Former Hells Angels member Joe Calendino poses for a photograph at L.A. Matheson Secondary School where he facilitates an after-school program for students, in Surrey, B.C., on Tuesday June 4, 2019. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Darryl Dyck

Former Hells Angels member Joe Calendino poses for a photograph at L.A. Matheson Secondary School where he facilitates an after-school program for students, in Surrey, B.C., on Tuesday June 4, 2019. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Darryl Dyck

Middle-class gang violence in B.C. breaks from history with higher stakes

Gangs in B.C. are not a new phenomenon

Police officer Keiron McConnell had been on the job four months when a call crackled over the radio about a stolen vehicle.

The driver was arrested after a short chase, but when McConnell was told the young man was a gang member, it shattered his understanding of what that meant.

“Everything I thought about gangs up to this point had kind of come from the movies ‘Colors,’ ‘Boyz n the Hood,’ that kind of stuff,” McConnell said.

“This young fellow lived on the west side of Vancouver, mom and dad still lived in the house, they were wealthy by 1990s standards, his siblings were successful in school. So it was like, what is it about this kid that got him involved?”

The question plagued McConnell as he watched the pattern of seemingly privileged, middle-class young men choosing a life of crime repeat itself.

About 15 years after that arrest, he explored the question of what makes British Columbia’s landscape so unlike any other through a PhD.

Established wisdom, he found, aligned with the stereotypes he’d carried into the job. Traditional gang members in cities like Chicago are young men born into poor neighbourhoods without any options — a rational response to irrational circumstances.

That’s not always the case in B.C.

“In B.C., gangs are, generally speaking, an irrational response to rational circumstances,” he said.

An evolving gang landscape

Gangs in B.C. are not a new phenomenon.

The outlaw McLean gang was executed in a group hanging in 1881 after terrorizing the Kamloops community and killing a police officer. Newspapers in the 1940s documented clashes in Vancouver between military personnel and flamboyantly dressed zoot suitors on Granville Street. And the aptly-named “park gangs” staked territorial claims to the city’s parks in the 1960s and 1970s.

The notorious Hells Angels opened their first B.C. chapter in 1983 and would come to dominate organized crime across Canada by around 2000. Police consider the outlaw motorcycle gang a “top-echelon” criminal organization like the Mafia, operating in more than 20 countries.

Others like the United Nations, Red Scorpions and Brothers Keepers have emerged at the mid-level and the province’s anti-gang agency says much of that structure remains in place today.

“The main conflicts are still there, however, you see now the gangs are more loosely tied,” said Sgt. Brenda Winpenny, spokeswoman for the Combined Forces Special Enforcement Unit, the provincial anti-gang agency.

Also distinctive today is how quickly allegiances shift and the number of lower-level “cells” or unnamed subgroups emerging, she said.

It makes defining and quantifying the number of gangs difficult. The number of gangs controlling criminal markets listed by the anti-gang agency grew from a handful in 1980 to 188 by 2011, but there’s no available estimate today.

The Criminal Code defines a gang as a group of three or more people with the main purpose of committing or facilitating serious offences for financial benefit. But many so-called ”gangsters” don’t identify with the word.

“A lot of these kids, they’re not seeing themselves joining the gang,” McConnell said.

If you’re selling illicit drugs though, you’re associated, he said.

“You’re not independent, or if you are, you’re not independent for very long. You have to get the drugs from somebody and the drugs are coming in from organized crime and filtering down to mid-level and low-level street gangs.”

In contrast to the military-like hierarchy of the Hells Angels, McConnell likened the structure of many gangs today to a “bag of marbles.” They are not tied to particular geographic areas but move location and shift loyalty according to business opportunity.

And with that has come more public violence.

When Canada’s homicide rate reached 660 in 2017 —the highest in almost a decade — Statistics Canada attributed part of the spike to gang-related violence and shootings, singling out British Columbia as a hot spot. The province saw the homicide rate rise by 32 per cent that year.

The homicide rate in B.C. levelled off again in 2018 but gang-related violence continues to represent 37 per cent of all killings in the province.

“In the, quote, ‘good old days,’ when the Hells Angels were in control of the whole lot, those acts of violence were minimal because they would go and talk to people about behaviour and about expectations and about attitudes, and if you did not listen carefully there were consequences,” said Rob Gordon, a criminologist at Simon Fraser University in Burnaby, B.C.

“There’s no subtlety anymore. I’m being a sentimentalist.”

READ MORE: The unusual suspects: B.C.’s middle-class gang problem

Violent new stakes

Joe Calendino was lying on a prison floor, emaciated and sick from drug withdrawal symptoms when he says he hit rock bottom.

He was a member of the Hells Angels’ infamous Nomads chapter when he was busted selling $10 worth of crack cocaine to an undercover cop.

It was the moment he began turning his life around, which he says was possible because the outlaw motorcycle club was ready to cut him loose.

But the gang landscape has shifted so dramatically in the 10 years since then that today’s youth won’t have the same second chance, Calendino said.

“There’s no rock bottom anymore, it’s a grave,” he said.

Calendino now works with youth in gang prevention and intervention through his non-profit Yo Bro Yo Girl Youth Initiative. The organization offers programming in classrooms, after school and during school breaks that aim to keep kids busy, active and empowered with support from positive role models to choose a healthier life path.

When he looks back on his early entry into criminal life, beginning with drugs in Grade 8 and high school fights with other kids, he said the stakes were different than those facing the kids today.

“We didn’t go around shooting each other. We got into fights, a man or boy got beat up and it was over, it was done. You may have fought someone 10 to 15 times but you never ever thought of picking up a gun and going to shoot him,” he said.

Vancouver Police Chief Adam Palmer told reporters in January 2018 that the region was experiencing a swell of gang-related violence unparalleled in the past 10 years after an innocent 15-year-old was killed by a stray bullet while his family was driving past a shootout.

Several groups are at odds over drugs and killing one another, Palmer said.

For McConnell, today’s middle-class gangsters aren’t too different from the young man from west Vancouver he arrested in the 1990s.

Two years ago, he was speaking with a “wealthy” father of two young men at risk of violence.

“I pleaded with him to use his wealth to get his kids out of the country and he didn’t. And his one son was shot and killed in Surrey and at the same time, his other son was shot five times.”

‘Easy money’

Officials say many of the middle-class young men stepping off school and career paths to pursue criminal businesses see it as a legitimate career opportunity.

They begin working low level “dial-a-dope” lines, where users can order drugs by phone for delivery or meet up, with the promise of growth.

“It’s the pizza delivery service of drug dealing,” Winpenny said, adding that it’s also the riskiest position in the line because it means dealing directly with addicts and acting as an easy target for rival gangs.

“These young kids are being recruited into this promise of making some easy money,” she said. “But the higher ups are sort of insulating themselves from that violence.”

It’s the entry point into a much more complex organizational structure. A 2018 report by an anti-gang task force in the Vancouver suburb of Surrey found many gangsters are profit driven and operate enterprises similar to traditional businesses. Gangs in B.C. are more sophisticated than in other parts of Canada and some even require new members to pay for training, it says.

Their product, primarily, is drugs.

READ MORE: B.C. families left broken and confused when kids’ deaths labelled gang-related

Historically, British Columbia’s “porous” ports, with no dedicated patrolling force, made it an attractive hub for the international trade, Gordon said. And its temperate climate allowed it to become a major producer of marijuana, for which a thriving black market persists despite legalization last October.

Newer products — the deadly opioid fentanyl and its analogues — now present an even more lucrative business opportunity. The extremely concentrated painkillers are cheap to produce in China and even easier to transport than other drugs, since they can be ordered on the dark web and sent by regular mail.

Chief Const. Mike Serr of the Abbotsford Police Department, who also chairs the drug advisory committee for the Canadian Association of Chiefs of Police, said in May that quantifying the profitability of opioids is difficult since they are typically cut with other drugs rather than sold “pure.”

For comparison, he said one kilogram of pure heroin typically costs $70,000 and would be added to a cutting agent to produce two kilograms worth of drugs for street sales.

One kilogram of fentanyl costs roughly $12,500 but can be mixed with 100 kilograms of a cutting agent for street sale because it’s so potent. Estimating that profit is difficult because it may be sold under several different drug names with different concentrations, and in much smaller quantities than one kilogram at a time, but $1 million isn’t out of the ball park, he said.

When you consider analogues like carfentanil are significantly more concentrated than fentanyl, the profit margins are exponential.

“If someone said 10 years ago, can you make the perfect drug, carfentanil and fentanyl would be, unfortunately, the drug because it’s cheap, it’s much easier to import, it’s easier to source,” he said.

Amy Smart and Laura Kane, The Canadian Press


Like us on Facebook and follow us on Twitter.

Just Posted

Surrey RCMP in the 4900-block of 148th Street, a short road just off of King George Boulevard, on May 15, 2021 after a male was allegedly assaulted with a “pipe-like” weapon that morning. (Photo: Shane MacKichan)
Surrey RCMP investigating after person reportedly injured with ‘pipe-like’ weapon

Police investigating incident in the 4900-block of 148th Street

Surrey Fire Service battled a fire at an apartment building in Fleetwood late Friday night (May 14), near 84th Avenue and 160th Street. (Photo: Shane MacKichan)
UPDATE: Surrey firefighters continue to work to put out ‘stubborn’ fire

Four-storey building located at 84th Avenue near 160th Street; crews on scene for nearly 12 hours

The leadership team at Johnston Heights Secondary is looking to raise money for the Canadian Cancer Society through the Relay for Life, planned as an online and in-person event (following COVID-19 restrictions) for the week of June 1 to 7.
Pushed back a year, Surrey students well on their way to Relay for Life fundraising goal

Johnston Heights Leadership Team aims to raise $6,500 for Canadian Cancer Society

The Independent Investigations Office of BC (IIO) (File Photo)
Police watchdog investigating after man found dead in South Surrey following a wellness check

IIO says officers ‘reportedly spoke to a man at the home before departing’

Daily confirmed COVID-19 cases reported to B.C. public health, seven-day rolling average in white, to May 12, 2021. (B.C. Centre for Disease Control)
B.C. preparing ‘Restart 2.0’ from COVID-19 as June approaches

Daily infections fall below 500 Friday, down to 387 in hospital

On Friday, May 14 at Meadow Gardens Golf Club in Pitt Meadows, Michael Caan joined a very elite club of golfers who have shot under 60 (Instagram)
Crowds at English Bay were blasted with a large beam of light from an RCMP Air-1 helicopter on Friday, May 14. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Marc Grandmaison
Police enlist RCMP helicopter to disperse thousands crowded on Vancouver beach

On Friday night, police were witness to ‘several thousand people staying well into the evening’

Cannabis bought in British Columbia (Ashley Wadhwani/Black Press Media)
Is it time to start thinking about greener ways to package cannabis?

Packaging suppliers are still figuring eco-friendly and affordable packaging options that fit the mandates of Cannabis Regulations

People shop in Chinatown in Vancouver on Friday, February 5, 2021. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Jonathan Hayward
Vancouver community leaders call for action following 717% rise in anti-Asian hate crimes

‘The alarming rise of anti-Asian hate in Canada and south of the border shows Asians have not been fully accepted in North America,’ says Carol Lee

Sinikka Gay Elliott was reported missing on Salt Spring Island on Wednesday, May 12. (Courtesty Salt Spring RCMP)
Body of UBC professor found on Salt Spring Island, no foul play suspected

Sinikka Elliott taught sociology at the university

The first Black judge named to the BC Supreme Court, Selwyn Romilly, was handcuffed at 9:15 a.m. May 14 while walking along the seawall. (YouTube/Screen grab)
Police apologize after wrongly arresting B.C.’s first Black Supreme Court Justice

At 81 years old, the retired judge was handcuffed in public while out for a walk Friday morning

Dr. Steve Beerman, of Nanaimo, shows off his Dr. David Bishop Gold Medal, awarded for distinguished medical service. (Karl Yu/News Bulletin)
Queen presents Vancouver Island doctor with award for global drowning prevention

Dr. Steve Beerman receives Royal Life Saving Society’s King Edward VII Cup at virtual ceremony

Former UFV Cascades wrestling coach Arjan Singh Bhullar is now the ONE heavyweight champion after defeating Brandon Vera via TKO in round two on Saturday in Singapore. (ONE Championship)
Former UFV wrestling coach wins MMA championship

Arjan Singh Bhullar captures ONE heavyweight title, first Indian origin fighter to achieve honour

Most Read