Alberta authorities and RCMP officials say a nationwide money-laundering organization that allegedly serviced the largest criminal groups in Canada was brought down following a complex, three-year investigation that began in Calgary.
Alberta Law Enforcement Response Teams (ALERT) and the RCMP announced Wednesday that their joint investigation, dubbed Project Collector, resulted in shutting down an "underground bank," which various criminal organizations used to move millions of dollars across the country.
Seven of the group's top members were arrested. They face criminal and federal charges, ranging from money laundering to tax evasion.
At a press conference Wednesday, lead investigator Nicolas LaForge, with the RCMP's Federal Serious and Organized Crime team, said that while it's yet unclear how much money the alleged launderers moved over the last several years, it could have been in the hundreds of millions of dollars.
"This criminal organization did not discriminate who they would do business with," LaForge said. "In other words, any crime groups across the country wanting to utilize their service were able to do so."
It all began in Calgary
Project Collector started in the summer of 2018, after $1 million in cash destined for Vancouver was intercepted in Calgary. After that, ALERT and the RCMP launched an investigation, relying heavily on intelligence from a national financial transactions agency.
Over the years, a picture of the money laundering operation emerged. Investigators say the group had pseudo-bank branches on each side of the country, each with large cash reserves, allowing criminal groups to transfer funds while avoiding the detection of banking institutions and authorities.
"Money laundering is an incredibly nuanced offence that is difficult to detect, let alone investigate," said Supt. Marc Cochlin, ALERT's chief executive officer, during the press conference.
Since at least 2013, the group allegedly moved proceeds from criminal organizations, such as illegal drug traffickers, and transported the cash between Ontario, Alberta and British Columbia.
During the course of one year alone, investigators determined that the group transferred $24 million in cash, ALERT said in a statement.
Seizures and charges
The seven top figures in the alleged money-laundering group were arrested in September. Three were based in Calgary, four in Vancouver. Altogether, they face a total 71 charges.
Over the course of Project Collector, search warrants were executed at a total of 10 homes in and around Calgary, Toronto and Vancouver, LaForge said. More than $16 million in bank accounts, real estate holdings and vehicles were seized.
Authorities are seeking for all the seized assets to be forfeited, although they noted that forfeiture could only happen following a complicated legal process.
While money laundering is difficult to detect, officials say that the crime directly impacts communities.
Firstly, they argue, it enables organized crime to flourish. Secondly, it takes money out of communities through tax evasion, and, in some cases, contributes to inflated real estate prices.