My trip into dark and deadly world

PUBLISHED : Sunday, 18 November, 2007, 12:00am
UPDATED : Sunday, 18 November, 2007, 12:00am

Dealing drugs in Vancouver, they say, is such easy money that everyone is doing it, from grandmothers to graduate students. So when former Hong Kong banker and now journalist Peter Guy decided to find out more about the city's drug culture as background for a novel, all he had to do was look up friends from the old neighbourhood.

Guy's decision to dive into this dark and largely unknown world was driven by his desire to do something different after the financial markets were subdued by the Sars crisis. Inspired by the movies he saw as a boy, he decided to go undercover into a twilight world of hard people and hard lives.

It is a world that reached out and claimed six victims in a multiple murder last month which made global headlines, and left the city questioning its drug laws - while the cultivation and sale of marijuana is still banned, people in possession of small amounts are rarely prosecuted and there have been moves towards outright decriminalisation.

Four known drug dealers were shot in the Vancouver suburb of Surrey, along with two innocent bystanders, their bodies left for police to discover when someone called in a bogus gas leak. This, coupled with a recent spike in intra-gang violence, has caused an outcry.

'What happened in Vancouver is terrible, but not unexpected. It's such a laid-back drug culture there,' Guys says, adding that few people in Vancouver do hard time for dealing in marijuana. 'Most dealers are perfectly normal people, they're not Hannibal Lecter. They have kids, they have families, and they can't find anything as profitable [as drugs] to fund their lifestyles.'

Guy's parents emigrated from Hong Kong to Canada to look for gold, but ended up working on the railways. He was born in a small town near Winnipeg, to the only Chinese family in the area.

The fact that his family members were pioneers and he was fed a steady diet of western movies moulded his ideals of strong men living by their own rules. Those were exactly the kind of people he found when he returned to Canada years later. Keeping in touch with childhood friends and watching their lives develop has given him an insight into the moral dichotomy of life.

'There was a whole bunch of us,' he says. 'Some went on to become college graduates and successful members of society. One became a crown prosecutor.'

Others discovered how easy it is to be successful outlaws and slide into the underworld of gangs, dealing and violence.

The difference in Vancouver is that doing drugs or dealing them is not considered aberrant behaviour as it is in Hong Kong. There's a house on every block that's growing and dealing, says Guy. Also important is the fact there's a huge market across the border in the United States.

Most people start out growing marijuana for personal use. When they find it easy, they start growing more, to sell. The problem has become so rampant that marijuana is Canada's largest crop, even outstripping wheat. According to Forbes magazine, marijuana cultivation is generating US$7 billion in sales annually in British Columbia alone.

Most people don't start out with the aim of becoming drug lords, but they slide into it with a naivete that sees some go on to become rich while others end up like the six murdered in Surrey.

'You may be just a grower who wouldn't kill anyone for their crop but there are plenty of people who are willing to do this, and therein lies the twilight zone of illegality and immorality that the average person has to navigate,' Guy says.

It's very easy to go from home grower to exporter, especially when there is a willing market in the United States that pays more than in Canada. Getting the drugs across the border is not difficult and everyone from housewives to Iraqi war vets seem willing to do it, says Guy. Soccer mums will toss a bag of 'weed' into a sports bag and drive across the border. It goes across in shopping bags, mixed as part of fresh produce shipments, hidden in specially rigged cars or trucks, or even floated downriver in hollowed-out logs.

But once a dealer gets his crop to the US he still has to find buyers, of which there is no shortage. Often, however, the wholesale buyers of marijuana don't want to pay in ready cash. They either offer guns or cocaine. And so the dealer faces more moral choices, says Guy. The cocaine is taken back across the border and sold for Canadian dollars which is then used to buy marijuana, and so it goes on.

One such dealer moved to Beverly Hills and ran his operation from his Blackberry with great success. For him, says Guy, it was all about cutting out the middle-man and streamlining the operation.

He was in the export and import business, taking marijuana from growers in Canada to Los Angeles, swapping it for cocaine, taking the cocaine back to Canada and supplying dealers, and then paying off the growers. He was even willing to get his cocaine directly from Columbians, known for being especially dangerous customers willing to shoot anyone who doesn't have the right credentials. And all along the line he charged his 10 per cent handling fee.

But as Guy points out, when you're in this kind of business you're not working with MBAs or people with a solid work ethic. It is often the very people that the dealer trusts that brings them down, particularly their girlfriends who know the inner workings of their businesses and give the information to their rivals. The police, says Guy, are the least of the dealer's worries.

One Christmas one of the Beverly Hills dealer's runners decided that he wanted to spend time with his family instead of work, and the dealer stepped in to fill the gap. He was stopped at the Canadian border with US$750,000 in cash. Faced with possible terrorism charges he confessed everything and was spared prison time, but he lost his money and his right to travel into the US.

Guy also met the hardened dealers, the bikers, the wannabe bikers, the professionals, the 'kilo players' who move drugs in large amounts. Some were open and friendly, and others were heavily armed. There were Iraqi war veterans who had witnessed the horrors of war and developed a lust for danger, and wanted to run their own underground operations.

The notion of hippie bikers trafficking in weed is outdated, Guy says. The bikers are still there, but these days they own bikes and SUVs and mansions. There is no doubt about it, crime pays.

While some of the Vancouver gangs are highly organised, and are heavily Hong Kong and Chinese influenced, the notorious Hells Angels are a breed apart. They have no cultural attachments like the Italian mafia or Chinese triads, says Guy, which means they can grow in number very rapidly.

The problem is that with no cultural attachments and no single strong leader, they also have fewer rules to restrain them and that makes them more dangerous. There are some things that culturally affiliated gangs won't do. There are no such constraints on gangs like the Hells Angels.

The grisly Pickton murder case, in which pig-farmer Robert Pickton has been charged with the murder of 26 women, many of them prostitutes and drug users from the notorious Downtown Eastside of the city, is of particular interest to Guy.

He questions how a man such as Pickton could lure so many women to his farm. It was a hangout for bikers and known as a party scene. Rumour has it that the killings were not the work of one man, but the ritual initiation of gang members who, as a final step to membership, commit a murder which is filmed.

'It serves two purposes,' says Guy. 'The first is that it proves that these would-be gang members are not police, because no cop would do that. The second is that if the member then decides to testify against the gang for any reason, they have damning evidence against him.'

For his investigation, Guy went into in the thick of gangs, guns and drugs, but says he never felt threatened. 'My scariest moment was being in an SUV laden with weed and coke when the driver decided to stop off at Wendy's drive-through,' he says.

A simple decision to pick up some food could have turned ugly when a female crack addict tried to buy a burger. The Wendy's staffer refused to serve her because she was on foot so she approached the SUV asking the dealer to buy her food. It was then they noticed the police car pulled up behind them.

Guy could see the dealer reaching for his gun as they argued with the woman, hoping all the time that the police would not step out to investigate. Luckily the woman moved on and the police's suspicions were not aroused.

Guy, now the editor in chief of Escape Magazine, a travel periodical, has written about his experiences in a novel which is being reviewed by publishers.

While Guy stresses his interest in the underbelly of Vancouver's society was about the moral choices people make, he found himself having to make a few of those choices when getting his story. Surrounded by crime and violence he could choose to remain silent and report, or try to do something to stop it.

'I was always aware of the danger,' he says. 'There's a saying that the best way to keep a secret among five guys is to kill four of them. So you'd better not be the guy who tries to solve problems, it's terminal.'