Thursday, 15 April 2010 12:14 UK

The increase in gang violence on the streets of Vancouver and other Canadian cities has direct ties to the grisly drug-cartel wars that have terrorized Mexico and some American border towns, say Canadian and U.S. police.

Violence has reached a fever pitch in parts of Mexico where the government of President Felipe Calderon has sent in 45,000 soldiers and 5,000 federal police to try to curb cartel activity. More than 7,000 have died in the last two years, with 1,000 deaths this January alone.

Tattoo's show allegiance to a particular gang..

The United States has felt the impact, with the cartels sending assassins across the border and more and more cells springing up across the country to distribute cocaine from the south.

Those distribution lines ultimately lead to Canada, making this country far from immune to what's going on in Mexico, says RCMP Superintendent Pat Fogarty with the combined forces special enforcement unit.

Recent gang-related violence in British Columbia and elsewhere is "directly related to this Mexican war," he said in an interview Tuesday.

Almost all cocaine in Canada comes via Mexico, the hub for South American producers. Canadian-based organized crime groups buy the drug either directly from the cartels in Mexico, or from middlemen in Los Angeles and other American cities.

When the supply of cocaine is hampered by crackdowns in Mexico or in the United States and the price goes up, says Fogarty, competition for the remaining kilos gets tense in Canada. The bigger players with good lines into the south prevail, leaving the smaller ones scrambling.

"People are running around trying to find other sources of cocaine. The price goes up and the guns come out," said Fogarty.

"It's really about power. The people up here want the nice car, the money and the flashy girl beside them, and if they lose that they lose that status and the power."

Canada came up several times at a high-profile U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration news conference last week. The agency announced it had arrested 750 people linked to the notorious Sinaloa cartel, and had seized more than 23 tonnes of drugs.

"From Washington to Maine, we have disrupted this cartel's domestic operations - arresting U.S. cell heads ... and seriously impacting their Canadian drug operations as well," acting administrator Michele Leonhart told reporters.

The U.S. drug agency wouldn't point to a specific case where Canadian police assisted with so-called Operation Xcellerator, although Fogarty says the RCMP is constantly collaborating with American colleagues on trafficking cases.

Special Agent Jeffrey Wagner of the agency's global enforcement unit says the cartels have established cells or distribution points close to the Canadian border. Those cells will help funnel the cocaine to points north. They use flatbed trucks covered with commercial merchandise, or even cars.

Although Mexicans aren't generally at the helm of Canadian gangs, organized crime here does have contact with the Sinaloa and Gulf cartels in Mexico.

"I don't think it's a stretch to see there might be emissaries or people associated with those organizations, making trips for negotiations or to see operations or to be treated by the people they're selling to," said Wagner.

"It's a business, you have people coming from one sector of the world to see what's going on in another sector."

The gangs don't always deal with cash. Often, the Canadians will trade the coke for readily available ecstasy or pot.

Said Wagner: "What happens is the organizations, instead of smuggling currency over the border to pay for cocaine to bring up and then again smuggling ecstasy or marijuana over the border, they look at it as a way to pay their debt."

The U.S. drug agency is trying to raise awareness of the cartel situation in Mexico and its impact on the United States, with some success. Major American newspapers have splashed details of the cartel wars on their front pages.

The Washington Times quoted senior U.S . military officials Tuesday who warned that if Mexico's two main cartels joined forces, they would have the equivalent power of an army of 100,000.

Other senior figures in Washington have named Mexico as one of the top domestic security threats, just behind Pakistan and Iran.

Violence around the cartels has been characterized by the most gruesome kinds of killings. Victims have been decapitated and even disposed of in vats of acid. Civilians have been caught in the crossfire - at a recent festival in Morelia, drug figures threw a grenade into a crowded marketplace.

Canada's Foreign Affairs Department last week revised its travel report for Mexico, warning Canadian tourists to avoid areas around the U.S. border, especially Ciudad Juarez and Tijuana.

Popular tourist destinations such as Puerto Vallarta, the Mayan Riviera and Hualtuco have not been singled out, although the resort towns of Cabo San Lucas and Acapulco are located the affected states of Baja California and Guerrero.

Peter Kent, Minister of State for the Americas, said the Canadian government is collaborating with Mexico on several levels to help it tackle the drug problem, including cooperation at political, military and police levels.

He said the issue of security throughout the region will be a dominant issue at the upcoming Summit of the Americas.

"Canada recognizes and encourages Mexico's crackdown on drug gangs and organized crime, but the side effect of success has been the displacement of some of that to Guatemala and (other countries)," Kent said in an interview.

Copyright © 2009 The Canadian Press. All rights reserved.


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