Graeme Hamilton, National Post (Don Mills), July 22, 2008
A Peruvian woman granted refugee status in 2001 has been ordered deported from Canada for belonging to a South American criminal organization that specializes in robbing tourists and shoplifting luxury merchandise.
The case against Shirley Palomino Baltazar, 20, sheds light on a little-known gang that police say is active in Montreal, Toronto, Ottawa and Vancouver. A police expert testified before the federal Immigration and Refugee Board that since 2002, the organization has committed hundreds of thefts a year in Montreal alone, stealing goods valued in the millions of dollars.
Marco Gaetani of the Immigration and Refugee Board concluded last May that there were reasonable grounds to conclude Ms. Baltazar belonged to the criminal organization and was therefore inadmissible to Canada. Last month, she applied to Federal Court to have the deportation order overturned and to be granted a new hearing.
The IRB decision was based on testimony from Dominique Boucher of the Montreal police force. She said the gang, which is not named in court documents, lacks the organizational and hierarchical structure common to most criminal organizations. Instead it is a collection of loosely linked cells having up to 10 members, often relatives. Members would meet at a restaurant in Montreal, owned by Ms. Baltazar’s mother, which police suspected of being a storage facility for stolen merchandise, the documents say.
Ms. Boucher said the organization had five main areas of activity: shoplifting; jewellery theft; robbing people as they leave banks, foreign-exchange bureaus and other financial institutions; stealing handbags in airports, hotels and other tourist locations; and extortion.
She said that since 2002 the gang has committed thefts at Montreal’s Trudeau airport worth about $2-million a year. It is suspected of another 240 thefts a year in downtown Montreal hotels and 90 armed robberies and vehicle thefts a year. In 2005, she said, police seized high-end clothing valued at $500,000 in two raids on properties rented by the organization.
Members use a similar modus operandi in many of their thefts, Ms. Boucher told Mr. Gaetani.
Evidence before the board showed that in 2005, when she was just 17, Ms. Baltazar was arrested as she tried to buy gift cards worth $1,000 using a stolen credit card. She had six stolen credit cards in her possession when she was arrested. Because she was a minor, she was let go without a criminal conviction and told to do community work.
Last November, while she was under police surveillance, Ms. Baltazar and her mother were seen entering a shop-ping mall, then leaving rapidly at the same time as a woman reported having her wallet stolen at the mall. Ms. Baltazar was next observed buying perfume, transit passes, electronics and clothing, allegedly using the woman’s stolen credit card. She was arrested in January and charged with theft and fraud in relation to the purchases. Those charges have not yet gone to trial.
Despite being unemployed and living on welfare, Ms. Baltazar had the means to travel often to South America, the panel heard. Since 2005, she has flown to Colombia, Argentina, Peru and Uruguay.
The immigration panel also heard that Ms. Baltazar’s common-law husband and father of her children, Wilman Leon Olachea, was expelled from Canada in 2004 for belonging to the same criminal organization. He returned in 2006 under a false name and had lived with her until they were arrested together in January. Two of her half-brothers have also been ordered deported for belonging to the gang.
Montreal police led an operation called Project Sapphire targeting one of the organization’s cells, which led to nine of the cell’s 10 members being arrested and removed from Canada. The majority of the cell’s members had a connection to Mr. Olachea, according to Ms. Boucher.
At the time of her arrest, Ms. Baltazar was carrying an international driver’s licence that contained her photo but no name or signature. She claimed to have bought it in Argentina from a government official who did not have the time to include her name. Mr. Gaetani found her story farfetched and concluded she intended to use the licence “in a fraudulent manner.”
Court documents do not indicate on what grounds Ms. Baltazar was accepted as a refugee in 2001. But in an affidavit accompanying her application to the Federal Court, she says she fears for her life if she is forced to return to Peru. She denies any involvement with a criminal gang.
Her appeal has yet to be heard.