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Philippine bust has Kelowna connection

Philippine anti-narcotics agents have arrested four Canadians for allegedly trafficking illegal drugs from Mexico, a government investigator said Thursday.

The suspects have alleged links to a Mexican cartel and are undercutting Chinese traffickers dominating the local market, and this could lead to a violent drug war in the Philippines, said Rommell Vallejo, chief of the Anti-Organized and Transnational Crime Division of the National Bureau of Investigation.

"This is the first time we have encountered a syndicate composed of Canadian nationals," he said.

The suspects were arrested Wednesday in separate raids on three posh condominiums in Manila with a large stash of drugs worth more than 100 million pesos ($2.25 million). The wife of one of the men also was in custody, Vallejo said.

Agents seized enough cocaine, methamphetamine and MDMA, which is similar to ecstasy, from one of the condos to fill at least three suitcases, he said.

The suspects face life imprisonment if convicted of anti-drugs charges, for which bail cannot be posted.

Vallejo said that the drugs were shipped by parcel service from Mexico, pressed and sandwiched in metal serving trays.

Vallejo identified the suspects as James Riach, Ali Shirazi, Barry Espadilla and Tristan Olazo.

Riach was arrested in a penthouse the group rented in suburban Makati city, and Shirazi in another unit in the same building, which the group used as their "party pad," he said.

Riach, a member of the Independent soldiers, was in the vehicle riddled with bullets outside of the Grand Hotel In Kelowna in Aug. 2011. Notorious gangster Jonathan Bacon was killed during the shooting and a woman was paralyzed.

Espadilla and Olazo, who are originally from the Philippines, were arrested in a small condo unit in Taguig city, which was used as a "kitchen laboratory" and where most of the drugs were seized. Espadilla's wife was detained in the third condo, Vallejo said.

Riach and Shirazi were presented to a state prosecutor for an inquest Thursday. They and their lawyers refused to make a statement to journalists.

Citing media reports, Eric Isidoro, chief of the Reaction, Arrest and Interdiction Division of the NBI, said that Riach and Espadilla were members of the Independent Soldiers gang in Vancouver and had criminal records. Riach was convicted of weapons possession charges and Espadilla of heroin and cocaine possession after their arrest in 2008, Isidoro said.

In December, Philippine authorities raided a ranch in Batangas province south of Manila and recovered 84 kilograms of crystal meth worth around 420 million pesos ($9.4 million) intended for the local market by the Mexico's Sinaloa cartel.

Vallejo said it was unclear if the Canadians were linked to the same group.

The Canadian Press

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