July 4, 2009 in Nation/World

Gang wars have put Vancouver, B.C., on edge

Kim Murphy Los Angeles Times
 
Don Bartletti Los Angeles Times photo

From a library terrace overlooking North Vancouver, B.C., near his home, Michael Barber looks at a photo of his son, Jonathan, 24, killed by a gunman who mistook him for a gang associate. Los Angeles Times
(Full-size photo)

ABBOTSFORD, B.C. – The latest mayhem started at the end of March, when 21-year-old Sean Murphy, a popular former high school hockey player, drove into a withering blast of gunfire near Bateman Park. He was probably dead before his car coasted to a stop in the weeds.

That night, Ryan Richards, 19, abruptly left a friend’s house after getting a cell phone call. His body was found the next morning behind a rural produce store. The stab wounds on his hands told the tale of a furious fight for his life. The undertaker apologized to his family for not being able to conceal them.

The bodies of two high school seniors, Dilsher Gill, 17, and Joseph Randay, 18, were found May 1 in their car on a remote road just outside this normally quiet city of 134,000 near Vancouver. The boys had been seen driving away with an armed man the night before.

This crisp region of polished high-rises, emerald spruce, azure waterways and feel-good vibes finds itself in the midst of a gang war that has killed at least 18 young people this year.

Drug dealers are gunning down women (one with her 4-year-old son in the back seat), high school students with no gang allegiances and, especially, one another, in broad daylight in and around the city that will host the 2010 Winter Olympics.

It got so bad this spring that police erected concrete barriers outside the homes of two gangsters to slow down potential drive-by assassins.

“Let’s get serious. There is a gang war, and it’s brutal. What we have seen are new rules of engagement for the gangsters,” Vancouver’s chief police constable, Jim Chu, told reporters in March.

Mexico crackdown

Authorities trace the violence to the recent government crackdown on cocaine traffickers in Mexico, which has squeezed profit margins for cocaine north of the U.S. border.

Canada’s outlaw retailers are fighting to the death over market share, police say, a situation exacerbated by vendettas and vacuums left by the arrests of gang leaders.

“The war in Mexico directly impacts on the drug trade in Canada. … There’s a complete disruption of the flow of cocaine into Canada, and we are seeing the result,” said Pat Fogarty, operations officer for the Combined Forces Special Enforcement Unit, British Columbia’s main law enforcement agency targeting organized crime.

The province became an important player in the Mexican cocaine marketplace in part by bartering its powerful home-grown marijuana, “B.C. bud,” which helps fuel what is estimated to be a $6.3 billion-a-year industry.

Canadian drug organizations use planes, helicopters and, in one case, a tunnel to move drugs. They have equipped trucks with secret panels and devices to avoid detection by X-rays and drug-sniffing dogs.

The Lower Mainland has become a playground for young up-and-coming gangsters, who speed around town in armor-plated Cadillac Escalades, Porsche SUVs and BMW sedans. The worst violence can be traced to the verdant Fraser Valley southeast of Vancouver, where a gang known as the Red Scorpions has been at war with a multi-ethnic criminal organization called the United Nations.

The carnage between the U.N. and the Red Scorpions is believed to stem from the fatal shootings of six men in an apartment in the comfortable suburb of Surrey in 2007. Five associates of the Red Scorpions have been arrested in the case. One pleaded guilty and was sentenced in April to life in prison.

Dozens of other slayings followed, many of them retribution killings and commercial disputes between the U.N. and three Abbotsford men associated with the Red Scorpions: the Bacon brothers.

Jonathan Bacon, 28, and his brothers, Jarrod, 26, and Jamie, 23, are the rock stars of the Fraser Valley underworld, their exploits and the efforts of the police to keep them alive documented regularly in the media.

Jamie Bacon, who was charged in April with one of the Surrey Six murders, survived a midafternoon shooting at an Abbotsford intersection Jan. 20, when a gunman fired as many as eight bullets into his Mercedes. Jonathan Bacon was shot and wounded in the driveway of his parents’ home in Abbotsford in 2006. The Bacons have changed residences several times, and their car has armored plating and bulletproof windows. They kept an arsenal for protection: As part of a plea bargain for an associate in 2007, Jonathan Bacon delivered to police 114 sticks of dynamite, a grenade, seven handguns, two shotguns, a rifle and an Uzi submachine gun.

With so many people apparently eager to kill a Bacon brother, police took the unusual step this year of warning citizens to avoid the family or risk being caught in the crossfire.

That is what happened to Jonathan Barber, 24, who ran a custom stereo business in Abbotsford. Barber picked up a Porsche Cayenne SUV belonging to one of the Bacon brothers one night in May to install an audio system. A gunman opened fire, killing Barber and injuring his 17-year-old girlfriend.

Olympics loom

With the Winter Olympic Games only a year away, political leaders in British Columbia have made it clear that the gang problem must end. Money has poured in for new officers. Legislation is being proposed to expand surveillance capability, toughen sentences, crack down on firearms smuggled in from the U.S. and outlaw armored cars and flak jackets.

There have been successes: In May, police arrested eight senior U.N. members, including the new reported leader, Iraqi immigrant Barzan Tilli-Choli, 27, on charges of conspiracy to kill the Bacon brothers.

A month earlier, Vancouver police announced a series of arrests that they said had “functionally dismantled” the Sanghera crime group, whose conflict with other gangs in southeast Vancouver had led to nearly 100 shootings over the past few years.

“We targeted them for whatever kind of offenses we could get them for, from minor charges like causing a disturbance to attempted murder. We ended up incarcerating literally the whole group, and the result of that has been a decrease in shootings,” said Mike Porteous, who led Project Rebellion, the gang sweep that netted the Sanghera group.

Said Cpl. A.C.J. Coons, head of the four-vehicle gang patrol on a Friday night shift: “I call it death by a thousand cuts.”


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