The growing association between street gangs and organized crime — with growing evidence of gang ties to international terrorist organizations — worries police and politicians. In this two-part series, Sun Media explores the prevalence of gangs that plague every major city across the country
Driven by huge profits and a propensity for violence, organized crime groups and street gangs are flourishing across Canada with greater sophistication, stronger networks and deadly influence. From identity theft and hooker rings to hard-core drug operations, human trafficking and gun-smuggling, gangs are exploiting advanced technology and weapons to yield control over cash and turf.
But Justice Minister Vic Toews said traditional lines drawn between various street gangs and organized crime are becoming blurred as distinct groups join hands to maximize the profits and influence of their criminal enterprises. It’s a disturbing trend that makes illicit webs increasingly tough for cops to crack.
“There are real concerns about the growth of violent crime that’s associated with street gangs and organized crime, but also a very clear connection now between more established organized crime families and street gangs,” Toews told Sun Media in an interview. We are committed to addressing this violence, and the first step is seen in our bills that ensure tougher sentencing, especially for gun crime.”
The Conservatives recently tabled a bill that will impose tougher mandatory minimum penalties for gang and gun crimes, but Toews said it’s just one means of tackling the problem. More specially-trained police officers, enhanced intelligence capability and stronger laws to financially cripple organized crime are also required to get the upper hand over innovative gangsters, he said.
“It used to be that many of these gangs stayed in their own expertise or specialty, but that seems to have shifted with these co-ordinated efforts between gangs,” Toews said. “That involves everything from drug trafficking to loan sharking to white collar fraud, especially credit card and bank card frauds, prostitution, trafficking in human beings, grow ops. The pattern is clear that there are connections now emerging between these various gangs.”
Toews said evidence shows that hand gun crime and gang-related homicides are increasing “quite dramatically” across the country, especially in metropolitan centres like Toronto. While addressing community and economic problems is key, he said the New York experience shows it’s best to tackle crime first. “You need to focus on getting the gunmen and the drug dealers off the street if you hope to have any success in dealing with social programs, economic programs and other community development programs,” he said.
Toews said the water is muddied between gangs and terrorist organizations, which now partner internationally to finance their nefarious activities. “It indicates that we are not simply dealing with local crime. We are dealing with crime that has international ramifications and that terrorist organizations are often working together with gangs in order to raise money,” he said. “That’s not uncommon in other areas of the world if you look at Colombia and places where terrorist organizations deal in drugs to fund their terrorist activities. “The fact that terrorist organizations are making connections with organized crime families would not be unusual given that that’s how they would have to distribute the drugs that they’re responsible for producing.”
A 2005 report from Criminal Intelligence Service Canada notes that traditional biker, mob and street gangs have evolved with “increasingly complex dynamics.” Using violence and advanced technology, organized criminals are teaming together to bolster their ability to move illicit goods in and out of Canada by air, land and marine ports. “Organized crime in Canada takes advantage of a multitude of opportunities that will bring them profit,” the report concludes. “They are, as a result, increasingly networked, often engaging in co-operative criminal ventures based upon mutual need.”
NDP MP Joe Comartin said the successful smashing of gangs in Quebec and Manitoba have pushed “residue” to grow in Ontario. He said a “realignment of resources” on security and fighting terrorism after 9/11 has also allowed the problem to fester. “Focusing on the gangs, focusing on the drug trafficking and gun smuggling has relented somewhat because we have concentrated much of our resources on the security and the terrorism side,” he said. Comartin believes guns and gang violence pose a greater threat to public safety than terrorism.
The Conservative crackdown will spend millions on prison cells, yet most of those jailed will be low-level “mules” rather than high-level gang leaders. “The Conservatives rant all the time about the gun registry, well we’ve got another boondoggle coming here,” he said. “We’re going to spend all that money on prisons to keep people in jail, but what you really need to do is stop the crime in the first place, and the way to do that is to get the money in the hands of provincial and municipal police forces.”
Liberal MP Sue Barnes said the Conservative anti-gang strategy is too narrowly focused on punishment to adequately tackle the problem. She said an “umbrella” approach that toughens penalties while addressing underlying root causes is the only way to control gangs in the long term. “Adding jail terms on in itself may sound good for a quote at being tough on crime, but it’s about having a safe community and a safe society, being effective and spending dollars wisely,” she said. “It has to be the balance around the spectrum.”
Christa McGregor, a spokesman for Correctional Service of Canada, said inmates affiliated with gangs has climbed to 16% from 12% in 1997. The system is now bracing for that violent, high-risk group to swell even more in coming years with the Conservative crackdown. CSC is currently developing an enhanced strategy to cope with the burgeoning gang population behind bars, McGregor said.
The Calgary Sun
June 4, 2006