Drug trafficking networks are drafting senior citizens to smuggle illicit narcotics into the country, says the Canada Border Services Agency.
An intelligence advisory from the CBSA flags the issue and asks staff to be on the lookout for elderly drug importers. It suggests some of the seniors act as mules in response to financial pressure after falling victim to scams spread through phishing email messages, websites, mail and phone calls.
"It is believed that ... drug trafficking organizations are using these types of scams to recruit unsuspecting senior citizens and vulnerable adults in Canada and abroad to unwittingly transport illegal narcotics into Canada," reads the heavily censored internal report obtained by CBC News under Access to Information.
"While organizations like these victimize consumers of all ages, backgrounds and income levels, the elderly appear to have been disproportionately targeted by these networks."
The advisory from May 2018 suggests some targeted individuals likely have lost "substantial money" to scams and are desperate to recover lost funds.
"Drug trafficking organizations use a variety of grooming techniques to manipulate their victims into believing their abuser over family, friends and law enforcement," it reads.
Laura Tamblyn Watts, chief public policy officer for the seniors' advocacy group CARP, said she sees this as an evolution of a growing trend of predatory behaviour exploiting seniors.
She said traffickers likely target older people because they appear harmless and don't draw suspicion. Some may have hip replacements or medical devices that may serve as cover, allaying the suspicions of border officers, she added.
"Drug suppliers are looking for unsuspecting people to carry the drugs across the border," Tamblyn Watts said. "And in many cases, older adults are being targeted to carry drugs across the border without their knowledge.
"So when you're looking at border control, very often they're not suspecting the 85-year-old man or the 92-year-old woman with a walker to be carrying cocaine or other drugs across."
While she said she does not have data on seniors being exploited by drug traffickers, Tamblyn Watts suspects the problem goes largely unreported. Unwitting mules would only become aware of what they were carrying after something went wrong — at which point they'd likely try to keep it under wraps to avoid arrest.
"In the end, older people can be so ashamed or so afraid, they actually bend to the wishes of someone like a drug cartel," she said. "They may be pressured into doing something illegal simply because they are so vulnerable and so afraid."
Tamblyn Watts said it's important to raise awareness among seniors in a way that doesn't make them afraid to travel.
Arun Maini, a former federal prosecutor who now serves as a criminal defence lawyer, said drug trafficking networks traditionally have targeted naive, financially desperate young people to act as mules.
Now, it appears they're tapping into the growing senior demographic. Some traffickers use a "two-step" process: first compromising seniors financially through fraud, then offering them a quick fix to recoup some of their money.
Seniors may see it as an acceptable risk since many smugglers elude detection, but Maini warned that seniors might struggle to convince a court that they didn't suspect what they were doing might be illegal.
"They're an easy target because of the financial vulnerability, but I think they're going to be less able than young people to defend themselves on this point of being ignorant or unaware of what they were transporting," he said.
The RCMP say they do not have statistics on seniors being targeted as drug mules while travelling.
The CBSA document says it is meant to raise "situational awareness" for points of entry, regional intelligence and international liaison officers. It says vulnerable adults are those travelling to or transiting through countries with severe penalties for drug-related charges. Amnesty International reports that 15 countries impose the death penalty for drug crimes, it notes.
Importing illegal drugs into Canada is also a serious offence that carries severe penalties.
Mules employ multiple methods of smuggling drugs, including 'bodypacking' — concealing them on the body — and swallowing drug-filled condoms.
The CBSA document says perpetrators engaged in this type of exploitation of seniors could be found guilty not only of drug trafficking, but also of money laundering, human trafficking and elder abuse.