Montreal's West Island is known for being a safe, family-friendly suburb. But despite appearances, there is an active criminal undercurrent in the region.

"[Gangs are] present, but it's under control," said  Montreal police Commander Antonio Iannantuoni.

Mahad Al Mustaqim, 24, joined a West Island street gang when he was a teenager.

As the the eldest of nine kids, Al Mustaqim said he didn't have anyone to look up to, so the street gang became his family.

Al Mustaqim climbed the ranks quickly and eventually had 20 men working under him.

"When I showed the older guys I had balls … I had the courage to do things, they got me quick," he said.

Soon drugs and violence became a regular part of Al Mustaqim's life.

By the time he was 15 years-old, Al Mustaqim had been arrested. Over the years, he continued to cycle through the justice system for charges ranging from attempted murder to gun possession and extortion.

At one point, Al Mustaqim says he nearly died. A rival gang member shot him in the back while he was trying to run away.

"It was not my time to die," Al Mustaqim said.

After his third prison sentence, Al Mustaqim decided to turn to Islam and change his lifestyle.

"I was trying to look for something, trying to look for happiness and [now] I find it in the religion," he says.

Now he shares his story with other kids in the hopes that his life will serve as an example.

Gang rivalry surrounds recent West Island murder

In 2009 police launched Project ONDÉE following a wave of shootings in Montreal. The investigation targeted two groups who were fighting over the sale of narcotics in Pierrefonds.

The major police operation led to 18 arrests, but Iannantuoni says that gang activity has not decreased since.

Reputed gang leader Jonathan Klor was one of those arrested. He was sentenced to 14 years in prison on Sept. 28.

The same week Klor was sentenced, a fellow gang member was shot and killed.

On Sept. 23, a passerby discovered Jonathan Castilho  unconscious near the Beaconsfield train station on Montreal's West Island.

After being rushed to hospital, Castilho, 29, died from a gunshot wound.

It's believed Castilho was shot by rivals in an attempt to weaken the gang to which he and Klor belonged.    

Money is the top priority for West Island gangs 

At one time, gangs divided the Montreal territory according to their allegiance to the Bloods or the Crips — two major criminal organizations originally based in the U.S.

But Montreal criminologist and Bloc Québécois MP, Maria Mourani, says Montreal gangs are now more interested in money than traditional loyalties.

"Their colour is green, money ... It's no longer blue or red, it's the colour of money. That's all that counts now," said Mourani.

She said that more and more, gangs use their colour allegiance for marketing the gang life to potential recruits.

'Their colour is green, money ... It's no longer blue or red, it's the colour of money. That's all that counts now'—Maria Mourani, Criminologist and Bloc Québécois MP

Street gangs will often attempt to attract new members by targeting teenagers at school and over the internet.

Youth centres like Maison des Jeunes in Pierrefonds are working to educate young people about the risks of being in a gang.

Matt Harrison, staff representative at Maison des Jeunes, says that vulnerable teens sometimes see gang life as an attractive lifestyle.

Maison des Jeunes is near the corner of des Sources Boulevard and Pierrefonds Boulevard, a popular "business" location for gangs, according to Harrison.

"This corner has been a hotspot for a while," he said .

Despite the best efforts of his youth centre, Harrison says street gangs remain a tempting option for youth looking for a way to fit in.

"Once we close the doors, they're out in the real world again and I can't do anything about it," he said.