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Behind Toronto's gangs

The term "gang" sounds far more straightforward than it actually is. Both police and academics struggle to determine exactly what they mean: According to current norms, it's three or more people working together to commit a crime. But that, notes University of Toronto criminologist Scot Wortley, could be anything from the mafia to a trio of boys stealing schoolboys' lunch money. And many people take issue with using the term "gang" towards Toronto's street youth, period.

Segun Akinsanya, who's been through the system and ended up in jail first for breaching parole, then for stabbing a man to death takes umbrage at the idea that these groups of young kids could be considered organized criminals.

"It's a group of people banding together. ... It's opportunists without any opportunities."

Past: Bigger and better organized

Twenty years ago, Toronto's gangs were bigger, better-organized and much less lethal. Throughout most of the 1990s, the city's gang-related homicides hovered close to zero annually.

The largest gangs had their own hierarchies: The Vice Lords , a particularly violent and well-known gang based near Jane and Finch in the city's northwest, had around 250 members, says gang expert Michael Chettleburgh.

"They had four leaders and 250 'soldiers.' But it's hard to keep a crew together that large. It's hard to enforce your dominance against multiple layers of young people: It's not like an army where you have court martials."

Present: More groups, fewer members

Today, Toronto's biggest gangs have closer to 50 or 60 people. Among the larger groups are Kingston-Galloway Boys , in Scarborough intersection of cheap apartment buildings and social housing in a neighbourhood built for 1950s families with cars. The lack of transit here is a key barrier to more legitimate business opportunities, community organizers say.

The Driftwood Crips are also one of Toronto's bigger and better-organized groups, taking their name from Driftwood Court, a large social-housing project near Jane and Finch.

Disorganized crime

The vast majority of the estimated 6,000 youth in the Toronto area involved in street violence are far more loosely organized and in far smaller groups think eight to 15 people, on average.

A large number of these are based on the neighbourhoods where these people live often cloistered social-housing projects where everyone knows each other and where it's both harder to get out and harder to get in: Police admit it's challenging to patrol housing projects built with the purpose of being segregated from the rest of the city. Some of these groups have names and colours, but the majority don't. They wouldn't call themselves gangs.

"I just see more smaller crews that we've never heard of before, rather than large super-crews coming together," Mr. Chettleburgh said. "There's just a dog's breakfast of street crews out there."

International presence

Some international gangs made their presence known in Toronto: The Jamaica-based Shower Posse , which has been held responsible for extreme violence in Kingston, had a presence in Toronto's northwest for years. The Toronto police's Project Corral attempted to crack down on the posse in a massive sweep that arrested dozens.

Mara Salvatrucha, a violent international gang with Latin American ties also known as MS-13 , had a significant presence in Toronto's west end and in parts of Halton, police say. They've been the subject of multiple Toronto Police raids.

Community housing connection

Public housing areas often provide perfect environments for fomenting street violence or gang activity: The areas have high concentrations of poor, disenfranchised youth. Mobility - social, economic and physical - is limited. Many of these complexes were designed decades ago to stand apart from the rest of the city. But now that design has made them cloisters of people who see little chance of advancement through legal means. They're also tough to police, says Chris White, superintendent in charge of Toronto Police's organized crime enforcement.

"The design of some of these neighbourhoods, they're restrictive to vehicle traffic," he said. "So it makes it more difficult to police it in the normal policing aspect."

Toronto Community Housing spokeswoman Sinead Canavan noted in an e-mail that there are 3,000 CCTV cameras in key locations across public housing, and the community housing corporation allocates $13.7-million annually for safety services.

A shot at prevention

A federally funded pilot project to get young people out of gang-related activity just wrapped up. The initiative, Prevention Intervention Toronto, focused on a number of communities along the Jane Street corridor between Steeles and Eglinton in Toronto's west end. The number of shootings, calls for police service, robberies, public perceptions of safety, youth unemployment and income levels made the corridor a good place to test such a program, says Lydia Fitchko, director of Social Policy, Analysis and Research for the City of Toronto.

The $3-million program worked with about 300 people between 13 and 24, most of them male, with the aim of getting them into the job market. Two-thirds completed the program, according to a preliminary evaluation. While many are believed to have stayed out of gangs long-term, it's tough to measure that kind of thing: Young people tend to move around a lot, making them difficult to check up on.

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Interactive by Alisa Mamak and
Stuart A. Thompson

SOURCES: Toronto Police Service, Toronto Community Housing Corporation, City of Toronto ward profiles.
*NOTE: TCHC (Toronto Community Housing Corporation) developments may include more than one address per development. In cases where multiple addresses exist, an approximation of the center of the development has been used.