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Edmonton police say the economic downturn has likely played a role.


Abdikadir Mohamed was shot early on New Year's Day outside a hookah bar in a gritty Edmonton neighbourhood known as Alberta Avenue. His murder set the tone for the next four months, as the pace of slayings in Edmonton is matching the city's all-time high.

Since Mr. Mohamed's killing, Edmonton has had 18 more murders. Those 19 murders match the number in the same period five years ago, when the city was dubbed the murder capital of Canada. Police blame an unprecedented number of guns on city streets and drug-related conflict, all made worse by an ailing economy.

Edmonton Mayor Don Iveson and police stress that the city is still safe for most of its citizens. In fact, overall violent crime rates are down so far in 2016. However, a small group of people connected to street-level drug distribution have been at the centre of many of the deaths.

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"The vast majority of these cases appear to be individuals who are known to each other and the violence is targeted and related quite often to drug activity," Mr. Iveson told The Globe and Mail.

"We've seen trends upwards in Alberta over the past year, both in Calgary and province-wide, it's difficult to say if this is specific to Edmonton or a broader trend, certainly it's concerning to see the numbers," he said.

Canada's energy sector shed more than 100,000 jobs in 2015, causing Edmonton's unemployment rate to shoot up to 7.2 per cent. Alberta's capital region has long been the blue-collar working heart of the oil sands, helping provide much of the maintenance support that keeps the province's northern oil and gas industry working.

In September, 2015, Edmonton police chief Rod Knecht blamed an influx of unemployed oil workers for an increase in crime in his city.

"The economy has some part to play in what we're seeing," Edmonton Police Superintendent Mark Neufeld said on Friday afternoon. "It appears more likely that a depressed economy simply exacerbates existing risk factors."

Unlike today, the province's economy was booming in 2011, when Edmonton was dubbed the murder capital of Canada – 48 homicides were recorded that year. In 2011, the provincial economy soared by 6.4 per cent, the fastest pace in the past decade.

In 2011, the city's homicide section got additional officers to help cope with the increase. Those extra cops were never redeployed, and have now been supplemented by more investigators pulled from other divisions within the city police.

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Four murders were reported in the past week, and arrests have been made in only two of 19 murders.

Calgary police are investigating five murders so far this year and the province's RCMP detachments are looking into 13. Part of what might be going on, according to Edmonton police, is that the city is catching up with the province-wide rash of murders seen in 2015.

Edmonton had 31 homicides last year, an average number, police say. However, the RCMP investigated a record 65 murders outside of the two major cities, and Calgary police investigated 40 murders.

"We often look at homicides in a given year, but as you know, it's not like Jan. 1 [is] an Etch-a-sketch: We shake it and the ones from the previous year go away," Supt. Neufeld said.

While the amounts of the drug fentanyl and a more powerful opiate called W-18 seized in the city have increased, police could not link the higher number of murders to a specific drug.

What sets 2016 apart has been the number of murders involving firearms. Ten of the 19 so far have been linked to gunfire. Guns were used in 11 murders in 2011.

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"These are not guns that are grandpa's .22 that was stolen off the farm. These are high-end guns, and that's definitely a concern for us," Supt. Neufeld said.

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