‘It’s not the same’ Gang violence in Metro Vancouver

Since the beginning of this year, more than 20 people have been killed and injured by gang-related shootings

Vancouver Police Officer in vehicle. (Flickr/ British Columbia Emergency Photography)

When 24-year-old Red Scorpion gang member Gary Kang was shot to death in his parents’ home in South Surrey on Jan. 6, the Lower Mainland didn’t know a gang war was about to unfold in the months ahead.

The following day, 29-year-old Anees Mohammed was gunned down at around 8:30 pm in Richmond near McMath Secondary School.

Since the early 1900s, gangs have been a part of the Lower Mainland. Over the five months of this year, the region has witnessed more than 20 shootings linked to gang violence. Many are in public spaces like restaurants, mall parking lots, and even at the Vancouver International Airport.

The Red Scorpions, the United Nations, and the Brothers Keepers are some of the B.C. gangs that have been involved.

The conflicts between gangs in Metro Vancouver have gained attention worldwide, especially after the YVR shooting in May.

In that month alone, the region saw gang-related shootings at Market Crossing in Burnaby, near Lafarge Lake in Coquitlam, and the Scottsdale Centre mall parking lot on the Surrey-Delta border.

The pandemic could be a possible reason why the public has seen an increase in gang violence.

Dr. Keiron McConnell, a criminology instructor at Kwantlen Polytechnic University, has spent years researching gangs in B.C., Chicago, L.A., and London, England. He says there has always been a gang problem in the Lower Mainland, but the recent surge is not the same as previous waves.

“In the last six months, we’ve seen a significant increase in the violence, and the violence does come in waves, but this is a very significant wave,” says McConnell.

“One of the reasons why we’re seeing the murders increase is because the people are wearing masks in public spaces. This all makes it easier for people to get closer to the targets, and therefore they’re more successful at shooting people,” he says.

“People are less likely to be alarmed and take evasive action when they see somebody coming towards them wearing a mask.”

McConnell says in the gang-related shooting at the Vancouver International Airport on May 13, United Nations gang member Karman Grewal went inside wearing a hoodie and a mask. If Grewal were to wear a mask before the pandemic, McConnell says people would have reacted differently to his clothing.

“So now, shooters get to be closer to their targets, and the targets are less likely to be able to react and defend themselves.”

With more than 20 gang-related deaths this year, McConnell says the homicide rate has gone up compared to previous years. Although there has been an increase, he says we’re at the crest of the wave of violence, and the public should not worry, as it should decrease soon.

Vancouver Sun crime reporter Kim Bolan says the pandemic has created more competition in the drug trade, which may be a reason as to why there’s been a rise in activity lately.

“During the pandemic, there’ve been more challenges for those involved in the drug trade to make money. Lots of people are still buying drugs, but supply has been impacted by the borders being shut down. Most of the product comes from the United States, or elsewhere, in commercial trucks, and those are still moving across the border,” says Bolan.

With the U.S. and Canadian borders closed to the majority of the public due to health and safety orders, Bolan says it creates more tension, and if there’s more competition, it can lead to violence within gangs.

In other cases, “sometimes it’s literally just a battle over territory in the drug trade — they want to take over the drug lines in a certain city. So, they target the members of the gang that currently control that area. Right now, we’ve seen a lot of tip-for-cash shootings that are literally retaliation for the one that happened a few days earlier,” says Bolan.

In addition to the borders being closed, Bolan says the gang-related shootings have been happening more in public spaces due to gang members having unknown tracking devices on their vehicles.

“They’re getting them where they have the opportunity to get them, and unfortunately, that’s often in public spaces,” Bolan says.

“[They are] putting these devices on their cars so that they know their habits. So, they know when they go to the shopping centre, the gym, and those are their opportunities to shoot them, and there are also opportunities where other people are put at risk.”

In a recent story by Bolan for the Vancouver Sun, she explains that the tracking devices use free Wi-Fi hot zones to monitor the location and look for regular routines in the person’s schedule.

With the recent wave of gang violence, Bolan says she’s noticed that it’s “young kids” who are becoming involved in gangs and that they are willing to pick up a firearm and kill.

According to a South Asian Community Coalition Against Youth Violence report, older gang members will target youth, most of whom don’t have a criminal record. If police catch these teenagers or young adults, they may get a more lenient sentence or no time in jail compared to someone older or with a criminal record.

The Yo Bro | Yo Girl Youth Initiative is an organization that runs a series of programs in Surrey, Vancouver, and Chilliwack school districts to help at-risk youth and empower them with tools to avoid being involved in drugs, gangs, and violence.

According to their website, “gangs in Surrey are recruiting children as young as 10 years old to do some of their most dangerous work.”

Joe Calendino, executive director and co-founder of the organization, says early prevention is important to prevent youth from joining gangs.

Calendino is a former member of the Hells Angels and a self-described recovering drug addict. He uses his past experiences to help others.

“There’s no good outcome from various different lifestyles, whether it’s gangs, drugs, and so on,” he says.

In the organization’s 2020 impact report, Calendino said unstable home situations and a lack of positive extracurricular activities and stable mentors can make youth more vulnerable to gang recruitment. The report added that the pandemic and isolation at home could make already at-risk youth more vulnerable to gang recruitment.

YBYG offers eight programs in the classroom, after school, and during school breaks. One of the programs they offer is Keep it Real, consisting of in-classroom presentations from ex-gang members, former drug users, law enforcement officers, and Yo Bro Yo Girl alumni to bring awareness to youth drug and gang issues.

Calendino says the advice he would give to youth is “if it doesn’t feel right in your gut, don’t do it. For kids that are invested in a certain lifestyle, there’s always a way out. I’m an ex full patch member of the Hells Angels, recovering drug addict, and I’m working in schools alongside law enforcement, working with various different municipal governments. If I’m here, all of you can be here.”

Dacious Richardson, one of the mentors at YBYG, says Calendino transformed his life.

“Joe has always been a great mentor to me. He opened his arms and treated me like his son,” says.

Richardson was born in Liberia in 1997, in the middle of a civil war. When he was young, he faced the local rebel forces trying to take boys out of people’s homes. Richardson’s mother hid him under the bed so he wouldn’t be taken. He and his family came to Canada in 2011. They arrived in Surrey, but Richardson felt alone — he had no friends and didn’t speak English.

“If immigrants and refugees don’t get connected to the community quickly, they find themselves meeting bad friends and following people they shouldn’t,” Richardson told the YBYG. “They become involved with gangs, get into trouble and end up walking down the total wrong life path.”

“We need a program that will offer these kids opportunity, because not many people have money [to] afford programs, for kids to learn something and build character,” says Richardson. “If we have programs that set the cornerstone for them, especially from elementary school, that will be very great.”

YBYG also offers an after-school, girls-only education program called Know Means No. The program educates young women on what healthy relationships should look like. They learn how to maintain boundaries, project confidence, and de-escalate tense situations.

A report by the Surrey Anti-Gang Family Empowerment program said studies have “generally focused on gang involvement being a primarily male activity.”

Although the majority of gangs in Canada are male-dominated, they usually contain a few female members. Female youth may be assigned risky tasks, such as holding drugs or weapons, because they are considered to be a less obvious target to police, according to the report.

Tracey Corbett, a youth outreach worker and team leader for the female gang intervention prevention program run by the Pacific Community Resources Society, says women can join gangs for various reasons.

“There’s different reasons why females would be involved in gangs, versus males,” says Corbett. “A lot of times, females can get involved by their boyfriends, and other times it can be the glamour of it.”

The female gang intervention prevention program is part of SAFE and focuses on young women aged 12 to 19 who are involved with gangs, at risk of gang involvement, or are involved in the sex trade.

Corbett says social media plays a significant factor in gangs luring youth into a criminal lifestyle.

“With COVID, there’s been so much more recruitment through social media. Youth are way more on their phones because they’ve been more isolated,” says Corbett.

“Gangs have been using social media apps to recruit teens for criminal activity. It’s sad because these are young youth that are vulnerable and they’re being exploited criminally.”

On July 6, the PCRS is planning to launch Project Magenta, a program that aims to develop the self-esteem of female participants and help them build positive connections and healthy relationships within their community.

The 15-week program is for youth at risk for gang recruitment, gang activity, and sexual exploitation and will develop life skills like writing a resume and interviewing for a job.

Youth will have the opportunity to listen to speakers about different jobs and take part in a five-week paid work experience at a job they’re interested in.

Criminology instructor and retired RCMP staff sergeant John Cater says helping even one person makes it worth it, and it takes a community effort to help youth.

Cater teaches a variety of courses at Douglas College, including a specialized course about gang activity and organized crime.

“I will watch news items about a young man who’s lost his life or a young person in the gang war, and I have to be honest, it actually makes me tear up a bit,” says Cater.

“It is a community effort, but it has to be, sort of, portioned out. There are some people who are just dangerous people, and the police [and courts] are just gonna have to do their thing,” says Cater. “I get terribly interested and excited and passionate about trying to educate young people.”

“There’s a ton of misinformation about that out there,” says Cater. “When I present the facts to the students, it makes me kind of proud that I’m presenting to them how the police actually do it, and what the law is.”

Corbett says building a connection and relationship with youth is important and can make a huge difference in a young person.

“The more positive relationships a youth has, the less likely they’re going to go down these roads of crime, and going to get connections in ways that are not healthy,” says Corbett.

“Having a role model, or having someone positive in their life to show them or to model what healthy relationships are, I think it’s huge.”