Authorities in Panama have arrested one of the top-level fugitives accused of executing a bloody Quebec biker war that was won by the Hells Angels but also reinvigorated law enforcement efforts to bring down the gang.
Michel Smith, an alleged leadership figure associated with the Hells Angels, was arrested Friday in Playa Coronado, a resort area on the Pacific coast, according to the Panama National Police.
Investigators in the central American country say he is wanted on 29 charges, including 22 for murder. Mr. Smith, 49, also known as "L'animal" and Michael Lajoie-Smith, among other aliases, faces a quick extradition back to Canada, police officials in Panama said in a news release. The statement released Sunday added that Mr. Smith was captured after a two-month surveillance operation.
Police in Canada and Quebec justice officials did not confirm the news Sunday.
It's no surprise Mr. Smith was found in Panama, according to Yves Lavigne, the author of three books on the Hells Angels.
"Panama probably has one of the world's largest concentration of spies, criminals and ne'er-do-wells," Mr. Lavigne said. "It's a huge cesspool of people you don't want to have anything to do with. So it's easy to hide there, and do deals there."
Mr. Smith has long been alleged to be among the top men affiliated with the Hells Angels when it largely eliminated the Rock Machine biker gang in the 1990s and early 2000s. More than 150 people disappeared or died in bombings, shootings and other attacks.
While most of the victims were members of the rival gangs and their affiliates, two prison guards and 11-year old bystander Daniel Desrochers also died.
The mayhem led to revamped laws and renewed police and Crown efforts to crack down on the bikers. Two of the biggest busts in Quebec history in 2001 and again in 2009 put hundreds of gang members behind bars. In the most recent bust, dubbed Operation SharQc, police executed arrest warrants for 155 people, including Mr. Smith, who had left the country.
"You really have to give Quebec credit. It's the only place in the world where all the bikers in the province, from the big gangs and their puppet clubs, have been jailed," said Mr. Lavigne.
Mr. Lavigne said Quebec introduced a unique system where Crown prosecutors were involved in investigations from the start. This greatly reduced bungled paperwork, either through incompetence or corruption, and increased assurance charges could stick, he said. "The Crown made sure everything was done properly, and as a result Quebec is the only place where the Angels are really hurt."
After the 2009 busts, police quickly focused their search for Mr. Smith on Panama. Playa Coronado, where he was arrested Friday, is about 100 kilometres from Panama City. The resort area is less known as a tourist resort than as a long-established playground for wealthy residents of the capital.
About 124 of the suspects arrested in Operation SharQc still await trial. A judge dismissed charges against 31 people accused of drug crimes because of unreasonable delay in getting to trial. Several other high-profile suspects are still on the run.
Mr. Smith first rose to prominence in 1995 when he was leader of the Death Riders in Laval, a suburb just north of Montreal. He was sentenced to six years in jail for ordering the bombing of a bar. (The bomb was dismantled before it went off.)
Shortly after he was out on parole, police described Mr. Smith as one of four gang members in the inner circle of Maurice "Mom" Boucher, the former Hells Angels boss now serving a life sentence.
With files from The Associated Press