In the 1980s and '90s, a lucrative and well-organized drug-smuggling network spanning Mexico, the U.S. and Canada had northern beachheads in a handful of small farming towns in southwestern Ontario and southern Manitoba. These communities were also home to tens of thousands of Old Colony Mennonites, a deeply conservative branches of one of Christianity's most traditional sects — similar to other pacifist and agrarian-based societies like the Amish or Hutterites. Ironic then, that it turned out they were the drug smugglers.
According to a more than decade-old feature in the now defunct Saturday Night magazine, authorities first descended into this byzantine world on American Thanksgiving, 1989, when sniffer dogs discovered 116 kilos of pot in the false bottoms of a few couches being schlepped from Mexico to Winkler, Manitoba, in a dilapidated pickup by Cornelius Banman, a Mennonite grandfather who'd made the long, tedious journey — supposedly to deliver Mennonite-made furniture — many times. His arrest turned out to be the tip of the spear.
Sometime in the 1980s, as Mexican drug cartels were busy building alliances with a range of other criminal syndicates, they'd discovered a handy, skilled, practical-minded partner right under their noses. "The Mennonites possessed an intimate knowledge of Mexico's northern frontier... and their cloistered, tight-knit families could be counted upon to practice their own peculiar, generations-old brand of omerta or code of silence. Also, their dual citizenship was an invaluable Get-Out-of-Jail-Free card, allowing them to skip to Mexico... if they were fortunate enough to be released on bail by sympathetic American or Canadian judges."
Despite the fact that by 1993 over 100 Mexican-Mennonite mules had been caught smuggling weed, weapons and prescription opiates into Canada and the U.S., business was booming and growing fast. The arrests kept coming, and they kept getting bigger: in 1995, a Mexican-Mennonite was arrested at the U.S. border in El Paso when the modified underside of his tractor-trailer yielded 290 kilos of pot worth more than $3.5 million. By the late-1990s, some 20 per cent of all marijuana smuggled into Canada (about 750 kilos/month) could be traced to Mennonite drug barons in Mexico. The tide began to ebb with the burgeoning "B.C. bud" trade and Canada's nationwide indoor pot industry, but no so much in the U.S., where 500 tons is regularly seized at the Mexican border — over 100 times that coming into Canada.
Back in the day, Mexican weed (sold on the street in Canada and the U.S. at a 600 per cent markup) was always in high demand. To smuggle it efficiently, the mechanically crafty Mennonites pressed it into "bricks." As a young college student during the late 1970s – 80s in Waterloo, Ontario, I can attest to the ubiquity of these bricks in the local marijuana trade — and that most of the weed sold around campus was marketed as Mexican. What students didn't know was that the Mennonites we bought our vegetables, apple pies and German sausage from at nearby farmer's markets, were also selling us our pot at arm's length. I'd always wondered why there seemed such a marked class difference among local Mennonites — those whose strict observances saw them driving black buggies along the street outside our house en route to sell their produce and baking downtown, versus those we saw driving low-riding Cadillacs and Lincoln Continentals (painted flat black, even over the chrome), East L.A.-style, around the rural countryside. The things you learn.
Since the millennium, cocaine and meth have become the drugs of choice for the Mennonite mafia, the higher profits (800 – 1,000 per cent markups) bringing with them the requisite dangers and concomitant increase in violence (see any episode of AMC's epic TV drama Breaking Bad for a refresher). Growing Mennonite partnerships with biker gangs have seen their mutual enemies (and often themselves) murdered or vanishing under mysterious circumstances. Unfortunately for the drug kingpins, they can no longer count on universal community secrecy, as shown by this comment on the 2012 blog post of a crime reporter and book author who investigated the Mennonite-Cartel connection.
"I lived in a big Mennonite community (and) we all knew what happens inside the community but we had to respect (the) code of silence. In all my life I have never seen so much cash money, coming from nowhere but if you comment on anything they would make your life miserable. I know one man in particular who became (a) millionaire in just 4 years."
Along with cities like Juarez, the once pastoral Mennonite colonies in northern Mexico have morphed into a kind of Cartel-hell with drug-related murders, crack houses, open drunkenness, and requisite rehab centres. A journalist reporting on the story in Mexico observed, "young Mennonite thugs flaunting gold rings and designer clothes and driving expensive, brand-new trucks spill(ing) into the parking lot of a Mennonite church." With RCMP making increasingly bigger cocaine busts on the Prairies and acknowledging that the Mexican cartels are indeed operating in Canada, how long will it be until you see this coming to a devout, church-going Mennonite town near you?
(This is part two of Leslie's columns on the underbelly of Mennonite life. Find part one in Pique Sept. 11.)