Ottawa faces calls to clamp down on organized crime— especially bikers
About once a week, the nine members of the House subcommittee on organized crime secretly gather in a spacious room on Parliament Hill. There has been no prior notice of the meeting, no published witness list and certainly no media invited to report on the proceedings. Outside, a security official stands guard. As unusual as the precautions appear, members have also discussed sweeping the room for electronic bugs and requesting police protection, proposals still under consideration. “Were dealing with very dangerous people,” says Bloc Québécois MP Pierrette Venne. “Some MPs have received threats and they are afraid for themselves and their families.” But mostly, adds Gurmant Grewal of the Canadian Alliance, the strict security measures are to reassure the witnesses. “We wouldn’t get some people to testify if they thought their names would get out,” he told Maclean's.
No wonder. Even before the brazen daylight shooting of Montreal crime reporter Michel Auger last month, the MPs had learned enough about the scourge they were investigating to be wary. They had already been briefed on the deadly turf war between rival biker gangs in Montreal, which, by police reckoning, has left 154 dead, including some bystanders, over the past six years. They had heard of the gangs’ attempts to threaten and bribe juries, the murder of two prison guards, and of efforts to fuel the illicit drug trade by intimidating Quebec farmers into allowing marijuana to be grown on their land. And they knew that one of their own, Bloc Québécois MP Yvan Loubier, remained under special RCMP protection after he, his wife and young daughter received death threats last year because he complained about the farmers’ plight.
But now there was something new. Last May, recently appointed RCMP commissioner Giuliano Zaccardelli, the subcommittee’s first witness, warned that Canadian society was being systematically penetrated by four types of organized gangs—the bikers, the Mafia, and East European and Asian mobs—whose activities have taken them well beyond traditional crimes involving drugs, gambling, extortion and prostitution and into people-smuggling and “increasingly elaborate forms of financial crime.” Then, Zaccardelli invoked an unexpected spectre, that Canada’s very political system may be subject to corruption. As he explained to reporters last month, “For the first time in this country, we are seeing signs of criminal organizations that are so sophisticated that they are focusing on destabilizing certain aspects of our society”—even the parliamentary system.
If true, the evidence of Canada’s top crime fighter leaves the committee and the government grappling with an enemy capable of perverting the country’s most cherished institutions. And efforts by the most notorious of Montreal’s warring biker gangs, the Hells Angels and the Rock Machine, to work out a peace agreement only heighten the peril. Enemies united make exponentially more formidable adversaries to law enforcement, says Grewal. “It’s a case of two plus two equaling five for the bad guys,” he notes.
For many, the present and future danger calls for the most drastic of solutions. Some politicians, particularly the Bloc in Ottawa and the Parti Québécois in Quebec, are demanding that the federal government declare an outright ban on membership in organized crime groups, civil liberties be damned. Not since the War Measures Act was used against the Front de libération du Québec during the October Crisis 30 years ago has membership in an organization been considered a crime in Canada. But Bloc Leader Gilles Duceppe insists the draconian measure is needed, even if it requires overriding guarantees in Canada’s Charter of Rights and Freedoms by invoking the notwithstanding clause. “If such a law would have [captured] the FLQ, so be it,” Duceppe told Maclean's. “The FLQ was not a democratic organization.”
Invoking the notwithstanding clause is not an option. Prime Minister Jean Chrétien, who was among those who convinced Pierre Trudeau to include the controversial provision in the 1982 Constitution, noted with pride recently that he had been correct in predicting it would seldom be used. But now, facing an election, the Liberal government is anxious to counter opposition charges that it is soft on crime. In question period recently, Justice Minister Anne McLellan did her best to show the government is taking the problem seriously. “We are looking at all possible measures in terms of dealing with the challenges of organized crime,” she said. “We believe there is much we can do both in terms of the enforcement side and the legislation side that does not involve us using the notwithstanding clause.”
Sources have told Maclean's that department lawyers are drawing up proposals to give McLellan several options for putting more teeth in the law, without resorting to criminalizing membership in specific gangs. They include making provisions against intimidation stronger, giving judges the option of keeping the identity of jury members from defendants, and expanding the ability of the police to break the law in undercover operations. The bureaucrats are also investigating measures deployed by other countries to crack down on organized crime. “There’s plenty of room to move without resorting to the atom bomb of crime prevention,” says one official, referring to options that fall short of criminalizing gang membership.
The single most promising option may be adapting a law for Canada that’s been on the books in the United States for 30 years. Known as the Racketeering Influenced and Corrupt Organizations Act, or RICO, the measure has been used to bring such mobsters as John Gotti, among others, to justice. Its true worth, however, is allowing the state to seize the property of organizations shown to have participated in criminal activities under the civil burden of proof— preponderance of evidence—rather than “guilty beyond a reasonable doubt” as required in criminal cases. Canadian justice officials say the lower threshold makes it possible to financially cripple criminal gangs even when there is insufficient evidence to send their members to jail.
This would not be the first time the government has tried to pass a law aimed at reining in criminal organizations. In 1997, the Liberals amended the Criminal Code to make “participation” in a criminal organization an offense punishable by 14 years in prison. The legislation was hailed at the time as an important weapon in the war against organized crime—although its value remains in question. Charges under the section have been laid against 42 members of an Asian gang in Edmonton, while Montreal prosecutor Jean-Claude Boyer says he plans to use the anti-gang provisions against several members of the Rock Machine motorcycle gang, who earlier this month went on trial on trafficking and robbery charges. Still, Boyer is critical of the law, which he says requires the Crown to prove offenses were committed for the benefit of a criminal organization. “The burden of proof has been made heavier for the Crown,” he says.
If questions remain about the adequacy of the criminal law, there is little dispute that police resources are sorely strained. Police forces from St. John’s to Victoria suffered budget cuts during the 1990s. The RCMP’s strength of regular members has been pared to 14,447 this year from 15,217 in 1995, although the reduction has been partly offset by a slight increase in civilian employees. Dennis Farrell, a retired RCMP deputy commissioner who headed the force in British Columbia until 1997, says the cutbacks devastated organized crime investigations, which require a large outlay of time, money and manpower. “The police are doing a good job given their resources,” he says, “but lets face it, police are completely overwhelmed by what’s happening today.”
Prosecutors claim they, too, are not equipped to battle organized crime. In Quebec, the jurisdiction most afflicted by biker gangs, “we lack prosecutors and we lack resources to get ahead,” laments Claude Girard, head of Quebec’s Crown prosecutors’ association. Successive provincial Liberal and PQ governments have reduced the number of prosecutors in the province by 16 per cent since 1991. “Even in the best scenarios, we find ourselves with two Crown attorneys against five or six defense lawyers,” he adds. The government is now committed to hiring more prosecutors.
As bureaucrats and politicians ponder their next move, some wonder if the battle is not already lost. Despite the re-arrest of a Hells Angels leader, Maurice (Mom) Boucher, last week on charges he ordered the murders of two prison guards in 1997— a charge for which he was acquitted during his first trial—Grewal believes if the biker turf war is indeed over, police will encounter even more difficulty obtaining witnesses. Moreover, the absence of gangland killings will no doubt take the bikers’ nefarious operations off the front pages, removing the pressure on government to act. “We should have taken action against organized crime 15 years ago,” says the Alliance MP “It’s too late for prevention,” he adds. “These groups are so entrenched and sophisticated, all we can do now is damage control.”www.macleans.cafor links
Trying to end a gang war
His arrest last Tuesday, outside a suburban Montreal eatery surrounded by unmarked police cars, was clearly not part of Maurice (Mom) Boucher’s script. Only two days earlier, at a chic downtown seafood restaurant, the Quebec Hells Angels kingpin had dined with Frederick Faucher, the acting head of the rival Rock Machine. It was their second very public tête-à-tête in two weeks—they even summoned a crime reporter and his photographer to take pictures of the cozy meeting, held to discuss a possible truce in their vicious turf war over drugs. But that was quickly overshadowed by Boucher’s arrest. Police nabbed him a few hours after the Quebec Superior Court said he should be retried for the 1997 murders of two prison guards. Boucher was acquitted in 1998 on charges that he ordered the killings. But the appeal court ruled that the trial judge erred in his instructions to the jury. That decision, according to Sgt. Guy Ouellette, a biker expert with Quebec’s provincial police, sends a clear message: “Even if the gangs seem untouchable, they are not.”
Vulnerability may be at the heart of the current peace negotiations between the two sides. The talks are motivated, Ouellette says, by public demands to give law-enforcement officials more ammunition to fight organized crime after the Sept. 13 shooting of Journal de Montréal crime reporter Michel Auger—believed to be the work of bikers. Facing the possibility of a crackdown, representatives from the two gangs last week continued their efforts to reach a truce, despite Boucher’s arrest.
They have not yet been successful. “You cannot solve six years of war in 45 minutes,” Ouellette notes. Especially a war this violent: the fight between the two gangs over drug territory, which erupted in 1994 in Montreal and then spread to Quebec City, has claimed 154 lives. But if the talks end in an agreement, the gangs may emerge from a truce even stronger and better organized to pursue their illicit activities—if there is no government action. Ouellette raises the example of Scandinavia, where biker gangs, faced with a government crackdown, announced a truce in 1997. But, says Ouellette, anti-gang legislation was never passed, police resources were reassigned, and crime shot up 200 per cent a year later, mostly in the drug and sex trades controlled by the bikers. Quebec, however, recently announced plans to spend more money to fight organized crime. It is unlikely to be enough: now, many observers say, it is time for Ottawa to show some muscle.
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