Walking through a shopping arcade in Vancouver’s Gastown on a sunny afternoon I almost bump into four men huddled in a corner of an outdoor staircase. They are young; three are pale and greasy looking with stringy fair hair and black leather jackets, one is black. They glance up at me briefly, startled, and shrink together, turning their backs to me, bent over something. The black man peels bills off a wad so big it fills his fist; the sweet smell of hashish floats on the air.
I am surprised to see hash being sold so openly in a respectable public place, but this is Vancouver, the narcotic capital of Canada, home to an army of 10,000 junkies, prostitutes, pimps, pushers, beggars, thieves and killers, a sleazy city of smugglers and con men where the stock exchange is notorious for fraud and organized crime is quietly buying up legitimate business and investing in real estate.
Crime is Vancouver’s growth industry. Its core is a booming heroin trade — it is estimated that half the North American supply of heroin from South East Asia is imported via British Columbia. More than two tons of heroin pass through BC to the United States every year. BC addicts consume more than 1,000 pounds of heroin worth $255 million a year; cocaine and “soft” drugs account for an equal amount.
Drugs have become such a serious problem in Vancouver that the province has established the Coordinated Law Enforcement Unit, a task force of RCMP and city police, to investigate organized crime. CLEU’s initial report gives a shocking outline of the Vancouver underworld.
According to the report the traffic in narcotics is controlled by eight or 10 Vancouver syndicates: some are Oriental, the others Canadian. The profits are staggering. A pound of heroin can be bought in Asia for $7,500. It sells to the top man in Vancouver for $25,000. By the time it is cut or diluted and placed in gelatin capsules it is worth $3,000 an ounce to the middle man. An ounce yields 900 caps which sell to street dealers at $600 for a bundle of 25. The dealer pushes them to addicts for $35 to $40 a cap.
A junkie with a two-cap-a-day habit needs $25,550 a year to buy heroin. He usually gets it by begging, theft, mugging, fencing, pushing or armed robbery. Violent crime in BC has more than doubled in the last 10 years and CLEU authorities estimate that 70% of it is connected with drugs. The more adventurous steal dope from the syndicates; they often end up in a back alley with a bullet in the back. Murders in Vancouver increased 20% last year. Junkies will kill each other on contract to a syndicate boss for as little as $500, say CLEU police.
Narcotics are the visible tip of an organized crime pyramid in Vancouver. Profits from the drug trade are siphoned off into commercial crime. The CLEU report states that up to 30% of the mining and small industrial stocks on the Vancouver exchange are manipulated. A group of 25 to 50 people with criminal records, including known gambling promoters and drug dealers, are involved in the market. Four loan-sharking operations are known to exist in British Columbia; three are connected with drug trafficking. Organized crime is also active in cargo theft from the waterfront and airport, stolen and counterfeit securities, gambling, “planned” bankruptcies and tax evasion.
Commercial crime enables crooks to launder “dirty” money by giving it a more respectable front. The money is then invested in legitimate businesses — hotels, nightclubs, apartment blocks — and real estate. There is considerable evidence that organized crime has made its way into the mainstream of Vancouver’s commercial and industrial life. The city reeks of corruption.
“Organized crime is not out of control,” says BC Attorney-General Alex Macdonald, who set up the CLEU task force. “We should be optimistic that we are not like New Jersey where the thing has become so deep-rooted that it has corrupted politicians, infiltrated police and the judiciary.” But last year a member of the RCMP drug squad was convicted of trafficking in hashish; three more officers were dismissed from the force and 12 were transferred. Police claim to know the names of the people at the top of the drug syndicates; six have been extradited to theU.S.to face narcotics charges there but none have been prosecuted here.
Press reports and radio shows fan public hysteria with periodic features about Granville St. dope fiends, yet they remain mysteriously quiet about the structure, operations and ringleaders of the drug industry. Commercial crime is virtually ignored. Few stock frauds are prosecuted successfully, no loan sharks have been charged. “The risk of apprehension and conviction is so slight that a financier would probably not consider it important to be insulated from the operation,” says the task force report. Smuggling is not even mentioned as a criminal activity in the CLEU report and the cause of wholesale theft on the waterfront remains unknown. Police plead lack of manpower. Is it apathy, ignorance, or a conspiracy of silence?
The city is thriving; business, construction and real estate are booming. Nobody wants to give the city a bad name, scare away tourists, frighten future investors. So they keep quiet. “Funny there never has been a book written about the drug trade in Vancouver,” says journalist Barry Broadfoot, “but chances are good that you’d wind up dead under a clump of bushes out in Langley.” Protected by phalanxes of front men, middle men, promoters, proxies and phony companies, the big fish in the Vancouver underworld maintain a low profile. Nobody knows how high the syndicate network actually reaches.
Vancouver is not the only Canadian city where organized crime has gained a foothold. In Toronto a millionaire developer hires a man to murder his wife, a bookie is blown up in his car, a Winnipeg businessman has his legs broken with a baseball bat. Evidence of organized crime is surfacing everywhere. There has never been a federal investigation. I wonder why.
The story you want is part of the Maclean’s Archives. To access it, log in here or sign up for your free 30-day trial.
Experience anything and everything Maclean's has ever published — over 3,500 issues and 150,000 articles, images and advertisements — since 1905. Browse on your own, or explore our curated collections and timely recommendations.WATCH THIS VIDEO for highlights of everything the Maclean's Archives has to offer.