BY SARAH BERMAN, VICE
From a distance Grassy Lake, Alberta doesn’t have a whole lot going on. The rural hamlet takes up one square kilometre of a prairie highway between Lethbridge and Medicine Hat. 649 people live there. According to the nearest town’s newspaper, 80 percent of residents are Mennonites.
But what Grassy Lake’s stub of a Wikipedia entry fails to mention is that the United States’ Drug Enforcement Agency (DEA) has outed Grassy Lake as a distribution hub for an international weed and coke smuggling operation linked to one of Mexico’s deadliest drug cartels.
I called up the DEA—not to discuss their expensive, racist and failed war on drugs—but to unpack the devoted/bearded supply chain that brings Calgarians their party drugs. Fortunately, DEA agent Jim Schrant called me back a few minutes before the United States government shutdown sent his media relations department home indefinitely.
“We started investigating a large-scale marijuana and cocaine distribution group in 2010, which was operating out of Mexico and shipping large amounts into the United States and then subsequently to different points in Alberta,” Schrant explains, on the phone from the weed-friendly state of Colorado. “We learned there were individuals who identified as Mexican Mennonites involved in the transportation and distribution.”
Last month, Schrant’s investigation intercepted 11,000 pounds of weed (note: not a friendly amount—even in Colorado) and 30 kilos of coke, the latter destined for Grassy Lake according to phone records. A jury indicted seven people, six of whom are connected to Mennonite communities near Cuauhtémoc, Mexico.
“Canada is a highly valuable destination,” Schrant explains of the packages’ long journey from Mexico to Alberta. “They can sell a kilo for upwards of twice as much in Canada as in the United States.”
The relationship between Canadian and Mexican Mennonites is a tight one. The first Mennonites to settle in Mexico moved there from Manitoba in the 1920s, largely to avoid having to send their kids to public schools. Many started farms in Cuauhtémoc, a town just south of Juárez. (Juárez is the namesake of a border town and the notoriously violent drug cartel responsible for killing thousands). Prompted by rising social problems in the region, many Mexican Mennonites are now migrating back to Canada.
Schrant says the cartel initiated an alliance with Mennonite farmers, convincing some to grow massive weed crops. According to DEA intel, Mennonites load up the drugs into “sophisticated compartments” built into old-timey tractors and construction equipment, then drive them up into the United States and Canada.
(Unlike Amish people, Mennonites are generally cool with tractor engines and fancy things like zippers).
The most recent drug bust is connected to several previous arrests and charges in Canada. Last year the RCMP busted two Mennonite men from southern Alberta smuggling 16 kilos of cocaine at two border crossings. Two more Mexican nationals who were arrested in Calgary are awaiting extradition to the United States. Schrant also cites a 2010 drug-related homicide in Lethbridge as connected with the investigation.
“In these cases we’re always working toward the next level, the command and control figures,” says Schrant, noting the cozy collaboration between the RCMP and DEA. “We’re trying to work as high as we can possibly go.”
Before ending this totally weird conversation, Schrant made a point of defending the hard-working reputation of the Mennonite faith. “By no means is this an indictment of the Mennonite community as a whole,” he says, citing a “few bad seeds” as the culprit. “They tried to use the Mennonite faith as a cover.”