Truckers charged in record $336M US-Canada tobacco-smuggling case

A tractor-trailer with tobacco inside as part of a investigation into a $336 million smuggling ring that transported tobacco from the US to Canada.

A smuggling ring used trucks to bring hundreds of millions of dollars worth of tobacco from the United States to Canada concealed in legitimate cross-border shipments of goods to evade duties and taxes, authorities said.  

Truck drivers and the two alleged ringleaders were among the 13 charged in Quebec on Tuesday in connection with the tobacco-smuggling operation. The Canada Border Services Agency (CBSA) alleges that the group evaded CA$450 million (US$336 million) in duties and taxes.

“It’s the largest case of its kind we’ve ever had in Canada,” Claude Beauséjour, the CBSA’s acting director for criminal investigations in Montreal, told FreightWaves.

Multiple trucking companies were involved in the case, Beauséjour said, but he declined to identify them or detail their role. The alleged ringleaders, however, Martin Bessette and Éric Landry, “had knowledge of the trucking business, ” Beauséjour said.

The Quebec-based group smuggled 88 loads of tobacco from September 2017 to May 2019, the CBSA said. It was not immediately clear if the suspects charged are all Canadian.

Discovery of tobacco in shipment manifested as fruit as fruit led at border led to probe

The investigation, called Project Butane, began in 2018 after CBSA officers discovered nearly 40,000 pounds of tobacco in a truckload declared as fruit at the U.S.-Canada border during a routine inspection. The truck was entering Canada at the Saint-Bernard-de-Lacolle border crossing in Quebec, just north of Champlain, New York. 

As investigators looked into the case, they identified previous loads of suspected tobacco linked to the group, Beauséjour said.

As the probe continued, CBSA officers intercepted a second load of tobacco in May 2018 at the Chateaugay–Herdman border crossing, which links Quebec to Chateaugay, New York. They found a similar-sized load of tobacco concealed in a load of wood chips. 

The following week, over 100 CBSA officers with support from police executed 26 search warrants in Quebec. They arrested eight people and seized three tractor-trailers in addition to other evidence.

The CBSA worked with Homeland Security Investigations in the U.S. Beauséjour declined to comment on whether anyone in the United States was involved in the smuggling ring. 

A hearing is set for the suspects charged in the case in mid-October.

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