Monday, September 7, 2009

Abbotsford Murder Capital of Canada

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ABBOTSFORD, B.C. -- Meet the new murder capital of Canada.

Holstein cows dot green fields and the scent of manure tickles your nostrils on the outskirts of Abbotsford-Mission.

There's a colourful advertisement for children's rugby teams and a sign on the local Christian Centre telling visitors "Jesus is Lord Over Abbotsford."

But thanks to a growing suburban gang problem that led to four deaths here last year, the farming community in British Columbia's Fraser Valley now has the dubious national title.

It's a moniker that Winnipeg had held since the 1990s.

While gangs are a hot topic in B.C. and Manitoba, they have a different spin in Abbotsford: They're a suburban phenomenon, with young teens from well-off middle-class families among their membership.

Police say fighting among these emerging gangs means Abbotsford-Mission now has the highest per capita murder rate, 4.7 homicides per 100,000 people.

Winnipeg now has the second-highest ranking in Canada, 4.1 murders per 100,000.

The Canadian average is 1.8.

Abbotsford Police Department spokesman Const. Ian MacDonald said there's tough competition in the community over the drug trade that feeds B.C.'s Lower Mainland and Vancouver area.

He points to Abbotsford's proximity to the U.S. border, about three kilometres away, and cheap real estate versus Vancouver's high prices.

Abbotsford-Mission is the "suburban hub" for drug trafficking, said MacDonald.

"We're not going to put our heads in the sand and say we don't have a problem," he said.

About 135,000 people live in the city of Abbotsford.

Eleven murders last year in Abbotsford and the municipality called Mission, north of Abbotsford, pack a wallop, he said.

What gets most of the headlines? The gang-related disputes between three local upstarts: the United Nations gang, the Red Scorpions and their associates, the Bacon Brothers.

MacDonald said suburban gangs are on the increase in much of B.C.'s Lower Mainland.

Abbotsford is only one of a number of cities in B.C. grappling with the issue.

"Someone was going to get the trophy," said MacDonald.

In the lobby of the gleaming Abbotsford Police Department, glossy colour brochures inform residents how to spot the green gold that drives the drug trade here: marijuana grow operations.

"The tentacles of that reach up into organized crime. Even though a lot of the leadership of those organized crime agencies have been arrested . . . the violence continues," said MacDonald.

"What we've seen is the rise of suburban gangs . . . these are not impoverished kids that they're recruiting, they're not completely disadvantaged kids that are being recruited. They're the middle class. Part of that feeds into the mass media, I think part of it, good, bad or otherwise, feeds into the family dynamic (of the youth)."

Many of the gang-related homicides that plague Winnipeg are confined to inner-city turf wars over the drug trade, not suburban middle-class kids duelling for drug profits.

Police said last year there were four murders in Abbotsford that were gang-related or likely linked to gang activity, and two that were related to domestic disputes.

Five more happened in Mission, which has a population of about 35,000 people. That included a targeted hit that killed two people.

MacDonald said some people being marked for death are not gang kingpins but drug dealers on the bottom rungs of the gang ladder.

This spring, pressure hit a boiling point after two local high school students were found shot to death on a mountain near the city after they were kidnapped at gunpoint April 30 from a park. Police said the deaths of 18-year-old Joseph Randay and 17-year old Dilsher Singh Gill last were likely connected to a drug war.

The city's mayor issued a public warning to youth involved in drug activity, even small-fry high school dealers, that they could be targeted.

MacDonald said some of the low-level dealers - who may be attracted to glorification around the gangster lifestyle in mass media - are so far removed from the top rungs of the gang they might not be aware they're treading on dangerous turf.

"Because they're so distant from the leadership and the hierarchy, they could be selling drugs for the U.N. gang and not know it, and think that they're actually selling for the Red Scorpions because they aren't close enough to the leadership to truly know," he said.

The lack of an entrenched hierarchy can create havoc, said MacDonald, if there's no gang leader to keep a clamp on "freelancing" members who strike out at rivals without clearance. Gangs are jockeying for "a lot of territory" in British Columbia's Lower Mainland.

"If you look at the Red Scorpions or you look at the U.N. gang, they're fighting over the suburbs, they're not fighting over the downtown core," he said, adding that area is controlled by more entrenched gangs.

"The suburban gangs, in the last 20 years, seem to be fighting on all of the fringes outside of the core."

Abbotsford's battle is obviously far from being over. There have been nine homicides this year and there are four months left to go.

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