The inside story of a gun bust at the U.S.-Canada border

Toronto resident Rima Mansour was behind the wheel of a white, rented Nissan Rogue when she pulled up to the Peace Bridge at 8: 20 p.m. on Oct. 31, 2018.

The single mom told a U.S. border control officer she was returning to Canada after visiting family in the Bronx, N.Y.

That was a lie.

“Do you have any firearms in the car?” asked the border guard.

No, she said.

Unbeknownst to Mansour, U.S. border officials had received “reliable intelligence” that a woman matching her description and vehicle might attempt to smuggle firearms into Canada.

Soon, a detector dog’s “intense sniffing, tail wagging, and refusal to move” led to the discovery of 25 shrink-wrapped handguns submerged in the Nissan’s gas tank, which had been taken apart and made into two pieces. The float piece that measures gas levels was found inside the vehicle, and the fuel gauge wasn’t working.

Almost all the handguns had been bought lawfully from dealers in Georgia and Florida before being concealed in Mansour’s rental for the trip up Interstate 95 — the so-called Iron Pipeline — and its tributary highways.

In an unusual half-day trial in Ontario Superior Court earlier this week, Mansour pleaded not guilty to dozens of firearm charges despite admitting she was stopped at the border with a gas tank full of handguns that she was not authorized to possess.

“She had sole control over the rental car when it crossed the border into Canada,” said guns and gangs prosecutor Erin Pancer. “She rented the vehicle for herself, and the vehicle was in perfect working order when she rented it.”

Mansour’s lawyer, Eric Neubauer, told the court his client declined to testify or call evidence, leaving the judge with no choice but to convict her, which Justice Maureen Forestell did on Monday. Mansour “had to know about the nature of her cargo or she was wilfully blind to the nature of the cargo,” the judge found. How could Mansour not have noticed a broken gas gauge or a diminished fuel tank that necessitated more frequent stops in the long journey from Florida to the Buffalo-Fort Erie border crossing?

In the debate over how to tackle Toronto’s seemingly intractable problem with gun violence, police, politicians and legal gun owners have for years pointed to an elephant in the room: The border.

In the United States, handguns are plentiful, cheap and, in many states, easy to buy, in contrast to Canada. This difference, police say, creates an incentive for smugglers “increasingly utilizing more sophisticated methods” to bring weapons across the border, according to the Canada Border Service Agency.

This is why, police emphasize, the large majority of illegal weapons used in GTA crimes can be traced to smugglers crossing the border. Police estimate 85 per cent of illegal handguns in Canada were purchased south of the border.

The investigation that ensnared Mansour and several accomplices was one effort to stop this trend. The details revealed this week and in court documents offer rare insights into the ways law enforcement and border agencies are trying to fight cross-border smuggling.

They called it Project Belair.

Living in Florida, Jeri Jasmine Brown had an array of options to purchase a firearm at any one of thousands of licensed gun and sporting goods stores. All she needed was to have ID and pass a background check.

Because of the Sunshine State’s weak gun laws, Florida is a notorious source for traffickers who resell weapons in places with stronger gun laws, “where they end up in the hands of criminals,” according to the Giffords Law Center, a U.S. organization that fights to prevent gun violence.

On Oct. 11, 2018, Brown left her modest bungalow in central Tampa and headed to nearby Tampa Pawn, of the slogan: “Get more bang for your buck!” She purchased a Steyr Mannlicher 40-calibre pistol, serial number 3071686. (On YouTube, a fan spends 13 minutes gushing over this “great reliable handgun.”)

Six days later, a man sold the Steyr gun to an undercover Toronto police officer in the parking lot of a Scarborough shopping plaza. The cop paid $7,500 for it and another weapon.

After tracing the gun back to Tampa Pawn, officers with the U.S. Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives set up surveillance outside Brown’s residence not far from Tampa’s International Airport. On Oct. 29, 2018, they observed a white Nissan parked in the driveway.

It was the car Mansour had rented in Toronto on Oct. 17.

Brampton resident Colin Levy, whom police suspect as the gun-smuggling ring’s mastermind, had given the car and truck rental company owner a head’s up “that he would be sending someone to rent a vehicle and asked that this person be given his rental rate,” according to a document filed with Superior Court last year.

Then in his early-50s, Levy was described in the Star in 2016 as a “veteran Jamaica-to-T.O. Rasta man” with a 20-year career of writing and producing reggae tunes for himself and others. “Not just a singer, I’m a messenger” who heals people through music, Levy told an internet interviewer in 2018.

In 2002, under the name Iley Dread, Levy was nominated for a Juno Award for best reggae recording. He didn’t win. At Mansour’s first bail hearing, in December 2018, proposed surety Lauren Speers, a lawyer and radio show host who spins reggae records as DJ Chocolate, agreed with the prosecutor that Levy wasn’t a particularly good singer.

The gas tank cut open to reveal dozens of concealed handguns, seized as part of a cross-border investigation between Toronto police, the Canada Border Services Agency and the U.S. Bureau of Alcohol Tobacco and Firearms

Born in 1968, Rima Mansour was 51 when she was stopped at the border with the guns in the gas tank. At the time, she was paying $1,400 a month for a two-bedroom apartment at Dixon and Islington Avenue, her December 2018 bail hearing at Toronto’s Old City Hall courthouse heard.

She lived there with two of her three sons. The youngest was still attending an Etobicoke high school while her eldest son, in his mid-20s, worked as a licensed, bonded security guard supervising a busy retail and office location in downtown Toronto. He had studied criminal justice at Humber College and aspired for a career in policing so, therefore, must have been “familiar with the carnage guns are wreaking on the streets of Toronto,” the prosecutor noted.

Another son, born in 1996, lived nearby. In court, he described himself as a community activist who facilitated workshops for marginalized youth.

At the time of her arrest, Mansour was collecting social assistance, her bail hearing heard. She was also earning extra cash delivering documents to various courthouses around the GTA, driving for a food-delivery company and setting up product displays in drug stores.

Mansour worked part-time for lawyer Speers, who told court Mansour possessed a “petition of non-immigrant worker” allowing her to temporarily travel and work in the United States. Mansour — whom Speers described as a good friend and her favourite process server — was “very bright,” the lawyer said.

Speers also testified that she, Levy and Mansour were all involved in the entertainment industry and that Mansour was acting as a booking agent for reggae performers.

“We are known to guide the professional career of artists,” reads a blurb on the Twitter account of Mansour’s RMC Promotions, silent since autumn 2018.

The Crown attorney at her bail hearing suggested Mansour’s ill-fated October trip across the border wasn’t the first time she had smuggled guns. The prosecutor noted that Mansour’s four previous trips to the U.S. correlated “quite closely” with the sale of other guns to undercover Toronto cops and agents. She was also found with four cellphones — one with a photograph of the side of a firearm, he said.

As well, after her arrest, police seized another Nissan Rogue owned by Mansour. Its gas tank also had signs consistent with the tampering in the rental, the prosecutor continued — why was she renting a vehicle when she had “a perfectly functional car?”

Mansour was not charged in connection with any other cross-border travel.

This spring, the Toronto Police Services Board adopted a report calling for tougher laws aimed at reducing the rising carnage of gun violence. According to police data, 103 people were injured or worse in Toronto shootings in 2014. By 2019, that toll had nearly tripled to 284 killed or injured. (The COVID-19 pandemic saw shootings fall slightly in 2020 and 2021.)

Among the report’s recommendations was that a judge — not a justice of the peace — should conduct bail hearings for people charged with serious gun offences. Interestingly, it was a Superior Court judge who granted Mansour bail in 2020, after a JP initially declined to release her in December 2018. (The pandemic was a major factor in many 2020 bail decisions.)

According to the police report, much of the gun violence in Toronto involves young men from marginalized communities who arm themselves for protection and settling scores. Numerous earlier studies have concluded that long-term solutions require investments in social programs, affordable housing and support for low-income families.

The bloodshed has also led politicians to turn to law enforcement and border security agencies to stop the flow of illegal guns coming into Canada.

In late May, the federal government announced it was strengthening gun laws with measures including a national freeze on the sale, purchase or transfer of handguns by individuals within Canada, with some exceptions. Ottawa included measures to combat firearms trafficking and smuggling, such as increasing prison sentences.

While welcomed by police and gun control advocates, the measures didn’t offer what they say is needed most: more enforcement manpower.

After Mansour’s arrest, police executed search warrants on several addresses and vehicles.

Inside the home of Levy, the reggae performer, police found ammunition, about 11 kilograms of pot, $16,000 cash, and a semi-automatic firearm that smelled of gas.

Levy was extradited from Canada to Miami where he pleaded guilty in 2020 to charges unrelated to Project Belair. They included conspiracy and attempt to import 500 grams or more of cocaine into the U.S. He is serving an 11-year sentence in a U.S. federal prison and his Canadian charges have been stayed. He turns 56 this summer.

Jeri Jasmine Brown was not charged.

Two other GTA-area men involved in the smuggling operation received prison sentences.

In 2020, William Datta was sentenced to 11 years in prison after a Toronto jury convicted him of firearms and drug offences. Alan Cunningham pleaded guilty for his role in 2019, admitting he sold the Florida firearm to an undercover officer. He received a nine-year sentence for firearms and drug trafficking.

Those convictions may be a small victory in the face of a much larger problem.

Last year, Canada Border Services Agency seized just 1,100 firearms, a figure which includes weapons legal gun owners forgot to declare. That was during the pandemic, when the number of travellers processed was dramatically reduced at 1,200 entry points in Canada as well as 39 international locations.

Det.-Sgt Robert DiDanieli, of the TPS firearms enforcement unit, is pleased with the success of Project Bellair but acknowledges taking 25 illegal guns out of circulation won’t halt gun violence plaguing Toronto.

“What we’re actually getting at the border is probably a fraction of what’s coming over,” he told the Star last week.

Cross-border gun smugglers are getting creative. In April, a large drone got struck in a tree along the St. Clair River near Port Lambton. Attached to it was a bag containing 11 handguns that officials believe came from the U.S.

The motivation is obvious. Selling illegal guns is extremely lucrative — unless you get caught. While the U.S. purchasers paid between $300 and $400 for each of the guns in the Nissan’s gas tank, they could net at least 10 times that amount on the street.

The potential payoff of the 25 guns in Mansour’s gas tank: upwards of $120,000.

Wearing her hair in a tight bun at her hearing on Monday, Mansour lowered her wire-framed glasses to dab away tears at various parts of the proceeding. She remains on bail and will return for sentencing in September.

She’s expected to receive 10 years in prison, minus the time she has already served in custody.

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