The arrival of Mexican drug traffickers, along with increased activity by outlaw motorcycle gangs, is changing the face of organized crime in Alberta.
Mexican cartels have long played a role in exporting narcotics that end up in Canada, but the RCMP’s commanding officer in Alberta says the syndicates are now basing people here to import and distribute cocaine and other drugs.
“That’s a very interesting development because they’ve essentially eliminated the middlemen. Those people are directly from Mexico, they’re key players in a Mexican cartel who have established themselves in Alberta, and that’s a concern,” said Deputy Commissioner Marianne Ryan.
In Calgary, the FOB gang and its rivals, the FOB Killers, had been responsible for bringing large amounts of cocaine into the city. The FOB Killers (FK) were closely aligned with Vancouver’s United Nations gang, which for years sent members to Mexico to do business with the drug cartels.
However, the environment has dramatically changed in recent years: UN gang leader Clay Roueche is serving a 30-year drug trafficking sentence in the United States, and several other key members have been imprisoned or killed — including three murdered in Mexico. In Calgary, a long-running war between FOB and FK was responsible for at least 25 homicides between 2002 and 2009, and many veteran members who haven’t been killed are now behind bars in connection with the violence.
A warning by Calgary police in November that Mexican cartels were attempting to establish a foothold here was followed a month later by an announcement that authorities had arrested four people allegedly connected to La Familia, a Mexican drug gang. Police said the suspects were supplying drugs in Edmonton, as well as several communities policed by the RCMP: Fort McMurray, Drayton Valley, Lloydminster and Red Deer.
“I do think that says something. I hope that’s a trend we can stay on top of,” Ryan said.
The RCMP provides front-line policing throughout rural Alberta under cost-sharing agreements with the provincial government and several municipalities. There is also a smaller number of RCMP members in Alberta working in areas of federal jurisdiction like national security.
The province pays Ottawa 70 per cent toward the cost of the 1,550 officers stationed in Alberta under the provincial policing contract, which is $227 million this year.
An additional 55 officers included in this year’s provincial budget have helped keep up with population growth, but Ryan said demands for more officers from municipal clients such as Fort McMurray, Leduc and Lloydminster, as well as Calgary-area communities like Airdrie, are “across the board.”
Part of the challenge has been finding recruits in a competitive job market, Ryan said, but she added the migration of organized crime to smaller centres policed by the RCMP is also adding to the pressures on the force. Ryan pointed to the establishment of a Hells Angels chapter in Fort McMurray as evidence organized crime groups are going to greater lengths in pursuit of profits.
“Why are they there? I’m sure they have an answer for that, but I think we have ours as well,” Ryan said.
Elsewhere in the province, the RCMP has observed the establishment of support clubs — affiliates that take direction from major motorcycle gangs like the Hells Angels and Outlaws — that provide added reach and influence for the parent organizations.
“That, to me, is a clear sign that outlaw motorcycle gangs are alive and well,” Ryan said.
Police have been able to make inroads against that expansion through initiatives like Alberta Law Enforcement Response Teams (ALERT), a provincial umbrella organization targeting serious and organized crime with 400 investigators from the RCMP, municipal police forces and Alberta Sheriffs.
Criminal organizations have no regard for jurisdictional boundaries, so police have to respond in kind by co-operating and sharing intelligence, said Ryan.
“That’s what really works …when that intel is borderless,” she said.
In early December, the chairman of ALERT’s civilian board, Shami Sandhu, raised the spectre of cuts to the organization, saying the government was looking at eliminating 70 positions.
ALERT later retracted the statement, and Solicitor General Jonathan Denis said the province will maintain the current level of funding to the organization next year.
“There never was intent to reduce their staffing levels,” Denis said.
As Canada’s federal police force, the RCMP is the lead agency responsible for national security — an issue that has been especially sensitive in Alberta with the revelation that several men who worshipped at a downtown Calgary mosque have travelled to the Middle East to fight with jihadist groups.
“Here in Alberta, we have significant RCMP resources (devoted) to national security, and I think the public should feel confident that we’re doing absolutely everything we can to make sure we maintain that high priority and that level of intensity, along with our partners in Edmonton and Calgary,” she said.
Why Calgary became such fertile ground for several local extremists is “the $60,000 question,” said Ryan. Although some of the terror recruits are rumoured to have been killed in foreign fighting, Ryan said local authorities must remain vigilant against others becoming radicalized.
“I don’t think anyone can say the worst is over,” she said.