Gangsters’ ‘new best friends’

Starting next week, gangsters and their wanna-be associates can expect company when they make the rounds of nightclubs, restaurants, gyms and other Lower Mainland hang-outs.

Uniformed police officers, members of a newly created anti-gang squad, will be shadowing them wearing jackets that read “Violence Suppression Team” and conducting regular searches for weapons and drugs.

“We’re going to be their new best friends,” Delta Police Chief Jim Cessford said Wednesday, following a Vancouver press conference to announce the new initiative.

The top officers from every police force in the region were at the official unveiling of the new 45-member force which merges members of the existing regional Integrated Gang Task Force with members of the Vancouver Police Department.

It’s a response to the recent rash of gang-related violence that has claimed over a dozen lives, including the murders of six people in a Surrey high-rise last month.

Cessford said the initiative was the product of several days of talks between the different police agencies.

The new unit will be headed by Inspector Dean Robinson, the officer in charge of the Vancouver Police Department’s Gangs and Drugs Section. Robinson said gang members will know they are being watched closely.

“We’ll take it one day at a time, one week at a time, one arrest at a time,” he said.

Surrey RCMP Chief Supt. Fraser MacRae said the campaign should help to cool things down among underworld elements.

“At the very least, they won’t be carrying guns with them because they know they’ll be checked.”

Delta Police Supt. John Robin, the officer in charge of the Integrated Gang Task Force, said the wave of violence has been two decades in the making, the result of the growth in marijuana production and the rise of new criminal groups struggling for control.

“We’re going to be in these people’s faces,” Robin promised.

The latest murders happened early Tuesday morning in Vancouver, when two men were gunned down inside a Mercedes sedan as it was waiting to make a left turn at Granville Street and 70 Avenue about 2 a.m.

The victims have been identified as Ronal Shakeel Raj, 31, of Surrey and Ali Abhari, 25, of Kelowna.Raj, the driver of the Mercedes, owned a Port Moody house that he purchased with $500,000 cash a few years ago, along with the Mercedes, a Cadillac and a speedboat.

Police said Raj and Abhari were known to have gang connections.Vancouver Police Deputy Chief Doug LePard said the shootings appeared to be the result of a dispute between two gangs, but stopped short of calling it a gang war.

Figures released at Wednesday’s press conference show the number of gangs in B.C. may have more than doubled over the past four years.

Right now, the provincial Criminal Intelligence Service estimates there there are 129 criminal groups with 2,500 members operating in B.C.

The number of groups has increased rapidly, from 51 in 2003, to 82 in 2004, 108 in 2005 and 124 in 2006.

Roughly three-quarters of those groups are gangs of some type.

The service says the figures may indicate an improved ability by police to detect and report them.

So far this year, 22 people have been murdered and 73 have been wounded in criminal-versus-criminal violence in B.C.

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