allowed cocaine to disappear from under their noses?

Even as the Canadian public has remained unaware of the violent background to the case, the law enforcement community and informant circles are swirling with rumors about the hits against Eugene Uyeyama and Ernesto Albornoz. Many police sources, some of them in witness-protection programs, are experiencing heightened fears for their own lives - and wondering how effective authorities will be in guaranteeing their safety. "When the guy got killed in Vancouver, the RCMP should have shut down their investigation," says one federal witness who is under police protection - suggesting that after Uyeyama's murder the RCMP should have shielded Albornoz. "They were RCMP informants. The bad guys in Colombia knew. If the RCMP had any responsibility to their informants, and if they didn't want anyone else to get killed, they should have cut it off right there." In that man's view, the RCMP did "bury the fink." Literally.

See also DRUG USE, NONMEDICAL.

On The Trail Of The Drugs

September 24, 1995

RCMP informant Ernesto Albornoz tips off the force that mules are picking up a load of 120 kg of cocaine in Vancouver. Two couriers are arrested with the drugs.

September 24, 1995

RCMP informant Ernesto Albornoz tips off the force that mules are picking up a load of 120 kg of cocaine in Vancouver. Two couriers are arrested with the drugs.

September 27, 1995

Vancouver RCMP raid the east-end house where the mules picked up the drugs. They seize 150 kg of cocaine and at least $190,000 in cash. Four or five suspects are questioned and released. One of them, drug trafficker Eugene Uyeyama, becomes an informant.

October 5, 1995

Acting on a tip from Uyeyama, RCMP in Vancouver instruct Canada Customs to intercept any containers of cookware originating in Colombia.

Fall, 1995

Colombia's Cali cartel sends a team to conduct "an internal security review" of its Canadian operations.

December 5, 1995

A shipping container, with an estimated 500 kg of cocaine hidden in mops, leaves Colombia for Toronto. Soon after, another container with 400 kg of cocaine concealed in cookware is on its way to Vancouver.

December 21, 1995

Uyeyama and his wife, Michele, are brutally murdered in their Burnaby, B.C., home.

January 30, 1996

The mop shipment arrives in Toronto. It is taken to a warehouse at 960 Alness St. in the Toronto suburb of North York.

February 12, 1996

The cookware shipment arrives in Vancouver. RCMP officers remove all but 25 kg of cocaine and initiate a controlled delivery.

February 27, 1996

An undercover RCMP officer, posing as a truck driver, delivers the cookware to the Toronto warehouse. The force keeps the building under surveillance until June 3.

March 7, 1996

Albornoz is fatally shot in the head with a .22-calibre pistol in his Montreal apartment.

March 12, 1996

The RCMP lose a pair of suspects who remove two large boxes from the warehouse. The force later says that the boxes contained cocaine.

March 17, 1996

Two suspects load a U-Haul truck with mops at the warehouse, and evade surveillance in light traffic on a Sunday morning. The force later says that the mops contained cocaine.

March 22, 1996

Local police arrest three Colombians removing cocaine from mops on the second floor of a Cambridge, Ont., auto-glass shop. According to evidence presented at the trial leading to their convictions, the trio had already removed and distributed 350 kg of cocaine before the raid.

May 3, 1996

RCMP surveillance loses a suspect leaving the Toronto warehouse with a bag of pots believed to contain cocaine.

June 5, 1996

The RCMP announces the seizure of 400 kg of cocaine, and the related bust in Cambridge, Ont. Police arrest 19 suspects in three cities.

April 1, 1997

A preliminary hearing for 12 people facing importation and trafficking conspiracy charges begins in Toronto. Eight individuals in three cities have so far pleaded guilty.

Maclean's March 31, 1997