At 4 a.m. on April 29, cross-border smugglers set up along a stretch of the St. Clair River, 40 kilometres south of Sarnia, and waited for a lucrative delivery.
They had planned wisely. The drop-off point was free of trees. The river crossing was less than a half-kilometre wide. Flight conditions were clear and calm.
But they had failed to account for Pepper, a Yorkshire terrier whose urinary urgency likely foiled a new and sophisticated form of gun trafficking – the use of drones.
Police in Ontario are tracing a growing share of seized guns to U.S. smuggling operations. Traffickers have been spiriting the firearms across the border in car bumpers, gas tanks, boats, semi-truck trailers and now, apparently, drones. The St. Clair drone is the first known instance of guns arriving in this fashion.
On that clear April morning, Pepper needed to pee. And Pepper’s doting owner rolled out of bed to oblige. The Globe and Mail is not identifying him because he says he’s not keen on gun smugglers knowing his name.
The town where Pepper and his owner reside, Port Lambton, Ont., is situated directly across the St. Clair River from Clay Township, Mich. When he cracked the back door for Pepper that morning, he expected to see a clear view across the river.
Instead, he saw movement. Pepper scampered over to investigate.
“I realized there was a guy back there trying to stay out of the light,” said Pepper’s owner. “Me being nosy, I grabbed a flashlight and asked what he was doing.”
The question, and the little dog, startled the trespasser. He sprinted for a waiting pickup truck and sped off into the dark.
Only with daylight did the neighbourhood begin to comprehend what Pepper had stumbled upon.
The Ontario Provincial Police showed up later that morning and found a six-rotor drone stuck in a tree near Pepper’s house. More important than the device was the payload: 11 handguns with a value of at least $22,000 on Toronto’s streets, where the weapons are in high demand.
“I realize now this guy was trying to land a drone in my backyard, which has no trees unlike a lot of other properties in the neighbourhood,” said Pepper’s owner. “We must have thrown him a bit of a curve, so he took off and crashed the thing.”
Firearms trafficking is a booming business in Ontario, although residents have never seen or heard of any smuggling activity along this quiet stretch of the St. Clair. In 2016, Toronto Police said 66 per cent of all the guns linked to crime they seized came illegally from the U.S. Last year, that portion surged to 85 per cent.
Traffickers have proven to be a wily lot. In 2018, police had to cut open the gas tank of a Nissan Rogue to recover 25 smuggled guns in Fort Erie, Ont.
A Toronto police investigation found that gun runners were hiding firearms and GPS transponders in the cars of unsuspecting border-crossers. When the car crossed the border, traffickers would track the GPS device and recover the stashed guns.
But those methods come with risks. Gun trafficking carries a prison sentence of up to 10 years. And the federal Liberals are planning to raise penalties for gun smuggling and boost funding for police agencies to intercept the illegal flow of guns.
Commercial drones come with a lower risk of getting caught.
“These don’t show up readily on radar,” said David Cooke, an instructor at the International Test Pilots School in London, Ont., and a retired RCAF pilot. “They’re made of carbon fibre. The best way to find them is audio equipment.”
Neither the OPP nor the RCMP, which has jurisdiction for border security between ports of entry run by the Canadian Border Services Agency, would comment on the scale of the problem or any drone-detection capabilities they might have.
Mr. Cooke said the drone is likely a modified M600 model by DJI, the world’s largest drone manufacturer. It appears the operator had taped over some running lights to evade detection. The model costs around $7,000 and features just enough battery life to complete the 900-metre crossing.
“They were working at the very limits of that drone,” said Mr. Cooke. “They would have had no more than five or six minutes of battery life to spare. These were experienced fliers.”
Smuggling by drone is less feasible in other provinces, where mountainous terrain and vast distances can be inhospitable for remote flight. “This looks like quintessentially an Ontario problem,” said Christian Leuprecht a professor at the Royal Military College and Queen’s University and the author of Intelligence as Democratic Statecraft.
Along the U.S. border with Mexico, drones carrying narcotics have been a going concern for border agents over the past decade. Dozens of the devices have been intercepted delivering methamphetamine, cocaine and marijuana to border regions in Arizona and California.
U.S. Customs and Border Protection said the payloads generally weigh between two and four pounds, but one bust yielded 30.8 pounds of marijuana.
Last year, the agency issued a request to private companies for technology that could counter drones by radio-frequency jamming, “kinetic attack,” or other means.
The U.S. Department of Defence earmarked more than $800-million in 2022 to research and develop methods for countering hostile drones, according to the Congressional Research Service. The CRS also speculated that the funds cold be spent on an array of guns, nets, lasers and even birds to knock down drones.
But, so far, there is no budget line for Yorkshire terriers.
“There’s virtually no chance to catch them,” said Pepper’s owner. “The river is so narrow here. They’re here and gone in five minutes.”
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