BY LEE BERTHIAUME, POSTMEDIA NEWS
OTTAWA ‚Äî Bad maps are being blamed after Canadian naval reservists participating in the U.S.-led war on drugs last year sparked a diplomatic flap by firing their weapons and intercepting fishing trawlers in Jamaican waters ‚Äî without Jamaica‚Äôs permission.
The embarrassing incident, which has never before been publicly reported, broke international maritime law ‚Äî not the first time legal questions have been raised about Canada‚Äôs increasing involvement in the drug war.
On March 27, 2012, HMCS Goose Bay and Kingston were patrolling south of Jamaica as part of Operation Caribbe, Canada‚Äôs contribution to an ongoing, U.S.-led anti-drug trafficking mission in the Caribbean and East Pacific.
Documents obtained by Postmedia News show that at one point, crew members on both vessels began firing their ships‚Äô weapons, including large 50-calibre machine guns, as part of a live-fire training exercise.
The Goose Bay also deployed its small rigid-hulled inflatable boat on two occasions that day to intercept and identify 17 small fishing vessels to ensure they weren‚Äôt carrying cocaine, marijuana or were involved in any other illicit activity.
The Goose Bay and Kingston also reportedly pulled up alongside one vessel that Jamaican officials said had a ‚Äúretired senior political figure on board.‚Äù
The Goose Bay and Kingston are Kingston-class maritime coastal defence vessels that are much smaller than the navy‚Äôs frigates and destroyers, crewed almost entirely by reservists, and generally used for patrolling Canada‚Äôs coasts.
It was only the next day, when the head of the Jamaican coast guard contacted Canadian authorities to complain, that defence officials realized the Goose Bay and Kingston had been in Jamaican territory and not international waters.
‚ÄúHMCS Goose Bay and Kingston inadvertently conducted live weapons training and other maritime operations in Jamaican territorial waters,‚Äù the document reads, ‚Äúin contravention of international maritime law.‚Äù
The mistake was quickly attributed to the Canadian vessels‚Äô maps.
‚ÄúThis was an oversight,‚Äù according to the documents‚Äô talking points prepared in case media got wind of the story. ‚ÄúThe ships were operating with navigation charts that did not accurately reflect the territorial waters of Jamaica. Consequently, the ships‚Äô captains thought they were in international waters when they conducted the exercises.‚Äù
The notes go on to say that the Canadian Forces had ‚Äúamended their navigational charts to accurately reflect Jamaica‚Äôs claimed territorial waters, and future deployments of ships and aircraft to the region will ensure the correct charts are used to ensure that nothing similar happens in the future.‚Äù
There was no explanation as to why the ships had the incorrect maps.
The Defence Department did not respond to questions by press time.
Canadian military vessels and aircraft aren‚Äôt strangers to the Caribbean, particularly since the Conservative government first launched Canada‚Äôs involvement in U.S.-led anti-drug trafficking efforts in 2006.
Canada‚Äôs involvement there and throughout much of the Western hemisphere has grown substantially over the intervening years, with Canadian surveillance aircraft, naval vessels and even submarines an increasingly common sight during interdiction missions.
Documents obtained by Postmedia News indicate much of this ‚Äúlarger, more robust contribution‚Äù to the U.S.-led war on drugs has been driven by the military itself, which has seen the mission as a key opportunity in the aftermath of Afghanistan.
National Defence reports that the total cost of Operation Caribbe has increased from $25.3 million in 2008-09 to an estimated $282.2 million this year, reflecting that increased involvement as more military assets are dedicated to the mission.
(Officially, National Defence says the actual cost of participating in Operation Caribbe was $7.4 million in 2008-09 and $9.6 million this year because the rest of the costs would have been incurred whether the mission was undertaken or not.)
This expanded role, which has gone largely unreported, has included some prickly legal questions beyond the actions of the HMCS Goose Bay and Kingston.
In 2010, for example, the Conservative government agreed to let armed U.S. Coast Guard boarding teams ride in Canadian military vessels despite what was described in internal notes as ‚Äúthe unique nature of this arrangement and complex legal issues.‚Äù
More recent briefing notes have indicated an interest in having Canadian authorities actually boarding vessels suspected of illicit activities and making arrests, which would raise other legal questions.
A federal government program designed to send military-grade tactical gear to Latin America, including boots, pistol holsters and boats, to help battle organized crime groups was scrapped last month after questions about its legality were raised.
The Defence Department briefing documents estimate that transnational criminal organizations in the region are worth more than $40 billion US, with cocaine being their main source of income.
The organized crime groups are a ‚Äúcorrosive‚Äù threat to governments and populations throughout the Americas, particularly in Central American countries such as Honduras, Guatemala and Panama, the documents add.
Canada‚Äôs involvement in tackling this threat started in 2006 with the deployment of a maritime patrol aircraft to the region after the U.S. military diverted half of its surveillance planes to the Middle East and the Dutch retired its fleet of patrol aircraft.
The Conservative government has made the Western hemisphere one of Canada‚Äôs foreign policy priorities.