Police in Quebec and Ontario cracked down on outlaw bikers and street gang members Thursday in what one cop described as a major blow against drug traffickers and “career criminals.”
Forty-four men and three women had been scooped up by police by late afternoon from the roughly 67 arrest warrants that had been sworn out.
Significant quantities of cocaine, crack, ecstasy, marijuana and hashish were seized along with other drugs including speed, Viagra and steroids.
About 700 police officers took part in the raids, and a Montreal gym was one of the targets.
Montreal police Sgt. Ian Lafreniere told reporters one of those arrested was Jean Lavertue, who represented Canada in weightlifting at the 1996 Olympics.
Insp. Bernard Lamothe of the Montreal police organized crime division said Operation Axe was one of the biggest ever carried out by the city force, which was aided by officers from the RCMP, Quebec provincial police and several other cities, including Ottawa.
“This investigation led to the discovery of links between the heads of a major street gang and two other criminal organizations which are very active on our territory in drug trafficking,” said Lamothe.
“The objective was to put them out of business.”
Police said one of the organizations targeted was a puppet club of the Hells Angels outlaw biker gang, which led a bloody turf war over drugs in the 1990s.
Drug-trafficking was at the base of the organizations hit Thursday and generated “a couple of hundred thousand dollars a week” in profits, Lamothe said.
“These were career criminals mostly that we were aiming at and that we attacked,” he said.
“We’re talking about people who were in criminal activities for more than 10 to 15 years. We’re talking about heads of organizations that we arrested.”
The charges to be laid include gangsterism, drug-trafficking, weapons possession and conspiracy to commit murder.
The raids, which also netted $600,000 in cash as well as 25 guns and a number of bullet-proof vests, were aimed at sending a message.
“We’re really hopeful that this investigation will have a major impact on the image it’s going to send out to the emerging street gangs,” Lamothe said.
Two of the people arrested were already in jail, one in Laval, Que., and the other in Kingston, Ont.
Lamothe said he was told by prosecutors who tackle street gangs that the case will break new ground in Canada because it will be the first time a second set of gangsterism charges are laid against people already serving time for gangsterism.
He said that’s significant because gangsterism convictions bring sentences that are served consecutively to other sentences.
Cmdr. Denis Mainville, who is also part of the organized crime anti-gang unit, said that besides being one of the biggest undertaken by the force, the investigation was also one of the most complex.
“We involved about 100 police officers from different kinds of units, including the police in patrol cars and different squads,” he said of the probe which also involved electronic eavesdropping as well as other tactics.
“Different techniques were used, that’s for sure.”
Arraignments will take place early Friday morning. Reports have said some of the accused are close to Maurice (Mom) Boucher, a Hells Angels kingpin now serving a jail sentence.
Yves Lavigne, an author of three books on the Hells, suggests the police operation was aimed at halting the expansion of the biker gang in Quebec.
He noted that many bikers who were rounded up in Operation Springtime, another huge police sweep in 2001, have been released from prison during the past few years.
“So they’re back in operation on the streets, setting up drug networks,” Lavigne said.
“Police are really following up on the people who have gotten back into the criminal mainstream in the last three or four years and gotten into drug operations again.”
The biker expert also said the growing violence involving street gangs in cities like Montreal and Vancouver is directly related to the Hells.
“What’s happening at the street level is that kids are fighting to make money to expand their turf and to prove themselves to the Hells Angels,” he said.
“It’s frightening but until people stop using drugs, every city in this country faces this level of violence.”