Pubdate: Sun, 05 Apr 2009
Source: Independent on Sunday (UK)
Copyright: Independent Newspapers Ltd.
Author: Paul Rodgers


The Canadian City Has Been Named The Best Place In The World To Live. 
But Those Halcyon Days Are Over

Once upon a very recent time, Vancouver had a clean, safe image. 
Nestled between a spectacular bay and snow-capped mountains, this 
Canadian city, which is twice the size of Birmingham, was described 
by The Economist as the most liveable in the world. Not any more. As 
it prepares to host the 2010 Winter Olympics, what it's got now is 
not cuddly, eco-friendly publicity, but blood-spattered streets 
littered with shell casings and corpses.

Vancouver is the battlefield in a war between myriad drug gangs, 
which include Hell's Angels, Big Circle Boys, United Nations, Red 
Scorpions, Independent Soldiers and the 14K Triad. Guns - often 
machineguns - are fired almost daily. "We've always been told by 
media experts to never admit that there is a gang war," the chief of 
police, Jim Chu, said last month. "Let's get serious. There is a gang 
war and it's brutal." Vancouver's Mayor, Gregor Robertson, confessed 
that the police are fighting a losing battle. Since mid-January, the 
city has recorded 50 gang-related shootings, 18 of them fatal. And 
the violence is not confined to seedy neighbourhoods. The cross-fire 
is happening in quiet, residential cul-de-sacs and the car parks of 
up-scale shopping centres. It's a suburban civil war.

Nor are hardened criminals the only victims. An attack on one 
gangster's car killed a 24-year-old man hired to fit it with a new 
stereo. In February, Nicole Alemy, 23, the wife of another gangster, 
was gunned down in her white Cadillac - with her four-year-old son in 
the back seat. On Friday, police arrested James Bacon - one of three 
brothers who left the United Nations gang to join the Red Scorpions, 
intensifying the rivalry between the two - for conspiring in the 
deaths of four gangsters in their flat in Surrey, south-east of 
Vancouver. Two innocent men were forced from the hallway into the 
flat and also killed. Police said they intend to make more arrests 
over the weekend.

As Vancouver has boomed over the past two decades, attracting wealthy 
immigrants from across Canada and the Pacific, so too has the illegal 
drugs trade. It is now the third largest industry in the province, 
generating between C$7bn (UKP 3.8bn) and C$8bn a year. A young, 
party-loving population with liberal attitudes to drugs has created 
strong domestic demand, while the province's mild climate and a ready 
supply of well-educated horticulturalists has led to supply of a 
premium brand of cannabis called "BC bud", produced mostly in 
hydroponic "grow-ops".

The drug's superior quality - "one puff and you're anaesthetised," 
reported one academic - also found favour with customers in the US, 
encouraging an imaginative corps of smugglers. Customs agents have 
found shipments in church vans, hollow logs and even kayaks. One 
enterprising crew emulated the prisoners of Stalag Luft III, digging 
a 110m tunnel "under the wire". The bigger problem for Canada, 
though, was the return trade. The US drug distributors preferred to 
pay in kind, with cocaine and guns.

Many commentators think Vancouver's violence is just a skirmish on 
the fringe of the much larger war in Mexico, where 6,000 were 
murdered last year as the state tried to reassert control over 
territories seized by drug lords. The result has been a 50 per cent 
rise in the price of cocaine in Canada, and correspondingly higher 
profits to fight over. But not everyone is convinced. Experts at 
Simon Fraser University argue that the problem is home-grown, and 
that it's exacerbated by police efforts to bang up mob leaders. "All 
you do is create vacancies as you put people in jail," said Ehor 
Boyanowsky, an associate professor of criminology. "Suddenly there's 
an opportunity."

In the short term, say the academics, Vancouver's problem is one of 
unco-ordinated enforcement. By one count, as many as 11 different 
agencies, including the Royal Canadian Mounted Police and local 
police forces, were responsible for suppressing the drugs trade. The 
courts are almost as confused. Canadian justice is more tolerant than 
America's. No one has been successfully prosecuted for simple 
possession of marijuana in years, and Amsterdam-style hash cafes 
operate in a grey zone, only occasionally being shut down. Because of 
judicial leniency, officers prefer to see their targets collared in 
the US. The "Great Escape" gang were under surveillance on both sides 
of the border, but were arrested in Washington.

In the long run, many British Columbians, on both left and right, 
accept that legalisation and regulation are the answer. Just the 
sales tax on C$7bn of drugs would pay for several hospitals and 
schools, policing costs could be reduced, property crime by addicts 
to pay for their drug habits would be slashed, and the gang wars 
could be quickly reined in. "But the international politics are 
unbelievable," said Dr Rob Gordon, director of Simon Fraser's school 
of criminology. "The DEA [US Drug Enforcement Administration] starts 
to foam at the mouth at the idea of there being a huge, legal 
marijuana farm just north of the border. Under George Bush, the 
concensus was that if Canada ever moved to exercise its economic 
sovereignty, they would shut the border down by searching every vehicle."

Until then, the best hope may be that one gang or another comes out 
on top, allowing it to impose stability, much as the Hell's Angel's 
bike gang used to do up to 15 or 20 years ago. Professor Boyanowsky 
said: "Those were the good old days."
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MAP posted-by: Keith Brilhart