VANCOUVER, B.C. – Prime Minister Stephen Harper announced a plan Thursday to crack down on an unprecedented wave of gang-related murders as the city prepares to host the 2010 Winter Olympic Games.
Six people have died in 18 local shootings in the past month. Canada’s public safety minister has called the gang violence the worst in the country, and British Columbia this week appointed an organized crime czar to oversee gang, drug and gun violence issues.
Harper promised a safe Olympics.
“Our government will continue to work to assure we have the most secure Games ever,” he said.
The proposed law would label a gang killing as first-degree murder, carrying a sentence of at least 25 years without parole. The plan would also set a minimum four-year jail term for drive-by shootings.
Harper said the Olympics and the gang violence are separate issues.
“For many people coming from around the world, Canada is a peaceful and law-abiding country,” he said.
Canada plans to have 15,000 police officers, private security and military personnel at the Olympics, at an expected cost of at least $715 million. That’s more than five times the original estimate, which didn’t take into account the need to secure areas outside the official venues.
Two weeks ago, British Columbia’s provincial government announced initiatives to employ more police and prosecutors, introduce tougher laws and build more jails and courts. The government also promised to crack down on illegal guns.
“We’ve had a terrible wave of violence in British Columbia, and quite frankly the public is sick and tired of what’s going on our streets now,” British Columbia Attorney General Wally Oppal said. “We’ve had a number of homicides, some of them taking place in shopping centers. We’re supportive of what the government is doing. We need more than that.”
British Columbia-based criminologist Rob Gordon said the changes are welcome, but they don’t focus enough on catching gang members.
Vancouver is a major port of entry for the illegal drug trade, and the violence has spread beyond the city’s notoriously squalid Downtown Eastside, where drugs and prostitution are rampant.
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