VANCOUVER – Constables Phil Gomes and Mike Clark – a.k.a. Shake ‘n’ Bake – are 27 and 28, clean-cut and solidly built, and together form the newest and least-known front in Mexico’s drug wars: Canada.
Members of the coveted Integrated Gang Task Force in British Columbia, their orders are to “disrupt and dismantle” drug gangs, many of which maintain a cocaine lifeline to Mexico.
They don’t talk about it much, but they spend their days chasing down the “bad guys” and “sitting on” drug houses around Vancouver and the Lower Mainland of B.C.
While the U.S. Attorney General’s Office calls the Mexican drug cartels a “national security threat” and says 230 American cities have been infiltrated, the port city of Vancouver may be Canada’s first to feel the fallout from the crackdown on Mexico’s drug lords.
Already this year in the Vancouver area – nicknamed the gang capital of Canada – there have been 30 shootings (with 12 fatalities) directly linked to the gang shakeout in Mexico and tracked by the Washington-based Council on Hemispheric Affairs. Some 130 gangs operate in B.C., among them Red Scorpions, United Nations, MS-13, Bacon Brothers, Hells Angels and various independents – all with ties of varying degrees to lucrative Mexican cocaine, among other drugs from other places.
“Vancouver and British Columbia are unfortunately the focus of the largest number of organized crime groups in Canada,” warned Peter Van Loan, federal public safety minister and solicitor-general, in a speech in Langley this year. A few days earlier, a gangster died nearby in a Mexican-style execution by machine-gun fire at the Thunderbird Village Mall.
In Mexico, where nearly 11,000 have died since Mexican President Felipe Calderón launched his government’s “war on drugs” in 2006, drug-fuelled gangs impale heads on stakes and dissolve thousands of corpses in acid.
In Tijuana, a border town almost due south down the I-5 from Vancouver, there are three, maybe four drug murders a day and cartel henchmen take down local cops for sport.
In Vancouver, police are witnessing an escalation in the brutality of killings. Recently, in an apparently targeted hit, a gangster shot a young mother in her car as her 4-year-old sat in the back seat. Once, such actions were forbidden by established drug protocol. Now, collateral damage is routine in the slaughterhouse of gangland hits.
IT’S THE “ARMED and dangerous” label describing the parolee that chills when it pops up on the police laptop. It’s in bold type, hard to miss.
Still, Gomes and Clark have no choice but to locate the guy. They climb out of their Chevy Tahoe and begin that unconscious pat-down of gear cops do. They check vests and pockets and give their side arms a tap; Gomes carries a Glock and his partner, Clark, a Sig-Sauer P-226.
It’s coming up on 10 p.m. on a Friday, and they’re on rounds in Langley, on the south side of the Fraser River, about 40 kilometres from Vancouver. They’re doing a curfew check on an “associate” of the United Nations, a criminal organization with ties to Mexico and the world’s deadliest drug cartels.
It’s a full moon, but the light is watery. This could turn bad: a lethal force option. Gomes heads up the walk to the three-storey townhouse, rings the buzzer, and then knocks.
“POLICE,” he shouts. “Open up!”
The man isn’t home – a breach of recognizance – and they’ll issue an arrest warrant. Their mood brightens but, as Gomes says, “You just never know what’s on the other side of the door.”
RCMP SUPT. Pat Fogarty, operations officer with the Combined Forces Special Enforcement Unit (CFSEU), attributes the spike in Vancouver-area gang shootings directly to the police crackdown in Mexico. What’s more, he knew it was coming.
“We saw this Mexican war starting to shake things up six months ago,” he says in an interview in a hotel lobby in Surrey, a neighbouring municipality to Langley. The hotel is across the street from another site on our narco-murder tour, the parking lot of the busy Guildford Mall, scene of a recent execution.
“Things had been going well (in the cocaine trade) – and we’re talking about a significant, efficient business,” says Fogarty, 41. With his tailored brown suit, snappy loafers, red hair and freckles, he has the preppy look of any professional about to make a PowerPoint presentation. Except his is about the genesis of guns, gangs and drugs.
“Suddenly, you reduce supply and,” he says in understatement, “things start to happen.”
Sometime last fall, he saw the price of cocaine on the street soar from the $29,000-$32,000-a-kilo range to more than $55,000 per kilo, although it’s gone back down to the regular price in recent months. “Next thing you know, (dealers) are saying they can’t get their hands on coke at any price. They’re losing customers – and, remember, this is a leveraged business. So the war disrupts the flow of cocaine and people fight to survive … this is about power and greed.”
Fogarty makes another point, one that’s similar to arguments just as often heard these days in Mexican border cities Tijuana and Ciudad Juárez, where police attribute wildly escalating brutality to the military crackdown on cartels and a seismic shift in the value system of the latest crop of narco lords (if one can indeed talk about ethics among thieves, kidnappers, scoundrels and assassins).
“I hear it all the time – the problems with the new generation,” begins Fogarty. “There doesn’t appear to be one gang that controls the rest in B.C., but there are a lot of shootings among a new generation that’s quick to the gun and wants fast money, fast cars and women, and doesn’t want to work hard. The established value system, I’m told, is eroding.”
Fogarty elaborates: “These young guys want to be feared and respected fast – but what seems to be missing are the more mature, powerful elements who put them in their place and say, `Hey, we don’t do things that way.'”
It’s about survival. The older generation of gangsters, according to Fogarty, cleaves to a low profile, very low. They’re not big on Dodge City shootouts and understand the dangers of public outrage hovering at the boil and police all over the place. It’s their business, and they’ve got a lot to lose. Like everything.
Fogarty pauses, laughs: “Youth today!”
IT’S ALMOST 2 a.m. on Saturday morning, and Gomes and Clark have clocked well over a hundred kilometres, checking in on bar and restaurant programs where staffers text police when gangsters show up. They cruise mall parking lots where the drill’s the same: type in the plate numbers and see what pops out of the system. In between, they inhale four-cheese pizzas and gallons of Timmy’s brew.
Before the bars close downtown, their teams hit the Gastown bar scene and scope out the rat-infested alleys of the Downtown East Side, where the sick prey upon the weak, exploitation at its cruellest. It’s up to addicts to place their orders from idling cars, as tattooed driver/dealers show off portable drug buffets – all you can ingest for a price, possibly death. And so convenient.
Dealers on foot roughly shake awake drugged-out zombies and try to force down that last 20-rock of crack cocaine or another cheapo tab of ecstasy. Ultimately, however, nothing clears out an alley like the slow drive-by of a big, black cop-mobile.
It’s been an okay night. Gomes and Clark have their arrest warrant to take another Red Scorpion gangster out of circulation, albeit temporarily and if he can be located. A fellow team collars three gang “associates” in Langley, charging one Red Scorpion with murder in the machine-gun execution and another with attempted murder by sledgehammer.
They have a couple of hours of paperwork before they take a break and do it all again tomorrow night. Gomes and Clark may not see it this way, but they are integral to the drug war on Canada’s northern front. Neither do they mention their bravery citations: Gomes (home squad, Delta) for pulling elderly residents out of a nursing home with a gas leak; Clark (from the Vancouver department) for tackling dangerous home invaders on the run.
“Hey, hoser, how’s it going?” asks a buddy, leaning in on the driver’s door.
“Just living the dream,” says Gomes. “Living the dream.”
– Article from The Toronto Star on May 30, 2009