Editor’s Note: Today’s post comes from contributing editor Dr. Stefano Tijerina, a lecturer in management and Chris Kobrack Research Fellow in Canadian Business History at the University’s of Maine’s Business School.
Canadians have been consuming cocaine since the early twentieth century. They have traditionally been part of the larger western thirst for the stimulant that resulted in a transnational global industry that was initially controlled by European mafias. Nevertheless, prior to the 1970s, Canadian media repeatedly published articles that highlighted the drug addiction crisis as an American and European problem, not a Canadian problem. While Canadians consumed cocaine that entered their borders via Europe and the United States, media distracted its readership with the “other’s problem.” In 1970, for example, the Medicine Hat News reported that New York City authorities had confiscated US$9 million worth of heroin and cocaine. The arrest included an Argentinean, a Cuban, and two American men linked to a trafficking ring from Vichy, France. The drugs had been shipped from Marseilles and into the United States via Corsica. Cocaine trafficking was yet to be constructed as a Latin American problem.
This quickly changed in the 1970s, even though American urban centers along the 49th parallel became the core of the distribution networks for Canadian consumers. In 1972, for example, Canadian authorities reported that there had been a “sudden jump in cocaine use, with large amounts being imported via Toronto, Montreal, and Vancouver directly from South America.” The advancement of this idea paralleled increasing reports of cocaine related arrests at the borderland, but even these reports gave minimum relevance to the U.S.-Canada dynamic, arguing that these petty crimes were “just side roads to the mainstream of drug trafficking.”
Although more than 300 officers were now part of the Royal Canadian Mounted Police’s narcotics squad, in addition to provincial and municipal police forces that were now exclusively involved with drug enforcement activities, cocaine trafficking remained an American problem. Between 1973 and 1974 Canadian media began to highlight the magnitude of cocaine entering the United States, never pointing out that cocaine would then be shipped into the Canadian market via Los Angeles, Chicago, New York, Miami and other American urban centers. The petty arrests, the lack of an organized crime ring, and the relatively low numbers of users indicated that the real problem was across the border.
Canadian media misinformed the public, constructing a cocaine world that placed Canada in the periphery. The storyline was simple: cocaine was shipped by Latin American barons into the United States in order to satisfy its addiction. Cocaine violence was a Miami problem, police corruption was a New York problem, and cocaine pop culture was a California trend. A 1974 story about the Colombian-American connection highlighted the intricate world of drug mules, concluding that all mules were bound to the United States, because that “was the golden marketplace.”
Only until the late 1970s did Canadian media begin to portray cocaine trafficking as a Canadian problem. In 1977 the largest cocaine seizure at the time took place in Toronto’s International Airport where 25.5 pounds were seized in two separate incidents. Charles Lawrence Diamond had been intercepted after arriving on a flight from Buenos Aires, meanwhile Virginia Phillips and Jane Fairchild had been intercepted after arriving from Antigua following a Miami-Rio de Janeiro-Bogotá-Martinique-Antigua route. The seizure worth a street value of CAN$637,000 not only revealed the role of Americans in cocaine trafficking entering the Canadian economy, but also the transnational connection between Latin America, the Caribbean, and the Canadian market. Although Canadians and Americans were smuggling the cocaine into Canada, media continued to insist that Latin America’s supply was the biggest problem; the traffic of dangerous drugs from and by way of Latin America was growing fast, accounting “for at least 50 percent of the heroin and 100 percent of the cocaine smuggled” into Canada and the United States. 
Between 1977 and 1978 monthly seizures averaged 33 pounds. Authorities were becoming more familiarized with the smuggling strategies, including double-cased suitcases and body packs, and they knew that the drug was reaching the upper levels of society, but they did not know what percentage of cocaine was making it through customs or the organized crime groups and individuals that were controlling the operation in Canada. The Royal Canadian Mounted Police said that, just at the Toronto International Airport, 97 to 99 per cent of cocaine escaped detection, yet seizures had increased 5,800 percent since the 1960s.
The numbers of the late 1970s show that, in fact, cocaine was a Canadian problem as well. By then it was too late, the global business and logistical structures of cocaine trafficking and distribution had already penetrated the Canadian society. Montreal, Toronto, and other Canadian urban centers were no different than Miami, Chicago, Los Angeles or New York. In the 1970s, Canada even had its own Escobar.
Bernardo Arcila, a native of Colombia, was one of those narco-entrepreneurs of the early 1970s that capitalized on the relatively untapped Canadian cocaine market. Considered one of Canada’s biggest drug barons, Arcila arrived in Toronto in 1972 as a poor immigrant dreaming of achieving the Canadian dream. Together with his wife and son, Arcila settled in a small apartment near the University of Toronto’s downtown campus and found a job delivering wieners as a truck driver for the Shopsy’s deli food business. Like every immigrant arriving in Canada, his objective was to make a better life for himself and his family. His networking with other Colombian expatriates led him to the opportunity of becoming “involved in a group of cocaine importers that were well connected with the Medellín cartel and the American distribution networks.” Initially he was paid to stash cocaine and money in his apartment, and then throughout the 1970s “he worked as a courier earning CAN$1,000 each time he smuggled cocaine from Buffalo to Toronto” using his family as cover up. Toward the end of the decade he was selling by the ounce in Toronto and then early in the 1980s he branched off to form his own importation network, relying on his contacts in Miami and New York.
Arcila would develop connections with the Canadian mob, allowing him to effectively penetrate and expand his business throughout the Canadian market, capitalizing on that country’s denial of a cocaine problem. His story illustrates the transnational dynamics of cocaine trafficking across the Western Hemisphere. Moreover, it sheds light on the understudied cocaine corridors that have historically existed between American and Canadian urban centers. Ultimately, the 1970s revealed a temporal and transnational spatial dimension of history that connected Canada to the early stages of the globalization of cocaine trafficking.
- Max Lerner, “What to do About the Increase in Drugs,” The Brandon Sun, February 21, 1970, p.4.
- Paul Kidd, “$9 Million in Drugs Netted in N.Y. Raids,” The Medicine Hat, February 14, 1970, p. 1.
- Jeff Carruthers, “Police Now Concentrate on Hard Drug Traffic,” Winnipeg Free Press, September 16, 1972, p.6.
- David R. Belnap, “Drug ‘Mules’ Warned,” Winnipeg Free Press, April 27, 1974, p. 8.
- Rudy Platiel, “Police Arrest 3 Americans in Drug Seizures,” The Globe and Mail, November 15, 1977, p.9.
- Nathan Al Haverstock, “Drug Smuggling in the U.S.,” Winnipeg Free Press, June 25, 1973, p. 17.
- “Cocaine Seizures up at Toronto Airport,” p. 8.
- David Lancashire, “Bonanza for Junkies Drug Stores: Big New Dope Problem,” The Globe and Mail, November 19, 1980, p.7.
- Paul Kaihla, “How a Poor Colombian Became Canada’s Biggest Drug Baron – and Got Away,” Maclean’s 108, issue 28 (July 10, 1995): 28-34.
- Stephen Schneider, Iced: The Story of Organized Crime in Canada (Toronto: HarperCollins, 2009) 515.