Below the surface of Victoria’s charming streets lined with colourful buildings and camera-toting tourists is a world of organized crime that largely goes unnoticed by the general public.
But on a daily basis, the region’s youth are being recruited by gangsters not only from the Island, but also the mainland and as far away as Alberta.
As the coordinator of the gang prevention program for the Pacific Centre Family Services Association, located in Colwood, Mia Golden hears some shocking stories working with youth aged 12 to 24 who are at-risk or affiliated with gangs. Initially there was a perception that only older males are being approached by the recruiters, but Golden has found kids as young as nine are now selling drugs.
“I think people would be shocked at how much this is going on in our city and across municipal boundaries as well,” said Golden, noting one of the more active gangs in Victoria is the Norteños — a street gang based in northern California with a presence in the federal prison system. Many youth gangs come and go in Victoria, but cause a lot of damage whenever they’re here.
“It’s a really concerning issue. A lot of the crime that takes place in Victoria, you can lead it back to gang involvement in some way.”
Golden has also seen a shift in where youth are being approached by recruiters. A lot of the recruiting still occurs in downtown Victoria and on the West Shore, but gang members are also using social media to build relationships and lure youth away from their homes.
According to Golden, youth are posting photos on Instagram and Facebook with the hashtags “squad” or “gangsta” without understanding who’s watching. The recruiters are also sophisticated offline, initially approaching youth as a buddy, friend or date. They’re invited to parties where they’re supplied with drugs and alcohol, slowly building a rapport. Many get hooked on drugs, then exploited to pay their debts without realizing what’s going on.
“The drug use that is happening with our youth right now is so significant. Kids that regularly use are commenting on how much drugs are around right now,” said Golden, noting hard drugs such as crystal meth, heroin, cocaine and GHB are being used to a degree she’s never seen and recruiters are using it to their advantage.
Even more alarming is the level of violence amongst youth involved with gangs. Golden has heard of people being kidnapped for hours, duct taped and thrown into the back of a vehicle, burned with a lighter or limbs and fingers broken. Weapons are also commonly used.
“It’s normal to be exposed to violence, it’s normal to use violence, it’s normal to be having sex with every person that they are told to have sex with…they steal from each other, they end up owing large amounts of money if they don’t sell their product,” said Golden. “A lot of the thefts taking place in the city are because there’s debts that need to be paid off. There’s this level of desperation because otherwise the violence that happens to them is extreme.”
In an effort to reach out and educate youth about gangs, the Combined Forces Special Enforcement Unit (CFSEU) B.C. (the province’s anti-gang agency) started a campaign in 2013 and continues to run ads in the media, stating the myths and realities of being in a gang.
According to police, the youth are often made to feel like they’re part of a family, but are lucky if they make it to their 30th birthday without winding up dead or behind bars. Many of the youth come from an assortment of backgrounds, not just low-income homes. Some are scared when they realize they’ve been recruited into a gang while others think it’s cool.
Const. Jordan McLellan with CFSEU-B.C. sees a lot of youth fed unrealistic myths about gang life from the media, movies and video games. The lifestyle is often glamorized, he noted, but there’s nothing glamorous about it.
“You are going to end up being arrested by the police, you are going to be targeted by rival gangs, you are going to end up being victimized by even your friends. There’s nobody you can trust in the gang lifestyle,” said McLellan, who often attends schools, educating youth about the dangers of gangs before they become entrenched in the lifestyle.
“You end up leading a very stressful life full of paranoia.”
Golden and Oak Bay Const. Jennifer Gibbs of the Mobile Youth Service Team (MYST) also visit schools in the capital region to talk to youth about gangs. In addition, she works with the parents of children who are at-risk or already involved with the lifestyle.
Prevention is key, noted Golden, but once kids are entrenched in drugs recruitment can happen within hours. On one occasion, two 17-year-olds were approached downtown by two Vancouver gang members and soon agreed to go with them on the ferry to the mainland. Golden and Gibbs found one of the teens in the ferry line up at Swartz Bay after his mother reported her son missing. The other youth, however, was from a group home and couldn’t be found before he left the Island.
Despite the ongoing recruitment in the region, Golden has had a lot of success stories, such as Doug. Not wanting to use his real name for safety reasons, Doug was 16 when he was recruited at a party into one of Victoria’s street gangs.
He soon wound up selling drugs and helped with recruiting, targeting youth going into high school.
“If they showed any kind of tough attitude we’d try them out,” said Doug, who’s since shed his life with the gang. “It’s definitely a one-way road. I’m lucky I got out of it.”