About 120 criminal gangs operate in British Columbia. Some are notorious for their illegal activities and have become well-known to the public, but many others do their best to maintain a low profile and don't even have names.

The best-known gangs are not necessarily the most dangerous or most powerful, Supt. Pat Fogarty said in an interview. He's the police officer in charge of the Organized Crime Branch of B.C.'s Combined Forces Special Enforcement Unit, which keeps tabs on the activities of gangs and their members and gets them behind bars when necessary.

Membership can be fluid and there are various levels of gang affiliation. Criminals may move between gangs, and gangs themselves come and go. It makes headlines when groups feud and the violence spills into the public streets, but gang members often collaborate as well.

The drug trade is their major area of operation for most criminal gangs, but they go where the money is.

"This is business to them," Fogarty told CBC News.

Gangs have been operating for over a century in Vancouver, according to the Vancouver police department, but "have become far more prevalent and visible in the last few decades." Some of the higher-profile groups active on Canada's west coast today are offshoots of international criminal organizations, while others are home-grown.

The Red Scorpions

About 11 years ago several young gangsters doing time at a youth detention facility in the lower mainland formed the Red Scorpions.

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Jonathan Bacon, a leader of the Red Scorpion gang, died in a hail of bullets in Kelowna on Aug 14. (CBC)

A few years later in Abbotsford the Bacon brothers — Jonathan, Jarrod and Jamie — began a crime spree while living with their middle-class parents.

The two groups got together around 2006, joining forces to compete against the United Nations gang and the Hells Angels. The three Bacon brothers took over leadership of the Scorpions.

Fogarty described the brothers as "completely fearless."

The gang is into the drug trade, especially "dial-a-dope," an operation based on clients phoning in their order, then the gang arranging fast delivery — and raking in huge profits.

Gang members sport "RS" tattoos on their wrists and/or necks. Membership is believed to be multicultural.

Jonathan Bacon, the oldest brother at 30, was shot dead  in Kelowna on Aug. 14, 2011.

Jarrod, 28, is in custody  awaiting trial on cocaine trafficking charges.

Jamie, 26, is serving time on weapons and drugs charges but is also charged with first-degree murder in connection with the shooting of six men  in a Surrey apartment in 2007.

As a result of the turmoil among its leadership, Fogarty views the Red Scorpions as "out of it" now in terms of its place in the west coast gang hierarchy.

Independent Soldiers

The Independent Soldiers, or IS, brought together Indo-Canadian gangsters in southeast Vancouver about a decade ago. They were first known as the Sunset Boys, after the Sunset Community Centre where they were active.

The gang is reported to be more ethnically diverse today.

In 2005 IS leader Sukhvinder Singh (Bicky) Dosanjh died in a car accident, leaving the outfit in disarray. After getting out of jail in 2007 Parminder Singh (Peter) Adiwal took over. In 2009 he took 20 bullets in a Burnaby parking lot, but survived.

IS member James Riach, 29, was also in the Porsche Cayenne when Red Scorpion member Jonathan Bacon was shot in Kelowna, but Riach fled.

Hells Angels

The Hells Angels, declared a "national criminal organization" by the Ontario Superior Court in 2009, was then estimated to have about 460 full members in Canada. Criminal Intelligence Service Canada (CISC) also reported that eight of the Angels' 34 chapters were in B.C., which would make them the largest gang in the country.

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The Hells Angels have 8 B.C. chapters, as of 2009. (CBC)

CISC has also said that the B.C. Hells Angels have a close relationship to what they call "traditional" organized crime, through social ties and business connections.

Unlike the other gangs it's not easy to become a full-patch members of the Angels. According to Fogarty, some crooks have started their own gangs because they did not want to go through the two-year indoctrination to become an Angel.

Full-patch Angels act independently but each one may use non-members or 'associates' for whatever criminal activity they are into. For the B.C. Hells Angels, the favorite businesses are drugs, prostitution and money laundering.

Larry Amero, a full-patch member of Angels' White Rock chapter, was also injured in the Kelowna shooting that killed Jonathan Bacon.

United Nations

The United Nations gang chose that name because it claims to welcome members of any nationality. The UN was founded in 1997 by Clay Roueche, who brought together high school friends from around the Fraser Valley.

According to police, from early on Roueche, 35, had links to the triads — criminal organizations in Asia. Fogarty described the UN under Roueche as capable and smart, and good at bringing in other people.

At its peak the gang had 100 members, according to a 2011 CBC documentary, The gangster next door.

The gang displays its logo on t-shirts, rings, tattoos and even bricks of cocaine, as well as the gravestones of members killed in action.

The UN has made lots of money using helicopters to move cannabis across the border into the U.S. and cocaine into B.C.

Since about 2006, there has been a strong rivalry and even hatred between the UN and the Red Scorpions, Fogarty told CBC News.

Roueche has been serving a 30-year sentence in the U.S. since his arrest there in 2008 on drug trafficking charges. Conor D’Monte, 33, who police say is now the leader of the UN, has been charged  with the 2009 first-degree murder of a Red Scorpions member, but remains at large.

Police suggest the fortunes of the UN, the RS and the IS are currently trending down in the west coast crime scene.

Asian gangs

The names, logos and rituals of the more notorious gangs are usually absent among the Asian gangs in B.C. Instead, they have taken advantage of globalization to establish international connections and are quite entrepreneurial, according to Fogarty.

The Canadian Asian gangs are into the drug trade and prostitution, and are especially dominant in the methamphetamine trade.

An estimated 70 per cent of Canada's meth lab production happens in B.C. and most it is for the international market, especially the U.S. and Australia. The meth trade requires much more expertise than cocaine production, for example. Precursor materials have to be imported illegally, then there's the lab work, and then distribution of the methamphetamine.

The gangs involved have extensive international networks, CISC reports.