Canadian gang violence linked to Mexico drug wars

The increase in gang violence in Vancouver and other Canadian cities has direct ties to the drug-cartel wars that have terrorized Mexico and some American border towns, say Canadian and U.S. police.

The increase in gang violence in Vancouver and other Canadian cities has direct ties to the drug-cartel wars that have terrorized Mexico and some American border communities, say Canadian and U.S. police.

Violence has reached a fever pitch in parts of Mexico, where the government of President Felipe Calderon has sent in 45,000 soldiers and 5,000 federal police to try to curb cartel activity. More than 7,000 people have died in the last two years, with 1,000 deaths this January alone.

The United States has felt the impact, with the cartels sending assassins across the border and more cells springing up across the country to distribute cocaine from the south.

Those distribution lines ultimately lead to Canada, making this country far from immune to what's going on in Mexico, says RCMP Supt. Pat Fogarty of the combined forces special enforcement unit.

Recent gang-related violence in British Columbia and elsewhere is "directly related to this Mexican war," he said in an interview Tuesday.

Almost all cocaine in Canada comes via Mexico, the hub for South American producers. Canadian-based organized-crime groups buy the drug either directly from the cartels in Mexico, or from middlemen in Los Angeles and other American cities.

'Guns come out'

When the supply of cocaine is hampered by crackdowns in Mexico or the United States and the price goes up, says Fogarty, competition for the remaining kilos gets tense in Canada. The bigger players with good supply lines into the south prevail, leaving the smaller ones scrambling.

"People are running around, trying to find other sources of cocaine. The price goes up and the guns come out," said Fogarty.

"It's really about power. The people up here want the nice car, the money and the flashy girl beside them, and if they lose that, they lose that status and the power."

Canada came up several times at a high-profile U.S. Drug Enforcement Agency news conference last week. The agency announced it had arrested 750 people linked to the notorious Sinaloa cartel, and had seized more than 23 tonnes of drugs.

"From Washington to Maine, we have disrupted this cartel's domestic operations — arresting U.S. cell heads… and seriously impacting their Canadian drug operations as well," acting administrator Michele Leonhart told reporters.

Canadian-U.S, co-operation

The agency wouldn't point to a specific case where Canadian police assisted with so-called Operation Xcellerator, although Fogarty says the RCMP is constantly collaborating with its American counterparts on trafficking cases.

Special Agent Jeffrey Wagner of the agency's global enforcement unit says the cartels have established cells or distribution points close to the Canadian border. Those cells will help funnel the cocaine to points north. They use flatbed trucks covered with commercial merchandise, or even cars.

Although Mexicans aren't generally at the helm of Canadian gangs, organized crime in Canada does have contact with the Sinaloa and Gulf cartels in Mexico.

"I don't think it's a stretch to see there might be emissaries or people associated with those organizations making trips for negotiations, or to see operations, or to be treated by the people they're selling to," said Wagner.

"It's a business, you have people coming from one sector of the world to see what's going on in another sector," he said.

The gangs don't always deal with cash. Often, he said, the Canadians will trade the coke for readily available ecstasy or pot.

"What happens is the organizations, instead of smuggling currency over the border to pay for cocaine to bring up and then again smuggling ecstasy or marijuana over the border, they look at it as a way to pay their debt," Wagner said.

Canada's Foreign Affairs Department last week revised its travel report for Mexico, warning Canadian tourists to avoid areas around the U.S. border, especially Ciudad Juarez and Tijuana.

Popular tourist destinations such as Puerto Vallarta, the Mayan Riviera and Hualtuco have not been singled out, although the resort towns of Cabo San Lucas and Acapulco are located in the affected states of Baja California and Guerrero.