Gang involvement a deadly risk in homicide capital
A police homicide investigator looks over a body covered with a tarp found behind a produce store in a rural area of Abbotsford, B.C., on Tuesday March 31, 2009. (Darryl Dyck / THE CANADIAN PRESS)
Andy Johnson, CTV.ca News
Published Sunday, December 26, 2010 5:12PM EST
Only a few years ago, a student selling marijuana in their local Abbotsford, B.C., high school was just another petty criminal, pretty low on the police radar.
Now, in the new era of B.C.'s growing drug-trafficking problem, that same student is taking a potentially deadly gamble, as hardened gangs fight for territory in the city located in the province's agricultural heartland.
Chief Const. Bob Rich of the Abbotsford Police Department said the community has earned the title of Canada's homicide capital two years running because rival gangs have waged a violent turf war.
Anyone even remotely connected to the drug trade -- and that includes young people and even girlfriends of drug dealers -- is at risk of being targeted.
Last year that included two high school students who were murdered despite only being "peripherally" involved, Rich said.
"Our warning to the parents is that even selling pot in the school puts your child at risk in the new world order," Rich told CTV.ca in a recent interview.
"I wouldn't have told you that three years ago, I wouldn't have thought that and I wouldn't have honestly said that to you, but I'm telling you now. And your daughter being associated to one of these people -- she's putting herself at risk."
Mayor George Peary agrees. Anyone with a connection to gangs or drugs, no matter how small, is at risk of becoming yet another statistic as violent criminals shed blood to scare off the competition.
"The animosity and the antipathy between these rival gangs as they carve out their turf is so great that they'll take out anybody even remotely associated with what they assume is a rival gang on their turf," Peary told CTV.ca.
In 2009, there were nine murders on the books in Abbotsford, a city of 160,000 in the Fraser Valley, about an hour east of Vancouver. The true number is actually 11, however, because the bodies of two slain Abbotsford high school boys were found on a native reserve, which is classified as federal land.
But even at nine, the Abbotsford-Mission area easily qualified as the nation's murder capital, with a homicide rate almost three times the national average.
It's a major problem, admits Peary.
"We're not proud of the title bestowed upon us by Statistics Canada as Canada's murder capital for 2009," he said.
"You could argue about how they come up with the numbers, but the reality is last year we had 11 homicides and that's off the scale. It's not acceptable by any stretch."
So far in 2010, the numbers are way down. Only four homicides have been recorded in Abbotsford-Mission. Police have implemented an intense strategy to prevent gang violence, and have joined with the mayor to launch a prevention education program that focuses on both parents and children.
But the main reason things have calmed down -- one that Chief Rich admits the police can't take much credit for -- is that the bloody turf war between the Red Scorpions and notorious Bacon brothers, and the gangs attempting to move in on their turf, has cooled off, at least temporarily.
Rich and Peary are both relieved that Abbotsford may finally shake its dubious murder title, but they're not taking anything for granted in an area that has become ground zero for the drug trade in B.C.'s lower mainland.
"As soon as you start talking about it all hell breaks loose again, so we don't brag about it but the reality is to go from 11 homicides in 2009, and we're currently sitting at four … it's still too many but it's dramatically improved from a year ago," said Peary.
Drugs, gangs exported from Vancouver
Rich remembers when his staff came to him years ago and told him about a new organization calling itself the UN Gang. He was the deputy police chief of Vancouver at the time.
"It turned out to be a Fraser Valley gang that had taken over the supplying of drugs to the downtown east side, and I was like, what? The Fraser Valley?" Rich said.
But few would be shocked now. The area known as B.C.'s Bible Belt, characterized by a large faith-based population and swaths of high-value pastoral farm land, has become a major centre for B.C.'s thriving marijuana industry, said Robert Gordon, professor of criminology and the director of the School of Criminology at Simon Fraser University.
"You've had in the past a community that is quite staunchly religious -- different religions, Sikhs on the one hand and Protestant Christians on the other -- all engaged in different facets of agriculture," Gordon told CTV.ca.
"When you plug in another agricultural component, marijuana, things begin to go off the rails."
When the drug trade began to expand out of Vancouver roughly a decade ago, Rich explains, Abbotsford was the first stop. With a 24-hour border crossing that offered access to smuggled guns and a quick outlet for U.S.-bound drugs, the city was a perfect fit.
Along with the drug boom came lots of money -- and the opportunity for locals to earn some of it by getting involved with gangs and the drug industry.
The problem has since spread across much of B.C. with Abbotsford remaining as the epicentre.
"In the last 10 years this gang problem really arose and we're seeing it now arrive in other parts of the province, places like Kelowna and Prince George are really struggling. Even a little town like Smithers is really struggling," Rich said.
As a small municipal police force of 210 officers, the APD isn't equipped to dismantle major organized crime rings on its own. For that, they have help from the province.
But they have taken major steps locally to prevent further murders, Rich said.
One of those initiatives centred around the Bacon brothers -- known gang members who were in the crosshairs of rival groups. Police set up highly visible surveillance cameras on their block, and followed the brothers every time they left the house, knowing an assassination attempt could be around any corner.
"We put a marked police car on the block and whenever Jamie Bacon left his residence we followed him -- not to protect Jamie Bacon but to protect the public from what can occur in the middle of a public shooting," Rich said.
"Our true goal was to ensure that an innocent victim wasn't caught in the crossfire."
Since then two of the three Bacon brothers have been arrested, something the police consider a major victory.
On top of the street-level actions by police, the mayor has launched a task force to try to educate parents and students about the real risks of getting involved with gangs or drugs.
Many parents are wide-eyed, he said, when they are told about the environment their children are growing up in.
Abbotsford still a great place to live
For the most part Abbotsford is a safe and friendly place to live, and most ordinary residents have little exposure to the violence, beyond reading a headline whenever a homicide is committed.
In fact, when murders are taken out of the equation, Abbotsford's crime rate is actually quite modest: ninth in the province with 69 crimes per 1,000 people in 2009. By contrast, the District of Hope was at 144 and Langley was 136.
And the bottom line, Peary said, is that Abbotsford is still a great place to live.
"This is the irony, the general public doesn't feel threatened even though we have this unenviable title of the murder capital of Canada. It's the criminal element killing each other and the average citizen isn't threatened because these aren't random attacks," Peary said.
But in Abbotsford there's a thin line between being a law-abiding citizen, and being involved in the drug trade. And once that line is crossed, everything changes, as those two high school boys who were only "peripherally" involved learned the hard way.
That's why Peary and Rich see their prevention efforts as the only effective long-term strategy for solving the problem.
"We're kind of like the lifeguard that's jumping in the river pulling people out, but we'd rather go up river and prevent them from being pushed in in the first place," Peary said.