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David Banh was dead, slumped over in the driver's seat of a white SUV, when police drove into the parking lot of a pizza restaurant in East Vancouver. Less than 48 hours later, 24-year-old Lionel Tan was shot dead at a Husky gas station, about 15 minutes away from the pizza place. It looked as if he had just gotten out of his car to go into the convenience store; the engine on a silver BMW convertible near the body was still running when police arrived.

The brazen killings last week, which police say had the hallmarks of gangland murders, occurred despite the arrests in the past few weeks of men who were allegedly prominent figures in three of the most active gangs in B.C. - the Red Scorpions, the Independent Soldiers and the UN gang. With almost daily shootings on city streets, police efforts so far have had no visible impact on gang activity.

International surveys continue to remind Vancouver that Canada's Olympic city is widely regarded as the best place in the world to live. But with almost daily carnage on the streets, Vancouver is losing its stellar reputation nearly as fast as the seconds speed by on the city clock that marks the time to the opening ceremonies of the 2010 Winter Games next February.

For months, civic boosters were concerned about how Olympic fans would react to the drug-infested Downtown Eastside neighbourhood. The Independent, a British newspaper, raised the stakes recently, questioning whether Olympic fans will be safe anywhere in the city.

Julian Sher, co-author of The Road to Hell: How the Biker Gangs are Conquering Canada and Angels of Death, Inside the Bikers Global Crime Empire, said in an interview this week that the recent arrests of people allegedly associated with gangs were likely no more than "an opening volley by police" and not a signal that gang violence has been squelched.

"It's an indication that the battle is beginning," Mr. Sher said. "[The police are saying,]let the war begin."

The violence in Vancouver is reminiscent of Montreal in the late 1990s, when the city lost control of its streets to gang rivalry. More than 160 people, including several innocent bystanders, were killed or seriously injured before police regained the upper hand.

Mr. Sher said that errors made in Montreal may have been repeated in Vancouver. The shootings and killings are shrugged off as long as victims are gang members targeting each other and no innocent bystanders are affected. "Police, and to some degree the public and even politicians, initially take an attitude that this is the gangs cleaning up their own garbage," Mr. Sher said. "So [everyone]lets it slide, it gets out of hand and the gangs develop an attitude they can get away with murder."

"What is frightening about the gunplay over the past few months," he added, "is not just the body count, which is significant. It's the arrogance, that Al-Capone-style arrogance that this is my city and I can do what I want with impunity."

Marijuana's lethal costs

More than 20 people have been killed in the Vancouver region since the beginning of this year in what police describe as targeted shootings. No one - neither police, prosecutors nor political leaders - has offered a suggestion for when the violence will end.

Despite the apparent impotence of the authorities, the root cause of the violence is no secret. Police repeatedly point to B.C.'s marijuana trade as the prime source. Estimates of the value of the illegal trade indicate the business is something that some feel is worth fighting over, ranging anywhere from $1-billion to as much as $7-billion.

Numerous recent court cases have revealed that B.C. drug dealers sell the marijuana into a U.S. distribution system in exchange for cocaine, guns and U.S. currency. Violence erupts as vertically integrated groups compete for control over production and distribution of their products.

Police routinely bust British Columbians involved in running indoor marijuana grow operations. Almost every week, three or four Canadians who are nabbed while trying to smuggle drugs and guns across the border are brought before a U.S. court judge, a U.S. attorney said in a recent interview.

Authorities south of the border have also tracked a high number of gangs in Washington State with links to Mexican gangs that are in the midst of their own deadly competition over the drug trade. The University of San Diego Trans-Border Institute says 7,337 people have died in drug-related violence in Mexico since January of 2007.

In Quebec, where rival gangs battled over control of the drug trade, the beginning of the end came in March of 2001. It was then that more than 2,000 police officers across the province carried out more than 130 arrest warrants and seized gang assets, including 20 buildings, 70 firearms and millions of dollars in cash, crime reporter and author Paul Cherry wrote in The Biker Trials, Bringing Down the Hells Angels.

An international biker gang called the Bandidos mounted an effort to take over the drug turf abandoned by the Hells Angels and its rival, the Rock Machine, after the arrests, Mr. Cherry wrote. Police effectively undermined the control of the Bandidos on June 1, 2002, with 62 arrest warrants that led to charges of drug trafficking and conspiracy to commit murder.

Within three years, the homicide rate in Montreal fell to the lowest among Canada's five biggest cities. Last year, Montreal had its lowest number of homicides since 1972.

Michel Auger, a crime reporter for more than 40 years who wrote extensively about the bloody gang war in Montreal, was shot six times in the back in 2000, but survived without serious injury. He said in an interview this week that the violence in Montreal came to an end only after police arrested those at the top of the criminal organizations.

Street gangs cannot be viewed in isolation, he said. "There is no other way. You have to get to the top." Authorities have to be prepared to spend "a lot of money" on investigators and prosecutors, Mr. Auger added. "Otherwise you are going to catch only low-level operators."

But Vancouver police face hurdles that were not part of the scene in Montreal, Mr. Auger added. Montreal police were going after known and experienced criminals in their investigation of the Hells Angels; police could reasonably predict the biker gang's tactics. Vancouver police are confronting street gangs made up of young offenders who are not as organized as bikers. Also, more guns are on the street and huge profits from drug production and trafficking have attracted more criminals.

Police in B.C. this week readily admitted that the gang war is nowhere near over. "We're not going to think that arresting a couple of people is going to resolve this," said RCMP Corporal Dale Carr, a spokesman for the Vancouver region's integrated homicide investigation team.

The IHIT officers earlier this month made four arrests of alleged gang members in the so-called Surrey Six case, in which two innocent bystanders were killed in an exchange of gunfire that also claimed the lives of four men linked to gangs. A few weeks earlier, Vancouver police arrested five men linked to a gang conflict in southeast Vancouver between the so-called Sanghera group and the Buttar gang.

Superintendent Rob Rothwell of the Vancouver Police Department said gangs have been destabilized by recent arrests as members wonder who they can trust, what information police might have and who the next police targets might be.

"Once the gang loses that element of trust amongst themselves, the gang essentially disintegrates and they lose their power base, so, although not every gang member is in jail, the gang itself can no longer function as an effective unit," he said, adding that the "sobering effect" can be as effective as arrests and charges.

He acknowledged that the gang war is not over. "But I would certainly agree we have been very effective in destabilizing the gang activity," he said.

Mr. Sher said the recent arrests appear to be a significant breakthrough in the effort to stop the shootings and killings in public places. "But the cops I speak to," he said, "are not yet bringing out any bottles of champagne."

Follow on Twitter: @ianabailey

 

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