A look at how authorities in Canada are confronting underground bikie gangs - and scoring some big hits against the Hells Angels.
Airdate: 
Sunday, June 14, 2009 - 20:30
Channel: 
SBS

This week on Dateline, we look at how authorities in Canada are confronting underground bikie gangs - and scoring some big hits against the Hells Angels.

Reporter Nick Lazaredes travels from coast to coast and finds a country crippled by motorcycle gang violence, and an epidemic of illicit drug use fuelled by the Hells Angels trafficking networks.

Nick meets Julian Sher, a journalist who has spent decades investigating organised crime. Yet for all his experience, one question surrounding the Hells Angels remains unanswered. "Why is it that the most open, known, brazen criminal gangs can't be put away?" he asks.

For Sher, the problem is the authorities long-term failure to consider the Hells Angels a serious threat.

But for Montreal-based crime reporter Michel Auger, the story is more complicated than that. "The Hells Angels have virtually killed all their opponents over the years, those who survived joined them," he says. Although Auger himself is an exception, having been shot in the back six times by a Hells Angels member.

As Australia deals with its own bikie problem, what lessons can be learned from Canada's experience?

Transcript

Vancouver is gearing up for next year's Winter Olympics and the image it naturally wants the world to see is one of a vibrant and safe city. But, unfortunately, there's another side to that picture-postcard place bang on Canada's Pacific coast - criminal motorcycle gangs operating in relative freedom with all the drugs and organised crime that go with that curious subculture. Sound familiar? Sure does. Dateline's Nick Lazaredes has been over in Vancouver, finding out what the Canadians are doing to tackle the problem and to see whether there are any lessons Australia can learn from their approach.

REPORTER: Nick Lazaredes

The city of Vancouver has been consistently ranked one of the three most livable cities in the world. This port city also has the reputation for being a mecca for cheap, illicit drugs. And with a boom in sales, there has been a major change in who controls the multibillion-dollar business. But that changing of the guard has triggered a torrent of violence.

Across Canada, the once-dominant Mafia has been pushed aside, and a rough, home-grown gang has taken over. The Hells Angels - leaders in an enterprise that feeds on the misery and shattered lives of its victims. Like the US, Canada has adopted a zero-tolerance attitude to drug usage - a policy that has failed to have any lasting impact on supply or demand.

On the other side of Canada, in the French-speaking province of Quebec, the country's drugs problem is being tackled aggressively, with a law and order crackdown on the gang that most people believe is at the top of the organised crime food chain. These newcomers were well set up for their expansion into the underworld. As the Hells Angels, they were trading on their brutal reputation and with a brand and a franchise plan - just like a take-away food chain - they had a 3-step set-up guide to organised crime.

JULIAN SHER, INVESTIGATIVE JOURNALIST: These guys, they've got tattoos saying "I'm a member of this criminal gang," so it's not like they're hard to find. So as an investigative journalist, that's a great dilemma. Why is it that the most open, known, brazen criminal gangs can't be put away?

With decades of experience as a journalist investigating organised crime, Julian Sher witnessed the spectacular rise of a gang he considers as Canada's most dangerous criminal group "” a situation he says might have been averted, if not for the repeated failure by the authorities to recognise the threat.

JULIAN SHER: The problem is, we didn't have specialised cops who were doing nothing but tracking the bikers, the problem is we didn't have specialised squads who were infiltrating the bikers. The problem is, we didn't have prosecutors who were devoted to doing nothing but taking on organised crime, and that's the same pattern we've found in Australia, and in Europe, and in the US and in Canada. You know, there's not a secret formula. There is only one way to take down the bikies and organised crime, and that's infiltration and intelligence.

From the highest point in Montreal, Julian Sher is keen to show me the extent of the Hells Angels' criminal influence of the city - a highly disciplined and sophisticated enterprise that remains intact, despite a relentless 10-year campaign by police to remove them.

JULIAN SHER: The Hells Angels, to this day, control drug distribution in almost every corner of the city. In the rich part of downtown, the nightclubs, the strip clubs - where the Hells Angels could make their money - all the way through to the rest of the province, extending all through eastern Canada and eventually down into the US.

The public image of harmless rebel rousers that motorcycle gangs like the Hells Angels keenly promote belie their unique structure - a franchise that gave each chapter complete independence, along with an in-built capacity to replicate and expand as required. In the United States it was a path rarely followed, but Canada's illegal motorcycle gangs were far more ambitious. By the 1980s, they began expanding into the American drugs market. With millions of eager drug users lining up for the Canadian products one of the most profitable smuggling operations in the world was firmly established - a criminal money-spinner that remains largely intact.

JULIAN SHER: The Canada-US border is known as the largest undefended border in the world. It's also the most porous border, so it's very easy for drugs to move across the border - cocaine, meth, but especially marijuana. Canadian marijuana - high-grade marijuana - can often be sold in the streets of the United States for the same amount of money as cocaine - an extremely, extremely profitable trade.

But with such vast sums of money at stake, reporting on the activities of criminal motorcycle gangs can be a very dangerous occupation.

MICHEL AUGER, CHIEF CRIME REPORTER: It didn't occur to me that some day one guy will get to a reporter in Canada and try to kill him. That was out of my mind.

The chief crime reporter for Montreal's French-speaking newspaper for 40 years, Michel Auger is an acknowledged expert on Quebec's murderous motorcycle gangs.

MICHEL AUGER: The Hells Angels have virtually killed all their opponents over the years, and those survivors, those who survived, joined the Hells Angels. As of today, there is no enemies of the Hells Angels of Quebec. It's organised crime at its best.

Another one, not far from here, on the street.

While Michel's running commentary on the bikers menacing the province began in the early '80s, it was the death of a young boy in the mid '90s - caught up in a biker bomb attack - that provoked him into upping the ante, with each article aimed at mocking the brutality of a group he considered to be cowards. In late 2000, they delivered an unequivocal response.

MICHEL AUGER: It was shortly before 11:00 in the morning. I was arriving here. I was parking my car in the middle of the parking lot - right where the red car is located today - and then one guy arrive and shot me in the back.

EMERGENCY SERVICES OPERATOR (Translation): Yes, hello?

MICHEL AUGER (Translation): Listen, I've been shot.

EMERGENCY SERVICES OPERATOR (Translation): Did you see the guy?

MICHEL AUGER (Translation): Listen, ma'am, I saw nothing.

EMERGENCY SERVICES OPERATOR (Translation): You didn't see anything?

MICHEL AUGER (Translation): I saw a guy with a gun and that's all. I don't even know if I'm bleeding. It hurts.

EMERGENCY SERVICES OPERATOR (Translation): The ambulance and police are on their way.

MICHEL AUGER: He fired seven shots and hit me six times, and luckily, I survived.

The brazen attempted murder of Michel Auger was signaling that the Hells Angels meant business - but the police had had enough. They launched Operation Springtime. It was meant to be a crippling blow to the gang's business in Quebec, and although most of their senior leaders were arrested and dozens forced into hiding, the paralysis was only temporary. Thumbing their noses at the police with renewed arrogance, they implemented a strict 'need to know' system, with just a few members of its inner sanctum privy to its secrets. Business was back on track within weeks.

JEAN PIERRE LEVESQUE: The police seized a book after Springtime 2001 - the Nomads in Quebec were providing coke and hash, amongst other things, and the figure out of 10 months - you were talking in the hundred millions - dollars.

Heading up a special government intelligence unit, set up in response to the growing threat, Jean Pierre Levesque spied on the country's motorcycle gangs for nearly 10 years.

JEAN PIERRE LEVESQUE: The way that the Italians used to do - you'd find a guy in the trunk of a car, and that's the end of it. But when it takes place with the bikers, as I said, because they still have that animal instinct that they have, they have to go to war and they have to put a big show on and they like to be in the limelight.

In Quebec, it was a show that would continue on for another nine years until the police got the opportunity that they had waited for, for so long.

JULIAN SHER: One member - a sergeant-at-arms who had been out of the club and wanted to come back in - got a little ticked-off because they weren't letting him back in. He begins to cooperate - because of one snitch, one member who had a gripe against the Hells Angels. The police paid him $2.7 million and he snitched, and the police have arrested and raided over 100 members of the Hells Angels. Virtual every member of the Hells Angels in Quebec was put behind bars in the last few weeks because of that snitch.

Well over 100 members of the Hells Angels are now in a maximum-security cell block built specifically for them, and facing charges that prosecutors are confident will leave the organisation floundering.

JIM BOIVIN, FORMER DRUG DEALER: This is where the Hells Angels are now, the Hells Angels of Quebec, hundreds of them.

Jim Boivin is a former drug dealer who once played a major role in arranging a murder. He turned police informant and was part of that first unsuccessful attempt to bring down the Hells Angels in 2001. Along with other informants, he claims he made secret deals with the police for protection, money and immunity from his previous crimes in return for evidence against gang members.

JIM BOIVIN: We have promises for secret deals for all the trials against the Hells Angels, or other organisation. Since the beginning of the bikie war they use a lot of informant, and in all that case, like I said, we have secret deals.

Jim Boivin, and more than a dozen other special informants who put their lives on the line, claim they were required to repeatedly lie before the court.

JIM BOIVIN: And we always says, "There's no deal." We testified in that way in court. I do, in two case, in two trials for murder, that there's no deal, that there's no nothing else than what we have in the contract, and that's untrue.

REPORTER: So you actually told the court that there was no deal, but you had a deal?

JIM BOIVIN: Yup, and I'm not the only one to do that.

But not long after, Jim Boivin claims that the police went back on the deal. He was sent to prison for a shortened term, before being released, penniless and vulnerable to retribution.

REPORTER: So all of these people have been betrayed by the police?

JIM BOIVIN: Yup. Everybody - in some way, at some degree, everybody.

The use of informants in the fight against organised crime is a tricky task, but it's often the only way that police can gather enough evidence to take down a gang like the Hells Angels. Organised crime is a tightly wound business, and inflicting damage on the gang controlling things at the top can have serious repercussions. On the West Coast, police have been busy for three years with regular strikes against the Hells Angels in British Columbia. Forced to lie low and unable to defend their turf, opportunities have emerged for new gangs to fill the void.

MAN IN VAN: Hey, f--- you, buddy - f---ing pigs, man. F---ing

JULIAN SHER: Crime, like nature, abhors a vacuum, and if you take down the Hells Angels, that creates a space for other gangs. In Vancouver, the fact that the Hells Angels have to look around their shoulder because they're worried about where the next snitch is coming from has allowed other gangs to rise to the fore.

With the clock counting down to the opening of the Winter Olympics here next year, its image has taken a savage beating, with gang violence enveloping its suburbs. This year alone, almost 30 gang deaths have been reported.

EILEEN MOHAN: These people, these thugs, came and interrupted our way of life. I made my business to interrupt their way of life. Here's Christopher's grave site.

One of the most callous murders committed in British Columbia's ongoing street gang war - a war fuelled by drugs supplied by the Hells Angels - may well be the factor that leads to their eventual demise.

EILEEN MOHAN: I started my public campaign against the gangsters on the day of my son's funeral.

Two years ago, Eileen Mohan's 22-year-old son, Christopher, left his family's apartment for a basketball game and was dead within seconds. In an horrific twist of fate, five gang members were being executed by their rivals in the apartment opposite, and determined that there would be no witnesses, Christopher was shot through the back of the head. Now his mother Eileen has become a rallying force for harsher laws, to dismantle the Hells Angels' activities in the province and turn them into history.

EILEEN MOHAN: It was because of Hells Angels that we see what's happening - the growth of other gang members here. What we need to do is break down the Hells Angels, bit by bit by bit.

Echoing what is happening in Australia, Eileen blames previous governments for allowing the Hells Angels to grow so powerful.

EILEEN MOHAN: It is a failure of the previous federal governments and the previous provincial governments, who did not foresee how the Hells Angels were growing from strength to strength to strength, but in British Columbia they are the main bloodstream of drug trafficking. They don't want their names to be out there in the media - they're very particular about it. They're a very silent player, but they're a very strong player. It's just too devastating.

This Indian-Fijian immigrant is trying to garner public support for tough laws to blacklist the Hells Angels as a criminal organisation - and she also wants to end any further discussion about motorcycle gangs' complaints about attacks on their civil rights.

EILEEN MOHAN: They come out and they portray themselves they say, "Oh, I have a right to be on the streets, I have a right to ride my bike, I have a right to wear the Hells Angels signs," you know - or, "I have the right to carry the gun." No, you don't. You don't. Your rights can never be as equal to our rights.

Lawyers warn that such moves may undermine civil rights.

MICHAEL KLEIN, CRIMINAL DEFENCE LAWYER: It presupposes that you can't be a member of the Hells Angels without being a criminal - and there are lots of people that will say that, but I don't know that that's necessarily true. And what if the person is a member of, for example, that organisation, or something else, and has not engaged in criminal activity, but now is turned into a criminal by virtue of an association. In this country we have freedom of association. It's an enshrined right in our Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms, so that could very well be trod upon by that type of legislation.

As Vancouver's drug-fuelled violence escalates, there's a growing sense of community anger that the rights of criminals seem to have a greater priority than those of their victims.

DAVID TONER: The attitude that a lot of people have right now is that there's no balance to the system. And I think that you always hear about the scales of justice - well, right now, the scales of justice are very heavily slanted in favour of the accused person, the offender.

David and Sandra Toner's 16-year-old son Matthew was another victim of the Vancouver crime wave - killed by street thugs for his gold chain on the command of one of their female companions who took a dislike to him.

SANDRA MARTINS-TONER: They threw Matthew head-first three or four times into a Plexiglass window, knocking him unconscious. And from what we can gather, she gave the command to kill, and handed him a beer bottle. At that point, he took the beer bottle, smashed the beer bottle and used that bottle to slice our child's throat. And that was the last day that we ever saw our child. Sorry.

As the Toners began a traumatic process of court appearances and trials of the accused, they were shocked at the level of support and attention given to defending the rights of their son's killers - while their only contribution - a victim's impact statement - was heavily censored by a judge.

DAVID TONER: To who do we owe the greater rights - the criminals or the honest, law-abiding, tax-paying citizens? Somewhere we have to draw a line in the sand and say, "That's far enough."

They say if all gangs were named and listed as criminal organisations, without exception, its members could quickly be prosecuted and fast-tracked to prison.

DAVID TONER: If it's so difficult to prosecute an individual and chase each individual through the court trial, through the justice process, with the onus always being on Crown to prove that they did this or they did that, well, it's fairly easy to prove criminal membership. It's fairly easy to prove the association with a group whose primary objective is known to be criminal activity. Maybe they should take that approach.

While a blanket ban on all types of gangs isn't yet being considered, tough legislation defining and banning outlaw motorcycle gangs has been challenged at every step as it makes its way through the Canadian court system - but a final decision could be years away. In Australia, similar anti-bikie laws are being pushed through in what some legal experts believe is a knee-jerk response. Michael Klein says new laws won't solve the problem.

MICHAEL KLEIN: The criminal justice system really doesn't address the fundamentals of the problem, and the fact that you can legislate and you can create more laws, and create more crimes and punish people in a greater fashion - I don't know that there's any evidence throughout the world that's ever worked.

Julian Sher says anti-bikie laws are vital, regardless. For him, whether the laws solve the issue is not the point.

JULIAN SHER: It's not to say we're going to stop the drugs trade - we're going to stop cocaine in the streets of Sydney or the streets of Montreal - it's to send a message that this is not tolerated - "You guys are thugs, you're criminals, and you can't strut around wearing your biker vests and your bikie patches and think you control our cities. We control our cities, we control our streets."

Reporter/Camera

NICK LAZAREDES

Fixers

AARON GOODMAN

MYRIAM TREMBLAY-SHER

Editors

WAYNE LOVE

DAVID POTTS

Producers

ASHLEY SMITH

VICTORIA STROBL

Translations / Subtitling

MARYANNE SLAVICH

Original Music composed by

VICKI HANSEN