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T MAY be just a pinprick compared with the mayhem in Mexico. But for many of the 2.2m residents of Vancouver, accustomed to idyllic calm, a spate of gun killings is starting to give their city the aura of Prohibition-era Chicago. In violent battles over power and money, brazen young bandits are blowing each other to pieces for a piece of another prohibited market—that for drugs.|
The latest involved a young man gunned down as he left a party on February 2nd. A fortnight earlier two gunmen fired on a Land Rover as it arrived at a downtown steakhouse, killing a cocaine dealer just out of prison and another gangster. The most shocking of 21 gang killings in the city last year was the execution of six men, four of them known villains, in a suburban flat.
Canada's murder rate is still only a third of that in the United States. But violence by gangs (now estimated to number 950) has been rising for two decades. Vancouver seems to have become its new centre, thanks to its importance as a hub for the production and export of marijuana. The drug trade in the province of British Columbia generates an estimated C$7 billion ($7 billion) a year, creating a glitzy gang culture where, as a Vancouver policeman moans, “handguns are as ubiquitous as cellphones.”
The police have set up a specialist team of city and provincial officers to target the gangs. But there have been no arrests in connection with the latest shootings, and few prosecutions over the past 20 years. The gangsters take care not to leave witnesses or evidence.
They are helped, too, by police undermanning. Superintendent John Robin, who heads the gang task-force, says he can monitor fewer than a third of the 129 gangs in British Columbia. The provincial government is doing rather more than the city, which last year added only 17 extra police (the force wanted 65 more). The federal government is introducing tougher laws on gun crime and drug trafficking, and promises to pay for 2,500 extra police; Wally Oppal, British Columbia's attorney-general, hopes for an extra 350 of them for the province.
Some would like to see British Columbia learn from Quebec's success in tackling biker gangs. Its provincial government has spent more than C$115m over the past decade on special teams of prosecutors and police and a fortified court, arresting 134 bikers and convicting most of them. Traditionally, British Columbians have been laid back about drugs. With each shooting they are becoming less so.