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Charges stayed in 'largest-ever' international drug bust in Toronto police history

Investigators announced the results of Project Brisa In June of 2021. It was a six-month investigation into an alleged international drug-smuggling ring, which saw more than 1,000 kilograms of drugs transported between Mexico, California and Canada. (CBC  - image credit)
Investigators announced the results of Project Brisa In June of 2021. It was a six-month investigation into an alleged international drug-smuggling ring, which saw more than 1,000 kilograms of drugs transported between Mexico, California and Canada. (CBC - image credit)

What was once dubbed the largest-ever "international drug takedown" in Toronto Police Service history fell through in court Monday after all charges linked to the case were stayed.

The Public Prosecution Service of Canada confirmed to CBC Toronto Tuesday that all charges in the high-profile investigation dubbed "Project Brisa" have been stayed. The news was first reported by the Toronto Star.

"No reasons for the stay were provided to the Court in this case," a spokesperson for the federal prosecution service said in an email Tuesday.

Investigators announced the results of Project Brisa In June of 2021. It was a six-month investigation focused on an international drug-smuggling ring, which saw more than 1,000 kilograms of drugs including cocaine, crystal meth and pot being transported between Mexico, California and Canada using modified tractor trailers with hidden compartments.

In total, 182 charges were laid with 20 people arrested in connection with the investigation, police said. At the time, police estimated the street value of the seized drugs to be more than $61 million.

"The Crown indicated that the charges were being stayed as a result of a combination of witness issues, disclosure issues and delays in the progress of the proceedings," said lawyer Greg Lafontaine, who represents a client arrested in the project, in a statement to CBC Toronto.

CBC Toronto has not been able to independently confirm why the charges were stayed.

Toronto police had not responded to a request for comment as of late Tuesday afternoon.

Evan Mitsui/CBC
Evan Mitsui/CBC

One of the lawyers representing a person who was charged as part of the case said his client is "looking forward to moving on with his life.

"These were complex and serious matters. My client maintains his innocence and was prepared for a prolonged legal battle," said lawyer Ravin Pillay.

"He appreciates the careful consideration that must have gone into the Crown's decision to stay the proceedings."

At the 2021 news conference, former Toronto police chief James Ramer called the quantities of drugs seized "frankly staggering.

"The social cost that this amount of illicit drugs inflicts upon society is immeasurable," Ramer said at the time.

This isn't the first time a large-scale police investigation into organized crime in Ontario collapsed before the court.

In 2019, an 18-month, $8 million joint investigation involving eight different police services, including York Regional Police, the Canada Revenue Agency and police investigators in Italy, resulted in charges against nine people in Canada who police alleged were part of a criminal organization with ties to the mob in Italy.

Two years later, it fell apart after charges were stayed because police allegedly illegally intercepted phone calls as part of a multimillion-dollar probe into suspected mob activity in the Greater Toronto Area.

A 'black eye' on the administration of justice

Toronto criminal defence lawyer Trevin David, who was not involved in the case but represents people facing drug trafficking charges, says police may go big at the press conferences in large busts like Project Brisa, but should be "realistic" when it comes to convictions.

"This might be a black eye on the administration of justice," David told CBC Toronto.

"Whether or not this was a large-scale criminal enterprise, whether it was or wasn't, ultimately will never be determined because this case will likely never see the light of day.

"Sometimes these prosecutions can be very resource intensive and the more steps that are taken, the more vulnerable they are to collapse," he said.

Harval Bassi, another lawyer who was representing people connected to the case, said his clients are "thankful" with the outcome of the proceedings.

"My clients asserted their innocence from the onset of this multi-faceted and unprecedented project matter," Bassi said in a statement Tuesday.

"They are both … relieved that the Crown has stayed the proceedings. Both individuals are grateful to be able to put these matters behind them."