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Challenging crime head-on

Finding success in combatting organized crime

Uniformed members of the CFSEU-B.C. hand out End Gang Life stickers. Credit: CFSEU-B.C.

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From drug trafficking to human trafficking, dealing with the activities of local, national and international crime groups has been one of the RCMP's strategic priorities for nearly 15 years.

In that time, the force has learned a lot about the various criminal organizations working in Canada. While no two groups are exactly the same, they're all working with the same end goal in mind — money. And they're constantly developing new strategies to get more.

Staying on trend

Supt. Guy Poudrier, director of Serious and Organized Crime, Federal Policing Criminal Operations (FPCO) at National Headquarters, says FPCO works continuously on identifying new trends and concerns.

Insp. Jean-Marc Piche, the OIC of Serious and Organized Crime, which falls under FPCO, says organized crime gro-ups are moving away from competing over territory.

"Organized crime has changed, it's not what it used to be," says Piche. "They've realized that fighting each other is not going to make money. They're going to make more money on the alliances to achieve their goals, and members should be aware of the new world of organized crime."

Combating crime

It's those relationships — both within groups and with outside associates — that are crucial to a organized crime group's success. In J Division, Insp. Allen Farrah says that was one of the major obstacles they faced in Operation J-Tornado, a three-year investigation.

Intelligence first led them to two drug rings that had been operating in New Brunswick for 20 years. Farrah adds that up until the group was disrupted, most of its members had never been arrested.

After two decades of working together, many of the group's clients and suppliers felt comfortable working with them, assuming that since they'd never been caught, that they were a safe bet.

"When you have built up that kind of friendship and loyalty to one another, you have that confidence in each other that nobody's going to spill the goods on anyone," says Farrah.

But J Division's Federal Operations West team, which at one point, involved 25 to 30 full-time investigators, did catch them. They arrested and charged 28 people and seized a large quantity of drugs including cocaine, heroin and marijuana, as well as firearms and cash.

"The very fact that they had been operating as long as they did, if you compare it to a legitimate business like a coffee shop that's been in town for 20 years, all of a sudden, if they close their doors, there are a lot of loyal customers being impacted," says Farrah.

They found that the group had been trying to establish a heroin connection in New Brunswick, hoping to corner the market on a product in an area where it's sold at $8,000 an ounce.

"To completely dismantle that, I think the impact of taking those drugs off the street is pretty straightforward," says Farrah.

Identifying the victims

From gang members to members of the board, Cpl. Breanne Chanel, with the Federal Serious and Organized Crime-Provincial Commercial Crime team in D Division, says the differences between financial crimes and the other acts that fall under the serious and organized crime banner are vast.

And they definitely require a different style of policing. While paperwork is an important part of the job in policing, data is a huge aspect of financial crime investigations. There's also a broad variation of investigations under the banner and each new case requires a lot of knowledge of criminal and civil law as well as industry regulations.

But it all comes back again to the same bottom line — money.

"I think in today's world, most crimes are done for profit, and certainly in the serious and organized crime world," says Cpl. Breanne Chanel. "Whether it be drug trade, counterfeiting, whatever the commodity that's being traded, it's all for a profit."

And the impacts of financial crime, similar to the social impacts of drugs, have more than just a financial effect on Canadian society. Chanel refers to a case she worked in 2008, where an employee of a First Nations band had been steadily redirecting funds from the band to her own personal account over the period of five years, totaling more than $1 million.

"You look at this instance and it's the band that suffers because those funds were provided for the benefit of all the people in their community," says Chanel. "Think of the social programs or the housing they could have put that towards. And I'm sure the community suffers as well in terms of loss of faith in their governing bodies and systems."

Encouraging awareness

But it seems that the higher the profits of a crime, the greater the risk to public safety. When news of Project OPAPA, a 10-month, RCMP-led investigation into human trafficking and forced labour in Hamilton, Ont., reached Canadians, they were shocked by the enormity of the crimes.

"It was obviously a big eye-opener," says Cst. Lepa Jankovic, the lead investigator on the file. "I was asking different agencies if they had any information on the trafficking of laborers and nobody did."

But Jankovic says human trafficking is so widespread in Canada, that every town that has a highway also has trafficking. The reason for that, she says, is that dealing in human commodities can be incredibly lucrative.

"If somebody's trafficking one female in the sex trade, they can make on average $1,500 a day on her, cash," says Jankovic. "If you have a couple of girls, three or four, you can pull at least a million dollars a year, easy."

Unlike trafficking in drugs, you reuse your product daily, whether in the sex trade, forced labour or domestic servitude. Jankovic adds once you find and recover the victims, they're not like a bag of cocaine that you can make an exhibit and put on a shelf somewhere — and that's one of the biggest challenges in the field.

But cases like OPAPA, where 31 individuals were arrested, 23 of them charged and 23 victims rescued, in addition to the intense media attention, have drawn more attention and awareness to the issue, making it harder for groups to operate in the shadows.

Promoting other options

Getting the public's support is crucial in both dealing with and preventing organized crime activities in Canadian communities. But the Combined Forces Special Enforcement Unit in E Division (CFSEU-B.C.) has taken a different approach to public engagement.

For the past two years, the CFSEU-B.C., has been looking into how to prevent gang membership.

"We, like many police agencies, did suppression and disruption and enforcement extremely well," says Sgt. Lindsey Houghton, the media relations officer for CFSEU-B.C. "We're always looking to improve, and what we weren't doing, at least to any degree of satisfaction, was engaging the public."

So Houghton came up with the End Gang Life campaign, which has been targeting gang members and their families, reminding them that the cost of doing business in gangs is often their lives. And if not for their own sake, but for their children's, they should re-evaluate their involvement.

So far, they've received tons of positive feedback and the campaign has even been directly linked to influencing gang members in making the decision to leave their gang, which complements and adds to all the work the rest of the team does.

"I liken this approach to a table with four legs: a three-legged table — with each leg representing suppression, disruption, and enforcement — isn't as sturdy as a table without that fourth leg, which is the prevention and education aspect," says Houghton.

They're now looking at quantifying these prevention methods by comparing how much they invest financially in helping these people end their gang lives to the costs of policing these individuals. There isn't any research right now in British Columbia on that topic and Houghton expects to find some interesting results.

"Often, in policing, prevention is an overlooked approach," says Houghton. "But it's somewhere we need to spend time, money and energy because it's extremely effective and it's always cheaper to prevent. We can be creative, we can look outside of the box and we can still be effective."

Reprinted with permission from the Pony Express (No. 6, 2014).

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