Sunday, 28 December 2008

Gang violence appears to be on the rise in B.C. as gangs war over control of the lucrative drug trade

Gang violence appears to be on the rise in B.C. as gangs war over control of the lucrative drug trade, but there are few places where the increase has been more severe than in Prince George. The northern forestry community has been plagued by a year of brawls, shootings, reports of torture and several murders as rival groups brazenly fight among themselves. In late summer, a 19-year-old man was seriously injured in drive-by shooting in Prince George, 500 kilometres northeast of Vancouver. A few weeks later, a young couple believed to be connected to the drug trade -- including a 19-year-old woman -- were found shot to death.
Although the victims were gang members, Mayor Dan Rogers says every violent act ripples into the wider community.
"There are innocent victims all the time," says Rogers, recently elected as mayor after 12 years on city council. "There are parents, there are relatives. It's just tragic." While things have quieted since the grisly October slayings, the head of the RCMP's local gang unit says 2008 was the worst year he has ever seen.

"We never used to have this kind of violence in Prince George," says Sgt. Raj Sidhu, who's been with the Mounties there for 13 years. "It's pretty brutal what's happening."

The violence in the city follows a pattern established elsewhere in B.C.
A new gang crops up, a turf war breaks out, and eventually the violence ends when one group is either beaten down by rivals or rounded up by police. The cycle has been a source of constant frustration for police forces combating violence among B.C.'s 129 identified gangs. "There's always peaks and valleys, and that seems to just repeat itself," says Supt. Dan Malo, head of the B.C. Integrated Gang Task Force. "We've certainly had an increase in gang-related murders (in 2008), but while it keeps moving around, it really becomes the same."
For example, the RCMP homicide team for the Lower Mainland -- excluding Vancouver and Delta -- says there were about 20 homicides connected to drugs and organized crime this year, compared with about 14 in 2007, and 20 in 2006. Gang-related killings tend to rise and fall with the overall homicide rate, the Mounties say.
Violence increases when gangs try to expand their influence into new areas, which is what appears to be happening in Prince George. The latest spate of attacks in that city is related to a turf war between the Independent Soldiers, who appeared two years ago and have ties to a gang in Vancouver, and a smaller, unnamed group that arrived about a year ago. While things have been quiet in the past couple of months, the head of the Prince George gang unit predicts the calm will be short-lived.
"I don't know for how long -- it's always revenge and the greed to take over the drug trade," says Sidhu. "There's always that vacuum. You take out one group and someone else wants to come in. Malo, while seeming resigned to the fact that gangs will be a perpetual problem in the province, says there remains reason to be hopeful. He says the force has dramatically changed its tactics in recent years, starting with the formation of the integrated task force in 2005, followed by a so-called violence suppression team two years later. The suppression team consists of several dozen uniformed officers who track gang members and try to intervene when violence erupts, or prevent it from happening in the first place. The task force is also reaching out to future gang members with a provincewide initiative targeting at-risk youth through community involvement and education.
And there have been successes in actual enforcement. A few weeks ago, the RCMP arrested nine people in Surrey and laid 26 charges related to drugs and weapons. It was part of a year-long investigation that the force held up as evidence its efforts were working. "We've seen a tremendous amount of violence in the past couple of years, and hopefully we're going to be able to suppress that for a period of time," Malo says.


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