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Drug trouble in Canada's paradise

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On site at a former drugs lab in Vancouver

By Bill Law
BBC Radio 4, Crossing Continents

The west coast Canadian city of Vancouver, home to the 2010 Winter Olympics, is routinely voted one of the best communities in the world to live in, a place people here like to think of as paradise. But there is a dark side to paradise.

Amir Javid
Amir knows the appeal of being part of a gang first hand

"Eddie said: 'Pray for me Amir'. That was the last thing he said to me: 'Pray for me.'"

Amir Javid shakes his head at the memory.

Mr Javid is in his mid 20s. He is casual, handsome, a cool dresser. He is the middle-class kid next door with the winning smile.

In his teens, though, Mr Javid ran with gangsters. His twin brother was a founding member of one of Vancouver's most notorious gangs.

Now Mr Javid is working in the schools and on the streets, trying to draw kids away from gangster culture.

"My friend was trying to transition out," he recalls. But 22-year-old Eddie Narong did not make it.

In the city's organised crime wars, Narong could have been just another statistic, another dead gang member. By the time he died Narong already had a string of convictions and he was facing drug trafficking charges.

The gangs are trying to sustain a foothold in the marketplace. They are willing to adapt quickly
Supt Doug Kiloh
RCMP

But his death in late 2007 in a smart block of flats was particularly shocking.

In all, four young gangsters and two innocent bystanders were ruthlessly murdered in an incident that has come to be known as the Surrey Massacre.

Had the murders ended there, perhaps Vancouver could have drawn a line under gang violence. But the killings have continued.

Murders

This year alone the Royal Canadian Mounted Police estimate that there have been at least 30 murders linked to gangs competing for a slice of the hugely profitable illicit drugs trade.

"The gangs are trying to sustain a foothold in the marketplace. They are willing to adapt quickly, to use violence at any level to meet their needs," says Supt Doug Kiloh of the RCMP.

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Out with the police gang task force

The RCMP have identified 133 organised crime gangs in British Columbia, with names like the UN Gang, named because of its multinational make-up. They have rapidly evolved into violent and efficient business machines.

And the gangs are flourishing in part thanks to loopholes in Canadian legislation that allows criminals to legally import what are known as precursors.

These are raw materials that are mixed with readily available household and industrial chemicals to manufacture synthetic drugs such as methamphetamine and ecstasy.

"There [the United States] a pound or a gallon of precursor is their threshold to regulate, while here we aren't regulating container loads," says Supt Kiloh.

Stricter policing of precursors in the US, and the Canadian loopholes have opened a new product line for Vancouver's drug industry - one the young gangsters were quick to spot.

The biggest market for synthetic drugs is the US, but the trade is going global. Japan, Australia and Europe are buying made-in-BC ecstasy and crystal meth.

'Clan lab'

The drugs are manufactured in clandestine labs, or "clan labs" - mini pharmaceutical factories often located in ordinary houses, in middle-class neighbourhoods.

A clandestine drugs lab
This suburban house was used to manufacture illegal drugs

Easily set up, simple to conceal, readily moved, clan labs are hard to detect.

Although the police shut down on average 35 to 40 labs each year, they believe many more are operating at any one time.

As quickly as one is closed down, others open up.

The production of the pills takes just a day or two and the profits are huge. An ecstasy tablet will fetch $10 - $15 Canadian dollars ($9 - $13.5), when it hits the streets.

The cost to make it is less than $1. The labs are capable of churning out tens of thousands of pills at a time.

The RCMP hopes new legislation will come in soon and close off the legal importation and transportation of the materials used to make synthetic drugs.

And an array of police forces are working together, in ways that they have never done before, arresting gang leaders in unprecedented numbers.

But the pull of the lifestyle, and the fast and easy money, means that kids, often as young as 14, continue to sign on to the gangs.

"We've got the crisp mountain air, we got the ocean and we've got a dirty little secret," says Amir Javid.

"We have a bad gang problem which has been lurking under the surface, doing its thing. We have allowed these guys to take control. We are living in a gangster's paradise."


Crossing Continents: Vancouver is broadcast on BBC Radio 4 on Thursday, 3 September 2009 at 1100 BST and repeated on Monday, at 2030 BST.

You can also listen to Crossing Continents on the BBC iPlayer or subscribe to the podcast .



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