There was a lot of violence on Selkirk Avenue in early July.
Stabbings and shootings, home invasions and assaults. All stemming from a group of connected North End gang factions the Free Press has learned call themselves Bloodz.
But rather than load up the street and surrounding area with officers and squad cars to arrest as many people as possible, the Winnipeg Police Service's organized-crime unit took a more targeted approach.
“We cut the head off the snake, we took the individual who was causing the problems and ordering all these shootings and stabbings, the violence that was going on." – Insp. Elton Hall
Through crime analysis, investigators discovered there was likely just one higher-level gangster calling the shots. By getting him out of the picture — into remand for breaching court conditions and various minor offences — the unit watched the torrent of crime slow to a trickle for five weeks.
"We cut the head off the snake, we took the individual who was causing the problems and ordering all these shootings and stabbings, the violence that was going on," said unit commander Insp. Elton Hall.
"That’s this new way of thinking and policing. It’s easy to use resources and flood the streets, take people off the streets — people in the community don’t want to see that, they want a problem solved. I think that’s what we did there. We dismantled a problem."
Hall, who took over the unit seven months ago, provided the Free Press with a rare look into the current organized-crime environment in Winnipeg, how it's changed over the past decade and what investigators are doing about the violent, often lethal, combination of drugs and guns.
"The environment's completely changed," the 21-year WPS member said.
At one time, outlaw motorcycle gangs such as the Hells Angels were the big concern. Although bikers continue to play a significant role in drug and gun trafficking, they are going about their business in a different manner now, Hall said.
"The propensity for violence for them can change at the drop of a dime, obviously, but right now they seem to have their house in order," he said.
Large, interconnected organized-crime networks are now major players in moving drugs and guns into the city.
The WPS busted one of them in February. It was the largest seizure in the force's history — more than $11.5 million in illicit drugs, cash, cryptocurrency, properties, vehicles and weapons.
"They’re interprovincial, they could be national, they go into the United States," Hall said. "I know for a fact some of these networks have close ties to Mexico and South America right here in Winnipeg.
"These are businesspeople for the most part — they’re hands off. You will see violence from them, but it usually comes down through the street-gang level."
Vietnamese and other Asian crime groups that appeared a few years ago have since evolved into the larger networks, he said.
"It’s maybe people just going up through the ranks, making partnerships and forming this crime group... there’s different factions, but these organized-crime groups, the drug networks that we see here are large in scale and they don’t just involve Winnipeg," he said.
Winnipeg doesn't have a gang problem, according to Ryan Beardy, community organizer and mentor with the Gang Action Interagency Network.
"We’re a very populated urban centre that has a ‘not caring for our people' problem."
And that's because the underlying social and societal factors that draw youths into criminal behaviour are largely ignored, the former gang member said.
"We’re really reactive in terms of addressing gang issues… even the very existence of gangs comes from places of poverty, from places of marginalization," he said.
"We need to look at the underlying social factors that contribute to gang membership and we need to look at creating social safety nets, creating more programs, more outreach, more mentorship.... We need to use the young men’s and girls' belonging and purpose and identity, these are very important to people and when you don’t have them, unfortunately, they can find them in gangs... drugs."
Beardy pointed to rising incarceration rates of Indigenous people, intergenerational trauma, poverty and political austerity as root causes.
"It’s like we have a bathtub, and the bathtub is overflowing," he said. "Are we going to bring the mops out and increase police funding, or are we going to shut the tap off and increase social funding?
"We need to get away from thinking policing is the solution."
"We need to get away from thinking policing is the solution." – Community organizer and mentor Ryan Beardy
Hall doesn't disagree. He said police can't arrest their way out of the problem.
"We can’t also be social workers at the same," he said. "You need programs in place where we can guide, we can help to a point, but these social agencies need to be there, ready to help."
He pointed to existing relationships with social agencies that help gang members leave the life behind, as well as education programs spearheaded by the unit's gang outreach co-ordinator as examples.
Major criminal players need street-level connections.
"To put it simply, the organized-crime networks, these drug networks, facilitate the means and ways to get guns and drugs into the city and they need to obviously sell these products," Hall said. "It's a business."
That's where street gangs enter the picture.
There are three main gangs with different factions operating in the North End, West End and the central part of the city, Hall said.
The B-Side in the West End has 100 to 150 members.
"(The West End's) membership is pretty steady… a stable group of individuals, generally the same individuals as 15 years ago, just bringing in some younger, generally family members," he said. "They’re more organized, a little more established."
In the North End, the more disorganized Bloodz have enveloped some smaller gangs that work together but are not necessarily all friendly. Membership fluctuates from about 150 to as many as 400.
In Central Park and downtown, a group of three or four main African immigrant gangs exist under one umbrella group with relatively stable numbers.
The African group has ties to gangs in the Greater Toronto Area, which facilitates gun and drug trafficking between the two cities — and the results have been bloody.
As much as 30 per cent of 2020's 41 homicides were tied to possible disputes between the Winnipeg and Toronto gangs, but Hall said police expect that percentage to be lower this year, thanks to increased focus on getting guns off the street.
"Simply setting up and surveilling people doesn’t work anymore. These are sophisticated criminals, they’re intelligent, they’re young, they understand social media, they understand technology." – Insp. Elton Hall
"Whether they’re trying to establish some dominance in Winnipeg or there’s some friction between the two, we’re not exactly certain, but it’s these individuals within this African crime group that are fighting each other," he said.
As street gangs, the Hells Angels and drug networks change tactics when technology progresses, so do the police.
"When you look at crime trends, when you look at social media — cryptocurrency, for example — the landscape's changed quite a bit in the last 10-15 years," Hall said.
"Simply setting up and surveilling people doesn’t work anymore. These are sophisticated criminals, they’re intelligent, they’re young, they understand social media, they understand technology."
Hall said his unit is pushing for younger, highly-educated officers who understand the digital world, along with increased co-operation with the criminal analysis unit.
"When I was younger, we would never use analytics, we would never have analysts in our briefings. Now, we don’t even start our briefing without having these individuals in here, they’re the brains behind what’s going on, they know what’s going on behind the scenes," he said.
"They can throw out the numbers, they can tell us where the problem areas are."
Erik Pindera is a multimedia producer at the Winnipeg Free Press.