Police raids on eighteen Vancouver-area massage parlours last week that resulted in more than 100 arrests may have uncovered links to organized crime and human trafficking, says the RCMP.
Of those arrested, 78 were women of mainly Asian descent and twenty-six were clients who frequented the parlours.
Supt. Bill Ard told a news conference on Friday that victims of trafficking who are "exploited and controlled through fear and debt" are often forced to work in the sex trade, helping to generate large sums of money for organized crime. Vancouver is thought to be a major hub for organized crime gangs operating in Canada.
In 2004, the RCMP estimated that 600 to 800 people are brought illegally into Canada each year, and another 1,500 to 2,000 are smuggled through Canada into the United States. While some trafficking victims are pressed into forced labour, most women and children are trafficked for the purposes of sexual exploitation
Usually when organized crime is mentioned, what comes to mind for most people is the Italian Mafia or maybe the Hell's Angels. But one of the most powerful and dangerous criminal groups is the Triads, a centuries-old Chinese crime gang that has a strong and ubiquitous presence throughout the world, including in Canada.
Triad societies, with their secret initiation rituals and code of loyalty, have long overshadowed Chinese communities around the globe. As with other Asian gangs from countries such as Vietnam, Taiwan, Hong Kong and Korea, they prey upon their own, often using fear and intimidation tactics as well as outright physical violence.
Thought to be the world's largest criminal fraternity, the Triads, or Chinese Mafia, have a long history in Canada. They initially established operations here in the 1850s, when the Chinese began arriving in North America to build the railroads and work in the goldfields. In fact, many of these migrantsódesperate to escape China after the horror of the 1850 Taiping Rebellion in which 20 million diedówere brought in illegally by the Triads.
Because the predominantly male Chinese population at the time were either barred from mixing with local women or didn't wish to, the Triads brought in women and girls from China, some as young as 12. They also imported opium and ran gambling and prostitution houses. Before long, crime and drug addiction began to spread across the Chinese community.
Name a Crime, Any Crime
In modern times, as well as human trafficking and drug smuggling, the Triads are involved in such unsavoury practices as arms dealing, economic espionage, counterfeiting and money laundering. Hong Kong, home to more than 50 Triad societies consisting in all of hundreds of thousands of members, is a key transit point for the large amounts of Golden Triangle heroin and methamphetamines that flow into North America, the transportation of which is controlled by the Triads.
A 2004 Criminal Intelligence Service Canada (CISC) report stated that Asian organized crime presents a major threat in Canada because of its numerous and well-run criminal operations. CISC said Asian-based street gang violence is on the rise in several cities, and that the street gangs have connections with more sophisticated Asian organized crime groups such as the Triads.
At a local level, Asian gangs are involved in a long list of criminal activities: credit card fraud, luxury car theft, prostitution, home invasions, staged vehicle accidents, contract killings, assaults, welfare and employment insurance fraud, drug trafficking, software piracy, loan-sharking and illegal gaming. While scattered from coast to coast, the CISC report said Asian gangs are the most active in Vancouver, Calgary, Edmonton and Toronto.
Former diplomat and organized crime specialist Brian McAdam says the Triads often form an alliance with other Asian gangs, such as the Vietnamese, who now largely control marijuana grow-operations in Canada and who in turn sometimes collude with the Hell's Angels, thought to be British Columbia's largest organized crime group.
According to McAdam. the Vietnamese gangs, known for their extreme violence and affinity for automatic weapons, often take on the dirty work at the street level for the Triads.
"Within each Chinese community there's usually a strong Triad presence controlling and extorting money from the businesses, and if there's drugs, they're bringing them in," says McAdam.
As well as setting up legitimate companies in Vancouver and other Canadian cities as a front for their activities, McAdam says the Triads have in many cases been successful in compromising members of the police force as well as politicians at the federal and municipal level.
He says the leaders of Chinese benevolent societies and the Masonic temples in various Chinatowns are often Triad leaders, who may contribute large political donations as well as promise the vote of the Chinese community.
In 2003, the Asian Pacific Post reported that veteran police Supt. Garry Clement warned Ottawa in an internal memo of attempts by the Chinese Mafia to make connections with Canadian politicians.
In its International Crime Threat Assessment report, the American government said Asian organized crime in Canada poses a security threat to the United States. The report details how Chinese criminal organizations from Hong Kong, China, Macau and Taiwan have exploited the country's immigration policies and entrepreneur program, and are using Canada as a base for operations in the U.S.
"Canada has become a gateway for Chinese criminal activity directed at the United States, particularly heroin trafficking, credit card fraud, and software piracy," stated the report.
James Dubro, author of Dragons of Crime, Inside the Asian Underworld, says many organized crime gangs smuggle their illegal booty through the native reserves that straddle the Canada-U.S. border. He says it's difficult for the police to do anything about it because those reserves have their own police forces which are often corrupt.
"Everyone uses it [reserve land]óthe mafia, the bikers, the Triads, the Vietnamese gangs. They all use it for people smuggling, drug smuggling and everything else."
Worldwide, human trafficking is one of the biggest money-makers for the Triads and holds the least risk.
A grandmother nicknamed Big Sister Ping, arrested for smuggling humans into the United States in 2000, ran a global trafficking and money-laundering network worth an estimated $51 million.
Dubro says that because many Hong Kong nationals who moved to Vancouver in the 1980s and 90s had links to organized crime, Asian gangs have become the "dominant criminal force" in British Columbia. It was in the 1980s that the Big Circle Boys, a gang largely consisting of former Red Guards who moved from China to Hong Kong after the Cultural Revolution, set up shop in Vancouver.
The Vancouver RCMP said last year that they were shifting their focus to going after the gang kingpins rather than the minor players, and to that end have compiled a list of the province's top 20 crime bosses.
But Dubro says when it comes to Asian gangs, because they often have connections in high places and because their most powerful members don't operate at the street level, nabbing the key players is easier said than done.
"The big guys are very hard to get."