Winnipeg's gangs: Splintered, chaotic and prone to violence
Gangsters a 'significant portion of the violence we are seeing,' say Winnipeg police
Gangs are nothing new to Winnipeg, and the experts don't think there are any more gang members now, than in recent years.
But as the city creeps closer to tying its own infamous record for homicides in a calendar year, some are pointing to a change in gang culture playing a significant role in that violence.
"It's almost a little more chaotic these days than it was back in the day," Mitch Bourbonniere, a community outreach worker, says of the gang underbelly of Winnipeg.
Gang members in Winnipeg are striking out on their own into smaller factions, without regard for established hierarchies.
"If I had to say there's a slight change, it would be the people," said Bourbonniere. "It doesn't seem like people are as organized and loyal and it seems like the structure is lacking."
The violence perpetrated by splintered gangs is one factor behind a mounting homicide tally that is approaching the record set in 2011, of 41 killings in a single year. The city has recorded 40 homicides in 2019 as of Tuesday.
In addition to the worrying rise in homicides, Winnipeg has experienced a spike in property crimes and violence fuelled by a methamphetamine crisis.
Splinter groups harder to track
The Winnipeg Police Service has no doubt some of the blame for the violence falls squarely on gangsters.
"It's a significant portion of the violence we are seeing," Insp. Max Waddell of the organized crime unit said. "It's over turf wars, it's over disputes, it's random acts of violence that are committed to allow entry into a gang.
"It's a combination of all the types of crimes that the gang members become involved in that we're seeing the result of … today."
Gangs like Indian Posse, Manitoba Warriors, Native Syndicate and Mad Cowz remain entrenched in the city, while other cells such as Bloods and Triple M are big players as well, Waddell said.
He estimates there are 1,500 full gang members in the city and 2,500 associates. Waddell said the total number of gangsters has stayed roughly the same over the years.
He reasoned that some of Winnipeg's gangs split into smaller cells to avoid detection.
"They have understood from [court] disclosure that if they can split, they can conquer by many," Waddell said.
These days, gang members are more prone to violent outbursts, he said. Fights once waged over fisticuffs are sometimes settled over firearms.
The smaller cells are harder to track, he said. They don't usually wear the same colours or symbols to stand out.
Waddell said some gangs have eaten themselves from within through infighting, which forces a split.
"It's more difficult from a policing perspective because we now have to track more unorganized and more groups that don't have structure and identifiers to them," Waddell said.
Winnipeg police decided earlier this year to launch a dedicated guns and gangs unit to combat growing violence.
Poverty a major factor in gang recruitment
While a lot has changed, Bourbonniere said the status and financial reward of gang membership is still seductive to people, often living in poorer areas, with nowhere to turn. He said the kinship is appealing when family is already ingrained in the lifestyle.
And there will always be people willing to replace those who have left.
"If some of the more organized people are being held accountable, it still leaves the field wide open for other folks to come in," he said.
Kathleen Buddle, a University of Manitoba associate professor of cultural anthropology, has studied gangs in Winnipeg for around 15 years.
Nowadays, she says, there's a lot of people with a "floating membership" who only participate in certain tasks, rather than every one.
There's constant turnover among young people who are placed in precarious roles within the criminal organization because they're expendable, Buddle said.
"They often will be doing the dirty work for the more high-ranking members," she said.
She is reluctant to describe the issue of "gang violence" using those terms, because it dismisses the underlying causes that actually cause someone to join.
"To call it specifically gang violence, I'm not sure how productive that is," Buddle said. "I think sometimes when we call something gang violence, it allows us to blame the victim."
"It just allows us to sweep it under the rug and not take any responsibility as a community for the violence that's happening."
It is true that Winnipeg has a number of Indigenous and newcomer gangs, she said, but race is a poor indicator of gang involvement. She said poverty, homelessness and mental health issues are more relevant.
She said people join gangs because of the sense of belonging it provides. For some members, it's the only family they have.
"It's not so much again a conscious choice to become a criminal, as it is a conscious choice to want to remain involved with one's family."