|Port of Vamcouver|
How Hells Angels and criminal gangs came to control much of the Vancouver docks
More than two dozen of the longshoremen unloading container ships on the docks of Metro Vancouver are Hells Angels, their associates, other gangsters or people with serious criminal records, a Vancouver Sun investigation has found.
The infiltration of gangsters and criminals into the port workforce is perpetuated by a longtime employment practice that allows existing union members to nominate friends, relatives and associates when new jobs become available.
Police say organized crime maintains this foothold on the waterfront for strategic purposes — so drugs and other contraband can be smuggled in some of the more than 1.5 million containers that pass through the four container terminals at Port Metro Vancouver every year.
Just over three per cent of containers arriving here are checked by the Canada Border Services Agency.
“It is a concern to us. We feel that a lot of the illegal drugs that come into this country come in through our ports,” said Det.-Staff. Sgt. Len Isnor, the country’s top law enforcement expert on the Hells Angels.
We feel that a lot of the illegal drugs that come into this country come in through our ports
Isnor, who works for the Ontario Provincial Police, has testified at several major B.C. cases involving the biker gang.
Isnor said the Hells Angels have maintained a foothold in Canada’s three largest ports — Vancouver, Montreal and Halifax — for the past 30 years.
“So as far as the ports are concerned, it’s the whole success of the Hells Angels.”
While airports have tightened security in the post-9/11 world, Metro Vancouver docks remain relatively porous, allowing people linked to organized crime, and even some convicted of international drug smuggling, to work on the waterfront.
The Sun has identified at least six full-patch Hells Angels who are active members of the International Longshore and Warehouse Union.
Some have worked on the docks for years, like Al DeBruyn, a senior White Rock Hells Angel who started in 1981 — two years before the HA was set up in B.C.
Other Hells Angels joined the longshoremen more recently. Rob Alvarez of the elite Nomads chapter and Kelowna Angel Damiano Dipopolo started on May 24, 2012. West Point Hells Angel Ryan Sept started just last year, nominated by another full-patch member of his chapter.
Bikers aren’t the only people with links to crime working on the waterfront.
Others who police have publicly identified as gangsters, such as Mani Buttar and Bobby Tajinder Gill, are also longshoremen, as are some of their associates.
Buttar has been a member of Local 502, a Vancouver local of the International Longshore and Warehouse Union, since 1998. The local provides hundreds of workers a day to Fraser Surrey docks and Deltaport. And Buttar, whose two brothers died in gangland shootings, is on his union’s executive committee despite a lengthy criminal history.
Gill is in jail after police issued a warrant for him several months ago on some outstanding charges.
The Sun has documented 27 active longshoremen with gang or criminal links from various sources of information, including public records and union membership lists.
That number doesn’t include the “inactive” members of the union who are also Hells Angels — East End president John Bryce, Nomads Angel Gino Zumpano, Haney member Vince Brienza, West Point member Larry Amero and former Vancouver president Norm Krogstad.
ILWU national president Mark Gordienko agreed to be interviewed for The Vancouver Sun series. But he cancelled without explanation the day before the interview. He also declined through a spokesman to answer written questions for the Sun.
The Hells Angels did not respond to emailed interview requests.
Police admit there’s a serious problem when criminals and gangsters have the ability to move drugs and other contraband through Port Metro Vancouver.
A series of government and police reports about organized crime on the waterfront and obtained by the Sun show authorities have been documenting concerns for two decades.
“The presence of numerous members of organized crime groups (OCGs) as dockside employees of the Port of Vancouver, coupled with the ability to access the port by members of OCGs employed in the trucking industry creates a high-risk for smuggling at the port,” says a September 2010 internal Border Services Agency report.
The only way someone can get hired as a longshoreman in British Columbia is by the ILWU putting their name forward.
Port Metro Vancouver then issues a basic port pass. A criminal record check is not required, yet the pass allows wide access to the tens of thousands of containers stacked behind locked gates in Vancouver, Surrey and Delta.
Port Metro vice-president Peter Xotta said he was unaware of how many port pass holders are Hells Angels or others with criminal links.
“We certainly don’t have that level of detail,” he said.
“My sense of it is it is much more difficult for this (criminal) activity to occur on the waterfront. That’s not to say that there aren’t elements or individuals on the waterfront and in other parts of working society in Vancouver that aren’t involved in some sort of activity that could give rise to concern.”
Andy Smith, president of the B.C. Maritime Employers Association, said his agency is aware of the Hells Angels and others with gang connections on the docks.
“Yes, we are aware of who they are. They make no secret of it,” he said.
Yes, we are aware of who they are. They make no secret of it
But he also said his association’s role is to ensure longshore workers are properly trained, not worry about their criminal histories.
“It is not within my mandate,” Smith said. “We are a service provider to the industry — primarily to labour relations and training and secondarily in terms of government relations and social outreach. In any of those arenas, we have yet to see a situation where someone’s criminal associations or participation in the Hells Angels, or whatever, has been an issue.”
Some of the thousands of dock workers in B.C. also possess a higher-security Transportation Security Clearance pass issued by Transport Canada that allows them inside restricted zones on the waterfront.
Workers are screened for links to organized crime and criminal records before those passes, known as TSC, are issued.
But Smith said the restricted zones at the port are small compared to the areas accessed with the general pass.
“If you are talking about access of workers to long rows of containers which are in lightly populated work areas day or night, the TSC doesn’t come into it,” he said.
Guy Morgan, director of security and screening programs for Transport Canada, wouldn’t comment specifically on the Hells Angels or other criminals working on the waterfront. But he said his agency does screen several ways for links to organized crime before issuing the TSC passes.
He suggested the Hells Angels on the Sun’s list don’t have the high-security passes — though he wouldn’t say so directly or comment on any individuals.
“If Transport Canada receives any information that an existing clearance holder poses a security threat, we act on it,” Morgan said.
By contrast, airport workers who handle baggage and cargo “have to have the security clearance under the Transport Canada program,” Vancouver Airport Authority spokesman Chris Devauld said.
Morgan said it’s unfair to compare the two as there are also areas at the airport where workers don’t need the high-security clearance.
“I think that the marine transportation security regulations have set out very robust security requirements for the vessels, the ports, the marine facilities and the purpose of those regulations is to enhance the international framework for the deterrence and prevention and detection of acts that may threaten security in the marine port,” Morgan said.
“We are continuously reviewing and enhancing our marine security regime and that includes our security regulations, our standards, our procedures in order to maintain that security environment.”
Senator Colin Kenny, who has been outspoken on national security issues, was in Vancouver last fall talking to Port Metro Vancouver officials about security.
He thinks more should be done to deal with organized crime on the waterfront, an issue that crops up every few years but never gets addressed.
But Kenny doesn’t expect a clampdown on criminalized port workers any time soon, given the RCMP is reassigning hundreds of officers across the country to work on terrorism cases. Many of those resources have been taken from organized crime cases. That, said Kenny, is short-sighted.
“We have made the point consistently that if people from organized crime can get in, terrorists will follow,” said Kenny, who sits on the Senate’s National Security and Defence committee.
“Generally speaking, there is a huge lack of interest on the part of almost everybody.”
Yet there has been two decades of damning documentation about the problem.
A 2012 Transport Canada obtained by the Sun under the Access to Information Act identified the potential “exploitation of the commercial marine transportation system to smuggle narcotics from the Americas to Canada’s Pacific Coast.”
Most of the report was censored for security reasons, including the executive summary.
But the section titles alone are revealing.
The section called “Methamphetamine and Precursor Chemicals” is three pages long — all blanked out.
It’s followed by a section titled Drug Trafficking Organizations, about half of which has been removed.
Details of Mexican cartels, including the Sinaloa, Los Zetas, Knights Templar and the South Pacific Cartel were provided in the report between blanked out sections about “port seizures” and strategic implications.
The report acknowledges that Mexican cartels use ships to transport their drugs to Canada and elsewhere.
Those cartels already have connections in Vancouver, as revealed by the Sun in a recent series.
The 2010 CBSA report, also obtained under the Access to Information Act, said that while the Mafia and Hells Angels “have exerted the most significant criminal influence at major Canadian marine ports, many other international OCGs, including Asian, East Indian, Persian, Middle Eastern, Eastern European and local groups have developed a presence in Canada.”
The report says the gangs use shipping containers to smuggle cocaine, dode (poppy powder), ephedrine, GHB, heroin, hashish, hashish oil, khat, marijuana, opium and precursor chemicals to make ecstasy and crystal meth.
“Although the number of seizures in the marine mode are low, relative to the air and land modes, the quantities seized in a given enforcement action are typically very high,” the report says.
CBSA seizures at Port Metro Vancouver over the past five years prove that point. Between 2010 and 2014 more than half a tonne of cocaine was discovered by CBSA searches of containers arriving at Port Metro Vancouver. Almost two tonnes of the party drug ketamine and more than 20,000 litres of liquid precursor chemicals used in the production of meth were also seized.
“Vancouver marine will continue to pose a high risk for the smuggling of precursor chemicals into Canada from China and India,” the CBSA report says.
“However, Prince Rupert may increasingly become the port of entry for precursor chemical shipments due to expansion in marine container commerce and/or a deliberate effort by smugglers to direct shipments through Prince Rupert, in the hope of evading seizure of the shipments.”
The CBSA clearly links the smuggling to the Hells Angels and other gangsters working at the port “in key positions — longshoremen, equipment operators, foremen and truck drivers.”
“Joint forces operations by Canadian law enforcement agencies, which have included the CBSA, have succeeded in dismantling smuggling operations and temporarily disrupting the movement of drugs, cigarettes and other contraband. However since OCGs are adept at quickly re-establishing their presence at the ports, these successes are typically shortlived.”
The 2010 report echoes two others prepared by police in the mid 1990s and obtained from Sun sources.
A 1995 report done by the Criminal Intelligence Section of B.C. says “Hells Angels have numerous members in the longshoremen’s union, employed in a variety of port jobs. This has provided them with the direct means of transporting narcotics and other drugs internationally.”
And it says B.C. Hells Angels have close connections to the Mafia, or “traditional organized crime.”
“Hells Angels employees have access to a variety of ports in various locations, access to vessels, containers, scheduling and their own trucking companies to load and unload product. The Hells Angels East End chapter’s relationship with traditional organized crime not only serves in expanding the parameters for economic opportunities through illegal means but unites these two organizations in a partnership of strength,” the report says.
“Organized crime access and control of ports for movement of drugs and other illegal products is in place.”
A 1994 report titled Organized Crime and the Port of Vancouver describes an environment on the docks that could have come straight out of the classic film On the Waterfront.
The report, prepared by the now-disbanded Ports Canada Police, said “the Port of Vancouver has been extensively infiltrated by organized crime elements and is also extensively manipulated from the outside by local and international organized criminals.”
“For many years, it was known that a number of longshoremen on the port were affiliated with the Hells Angels. Numerous times, thefts of containers and their goods had been attributed to the Angels and their inside men. Unfortunately, a detailed list of these past incidents would take up too much room,” the PCP report said.
“Angels are among the first to board arriving ships. They unload goods, place them for storage, load them onto trucks and prepare the necessary documents for shipping.”
They also bully co-workers to prevent complaints about them, it said.
“They intimidate fellow workers, both on the docks and in the offices, with threats of violence and death, and have successfully imposed a forced code of silence on the port.”
Smith said he hasn’t heard reports of intimidation of other workers by Hells Angels or others linked to organized crime since he started at the BCMEA in 2007.
“We have never received a complaint,” Smith said. “I am aware of one instance that occurred before I got here.”
In that case, a full-patch Hells Angels wore his “colours” — the leather vest with the patch on the back — to work.
“The action taken to get him to take his colours down was initiated by an ILWU official at the time,” Smith said.
He said he has also “never been contacted by any federal official with concerns about gang activity at this port.”
“They haven’t raised those issues with me for which, quite frankly, I’m thankful. I don’t know what I would do about them.”
Xotta said Port Metro works closely with the CBSA, the RCMP’s National Port Enforcement Team, local police agencies in the Lower Mainland and Transport Canada.
“The port has primary responsibility around keeping the port and surrounding waters safe for navigation and for the trade mandate that we have,” he said.
“Our specific responsibility in terms of security is really linked to a function of the collaboration between those agencies.”
Four years ago, Port Metro opened an Operations Centre in Canada Place, where workers can monitor video images from 400 cameras strategically placed all over port properties. They can also alert law enforcement if they see a problem, as they recently did with the chemical fire at the Centerm container terminal.
“Some of them (the cameras) are incredibly powerful. We’ve got lines of sight for both day and night vision on the port’s patrol vessels,” Xotta said. “We’ve invested in two new patrol vessels in the last year. These vessels are … significantly faster vessels than we had previously.”
New high-tech security gates have been installed in most areas and will be put in soon Roberts’ Bank, where Deltaport — Canada’s busiest container port — is located.
Xotta said that “unlike in generations past — (the gates) create a level of security and visibility around the ports so that if there is criminal behavior happening by any member of the waterfront community, it’s a little more difficult to come and go then it might have been many years ago.”
Asked if criminals or Hells Angels should be working at the port at all, Xotta said: “It’s a question for the RCMP and Transport Canada.”
Smith doesn't see clamping down on bikers or other criminals on the docks as the solution to preventing illicit cargo from getting through the port.
“If there are methodologies by which to get product through the port in containers or otherwise — if somebody thinks, well, raising the bar for people to come and work here is going to slow that down — I don’t think so. There are always vulnerable people,” Smith said.
“There are always people who are ethically or morally challenged. And if it wasn't people with records or who are members of groups which are deemed to be not acceptable, they will always find people to do this work for them.”