From heaven to hell: 18 die as drugs war rages on streets of Vancouver

The Canadian city has been named the best place in the world to live. But those halcyon days are over

Vancouver is the battlefield in a war between myriad drug gangs, which include Hell's Angels, Big Circle Boys, United Nations, Red Scorpions, Independent Soldiers and the 14K Triad. Guns – often machineguns – are fired almost daily. "We've always been told by media experts to never admit that there is a gang war," the chief of police, Jim Chu, said last month. "Let's get serious. There is a gang war and it's brutal." Vancouver's Mayor, Gregor Robertson, confessed that the police are fighting a losing battle. Since mid-January, the city has recorded 50 gang-related shootings, 18 of them fatal. And the violence is not confined to seedy neighbourhoods. The cross-fire is happening in quiet, residential cul-de-sacs and the car parks of up-scale shopping centres. It's a suburban civil war.

Nor are hardened criminals the only victims. An attack on one gangster's car killed a 24-year-old man hired to fit it with a new stereo. In February, Nicole Alemy, 23, the wife of another gangster, was gunned down in her white Cadillac – with her four-year-old son in the back seat. On Friday, police arrested James Bacon – one of three brothers who left the United Nations gang to join the Red Scorpions, intensifying the rivalry between the two – for conspiring in the deaths of four gangsters in their flat in Surrey, south-east of Vancouver. Two innocent men were forced from the hallway into the flat and also killed. Police said they intend to make more arrests over the weekend.

As Vancouver has boomed over the past two decades, attracting wealthy immigrants from across Canada and the Pacific, so too has the illegal drugs trade. It is now the third largest industry in the province, generating between C$7bn (£3.8bn) and C$8bn a year. A young, party-loving population with liberal attitudes to drugs has created strong domestic demand, while the province's mild climate and a ready supply of well-educated horticulturalists has led to supply of a premium brand of cannabis called "BC bud", produced mostly in hydroponic "grow-ops".

The drug's superior quality – "one puff and you're anaesthetised," reported one academic – also found favour with customers in the US, encouraging an imaginative corps of smugglers. Customs agents have found shipments in church vans, hollow logs and even kayaks. One enterprising crew emulated the prisoners of Stalag Luft III, digging a 110m tunnel "under the wire". The bigger problem for Canada, though, was the return trade. The US drug distributors preferred to pay in kind, with cocaine and guns.

Many commentators think Vancouver's violence is just a skirmish on the fringe of the much larger war in Mexico, where 6,000 were murdered last year as the state tried to reassert control over territories seized by drug lords. The result has been a 50 per cent rise in the price of cocaine in Canada, and correspondingly higher profits to fight over. But not everyone is convinced. Experts at Simon Fraser University argue that the problem is home-grown, and that it's exacerbated by police efforts to bang up mob leaders. "All you do is create vacancies as you put people in jail," said Ehor Boyanowsky, an associate professor of criminology. "Suddenly there's an opportunity."

In the short term, say the academics, Vancouver's problem is one of unco-ordinated enforcement. By one count, as many as 11 different agencies, including the Royal Canadian Mounted Police and local police forces, were responsible for suppressing the drugs trade. The courts are almost as confused. Canadian justice is more tolerant than America's. No one has been successfully prosecuted for simple possession of marijuana in years, and Amsterdam-style hash cafés operate in a grey zone, only occasionally being shut down. Because of judicial leniency, officers prefer to see their targets collared in the US. The "Great Escape" gang were under surveillance on both sides of the border, but were arrested in Washington.

In the long run, many British Columbians, on both left and right, accept that legalisation and regulation are the answer. Just the sales tax on C$7bn of drugs would pay for several hospitals and schools, policing costs could be reduced, property crime by addicts to pay for their drug habits would be slashed, and the gang wars could be quickly reined in. "But the international politics are unbelievable," said Dr Rob Gordon, director of Simon Fraser's school of criminology. "The DEA [US Drug Enforcement Administration] starts to foam at the mouth at the idea of there being a huge, legal marijuana farm just north of the border. Under George Bush, the concensus was that if Canada ever moved to exercise its economic sovereignty, they would shut the border down by searching every vehicle."

Until then, the best hope may be that one gang or another comes out on top, allowing it to impose stability, much as the Hell's Angel's bike gang used to do up to 15 or 20 years ago. Professor Boyanowsky said: "Those were the good old days."

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