Vancouver Struggles With Gang Violence
Long Cycle of Drug-Related Homicides Plagues Indian Immigrant Community
By DeNeen L. Brown
Washington Post Foreign Service
Thursday, July 22, 2004; Page A12
VANCOUVER, B.C. -- The killings were brazen, often carried out execution-style, police said.
The most famous case involved a masked man who walked up to a notorious drug dealer on a dance floor and fired a bullet into his head behind the ear.
The dealer dropped to the crowded floor. Witnesses told police that they saw nothing.
In the past 13 years, police have reported 76 young men killed in the Vancouver area in gang-related violence. The authorities blame drug deals gone bad and local turf wars, mostly involving well-to-do young people of Indian descent.
Immigrant community leaders in Vancouver complain of police inaction. Police say they have tried, but have been unable to develop leads that would stop the bloodshed.
"They are Indo-Canadians killing Indo-Canadians," said Kash Heed, commanding officer of the 3rd Police District in Vancouver. "Seventy-six murders . . . mainly within one ethnic group. The cycle of violence, we've not cracked it yet."
Canadians are not accustomed to seeing widespread gun violence at home. Canada, with strict firearms laws, has lower levels of such crimes than does the United States. According to the government's Canada Firearms Center, the rate of murders committed with firearms in 2001 was 6.5 times higher in the United States than in Canada.
"The community is quite upset and worried about this violence and killing," said Balwant Singh Gill, president of the Guru Nanak Sikh Gurdwara, one of the largest Sikh temples in North America, with 37,000 members. The Sikh religious minority of India has at least 19 million adherents worldwide.
"The laws of this land are lenient," Gill said, seated at his temple, surrounded by bushes of pink and red roses. "Only a few of the murders have been solved," he said. Gill said he has been threatened with violence, apparently by gang members, because he has spoken out against their activity. In one incident, shots were fired at his house. Police confirmed the threats against him.
The gangs deal mostly in marijuana, according to police, and specialize in a popular variety grown in the province called B.C. bud. "B.C. bud marijuana is highly sought after in the United States," said constable Alex Borden of the Royal Canadian Mounted Police.
"It is often exchanged for cocaine, cash or firearms. It is a deal between two criminal gangs, one on the south side of the border and one on the north side, guns for marijuana," Borden said. "If there is violence in our streets and firearms are involved, we are concerned the firearms come from across the border."
In Blaine, Wash., Joe Giuliano, assistant chief at the local U.S. Border Patrol office, said 23 Canadian smugglers have been arrested on the U.S. side of the border this year. "Virtually all marijuana smuggling in the past fiscal year is either directly or indirectly tied back to the Indo-Canadian community," Giuliano said.
Amar Randhawa, 28, co-founder of UNITED, the Unified Network of Indo-Canadians for Togetherness and Education Through Discussion, said Canadian police have not been aggressive enough in tracking down leads to stop the killings. "Out here, it's a slap on the hand," Randhawa said. "Law enforcement can't crack the lower hierarchy, let alone get to the top."
Randhawa said he knew many of the victims and killers, and a number of them attended high school together. "Their background is Punjab Sikhs, ranging in age from 18 to 35," Randhawa said. "They were all my generation. Sometimes we know who the people are. Everyone knows. It's the worst-kept secret. Police know, but you don't see them cracking down."
© 2004 The Washington Post Company
Balwant Singh Gill, who heads a Sikh temple, said shots were fired at his house, apparently by gang members.
(Deneen L. Brown -- The Washington Post)