Why is Montreal an export hub for stolen cars?


Once a container filled with stolen cars reaches the Port of Montreal, there aren't enough border guards to inspect it, according to the union representing border officials

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Between mid-December and late March, police inspected about 400 shipping containers at the Port of Montreal and found nearly 600 stolen vehicles, most of them from the Toronto area.

The operation highlighted how Canada's second-largest port has become a major transportation hub for the export of stolen vehicles. Police say this is due to the port's strategic location and the large volume of containers. And while authorities say they are doing everything they can to stop the scourge of car theft, experts say jurisdictional limits, staffing shortages and organized crime are standing in their way.

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“It's a very large haven,” said Bryan Gast, vice president of investigative services at the Equite Association, an anti-crime organization made up of insurance companies. With rail and road connections to the Greater Toronto Area – where many vehicles are stolen – the Port of Montreal is “conveniently located” for criminals.

Gast, an investigator with the Ontario Provincial Police for more than 20 years, said stolen vehicles are packed into shipping containers in the Toronto area with fake paperwork, including customs declarations, saying the cargo is legitimate, and then shipped by rail or truck to the Shipped to port.

Gast's organization participated in Project Vector, the Ontario Provincial Police-led port operation that recovered 598 stolen vehicles between December and March.

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Aside from its location, the sheer volume of goods moving through the port is also exploited by criminals. About 1.7 million containers moved through the Port of Montreal last year, including 70 percent of Canada's legal vehicle exports, according to port authorities. That's around a million more containers than Canada's next two largest ports on the east coast combined.

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Car thieves, Gast said, “can commingle their containers containing these stolen vehicles with commerce that legally flows out of Canada.”

The Port of Montreal said it was working closely with police and border services, but port officials could only open containers to save a person's life or prevent environmental damage, spokeswoman Renee Larouche said.

More than 800 police officers from various agencies have access cards to enter the port and, if they have a warrant, can open containers, Larouche said. However, in the customs-controlled areas of the port, only border officials are allowed to open containers without a search warrant.

Three-quarters of the vehicles recovered as part of Project Vector came from Ontario, including 125 from Peel Region, which local police say has become the car theft capital of the province.

Patrick Brown, the mayor of the city of Brampton in Peel Region, said the lack of container inspection at the Port of Montreal has made exporting stolen vehicles a lucrative and low-risk venture.

He said car theft is a more serious problem in Canada than in the United States because American authorities use scanning devices on a much larger percentage of shipping containers.

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“In the United States, organized crime doesn’t take that risk,” he said in a recent interview. “In Canada we scan less than one percent” of containers.

Brown said the recently announced $28 million in federal funding for the Canada Border Services Agency should immediately be used to purchase scanners for the Port of Montreal and the two Toronto-area shipping hubs where containers are transferred from trucks to trains . Additionally, he said, police should be able to enter customs-controlled areas of these facilities without a search warrant or special authorization from the CBSA.

“People will have tracking devices in their cars, they will track them to the intermodal hub or to the port, and the local police can't even go ahead and do anything about it,” he said.

During Project Vector, Peel police said their access to containers at the port was limited by the CBSA's “very limited resources,” Cst. Tyler Bell-Morena wrote in an email.

The CBSA would not say what percentage of containers are scanned each year, but Annie Beausejour, the agency's regional director general for Quebec, said all containers flagged by police are inspected by border officials.

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“We want to be able to scan all containers leaving the country. Unfortunately, that is not realistic,” she said in an interview, adding that the border agency should not slow down the flow of trade.

So far this year, the CBSA has seized 300 stolen vehicles from Toronto-area train stations and recovered 1,200 stolen vehicles from the Port of Montreal in 2023.

But port interception is a “last resort,” she said, adding that it is important to recover stolen vehicles before they reach shipping docks.

That's because once a container full of stolen cars reaches the Port of Montreal, there aren't enough border guards to inspect it, according to the union representing border officials. In fact, only eight border guards were working at the port last February, and the agency lacked the space to accommodate more than six recovered stolen vehicles at a time, union leader Mark Weber recently told a parliamentary committee.

Montreal's lack of resources is typical of port cities worldwide, Anna Sergi, a criminology professor at the University of Essex in the United Kingdom who studies organized crime, said in a recent interview.

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Customs authorities are “focused on imports. Nobody is focusing on exports. “Exporting is not a worthwhile investment because it is someone else’s problem,” she said. “The only country that does a little, and only a little, research on exports is the United States.”

Sergi, who wrote about the export of stolen vehicles from Montreal in a 2020 report on corruption and crime in seaports, said only two to three percent of incoming containers are checked, and those leaving the country see a lower percentage even lower.

Organized crime has had a long-standing presence on Montreal's waterfront, she said. Both the West End Gang, Montreal's so-called “Irish Mafia”, and the Italian Mafia were involved in drug importation with corrupt customs officials and dock workers.

Insp Dominique Cote of the Montreal police said: “We have no information that leads us to believe that the Port of Montreal has been infiltrated by organized crime or that this is the reason these vehicles are found in Montreal .”

Brown said he was skeptical of claims that border officials can't do more – or that organized crime isn't one of the reasons the Port of Montreal is so popular with criminals.

“When I see the CBSA and the Port of Montreal saying why they can't do this, it makes me very suspicious as to why they are defending a status quo that has been the most lucrative gift to organized crime in Canadian history,” said he .

This report by The Canadian Press was first published April 14, 2024.

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