Recently arrested gang members associated with Mexican drug cartels were involved with supplying drugs to Red Deer and other Alberta communities, police allege.
The arrests also raise concern about the potential for gang rivalry violence and public safety.
The group arrested was primarily based in Edmonton but information suggested they were also supplying drug lines in Fort McMurray, Drayton Valley, Lloydminster and Red Deer, said Mike Tucker, communications manager for Alberta Law Enforcement Response Teams (ALERT).
Tucker said on Tuesday that the arrest of four people in late December in Edmonton involved members of the La Familia (The Family). The gang is known for its extreme violence in Mexico.
ALERT’s investigation began last August when intelligence identified La Familia as an emerging public safety threat to Albertans.
An ALERT press release issued at the time of the arrests said La Familia is described as an international support arm for the Mexican drug cartels and has strong ties to the Mara Salvatrucha gang, which operates mainly in Los Angeles and Central America.
ALERT Edmonton alleges that the cartel-affiliated group was attempting to gain control of the drug distribution channels in Alberta. ALERT is funded by the province and its role is to tackle serious and organized crime. Nearly 400 municipal police, RCMP, and sheriffs work within ALERT across Alberta.
The Alberta La Familia chapter wore a three-piece patch, similar to biker gangs, and had an established rank structure and club rules. The Alberta president of La Familia was arrested on Dec. 11 while attempting to board a flight at Edmonton International Airport.
Three of his associates were also arrested and now face a combined 40 drug and weapons-related charges. All are Canadians.
“ALERT’s most recent investigation began in August when intelligence identified La Familia as an emerging public safety threat to Albertans. It was believed that La Familia was in the process of aggressively recruiting new members and pursuing new markets for drug distribution.”
Tucker said people need to realize that cartels in Mexico have grown to the point where they’re operating as a business, and like a lot of other businesses they have a commitment to demonstrate profits.
“And they’re going to be exploring new markets and new revenue streams, and I think when you look at Alberta, other than what’s recently happened with oil prices, the economy has been very strong.
“Demand for drugs across Alberta has been very high, coinciding with that younger demographic with lot of disposable income and I would assume that the cartels would look at Alberta as an opportunity for new revenues.”
The drug market in this province would also offer a chance to remove the middle man, Tucker said.
In the past, Canadians would broker deals in Mexico. Now, police are seeing drug cartels willing to send their own people to broker deals and supply the drug lines in Alberta, he said.
Some of those arrested in Edmonton wore a three-piece patch with “Alberta” on it, and were very active in attempting to recruit new members here to strengthen their operations, Tucker said.
ALERT fast-tracked the investigation because of the cartels’ connections to violence.
Some of the weapons seized included a .22-calibre gun with a silencer, a .44 Desert Eagle Magnum handgun, sawed-off shotgun, and thousands of rounds of ammunition.
“Those are dangerous weapons in the hands of gang members. I think that the risk for violence and conflict with existing groups is inherent.”
The drug market in Alberta the past couple of years has been very strong and criminal groups have worked together because there has been enough of a profit, but “all it takes is one person to get greedy, or one group to get greedy and the conflict’s there,” Tucker said.
“A .22 calibre rifle with a silencer — that’s used for human hunting,” he said.
“That’s pretty serious,” Tucker added.
“Red Deer is not unique. Every community in Alberta wrestles with gang issues. Fortunately we do have a (ALERT) team in Red Deer that tackles organized crime and they’ve been very successful recently,” he said.
Gangs in Central Alberta are not a new phenomenon.
The Nomads, affiliated with the Hells Angels, have had a local chapter in the Red Deer area for many years. Their clubhouse is in the Blackfalds area.
And recently, members of the Red Scorpions, a gang that originated in the lower mainland of B.C., were arrested in Central Alberta and charged with drug and weapons related offences.
A gangland-style shooting murder in Red Deer’s Inglewood neighbourhood in 2009 is tied to gang rivalries. The accused in this case was convicted but a new trial was later ordered and will take place in November of this year.
Sgt. Gerald Ouellet heads up the 13-member Red Deer Combined Forces Special Enforcement Unit, which falls under the ALERT umbrella.
“Organized crime is everywhere and it’s what supplies the drug trade and firearms trade within our communities, so that’s where we focus our investigations,” he said.
While Ouellet wouldn’t comment specifically on investigations of organized crime groups in Central Alberta, his unit does work files that could have an inter-provincial or national component.
“The face of organized crime changes constantly … as we’re investigating there’s always changes to the group or changes to the hierarchy.
“There are always concerns when organized crime is involved, the propensity for violence … with organized crime comes additional concerns.”
In Central Alberta, cocaine continues to be a drug of choice, and heroin is an issue too, Ouellet said.
And recently, fentanyl pills are a huge concern because of how dangerous they can be, he said. Fentanyl is a synthetic opioid painkiller much stronger than morphine.
“We’re seeing a plethora of drugs, but there’s some trends that we’re seeing, especially with fentanyl pills (in recent months) that are very concerning.”
“It’s safe to say any drugs or any firearms that are being brought in illegally, that type of environment is caused by organized crime groups. That’s our biggest concern.”