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Canadian police said the heist is not just about gold, but “how gold turns into guns”
By Nadine Yousif
BBC News, Toronto

The arrests that followed a “sensational” gold heist have shed light on the illegal gun trade between the US and Canada.

Thousands of gold bars worth C$20m ($14.5m; £11.6m) were stolen from the Toronto airport in Canada a year ago.

Police have since said the gold was sold for cash to buy guns in the US.

Officials allege the arrested suspects had planned to smuggle the guns into Canada, which has strict gun laws, and sell them on the black market.

“This isn’t just about gold,” said Nando Iannicca, chair of the Peel Regional Police, the force responsible for the arrest of nine suspects who were allegedly involved in the heist.

“This is about how gold becomes guns.”

The smuggling of illegal guns from the US has long been a source of concern for police in Canada, where most firearms – save for shotguns and rifles – are restricted or prohibited.

The US has enshrined the right bear arms in the US constitution, which has made firearms readily accessible and gun ownership a challenging political topic in America.

But it also has created a lucrative illegal business in which smugglers bring guns they purchase in the US to Canada, said Police Chief Bill Fordy, who sits on the Canadian Association of Chiefs of Police’s Special Purpose Committee on Firearms.

A gun purchased in the US for $500 “can easily sell for up to $5,000 in Canada”, Norman Proctor, a Toronto Police inspector, said at a news conference last year.

The issue surfaced after Canada introduced stricter gun laws a few years ago in response to the 2020 mass shooting in Nova Scotia – the country’s deadliest – in which 22 people were killed. The law included a ban on “assault-style weapons”.

Some questioned the effectiveness of the ban, as the perpetrator was found to have obtained his guns illegally – three were smuggled across the US border from Houlton, Maine.

Once these American guns cross the border into Canada, police say they are frequently distributed across the country and used in violent crimes, like robberies, carjackings and homicides.

Chief Fordy told the BBC that in 2023, 90% of handguns recovered after violent crimes in Ontario – Canada’s most populous province – were traced back to the US.

“Through our tracing and analysis, we know the top states (these guns come from) are Ohio, Texas, Florida and Georgia, in that order,” Chief Fordy said.

Some are stolen, while others are bought using straw purchasers – an individual who buys a gun for someone who is not authorised to own it.

“Sometimes they are purchased in bulk, then sold here on the street for a handsome return on investment,” Chief Fordy said.

Gold heist reveals ‘sophisticated’ gun smuggling efforts

Last year’s gold heist out of Toronto Pearson International Airport was the largest in North America’s history, police said.

Chief Nishan Duraiappah with the Peel Regional Police described it as “sensational” – one that “belongs in a Netflix series”.

It involved a complicated effort, in which 400kg (880lb) of gold and cash were stolen from a cargo facility on airport grounds using a fake shipping slip, just 42 minutes after they were unloaded from an Air Canada flight that had arrived from Switzerland.

The precious goods were then loaded and driven away in a large, white cargo truck.

Police seized dozens of firearms as part of the investigation into the gold heist, including handguns that were intended to be sold illegally in Canada

When announcing arrests in the case, police revealed the robbery was carried out with the help of two Air Canada employees. These airline workers are now facing charges of theft over $5,000 and conspiracy to commit an indictable offense.

Police later discovered that some of the gold was turned into bracelets that were then sold for cash.

More layers of the scheme were uncovered after the arrest of 25-year-old Durante King-Mclean, a man from Ontario who was stopped by police in Pennsylvania in September.

Authorities found dozens of guns from Florida and Georgia in his possession, and they alleged that Mr King-Mclean – who drove the getaway truck, according to police – had entered the US illegally.

Chief Fordy told the BBC that the scheme, from beginning to end, shows just how sophisticated these gun smuggling operations have become.

“You’re seeing organised criminal enterprises involved,” he said.

The number of guns used in Canadians crimes that can be traced back to the US has risen in the last 10 years, he added, forcing American and Canadian police officers to increasingly work together to stop these guns from coming in.

Mr King-Mclean is now in custody in the US, and faces charges in both countries.

13 October 2023
21 April 2023