Keeping youth away from gangs takes more than a strong police presence.

That end of the equation is vital but, without prevention, the fight against organized street crime becomes a vicious cycle, according to Montreal police Cmdr. Antonio Iannantuoni.

"The police cannot do it alone," he said. "We can arrest people and all that, but it's an ongoing game. We've got to look deeper – what can be done to solve these problems."

Recent federal budget cuts have jeopardized the future of the Montreal police force's specialized Eclipse Squad, which fights gang activity.

Now the service is putting more effort on prevention through community involvement.

But it's the community at large, the people who come in contact with youth every day, that has the most important role to play, he said.

"In the West Island, the community is very strong, but people have to raise red flags," he said.

Mentorship vital

Mahad Al Mustaqim, a former Pierrefonds gang member, uses his story to try and reach kids before they feel the lure of the streets.

"When you have a criminal record, that blocks you from many things," he told a group of teens gathered at the A-Ma-Baie youth centre.

"It prevents you from getting into a job that you want. Do you understand?"

Al Mustaqim was a teenager when he was recruited. He sold drugs, got caught and did three stints in prison.

'When I took the decision to leave the street and the gangs, my goal was to help people,' —Mahad Al Mustaqim, former gang member

He knows gang leaders often look for vulnerable kids to add to their ranks. He hopes his story will deter at least some from choosing the same path.

"When I took the decision to leave the street and the gangs, my goal was to help people so, days like that, I feel like I've completed my mission," Al Mustaqim said as he left the youth centre.

Cmdr. Iannantuoni said mentors, parents, older siblings and other role models all have a part to play in steering young people away from gangs.

One of the first signs that something is amiss can be as simple as changes in friends and new items that can't be accounted for. 

If kids show up with new clothes or phones or cash and they can't explain where it came from, it's important to have a discussion and ask questions, he said.

"It's not normal that your kid is in school and he comes in with all this money and all that," he said. "Flags have to be raised."