Mexico’s drug war plays out on Vancouver streets

Police struggle to contain violent fallout of drug trade

In the wake of crackdowns on powerful Mexican drug lords, a ripple effect across North America has sparked new levels of drug-related violence on the streets of Vancouver. Competition over dwindling supplies of cocaine and heroin has law enforcement agencies battling to contain the potential violence between rival distributors competing over what is left of the market.

“Violence has gone in cycles. There are relative lulls in violence followed by periods of extreme violence,” said Sergeant Shinder Kirk, of the Combined Forces Special Enforcement Unit-British Columbia (CFSEU-BC) Gang Task Force.

Kirk said that turf disputes between mid- and street-level traffickers is one of the most common catalysts for violence. According to Kirk, there are around 130 known groups operating in drug trafficking in British Columbia, which can be divided into organized crime, mid-level trafficking, and street-level distributors.

“It’s all to do with the drug trade. There are disputes between groups over market turf, over who controls the drug trade in a particular community,” said Kirk.

The CFSEU-BC web site identifies the most visible and violent organized crime groups in British Columbia as the Bacon/Red Scorpions Group and the United Nations Gang. But while they are the main distributors of drugs throughout the province, Kirk says they are not responsible for the majority of the violence.

Glenn Fisher, of the Vancouver Area Network of Drug Users (VANDU), said that gang violence has been subdued since an intense period of bloodshed between the Scorpions and the UN Gang in 2009, which was marked by several drive-by shootings.

“[Now] violence here is among individuals, not gangs,” said Fisher. “The drugs are no good. People have been selling garbage…. There have been a lot of stabbings.”

Last year, in response to the escalating feuds between organized crime groups in Vancouver, the CFSEU-BC launched a widespread operation to stem the bloodshed in British Columbia. According to Fisher, it appears they have succeeded in reducing much of the violence.

“[The gangs] were feuding with each other…[but] a lot of the action has quieted down,” he said.

The level of violence in Mexico seems to have had a neutralizing effect on the domestic drug trade. Fisher said that trade relationships that used to exist with Mexico have now ceased to exist because of the intensification of violence there.

“We have a high grade of marijuana here, which we used to trade for cocaine,” said Fisher. “But people are scared to deal with Mexicans. Mexico is a very violent country right now; everyone is getting killed.”

Vancouver’s coastal location and proximity to the drug-centres of California and Mexico has rendered it the focal point of the Canadian drug trade.

Neil Boyd, professor of criminology at Simon Fraser University, said that all Canadian ports are affected by the international drug trade. “A lot of drug traffic goes through Vancouver. That comes with the designation of being a port,” said Boyd. “Even Montreal is affected.”

CFSEU-BC now focuses on prevention, intervention, and enforcement, with uniformed and covert investigators working to prevent violence, according to Kirk. He also highlighted the cooperation between law enforcement agencies across Canada and North America.

“Organized crime has been around [Vancouver] for centuries if you talk about groups like Asian Triads or the Mafia…. But they are not prone to violence,” Kirk said.

With organized crime spreading east, Kirk said the CFSEU-BC has been talking with various agencies in Calgary, Edmonton, California, and across North America.

Vancouver is just one link in a symbiotic international drug trade, and Kirk said that crackdowns on the flourishing drug trade in Mexico have had an effect on British Columbia. According to Kirk, while a high demand for Mexican drugs remains in the province, supplies have dwindled, increasing competition and violence.

“Groups here have ties to suppliers in Mexico. Now there is greater competition over a smaller amount of product…[which leads to] an evolution in violence,” said Kirk.

“Young members [of gangs] go to Mexico as tourists and are murdered,” he said, explaining that he knew of four recent murders of Canadians in Mexico known to be involved in the Canadian drug trade. “[Law enforcement agencies in Mexico] are just overwhelmed with the number of murders right now.”