Gangland: How Victoria works against local gang culture

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It was a typical clear day outside the Bay Centre in Victoria — a busker played guitar, while pedestrians waited for the lit-up figure of a man to indicate they’re safe to walk — when two teenage boys were approached by Vancouver gang members, and became the victims of an attempted recruitment. When one of the teens’ parents reported their child missing, police responded with a search of the city’s outskirts, where the boys might have been taken.

Squinting to differentiate faces through salty fog, police found both high school students standing alongside older gang members in the ferry lineup at Swartz Bay. They were intending to board a boat to the mainland. Only one youth was successfully retrieved by the officers, because the other child was not yet reported as missing. A later Lower Mainland knife fight involving the recently recruited boy and his newfound gang resulted in police apprehending the unreported teen; he was sent back to Vancouver Island and into the arms of his caregivers. After sharing this story in an interview, Victoria’s only gang counsellor, Mia Golden, said, “The level of recruitment and grooming strategies that are happening in [Victoria] . . . [is] kind of scary.”

Underneath the tourist-friendly image of British Columbia’s capital city is an underlying presence of organized crime. Gang initiation leads to Victoria children being lured off school fields and young adults being coaxed from local bars. According to police, there are gangs operating in the city on provincial, national, and international levels. In a recent Statistics Canada report, Victoria ranks higher than Vancouver for number of drug offenses per capita. In the same 2013 report, Victoria’s per-capita criminal-code offenses, including homicide and firearm possession, also surpassed Vancouver’s. A Freedom of Information request to the Victoria Police Department revealed gang incidents in the city and nearby locations increased from 18 in 2009 to 41 in 2014. At least five major organized crime groups currently operate in Victoria. The ocean fails to separate Vancouver Island from mainland influence, and gang presence has easily infiltrated the city.


[pullquote]“Absolutely, there’s gang activity happening in Victoria . . . and in every community in British Columbia.”[/pullquote]

Illustration by Christy Shao, Graphics Editor
Illustration by Christy Shao, Graphics Editor

The Combined Forces Special Enforcement Unit of British Columbia, sometimes called B.C.’s “Anti-Gang” police, is at the forefront of checking the spread of gang activity. The unit is focused primarily on the West Coast and has an office in Victoria. Some members organizations include Canada Border Services Agency, Saanich PD, and Victoria PD. In 2013 and 2014, the CFSEU spent nearly $50 million in tax dollars on gang-crime reduction.

Lindsey Houghton, media relations officer for the CFSEU said in an interview, “Absolutely, there’s gang activity happening in Victoria, in every community around Victoria, in every community on Vancouver Island, and in every community in British Columbia.”

For instance, the Victoria Police Department issued a crime report on Jan. 16, 2015 that involved two local gang members. On New Year’s Eve, the CFSEU, West Shore RCMP, the RCMP Lower Island Emergency Response Team, VicPD’s Strike Force and Focused Enforcement Team rang in the new year in unconventional fashion, conducting a search that led to a home in the Victoria neighborhood of West Shore. The home was used to process, store, and sell illegal drugs. Copious amounts of methamphetamine and heroin were found in the home, and six individuals were arrested.

That report refers to just one of many major gang-affiliated drug seizures that have taken place recently in the Greater Victoria area. Houghton recalled another disturbing incident from 2013, when the CFSEU located a drug house in Langford. Two men, Zach Matheson and Ali Arash Zaire, were arrested: both were high-profile drug dealers with connections to powerful criminal groups. Houghton remembered, “What really stuck out to me, and what was very concerning to our officers, was [that] his house . . . where he was arrested, was right around the corner from an elementary school.”

According to Houghton, Victoria provides an extensive customer base for drugs, which is the main commodity for gangs. Geographically, the island is ideal for drug transportation, as small watercraft are used to export and import drugs between Vancouver Island and the U.S., Houghton says. Furthermore, existing mainland gangs have employees who work on Vancouver Island, holding drug houses in various locations around the Greater Victoria Area.

Houghton compared a budding gang to the planting of a seed. A plant needs soil as new gangsters need existing gangs. Houghton explained that the mainland gang called Red Scorpions sends individuals into Greater Victoria to recruit new gang members using fear, influence, and intimidation.

Houghton strongly suggests dropping preconceived ideas about gangsters, and advises people to open their minds to the unexpected. “In British Columbia, there is no [conclusive gangster] stereotype. It can be any kid, from any ethnic background, from any socioeconomic background. We have this middle class thug syndrome . . . these kids have every opportunity,” Houghton explained.

VicPD’s media relations officer, Mike Russell, stated in an interview, “I don’t know why [Victorians think there’s no gang culture here] because we’ve had very public things that happen with gang violence.”

[pullquote]“I don’t know why [Victorians think there’s no gang culture here] because we’ve had very public things that happen with gang violence.”[/pullquote]

Houghton warned that every community needs to find a balance between generating fear and the risk of potentially downplaying criminal activity: “We [as police] understand people’s instinct to deny that something is happening in their community . . . Instead of denying that it’s happening, what we should be doing is working together, the police and everyone else in the community.”

Dean Fortin, former mayor of Victoria, maintains that Victoria does not have gang issues. He explained, “There’s three major sources [that street-level gangs] make their income from: prostitution, drugs, and extortion. We aren’t big enough for any of that: [we’re on] the sleepy side.” Lisa Helps, current mayor and co-chair of the police board, stated when taking office, “[Local gang activity is] not something I was briefed on immediately.”

Fortin did admit that mainland gang members sometimes spill into Victoria, posing the question, “Where do Vancouver’s gangsters take a holiday?” However, Fortin advocated the BarWatch program as a counteractive measure. Victoria adopted this tool which helps to identify gang affiliates when their ID is scanned at club doors and cross-referenced from Vancouver PD records. Fortin believes the BarWatch program proves sufficient in locating gang members. “The minute you’re in town, everyone knows you’re in town. There’s nowhere to hide,” he said.

If Vancouver Island residents are asked about local gangs, most will mention the Hells Angels, probably due to the large chapter in Nanaimo. However, the Angels have been less of a police concern than many of the recent gangs that have emerged from the mainland since around 2005. According to Houghton, the Angels took this chance to retreat from the spotlight while remaining active.

Award-winning investigative journalist Julian Sher writes in his book Angels of Death that “in no other country of the world are the Hells Angels as dominant and unchallenged as they are in Canada.” Upon being asked about his most memorable experience researching B.C. gang culture, he said, “When I first started researching my first book on the Hells Angels in 2001, people were asking, why are you coming [to B.C.]? There was widespread ignorance of how dangerous and powerful criminal gangs like the Hells Angels were. That changed as gang violence exploded mainly in the Lower Mainland and nobody now in Vancouver and the Lower Mainland underestimates the influence of gangs.”

Ex-drug addict and ex-’full patch’ (fully initiated) Hells Angels member Joe Calendino is at the head of the youth initiative Yo Bro, based in the Lower Mainland. The program infuses schools’ curricula with education about leading a healthy lifestyle and avoiding gang affiliation. Kids learn about the danger of gang involvement and develop bonds that might otherwise be sought through gang affiliation. They also practice martial arts and anger control.

Calendino chooses the word “belief” when asked to describe what personally makes him fit for helping troubled youth. He described the epiphany that lead him to create Yo Bro, helped by a police officer who attended to his drug withdrawals: “It was a seed planted from a prison floor . . . I just looked up at him and said, ‘I never wanna see a kid go through this.’”

The ex-Angel has become a social worker through courses at BCIT and uses his past as an edge in relating to at-risk youth. His authenticity and tough attitude earns the respect of his students. “[The stance I take with] Yo Bro kids is the exact stance I take with my son. Our children belong to all of us,” Calendino said.

He points out that the solution to gang culture does not begin or end with police, and crime costs are exponential. “Do we know the social cost if a kid has contact with the police?” questioned Calendino. “$120 000 to follow a kid from that initial contact, through the court system, into the hands of legal aid, into the front of the judge. [It costs money] to have Crown council there, to put probation at play, and bring in the ministry.”

Police agree: the financial burden of crime absolutely outweighs the cost of prevention. Houghton said that “When we look at the monetary cost of crimes, it costs tens of hundreds of thousands, even millions of dollars . . . If we can prevent even one child, we can potentially prevent a lot of money costing the system.”

Houghton admitted the level of public education by police is not ideal: “We do enforcement, disruption, and suppression very well. We get information, we investigate, we put someone in jail, and we repeat that process. What we haven’t done very well, and what’s sort of fallen off a bit, is the education and prevention side.”

Mia Golden runs a program called CRED (Crime Reduction Education) through Pacific Centre Family Services Association in Victoria. She is the city’s only gang counselor. She was born in Jamaica and has lived in numerous Canadian cities. Her family settled down when she was seven in Prince George, which in 2011 was named “Canada’s most dangerous city” by Maclean’s magazine. There she attended Kelly Road Secondary, a rough school where she said kids smoked marijuana inside the building almost every day.

Golden has now worked as a youth gang counselor in Victoria for three years. She works alongside police, probation officers, parents, and schools to spread education and engage in prevention practices. She founded CRED and offers the program to youth between ages 13 and 24 who are at-risk or affiliated with gangs. Police and schools usually refer individuals to Golden, but some kids specifically seek her involvement in their journey toward health.

“I’m Jamaican, I bring my black to the table. I bring my Prince George background to the table. When you’re working with kids, you have to be real. Rather than say, ‘this is inappropriate’, you say, ‘dude you know that’s a little bit of bullshit,’” jokes Golden.

She regularly walks the beat to connect with Victoria’s youth, experiencing the truth behind Victoria’s gang scene. “I know there has been low-level gang members [in Victoria] who have been involved in selling. Hits have been put out on them just for a couple grand. These kids are unknowingly being given knowledge [about dangerous people].” Golden explains that she knows Victoria youth who constantly travel between Vancouver and the island, transporting drugs for gangs. She believes there is a serious disconnect between community knowledge and gang reality. “When I go into the Bay Centre, when I go by Chapters, I know which kids are dealing. The average person walks by them every day,” she says. Golden stresses the importance of community awareness and explained that Victoria’s youth gangs are often regarded as harmless. However, one local youth gang was responsible for over two hundred police files in 2013. Committing petty crimes such as breaking and entering and car theft desensitizes the kids involved.

“What people don’t realize is the level of violence,” says Golden. “This time last year we were seeing a rash of guys we work with, or who are on my radar, showing up with broken fingers.” She explained that the youth would try to blame their injuries on skateboarding or other typical teenage activities. “One kid got grabbed, duct taped, thrown in a car, and driven around, and his neck was burned,” she explained. This violence establishes control. Golden said kids are given thousands of dollars of product, and they jump each other and steal each other’s goods. “You have a 16-year-old kid who owes 10 grand to a very violent gang member; [terrible] lessons are being taught to these kids,” Golden says. Youth gang members are extremely vulnerable to recruitment by high-profile gangs at places like schools, on the streets, and in bars. Golden said this type of initiation “absolutely happens” in Victoria.

Similar to the Joe Calendino’s Yo Bro youth initiate, Golden has seen plenty of success in her program. Many participants graduate school and find jobs in the CRED program mentoring younger children. As Calendino and Golden find, likeness and belonging are what at-risk youth are looking for. In contrast, police action often results in a loss of connection and a cycle of resentment. Golden hopes education of the community will provide more funding for prevention programs. Recently, the Victoria Youth Custody Centre was closed down. According to Golden, she is only one person devoted to gang counseling in all of Greater Victoria.

[pullquote]“They post a photo of their crew or squad and say ‘#family.’”[/pullquote]

“Belonging is such a huge need,” said Golden. She stressed that while police cannot provide this connection, communities can. Golden points to gang member’s social media profiles: “They post a photo of their crew or squad and say ‘#family.’”

For Golden and others, acknowledging that bond and working with it, rather than against it, might be all it takes to make a difference.