Crime

‘F— WITH US,YOU DIE’

A drug bust reveals another side of an aspiring B.C. politician, writes KEN MACQUEEN

August 15 2005
Crime

‘F— WITH US,YOU DIE’

A drug bust reveals another side of an aspiring B.C. politician, writes KEN MACQUEEN

August 15 2005

‘F— WITH US,YOU DIE’

Crime

A drug bust reveals another side of an aspiring B.C. politician, writes KEN MACQUEEN

IT WAS A disappointing winter for Ravinderjit Kaur Puar, a brash and ambitious wouldbe politician in British Columbia. In January, the 30-year-old lab technician at the B.C. Cancer Agency and mother of a young daughter lost her bid for the provincial NDP nomination for Vancouver-Kensington, an immigrant-rich riding in the south of the city. While her family has solid connections in the Indo-Canadian community there, some said Puar—who often uses her married surname, Shergill—was hampered by a weak grasp of the issues and her past ties to the federal Liberals. She was part of a delegate slate backing Prime Minister Paul Martin’s leadership bid, and her family campaigned for Ujjal Dosanjh, the ex-B.C. premier who is now federal health minister.

With a seat in the provincial legislature out of reach, Puar moved on to a new challenge: a run for Vancouver city council in the forthcoming November civic elections. She met twice with influential city councillor Jim Green, who has since announced his campaign for mayor as part of a new left-leaning team. Green was impressed. An articulate, well-connected Indo-Canadian woman would be a valuable addition to city hall, he says. “If she had been what I thought she was, she would have been ideal.”

Now it seems Puar’s political ambitions— and her reputation—are in tatters. On June 30, she was arrested in Auburn, Wash., south of Seattle, charged with selling thousands of hallucinogenic ecstasy pills to an undercover drug agent, and for conspiring to sell tens of thousands more.

The elaborate, month-long sting, conducted by a covert team of special agents of

the U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration, also led to the arrest, on similar charges, of three others: Sarbjit Singh Virk, a Canadian, and Americans Sarbjit Singh Sandhu and Kamaljit Singh Ghag. Puar’s arrest

HAVE the notoriously murderous Indo-Canadian gangs sunk roots into B.C.’s mainstream political circles?

shocked the Indo-Canadian community, spooked political operatives and raised eyebrows even among drug investigators. The lethal ways of Indo-Canadian gangs and dealers—described by Puar in profane terms according to the DEA—was considered a man’s world. The arrest of a woman, espe-

cially one from the political and social mainstream, changes the equation. “It can touch anyone, at any time, in any neighbourhood, regardless of their background,” says Const. Shinder Kirk, spokesman for the newly formed B.C. Integrated Gang Task Force. It also raises á troubling question: have B.C.’s Indo-Canadian gangs—arguably the most murderous in Canada—sunk roots into mainstream political circles?

As Puar pondered her political future this spring, the DEA alleges she was making connections of another sort: arranging the sale in Washington state of tens of thousands of ecstasy tablets in a rainbow of colours, perhaps to fund her forthcoming campaign. In phone calls and meetings at fast food restaurants and mall parking lots throughout the Seattle area, the DEA claims Puar and her accomplices laid out their product line and business plan, unaware they were

Crime | >

dealing with informants and undercover agents. On offer were pink singleand doubledose tablets at US$4.50 and $5 a pop, each imprinted with a logo similar to that on Infiniti luxury cars. There were Blue Dolphins at up to US$4.25, and a new “Ferrari” pill the DEA says Puar was bringing to market.

Details of the month-long mutual courtship—drawn from confidential sources, secret tape recordings and mobile surveillance teams—is outlined in a sworn, 17-page complaint filed in U.S. District Court in Seattle by DEA Special Agent Joseph Parker, a former Marine Corps officer with a history of drug-trafficking investigation. His statement, including transcripts of a recorded conversation between Puar and an agent wearing a hidden body wire, portray a ruthless player in a deadly enterprise. Of drug drivers who have been with her for 10 years, Puar says in the transcript: “They don’t f— around with me because when they f— around with me, guaranteed, they’ll be... f—ing six feet under, and they know it.” The transcript—allegedly part of negotiations in a parked car between Puar and the agent— includes a vivid description of the rough justice meted out by Indo-Canadian gangs. “Yeah, it’s that simple,” she’s quoted as saying, “that’s what the game is like in Vancouver: you f— with us, you die.”

Both Puar and Virk were denied bail at their first appearance on July 7 in U.S. District Court. On July 28, Puar pleaded not guilty to all charges, and a trial has been set for Sept. 19. Whatever the outcome, the DEA transcript captures the raw brutality of gang life. More than 80 Indo-Canadian men have been murdered in the past 10 years, many due to gang and drug violence. There have been several arrests at the U.S. border of Indo-Canadian drug couriers, some claiming they were coerced into the role. An IndoCanadian, Francis DevandraRaj, was among the three men arrested last month, accused of constructing the elaborate smugglers’ tunnel under the border from Raj’s property at Aldergrove, B.C., to a home in Lynden, Wash. A police investigation 18 months ago resulted in a raid on the B.C. legislature, and criminal charges against Robert Virk and David Basi—ministerial aides and organizers within the Indo-Canadian community for the provincial and federal Liberals. Drug charges against Basi were dropped. A trial on fraud and breach of trust charges against the two is set for November.

B.C. ethnic papers such as the IndoCanadian Voice and the Asian Star relentlessly report each new murder, beating and arrest. “It has to end,” says Voice editor Rattan Mall, who has for years demanded more involvement by government and the IndoCanadian community in stopping the gangs. Other organized crime groups have greater economic clout, he says, but none are more violent. Indo-Canadian gangs are “totally

amateur,” he says. “They go around shoot1 ing one another over small things.”

The alarming toll and resulting outcry prompted the provincial Liberals recently to create the Integrated Gang Task Force. It

THOSE who have

met Puar struggle to reconcile her drug arrest and coming trial with the woman they know

now has 50 investigators in place; 20 more will be added by fall. Its first priority “will be violence and major crimes involving South Asian, particularly Indo-Canadian crime groups,” says police spokesman Kirk, an Indo-Canadian. The veteran officer draws on his own upbringing to explain how gang activity has flourished within a segment of the community. There used to be a culture of denial about crime, and a reluctance to seek help from society at large, he says. “You

really didn’t want to deal with it.”

Those who’ve met Puar struggle to reconcile the DEA’s version of events with the woman they know. Green says Puar once acted as translator and go-between for him in a meeting with Indo-Canadian merchants. “She was very polite. She called the elder men ‘uncle,’ and it seemed everyone knew her,” he says. Umendra Singh, editor of the Asian Star and one of Puar’s opponents for

the NDP nomination, recalls “a very nice lady.” He can’t remember if she spoke out about gangs and drugs, but it’s a hard issue to avoid. “Any Indo-Canadian who has sought some kind of leadership role has spoken about this,” he says. “It seems that somehow or other this thing has gone to all parts of our community.”

Puar’s arrest has caused a rift among Sikhs in B.C.’s Lower Mainland. Some are pressing her father, Kalwant Singh Puar, operator of a small tow-truck fleet, to resign his seat on the executive of Vancouver’s Ross Street temple—the centre of religious and social life for many of the city’s Sikhs. Const. Kirk has met with some temple executives, though not with Puar, seeking better use of police tip hotlines by temple members. Community leaders, he says, play a huge role in forging public attitudes.

For that reason alone, Puar’s arrest may force a new and higher burden of proof on Indo-Canadians seeking office. Unfairly or not, there will be questions to answer: Who is this person seeking to lead? And why? lifl