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Vancouver Struggles With Gang Violence

By admin | July 25, 2004

By DeNeen L. Brown
Washington Post Foreign Service
Thursday, July 22, 2004.

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.”

Police describe the problem as a closed cycle of murder and revenge.

“One day suspect, and the next day victim,” said Heed, the police commander. “One day you are the shooter. The next day you’re lying in your coffin.”

He said the killings can be traced to a dispute between Bindy Johal and Ron Donsanjh, two notorious drug dealers. First Donsanjh’s brother Jimmy was killed in February 1994.

“Johal was the supposed suspect,” Heed said, and Ron Donsanjh heard about it. “They challenged one another. ‘Come get me! No, come get me!’ ” Heed recounted.

Two months later, Ron Donsanjh, 29, was killed in a drive-by shooting.

Johal was arrested in connection with both slayings. Johal’s trial was one of the most expensive in Canadian history, officials said, because it was surrounded by intense security measures. But the trial ended in acquittal.

A juror, Gillian Guess, was later charged and convicted of obstruction of justice, because she had a relationship with one of the co-defendants, authorities said.

But Johal was freed. Four years later, in December 1998, he was killed at a Vancouver nightclub. Police said a masked man shot him in the back of the head, then fled. No one has been charged in Johal’s slaying.

The story of Johal inspires young men who have been recruited in high schools to become gang members like him, Heed said.

“We still have Indo-Canadian males who want to be the next Johal,” he said. “When you talk to them they don’t realize they have a short life span. They have the image of Johal’s lifestyle: the cars, the money, the women. They did not see Johal in jail crying and scared.”

The gang members are often from well-off families, local leaders and officials said. “Unlike in other countries, people involved in the gang activity here are not the poor or disadvantaged,” said Wallace T. Oppal, a justice of the Court of Appeal of British Columbia. “For the most part, kids involved here are people who come from middle-class and upper-class homes. They get involved for the glamour.”

Oppal said parental neglect is sometimes a factor. “Parents are devoted to not only buying the first home, but the second home and third home,” he said from his chambers. “They provide their children with the means, but not the guidance.”

Oppal said he also knew some of those involved in the violence. “The community is relatively small,” he said. “People know one another. I get stopped all the time. People want to talk about it. This is the number one issue in the community.”

Oppal cited the manslaughter conviction of Hardip Uppal, a bright student who had won a scholarship. “He was a person with impeccable background,” Oppal said. “He killed someone in a drug deal.”

Uppal organized the killing of Gurpreet Sohi on Sept. 14, 2000, according to testimony, because he was seeking revenge for the wounding of his brother a few days before. Another man was the gunman, but Uppal was the setup man, making sure Sohi was home at the appointed time.

“He put his own skin ahead of his friend’s life,” said Paul Williamson, the judge who sentenced him to five years in prison.

He called the killing a “coldblooded execution of a victim sitting in his home. This dreadful, amoral cycle of bloodletting, violence and vigilante-like retribution must end,” Williamson said at the sentencing hearing.

Gill, the president of the Sikh temple, said police have said they need more leads. “Some people are scared to open their mouths because they are afraid they will get killed,” he said.

Heed acknowledged that police are criticized for not stopping the violence, but said the families of gang members need to help solve the problem. Family members, he said, deny their sons are involved in crime.

“We’ve gone to notify people their son was killed and they have been in such denial they slammed the door in the police officer’s face,” Heed said. “They don’t want to believe their child is involved. . . . They will ask the question to their dying day after their son is murdered why they didn’t do something.”

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