Shortly after the bomb ripped through the prominent gangster’s motor home – a dramatic escalation from the hail of bullets British Columbians have come to expect from organized crime – police arranged sit-downs with street-level gangsters and their bosses. Gunfire is one thing, but bombings, authorities made clear at the meetings, would not be tolerated.
It was an unusual step, to be sure. But as the Lower Mainland grapples with another very public wave of gang violence, it’s not the only unorthodox measure police have taken – from issuing a public alert immediately after the motor home’s owner was slain in Mexico late last month, to admitting they can’t wipe out the gangs and can only work to contain the violence they inflict. Warning those in organized crime not to use bombs is part of that containment strategy.
Police insist gang violence is on the decline, but arrests appear few and far between. It remains to be seen what effect their plan and admission that gangs can’t be eliminated will have following the latest spate of violence – including a daylight execution near a Vancouver elementary school last week, and a stabbing in Langley on Thursday.
“I think we have to be a realist in that sense, that some of these gangs have been here for quite some time and the gangs themselves won’t go away,” RCMP Chief Superintendent Dan Malo, the officer in charge of the Combined Forces Special Enforcement Unit, said in an interview. “The issue becomes the fact that by destabilizing them and removing some of the important people through enforcement action, it causes a lesser risk to the public.”
While Supt. Malo’s statement might well be true, it’s not one usually heard from any RCMP officer, let alone one quite so high-ranking.
Thomas Gisby, who police have described as a “significant player” in the drug trade, was shot twice in the head while in the Mexican tourist town of Nuevo Vallarta last month. Mr. Gisby was the target of the January motor home bombing in Whistler – an incident so unusual that even Mr. Gisby and a companion initially believed a propane tank had accidentally blown. Police warned Mr. Gisby his life was in danger and he fled the country.
The conversation with Mr. Gisby was one of many police had with members of organized crime following the motor home blast. Supt. Malo wouldn’t disclose specifics, but said such meetings could be held at a house, lawyer’s office, or neutral location.
“We’re always very concerned if, in fact, organized crime turns to that mode of trying to kill one another,” he said. “We have gone to a great deal of gang members and senior people in organized crime involved in that lifestyle in British Columbia.”
He added: “Should they choose to bring that behaviour onto the streets of British Columbia, both [the Combined Forces Special Enforcement Unit] and the federal policing arm of the RCMP will bring everything to bear in terms of making sure the gang members are dealt with should that behaviour continue.”
There have been no bombings since January.
The Combined Forces Special Enforcement Unit, an alliance of a dozen police agencies including the RCMP, Vancouver police and Victoria police, is tasked with disrupting and suppressing organized crime. It is, by no means, an easy task. Targeted hits rarely yield suspects. If there are witnesses, they can be reluctant to speak out. The same can hold true for victims.
According to Statistics Canada, gang-related homicides are less likely to be solved than other homicides. Police identified an accused in 34 per cent of gang-related homicides in 2010 – the last year for which data is available – compared with 89 per cent of non-gang related homicides. The overview is national. No provincial breakdown was available.
RCMP Chief Superintendent Mark Fleming said police do make some gang arrests, but rarely disclose them.
Jim Mandelin, a former gang member who speaks with youth about avoiding a life of crime, said the lack of high-profile arrests could affect some considering the gang lifestyle, since arrests are a form of deterrence. Mr. Mandelin, who plans to release a book about his life later this year, added that police have a very tough job to do.
When asked what he says during his anti-gang talks, Mr. Mandelin said he warns youth that anyone who enters organized crime must do exactly as they’re told, no matter what it is, no matter who it involves.
Rival gangs have long jockeyed for position in B.C.’s lucrative drug trade. The province is a major producer of marijuana and Vancouver is the port of entry for cocaine from Mexico.
Andre Cedilot, author of Mafia Inc: The Long, Bloody Reign of Canada’s Sicilian Clan, said the Vancouver area’s problems with gangs aren’t unique. He said the rate of gang killings solved in Montreal is quite low.
Quebec, of course, has also seen its share of success when it comes to fighting gangs. Two major busts – one in 2001, the other in 2009 – have put hundreds of gang members behind bars.
Rob Gordon, director of the school of criminology at Simon Fraser University, said the police strategy of containment makes sense.
“That’s the best we can hope for, that police do their best to contain these periodic outbreaks,” he said.
He added: “They [police] recognize the task is keeping a lid on things and the prospect of knocking out this industry is close to zero.”
Of course, the containment focus doesn’t mean investigators aren’t hard at work trying to crack cases. Supt. Malo said he has 30-plus investigators working full-time on the case of Jonathan Bacon. Mr. Bacon, a member of the Red Scorpions gang, was shot dead in broad daylight in Kelowna last August. Mr. Bacon was with other gang members known to police at the time of the shooting.
The investigation into the motor home bombing is also active.
Though Supt. Malo portrayed the bombing as worse than other incidents, his fellow officer, Supt. Fleming, said violence is violence.
“We don’t see it as any safer or more dangerous than the use of an AK-47 at a casino out in Kelowna. To us, it’s all a public-safety issue. We’re about public safety. Whether it be explosives or a gun, we need to really address it,” he said.