Canada’s ‘Project Butane’ leads to fraud charges, seizure of 80,000 pounds of contraband tobacco and three tractor-trailers

CBSA Tobacco Seizure
The Canadian Border Services Agency has brought a total of 15 charges against 13 members of an alleged contraband tobacco network. As a result of the investigation, nearly 80,000 pounds of tobacco, three tractor-trailers, an SUV and other items were seized by law enforcement. (Courtesy: Canada Border Services Agency)

MONTREAL — Project Butane, an investigation begun in 2018 by the Canada Border Services Agency (CBSA) of a suspected contraband tobacco network, has resulted in charges against 13 people, CBSA announced Sept. 29. The network’s operations, which included transporting contraband using commercial tractor-trailers, allegedly cost the Canadian government an estimated $450 million.

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The 13 are facing a total of 15 charges, including fraud upon the governments of Canada and Quebec, contraband tobacco, possession of unstamped tobacco products, and conspiracy to move contraband tobacco and to possess unstamped tobacco products. In addition to the two alleged leaders of the network, Martin Bessette and Éric Landry, those charged include Alfred Binette, Serge Bourque, Étienne Demers, Kedryc Girouard-Fournier, Pierre Leblanc, Michel Savoie, Michel Frédéric Riendeau, Mathieu Dinnigan-Lanthier, Reynald Jacques, Christos Georgaros and Curtis Lewis Thompson.

According to the CBSA, the investigation, which began in 2018, the accused are part of a criminal organization that imported contraband tobacco in bulk. The evidence collected during the investigation established that the organization had 88 loads of bulk tobacco brought in between Sept. 2, 2017, and May 27, 2019. The fraud strategies of this organization allegedly led to an estimated $450 million in lost tobacco duties and taxes.

As part of this investigation, two loads of around 18,000 kg of bulk tobacco each, were intercepted on May 10, 2018, and May 27, 2019, at the St-Bernard-de-Lacolle and Herdman, in Montérégie, border crossings, respectively. In the first seizure, the bulk tobacco had been declared as a load of fruit, and in the second, it was concealed under a load of wood chips.

Additionally, on June 5, 2019, more than 100 CBSA officers, supported by the Sûreté du Québec and some municipal police forces, executed 26 search warrants in Montérégie and Centre-du-Québec, and made eight arrests, collecting several pieces of evidence that allowed for these charges to be filed.

During the investigation, CBSA seized 36,000 kilograms (nearly 80,000 pounds) of tobacco, three tractor-trailers, one SUV, 38 cell phones and 12 computers.

“The CBSA and its officers are very attentive to contraband tobacco, in particular with regard to large-scale contraband strategies in commercial vehicles,” read a Sept. 29 statement from CBSA. “This type of activity harms Canada’s economy by encouraging the black market. All offenders are subject to sanctions and legal proceedings.”

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