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An RCMP officer passes a bullet-riddled vehicle that was involved in a targeted gang shooting on February 16, 2009 in Surrey, B.C., on display outside RCMP headquarters in Vancouver, B.C. (DARRYL DYCK)
An RCMP officer passes a bullet-riddled vehicle that was involved in a targeted gang shooting on February 16, 2009 in Surrey, B.C., on display outside RCMP headquarters in Vancouver, B.C. (DARRYL DYCK)

Expert warns B.C. gang violence is spreading to smaller centres Add to ...

A car-bombing, a downtown gunfight, a targeted drive-by killing outside a restaurant.

They are all hallmarks of Vancouver-style gang violence but it was on the streets of Prince George, B.C., that these scenes have unfolded over the past year or so.

And one gang expert says they're just a taste of what the northern hub and other B.C. cities might experience in coming years.

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Communities such as Prince George, Kelowna and Kamloops, even small centres like Fort St. John, face a threat of increased violence as gangsters look for green pastures away from increasingly hot big Canadian cities.

"It's just a matter of time," says Michael Chettleburgh, an author and private consultant on justice issues.

"We're going to see that in the next one to two years."

Mr. Chettleburgh says there's a rough equilibrium now among gangs operating outside the Vancouver area, but that could change if gangs from as far east as Toronto eye vulnerable new turf.

"We've got guys from Ottawa and Toronto going to Calgary, going to Edmonton," he says.

"They'll start to look at Kelowna and all of these other cities with dollar signs in their eyes, and that's when you see the violence."

Both Prince George and Kelowna have new anti-gang Combined Forces Special Enforcement Units, thanks to the federal and B.C. government's anti-gang counter-attack announced last winter.

But Mr. Chettleburgh worries that despite government promises to throw more resources at organized crime, police aren't ready for potential gang growth in many smaller B.C. communities, fuelled by the lucrative drug trade.

They have neither the resources nor the strategy to tackle them, says Mr. Chettleburgh, who counts as contacts street-level officers and former gang members.

A sustained gang war over the drug distribution has taken dozens of lives in Vancouver and surrounding suburbs in the last couple of years.

The government reacted last winter by bolstering the number of police and prosecutors dedicated to fighting organized crime.

Communities like Vernon and Abbotsford have responded by calling on businesses to shun known gangsters and bar gang colours from their premises.

Federal Solicitor General Peter Van Loan called Vancouver Canada's gang capital, but Mr. Chettleburgh says the label applies to all of British Columbia.

An informal organized-crime hierarchy has insinuated itself into every community with an active drug trade, he says.

Large established syndicates such as the Hells Angels and Asian triads bankroll mid-level groups such as the Vancouver-based UN Gang to set up marijuana grow operations, drug labs and distribution networks, while street gangs are recruited to peddle the product.

Sergeant Shinder Kirk of the Vancouver-based Integrated Gang Task Force says the gangsters' business model allows them to expand anywhere there's a drug market, regardless of the community's size.

"What we've found in the past few years is that these groups are cellular-based co-operatives," says Sgt. Kirk.

"Which means your head office is in one community, yet there are franchise or peripheral players who may or may not be members of the group conducting business on behalf of that established group in a different community."

Guns follow drugs, he says.

"Once you have drugs, you will have weapons in order to protect that market share or to protect your interests," says Sgt. Kirk.

"When you have those both, the propensity for violence increases exponentially. You may not see it manifested but the threat is always there."

Kelowna Mayor Sharon Shepherd says the prosperous Okanagan city's gang profile appears low so far.

"There are no visible street gangs but we know for sure there are a lot of grow-ops and Kelowna's the centre for drug distribution," she says.

Mr. Chettleburgh says civic politicians don't always have a clear understanding of the connection between local gangs and the larger drug trade.

"A mayor who says, look we don't have any visible gang activity is fooling himself," he says.

"We know across the country that gangs, even at the street level, are getting more sophisticated and are trying to not show who they are because they know that attracts police attention."

Sergeant Raj Sidhu, second in command of Prince George's new anti-gang Combined Forces Special Enforcement Unit, said gang members in his northern B.C. city tend to be average, middle-class high-school graduates.

"You look at them and you couldn't even tell they're gang members. Some are totally nice, clean-cut," says Sgt. Sidhu, who's policed Prince George for 15 years.

Gang activity there is heavily influenced by what's happening in Vancouver, Sgt. Sidhu says.

Some come from the Lower Mainland but most are local people who've established ties to Vancouver gangs.

Sgt. Sidhu's Prince George 16-member unit and its counterpart in Kelowna, are a result of the federal and B.C. government's highly touted anti-gang strategy announced last winter.

They promised $69-million for 168 new officers to tackle the problem, as well as 10 additional Crown prosecutors to handle gang cases.

But with the B.C. drug trade conservatively worth $6-billion to $8-billion, Mr. Chettleburgh says it's hardly enough.

"Police could readily double the size of their gang units and still be playing catch-up," he says.

When investigations succeed in breaking the power of one gang, another is always ready to fill the vacuum. There's just too much money to be made.

"It's a giant game of whack-a-mole," says Mr. Chettleburgh. "It's like getting rid of dandelions on your lawn by snipping off their heads.

"If you don't deal with the fuelling factors it's never going to make a difference."

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