In early June 2008, the Toronto Police Service conducted raids into 22 homes and arrested 21 suspected members of Mara Salvatrucha–13 and others with ties to the organization. Described as “the most dangerous gang in America”, MS-13 is considered to be in the embryonic stage developing in Canada. While not as organized or violent in Canada as in El Salvador, Honduras or the Chiapas state of Mexico or elsewhere in North and South America, MS-13 in continuing to grow.

The police report that members are implicated in the distribution of illicit drugs and firearms. The gang is known to be extremely violent. MS-13 originated in the 1980s from a handful of freedom fighters who fled El Salvador’s civil war and moved to Los Angeles. Experts estimate that there are 120,000 members in North and South America.

Gang expert Michael Chettleburgh said that Canada is perceived as a safe haven for them. He said that MS-13 has come to Canada largely because of family ties or because they are escaping charges in another country.

Youth gangs are a serious and growing problem across the country. The 2002 Canadian Police Survey on Youth Gangs found that youth gangs are involved in a range of criminal activities, such as assault, drug trafficking, vandalism, graffiti, burglary, intimidation and extortion. The survey indicated that youth gangs are responsible for more than one-third of the street sale of marijuana, followed by crackcocaine and powder cocaine.

The survey reported that youth gangs are active across Canada, in both large and small communities. There are approximately 434 youth gangs in Canada with some 7,000 members nationally. Ontario has the highest number of youth gangs and youth gang members in the country, with 216 youth gangs and 3,320 youth gang members.

Almost half of youth gang members fall within the age group of 16 to 18. They are composed primarily of young men, but females represent a significant proportion of the gang population in some jurisdictions.

In its definition of “youth gang”, the Montreal Police Service incorporates the antisocial and delinquent behaviours that are distinctive of these groups. It defines a youth gang as:

An organized group of adolescents and/or young adults who rely on group intimidation and violence, and commit criminal acts in order to gain power and recognition and/or control certain areas of unlawful activity.

Youth gang members cut across many ethnic, geographic, demographic and socioeconomic levels. The Canadian Police Survey on Youth Gangs reports that youth at risk of joining gangs or already involved in gangs tend to be from groups that suffer from the greatest level of inequality and social disadvantage. Many youth who join gangs have also been identified as youth who are using drugs and already involved in serious and violent crime.

As an explanation for why youth become involved in gangs, Dr. Fred Mathews, Director of Research and Quality Assurance with the Central Toronto Youth Services, points to an attempt to escape an abusive home environment, the modeling of antisocial siblings or a lack of discipline and boundaries from parents. His research indicates that youth join gangs to satisfy individual needs, such as personal safety, status, recognition of friendship and affiliation and the thrill of living on the edge. In addition, Dr. Mathews says that a youth may have financial reasons to join a gang, including money for drugs, food, shelter or cars, or money to impress peers or girlfriends.

Dr. Mathews asserts that a key to understanding much of the motivation to become involved in youth gangs can be found in the development needs of adolescents. These include:

…affiliation with like-minded peers, self-esteem and personal efficacy, the formation of an identity independent from parents and family, limit-testing, challenging authority, the search for novelty, stimulation, and pleasure, the expression of assertiveness and aggression, and the development of a sexual and gender identity.

Dr. Mathews states that many of these needs are met quickly and easily through involvement in gang activity.

As in the United States, Toronto’s gangs have broken into two primary gang alliances, called the Bloods and the Crips, named for the rival Los Angeles street gangs that first used the names. Many Toronto street gangs affiliate themselves with both a U.S. gang and a local area of Toronto. A gang, such as the Ardwick Blood Crew, takes its name from the Ardwick townhouse complex many members once lived in and also their affiliation with the Bloods.

Recent research also indicates that gun violence is prevalent among street gangs that involve young men less than 30 years of age. The RCMP reports that home-made or improvised firearms, drilled-out starter pistols and sawed-off guns are becoming more common among Canadian youth gangs.

The Drugs, Alcohol and Violence International Study, a joint Canada/U.S. project, provides evidence about the relationship between gangs, guns and drugs in Toronto and Montreal. The results indicate that:

  • There is a correlation between gang presence in schools and the availability of both guns and drugs in schools.
  • 15.1% of boys (aged 14 to 17) in Toronto and 18.7% in Montreal have brought a gun to school.
  • School dropouts who become involved in selling drugs are at a higher risk of being involved in gun-related violence.

The RCMP also reports that youth gangs are involved in “net banging” which refers to a wide variety of gang-related activity on the world wide web, including the communication of information among gang members, recruitment activities and provoking hostilities among rival gangs. Police state that this is part of a trend by street gangs to turn to the Internet for a number of reasons, ranging from providing information about membership to bragging rights and intimidating rivals.

Prevention

There are a number of ways to discourage youth from joining gangs. The Toronto District School Board advises that educators should focus on “deglamourizing” gangs and warning young people about the dangers and personal consequences associated with gang involvement. Many school boards have developed programs to encourage students to report incidents of violence, to train staff to identify gang presence in the school and to keep the premises clean and well-maintained. The focus should be on empowering students and creating a culture in our schools that antisocial behaviour will not be tolerated.

It is advised that schools identify and intervene with isolated and vulnerable youth. These individuals need to feel that they belong in their respective schools and that they are important and supported.

Parents, schools and community service organizations should find ways to assist young people to experience success and develop self-esteem. This could include a range of activities, such as after-school and evening sports programs, part-time employment, mentoring, skills development and community focused work projects.

Researchers have indicated that community protection from youth gangs must be balanced with proactive programs aimed at prevention. For example, early intervention strategies, such as conflict resolution, peer mediation, peacemaker programs and drama troupes which discuss anger management, demonstrate a proactive approach in attempting to prevent incidents of violence. It is also advised that training in the use of skills for non-violent conflict resolution become part of the curriculum for all children, particularly in the early and primary years. Such training can provide students with alternative ways to express anger and help them defuse or avoid volatile situations.