Toronto’s gangs smaller, looser – but packing more heat

Saturday, June 9, 2012 – Globe and Mail
ANNA MEHLER PAPERNY

Toronto’s organized crime is anything but.

The city’s gangs are smaller, their members more loosely organized than they were 20 years ago.

They’re also more lethal: The number of homicides classified as “gang-related” has risen since the 1990s. Last Saturday’s shooting at the Eaton Centre – while officially not gang-related in Toronto police lexicon – thrust into the limelight the sort of violence normally hidden in the city’s most blighted neighbourhoods.

The changes are driven by a combination of successful police crackdowns and deeper despair in the city’s poorest, increasingly isolated areas.

Interactive: Homicides, social housing and street crime in Toronto neighbourhoods

Toronto’s biggest gangs, some of them with ties to international organized crime, have been largely decimated by police raids – or driven underground. While the idea of sporting gang “colours” was big years ago, it is no longer: It doesn’t pay to advertise.

But it’s become much easier to get your hands on a gun.

Street crime was “the thing to do” in the Jane-Finch area where Andrew Bacchus grew up in the 1990s. But when he was younger, he says, you didn’t see 14-year-olds with firearms.

“Guys would duke it out in the parking lot, or a knife may get pulled,” he said. “The odd guy might have a gun. … But today, guns are a bigger problem than any gang. There’s just too many damn guns out there.”

Toronto’s “gang-related” deaths peaked in 2003 at 35, and have since ranged between 14 and 30 a year. In 2010, the last year for which statistics were available, Toronto had the fourth-highest rate of gang-related homicides per capita of any major Canadian city, after Winnipeg, Vancouver and Montreal.

People who study Toronto’s street violence argue the issue isn’t about gang membership: The definition of organized crime becomes fuzzy when it refers to teenagers who aren’t so much organized as banded together in mutual desperation.

“You can’t compare youth groups to bikers. Bikers have clubs. Bikers have locations. Bikers have import and export,” said Segun Akinsanya, who twice landed in jail as a teen and now acts as a mentor. “For these kids, there’s nothing else. If you want to classify it, call it opportunists without any opportunities.”

For the vast majority of the population, Toronto is a safer city than it’s been in decades. But it helps if you live in the right part of town. Poorer neighbourhoods are more isolated and harder to police.

“The design of some of these neighbourhoods, they’re restrictive to vehicle traffic,” said Chris White, superintendent in charge of Toronto Police’s organized crime enforcement. “So it makes it more difficult to police it in the normal policing aspect.”

Youth unemployment is high for university graduates. If you haven’t graduated from high school and have the wrong address on your résumé, finding a job becomes nearly impossible.

“The quality of life of our truly disadvantaged has actually deteriorated further over the last decade, and it looks like it might further deteriorate,” says University of Toronto criminologist Scot Wortley. “If we see an entrenchment of these types of communities, we would probably also see an increase in gang recruitment.”

Victor Beausoleil has lost track of the number of friends who’ve been gunned down – at a subway station, in a barber shop, on the street. At least 20, he figures.

Mr. Beausoleil grew up in Toronto’s east end, bouncing between one community and another. He knows the feeling of needing somewhere to belong, to feel accepted and empowered and to make more money than he could otherwise imagine.

And he knows it isn’t easy to extricate oneself.

“But you can only get so many collect calls from friends in Don [Jail]. You can only go to so many funerals,” he said.

Mr. Bacchus has been working with street youth since he decided, at 22, he was tired of going to jail. The uproar over such high-profile shootings as last week’s in the Eaton Centre drives him nuts.

“In the last four or five years I’ve attended 14, 15 funerals. And not once have I seen a politician from any level of government come out and make a statement,” he said. “Incidents of gun violence happen in inner-city communities all the time. It’s a shame that we don’t rally the same way as when it happens on Yonge Street.”

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