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Young people 'tortured' if stolen vehicle operations fail, Montreal police tell MPs

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One day after a Montreal police officer fired gunshots at a suspect in a stolen vehicle, senior officers were telling parliamentarians that organized crime groups are recruiting people as young as 15 in the city to steal cars so that they can be shipped overseas.

In some cases, the youth are tortured if things go wrong, according to Yannick Desmarais, a commander with the Montreal Police Service (SPVM).

"For us, we see these young people of 15 to 25 years of age, and we've seen young people from Montreal [go] to Toronto to steal cars, and they get even tortured in Toronto if they aren't successful. So we feel it's very important to work as a team," Desmarais told the House Committee on Public Safety and National Security on Thursday.

MPs on the committee are studying the "Growing problem of car thefts in Canada" and invited officials with the SPVM, the Sûreté du Québec (SQ), the Montreal Port Authority and other witnesses to testify.

The SPVM commander said there is a link between car theft and armed violence, emphasizing that it is not a victimless crime.

"We know that people that are involved regularly, when they're caught, they have firearms. Our investigations and intelligence are showing that a lot of the money for firearms comes from vehicle theft operations," he said, adding that the weapons are used in violent crimes. 

Yannick Desmarais, a commander with the Montreal Police Service (SPVM), speaks to members of the House Committee on Public Safety and National Security about the growing problem of car thefts on Thursday, April 18, 2024. (Source: House of Commons)

While the car thieves are the ones police are trying to target, what they really are hoping to catch are the exporters who are responsible for shipping the stolen vehicles overseas.

"The ones that have contacts with people on the ground. They're the ones pulling the strings. They're the ones that are hiring and recruiting the recruits," said Michel Patenaude, chief inspector with the SQ. "I think if we really want to have an impact and really want to dismantle and lower this crisis, we really have to go to the people pulling the strings and concentrate on the networks that are exporting and transporting and have the contacts with people overseas."

Stolen cars instead of fridges inside containers

Earlier this month, nearly 600 stolen vehicles were recovered at the Port of Montreal after 400 shipping containers were searched in a joint operation by the SPVM, the Canada Border Services Agency, and other partners. Most of the cars were from the Toronto area.

Between mid-December and the end of March, police inspected about 400 shipping containers at the Port of Montreal and found nearly 600 stolen vehicles, most of them from the Toronto area. A shipping container is loaded onto a container ship in the Port of Montreal on Tuesday, Sept.19, 2023. (Christinne Muschi, The Canadian Press)

A port authority official told the committee that sometimes what's on the manifest doesn't match what is inside. Félixpier Bergeron, director of port protection and business continuity, gave the example of the manifest describing refrigerators in the containers when they actually contained stolen cars.

"There's nobody that signs off saying what's in the container for real. It's all what's been submitted on paper. It's fraud. But how do you detect fraud? It's something that needs to be reviewed maybe in the regulations for accountability on the stuff that's in the container," he said.

The port authority is open to adding new technologies to track contraband, such as X-ray machines to see what's inside, but he said there are health considerations that need to be studied.

"It exists somewhere else in the world but in those places they don't have the same commitment in human life as we do in Canada," he said.

Currently, port authority searches on containers take time but Bergeron said he's open to new solutions.

"It takes between four and five minutes each container to scan," he said. "So if we have 2,000 trucks a day entering the port times four minutes, it doesn't work."

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