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Undercover operation yields 80 firearms in B.C.

Various assault rifles seized by the Combined Forces Special Enforcement Unit of British Columbia are displayed during a press conference in Delta, B.C., on Oct. 25, 2012.

Rafal Gerszak/The Globe and Mail

A months-long gun-smuggling investigation that stretched from British Columbia to the southern United States has led to the arrests of five people, including the alleged B.C. ringleader.

The Combined Forces Special Enforcement Unit announced the arrests, and the seizure of approximately 80 firearms, during a news conference at its headquarters Thursday.

Chief Dan Malo told reporters the investigation – Project E-Nimbus – began with a tip in February and eventually grew to involve, among other agencies, the U.S. Department of Homeland Security. The firearms were on display as Chief Malo spoke and included everything from handguns to machine guns, some with silencers or laser scopes, others capable of firing dozens of rounds per second.

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"Today is a good day for British Columbians," Chief Malo said.

"These guns and accessories, had we not intercepted them, in all likelihood would have made their way into the hands of gangsters and those looking to commit violent crimes in our communities."

Chief Malo, whose unit draws officers from about a dozen police forces, including Vancouver and Victoria, to tackle gangs and organized crime, wouldn't disclose how the tip came in. But he said it prompted officers to look at online sales.

"This investigation eventually resulted in undercover police officers purchasing numerous guns and accessories that are illegal in Canada," he said, stressing he could not talk about the specifics because the matter is before the courts.

Chief Malo said police believe some of the guns and ammunition – thousands of rounds were also seized – were driven across the border from the U.S. Some of the guns are worth several thousands of dollars.

The alleged ringleader was arrested last Friday in the North Okanagan city of Vernon.

"During the arrest, the man allegedly tried to pull out a handgun he had hidden in his clothing, and then allegedly tried to disarm two of our arresting officers before he was able to be handcuffed," Chief Malo said.

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Riley Stewart Kotz, 32, is charged with 34 counts, including 12 counts of transfer of a prohibited firearm and seven counts of possessing a firearm without licence.

Simultaneous to the Vernon arrest, a warrant was executed in Florida by the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives. Ten firearms were seized and a woman was taken into custody.

Three more men were arrested in Penticton, about 100 kilometres south of Vernon. Chief Malo said they were released from custody, but charges are expected.

Robert Gordon, director of the school of criminology at Simon Fraser University, said firearms that arrive in Canada via the U.S. – particularly those with silencers – are highly valued commodities.

He said it would be "astonishing" if the weapons were openly being sold online. "Normally stuff is brought in quietly. It's not publicly on display."

When asked if more weapons are making their way into Canada via the U.S., Mr. Gordon said it's difficult to measure because the market is one of "low visibility."

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An RCMP spokesman reiterated that message. A report from the force in 2007 said the U.S. "is the primary source for smuggled firearms or firearms parts entering Canada." In 2006, the report said, 96 per cent of firearms seized by the Canada Border Services Agency originated in or travelled through the United States.

A CBSA spokeswoman said the agency seized 686 weapons in 2011 – 124 of which were firearms. It seized 141 firearms in 2010, and 186 firearms in 2009. However, most of these weapons were personal firearms that U.S. travellers neglected to declare.

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