Register Monday | July 15 | 2024

We Have You Surrounded

Teen prostitution, gangland violence and the new suburban identity

John Bauer shot his wife on the morning of September 18, 2001. He then waited for his three sons to return home before putting a bullet in the back of each of their heads. At some point in the afternoon, he killed his business partner whom he had invited to the house for a meeting. Later that night, he drove to his father-in-law's apartment and gunned him down. That was a Tuesday. On Wednesday, Bauer mailed suicide notes to his brothers and sister explaining his actions. On Thursday morning, he set the family home ablaze and turned the gun on himself.

Neighbours described the Bauers as a "very normal family." John coached Little League. Jonathan-twenty-two when he died-was a popular bartender at a local bar. Helen Bauer was a volunteer lunch monitor. They had two new cars. They had a pool in their backyard. They played by suburban rules.

The Bauers lived in a modestly affluent neighbourhood of the West Island, a group of boroughs clustered on the western end of Montreal. Locals call it "the West," a fitting moniker for its sprawling topography. Homes set in private oceans of grass, labyrinthine streets, parking lots, strip malls-all imbued with the frontier restlessness that, in the nineteen-fifties, chased away rural areas on the fringes of cities across the continent. The suburbs are the architecture of people on the move, a settling, a consolidation of gains, a carving out of place.

But the Bauer murders offered a hint that the suburbs and everything they have to offer-privacy, stability, prosperity-can be an addiction some people will go to great lengths to satisfy. Months before the murders, John Bauer lost his job. He was having trouble finding another, and the bills were mounting. Realizing he couldn't provide for his family, and in the throes of what a local priest called the "darkness of despair," he started spending recklessly. "He sent one of his kids on a vacation on a credit card, knowing that he couldn't pay for it and that he planned eventually to kill him," Montreal police Commander André Bouchard told the National Post. "What seems to have been the problem is that he once had a very good job...a very high standard of living and then it all came crashing down around him."

The murders were a remarkable event in a place that tends to prize its unremarkable nature. Indeed, belief in their ordinariness made it easy for West Island residents to brand the Bauer tragedy as an isolated incident and move on. But recently the West has been marked by a spate of less sensational crimes. A fifteen-year-old boy was shot in the back of the leg outside the Fairview shopping centre. Another teen was stabbed across the street from Skratch, a giant pool hall in a strip mall in Pierrefonds. In July 2004, police charged the father, mother and two sons of the St-Cyr family with masterminding a teen-prostitution ring out of their West Island home. The pimps were alleged members of a street gang known as the Crack Down Posse, and their prostitutes were tattooed with the word boo, Creole slang for "whore," a sign to other gangs that the girls were somebody else's property.

Such events lack the spectacular appeal of a three-day killing spree but, taken together, they speak of a new reality. Street gangs have settled in the West, as they have in suburbs across North America, and they are doing what John Bauer's act only threatened to do-changing the way people think about suburban communities in Canada. They have tweaked the meaning of violence-making it chronic instead of shocking-while keeping sacred the suburban cows of materialism and consumerism. They are the signposts of a new suburban identity, one that speaks in the same language as John Bauer's despair.

Street gangs aren't new to Canadian suburbs. The earliest reports of the phenomenon date back to 1975 in Surrey, British Columbia. Toronto's outlying streets continue to be gripped by gang violence that erupted last summer. In Montreal, gangs became a serious public concern in the summer of 2004 when local newspapers got word that the city's neighbourhoods were playing host to a turf war.

Reporters were quick to lay out the terms of reference for their readers: there were two major groups, each borrowing tags from the infamous Los Angeles street gangs of the nineteen-eighties-the reds, or Bloods, and the blues, or Crips. Composed of loosely aligned but independent cells, the street gangs adopted either a Crips or Bloods association and were ready to provide support to sister groups. Violence broke out at unpredictable intervals, more often the product of teenage tempers flaring than calculated attacks on rivals.

Stories of innocent victims being attacked by roving gangs began to spread: a tourist stabbed during a robbery, a bystander wounded when she was caught in crossfire. Perhaps the worst incident, one that made national headlines, involved several suspected street-gang members walking into a dépanneur and hacking off the clerk's left hand with a machete, before severing part of an ear. Investigators found the hand next to the counter and the cash register untouched.

Police were vexed. For years they had been fighting biker gangs like the Bandidos, the Rock Machine and the Hells Angels-highly organized groups that depend on a centralized leadership to issue top-down commands. The fluid structure of the street-gang factions was a new development. The Montreal police eventually responded by promising the public that gangs were their top priority. This translated into taking close to $1 million of criminal proceeds seized from the Hells Angels and ploughing the money into anti-gang and anti-juvenile-prostitution initiatives in fifteen boroughs. Singled out as one of the
areas of concern was the West Island borough of Pierrefonds, which can be translated literally as "rock bottom."

As an officer with the Montreal police, Constable Khobee Gibson has been carrying out this mandate for over a year and a half. His beat is Cloverdale, a Crips-controlled area on the eastern end of Pierrefonds. The Ruff Ryders-perhaps the West's most reputed gang-grew out of its streets in the mid-nineties. So have countless of other smaller gangs like Black Mafia, C-Unit and Ghetto Impact. When someone speaks of gang activity in the West Island, they are usually referring to this neighbourhood. It's what police call a zone chaude.

Station 3A lies beside Cloverdale's cosmic-bowling alley and across from a dilapidated garage. More outpost than station, 3A is really just a room tucked into a community centre, almost an afterthought. This is where Gibson works, alone, surrounded by pastel-coloured walls and sharing the space with a day camp. In many ways, this office is the police's beachhead in the fight against West Island gangs.

Gibson, who is in his late thirties, tries to organize basketball games between local kids and cops. He also arranges information nights with parents, asking them to keep an eye on their teenagers. At the recent trial of a thirteen-year-old West Island gang member who stabbed a sixty-five-year-old woman, experts testified that gangs recruit kids as young as nine, taking advantage of their status as minors to transport hard drugs or weapons between allied gangs. This is why Gibson pays regular visits to schools and the youth centre nearby-he wants to be someone the kids can rely on and talk to. He patrols the neighbourhood regularly, and police have generally increased their presence in the area-all in an effort to put forward a friendly face.

"The police mentality has changed," he insists. "We're trying to put ourselves on the same level as the kids. They have to know we don't judge. We're not just going to come up and bust you for no reason." It's a method, he's quick to point out, that offers few short-term rewards. It will take years to build a relationship with a community that hasn't always thought of police as a source of paternalistic concern.

Tony Bérubé would agree. Bérubé is a youth worker at the Centre d'habitation du village Cloverdale, a housing co-op just down the street from Station 3A. Actually, he works on several nearby streets. He doesn't really have an office and he gets to set his own hours. He puts in a lot of these hours walking around Cloverdale and giving whatever kids he can find something to do. Like Gibson, he sets up basketball games, sometimes runs a dance school, other times organizes freestyle rap competitions-all in the hope that it will keep local youths out of trouble.

Bérubé and Gibson understand the allure of gang life, its easy answers to hard questions like "What are you going to do with your life?" and "How are you going to pay for that?"-questions that seem particularly pressing to shiftless kids in these paved and barren outskirts. British sociologist Philip Cohen has written that street gangs function as "a kind of attempt to recover community" amid social upheaval. Since the suburbs have become a significant element of the cityscape, researchers have documented a quantifiable loss in adult leisure time. As these regions sprawl farther and farther out of the city, suburbanites have to travel longer to get to work and home again. The strain on the family unit is obvious-parents are absent while children are unoccupied, bored and unsupervised. There is no real alternative, however, as long as this lifestyle exists. Combined with the influx of new generations and ethnicities, the effects-especially on old notions of community-are plain to see.

Standing on the basketball court, Bérubé points to a skinny Italian kid who is being chased around by a teenager three times his size. "He's the only other white kid around here." Looking around, I realize there are kids everywhere, pouring forth from every building. Their numbers are impressive, and their makeup-a far cry from the original post-war tenants of these buildings-underscores the fact that the suburban dream hasn't changed; there are only more people chasing after it, with families feeling the brunt. During the summer months, according to Bérubé, some parents go to work in the morning, lock the door and leave their kids to fend for themselves until they get home in the evening. "You grow up quick here," he says.

Gibson often finds himself face to face with parents demanding to know how their son or daughter could end up in a gang. To him, the answer is simple: prevention starts at home, with parents helping children with their homework, taking them to sporting activities and giving them a sense of identity that challenges the one offered by street-gang membership.

For Bérubé, however, things aren't so simple. Because of its cheap rent and its proximity to the commuter train, Cloverdale has become the obvious choice for many immigrant families faced with a gentrifying downtown core. There are just over 750 apartments here, which house families of forty different nationalities. What identity do their children have? He uses the example of a parent who fled the tyranny and poverty of Haiti. For such immigrants, Cloverdale is the proverbial land of opportunity. With education and health care, running water and jobs, it's easy to see an excess of riches. But their children have different eyes. They grew up in the West; they don't see a difficult past that's been overcome, but, rather, the disparity between the success of their parents and the bigger, shinier victories of long-time suburbanites and veteran gang members. It's a disparity that flashes as brightly as the neon lights of the bowling alley next to Station 3A.

A police car drives by, but nobody seems to notice. It's part of Cloverdale's scenery. Bérubé says you can spot one in the area about every half an hour. "What do you think it does to the psyche of kids to see cops drive by all the time?" He tells me a recent focus group discussion found local kids were ashamed to tell their friends at school where they lived. Cloverdale, they felt, was a byword for poor, for ghetto-and the continual police presence only reinforced those feelings. "My job," Bérubé says, "is to make them feel proud of where they come from."

Suburbs are changing. No longer the semi-remote havens that promoted community values, many suburbs are now larger than traditional urban areas. The Toronto suburb of Mississauga, for example, is not only the largest in North America, it's more populous than Boston, Vancouver or Miami. Big-city size, of course, means big-city problems. A 2003 study conducted by the Brookings Institution, a Washington-based think-tank, found that, in the nineteen-nineties, gentrified urban cores were pushing the poor out toward the suburbs, with gang violence close behind.

"To understand street gangs," says Jacques Moïse, "you have to understand the evolution of a city." Moïse is the co-ordinator for the Projet d'intervention auprès de mineur(e)s prostitué(e)s (PIAMP), a community youth organization that helps teens find alternatives to prostitution. He is also the author of Adolescence, initiation et prostitution, a book about male teen prostitutes. Moïse's job has afforded him a very intimate look into the world of young hookers and its unshakeable correlate, street gangs. "And you can't understand teen prostitution without understanding what has happened to teenagers in the age of consumption."

MTV may have been the first to realize the importance of the suburban teenager demographic, but, by the mid-nineties, there was no question that marketers had twigged to basic facts of teenage life: a certain amount of disposable income and the free time with which to spend it. Today's teens face a barrage of advertising made just for them-a confluence of messages from a variety of media. At best, they are given a host of options, a range of cool. At worst, the easy answers of gang life appear that much more attractive. What guidance counsellors call peer pressure, sociologists refer to as strain theory. A goal is recommended by society, and while some people already have the means to achieve it, others will grasp at alternative methods of attainment, no matter how dubious. So when evidence of organized teen-prostitution rings began surfacing in suburbs across the country, there were some-Moïse among them-who couldn't claim to be surprised.

At first, Montreal street gangs weren't interested in prostitution. They were content selling weed and working small-time credit-card scams. In the late nineties, the Crack Down Posse and the Bo-Gars emerged as the two dominant incarnations of the Crips-Bloods divide on the island of Montreal and started battling each other for control of the drug trade in certain areas of the city. The war, which is reportedly ongoing, was set against the backdrop of Montreal's infamous biker wars. To consolidate their access to guns and more lucrative drugs like cocaine, the youth gangs sought alliances with established biker gangs. The Hells Angels and their rivals the Bandidos were only too happy to agree, as the partnership strengthened their forces and buttressed their income.

But wars, even between street gangs, are expensive to fight. Both the Crack Down Posse and the Bo-Gars quickly found that there was a demand for girls among their older allies, the bikers.

"The market for teen prostitutes is fairly major in Montreal," says Maria Mourani, a Montreal-based criminologist who spent a year and a half interviewing gang members for her upcoming book La face cachée des gangs de rue. She says once street gangs realized the value of young hookers, they methodically fostered the resources and methods necessary to recruit and exploit them. "If a girl is worth $500, they will find the logistics to bring in $5,000 a week from her."

Young girls (and boys, for that matter) come at a premium. It's not unusual for a teenager to be worth at least $100,000 annually, so gangs are loath to lose their assets. Mourani explains that as soon as a gang gets the sense that police are looking for a missing girl, they will ship her to Toronto or the US. Mourani even suggests that the girls are safer when the police don't go public with their search.

When a large teen-prostitution ring was broken up by Quebec City police in December 2002, people were shocked to learn that clients weren't the seedy, low-life predators they imagined. Among the convicted clients were a popular radio talk-show host, several prominent local businessmen and a well-known clairvoyant known as Monsieur Soleil. Girls as young as thirteen were subjected to humiliating sexual acts (the worst involving urine and sodomy) and shipped around the country like sex toys. At the heart of it all was a street gang known as the Wolf Pack, which had extensive ties with the Hells Angels. The Wolf Pack was making hundreds of thousands from each girl as affluent fathers were purchasing the missing daughters of other suburban fathers. This was happening in Ste-Foy and Lévis-some of the most tranquil outskirts of Quebec City-where privacy isn't so much a side-effect of real estate as an entitlement.

"We often think of prostitution as something urban, something that takes place downtown," Moïse tells me in his office, drawing a small diagram to illustrate his point. "The young girls they're looking for aren't downtown, they're in the suburbs. What's a downtown for? It's made for businessmen, it's for students, the well-off. More and more, it has to be clean. That's how a city is built. We push all the vice outside of the downtown core so we can't see it. Tourists aren't going to visit Rivière-des-Prairies or Pierrefonds."

The phone rings. It is one of the girls he is assisting. I overhear his side of the conversation: "You have to find it within yourself." "You're the only person to prove it to yourself." "Of course, you have a reason to continue living." "You have a reason." "You're not seeing your doctor, eh?" "Let me give you a doctor's phone number." He gets the phone number. "Call him. Tell him I sent you. He's an old friend." "Tell him I gave you the number."

When he hangs up, he tells me how the job eats him up sometimes, but that this is nothing compared to what the teens go through. The very same suburban forces that nourish gang activity-boredom, materialism-make teenagers into easy targets for pimps. The young girls in the Wolf Pack's prostitution ring were recruited at shopping malls with jewellery and expensive clothing. In Brampton, a suburb of Toronto, fifteen-year-old girls had been lured into a teen-prostitution ring with the promise of manicures. The modus operandi of the pimp follows a crude logic. You give them jewels, clothes, cell phone, drugs or even what appears to be love. You give them status. You make them feel special. Then you make it disappear. You make it clear it all came at a price.

Twister leads me to a dépanneur at the end of a parking lot the length of a football field. He calls this parking lot Jamaica of the West, "cuz this is where we blaze." When we get to the convenience store, he pulls Labatt 50 from the fridge. 50, he tells me, has replaced Colt 45 as the ghetto beer of choice. "It's authentic ale, yo."

Twister is gangsta without being in a gang. He is wearing a football shirt, baggy shorts and two bandanas, one that says "G-Unit" and another that reads "Thug Life." He lives with his parents and brother in a modest two-storey home in a shady part of the West Island-for what it's worth, it's not too far from a Zellers.

Twister just graduated from Concordia University with a degree in marketing, but I often understand little of what he says. Nevertheless, what I do get is that, according to him, being gangsta is all about confidence. Trash-talking is very much part of the culture, and you can't be gangsta without projecting an aura of confidence. The appeal to teenagers is inherent.

"It's about pushin' mad whips. Packin' heat and movin' weight. Ya know, talkin' greasy on tha track. Plus it's easier to talk like dis," he says. "Less fucking syllables an' shit."

One of the biggest influences on the popularity of the gangsta style is east-coast hardcore rapper 50 Cent. Having emerged in early 2003, 50 Cent and the demimonde he embodies now rule MTV and MuchMusic. The rapper enjoys almost-mythic credibility, or as Twister points out, "Fiddy got shot nine times. That ain't no poser." His lyrics glorify the gangsta life to an unprecedented extent-more forcefully than even NWA or Notorious B.I.G. (A Toronto-area MP even suggested 50 Cent be prevented from entering Canada for an upcoming tour, fearing his concert would stoke gang-violence in the city). Most of the rapper's songs contain the sound of a gun being cocked or a reference to "fucking" and "bling bling." 50 Cent takes the image to the extreme and leaves the irony to the music critics.

To suburban youths like Twister, dressing and speaking like a gangsta thug deals with one of the most pressing challenges of living in the suburbs: identity. Underwhelmed by what US writer James Howard Kunstler calls a "geography of nowhere," teenagers need ways to resolve the boredom and featurelessness of the subdivision. The generic signs of middle-class wealth in the West, like manicured lawns, might be appealing to a forty-five-year-old parent, but are slim materials for a teenager who wants to forge an intense individuality. Quiet and content are not traits a fifteen-year-old wants to factor into his persona.

"Do you think teenagers want to be part of a group of losers?" asks Moïse. "Teenagers want to be part of a powerful group, a group that strikes fear, a group that has a strong identity." In fact, one of the most common methods for enticing someone to join a street gang is to simply kick them senseless. In the kid's mind, the best way to prevent that from happening again is to be part of the group that does it to the next guy.

the kid I'll call X seems to be enjoying his new identity. Sitting in a conference room in the Centre jeunesse de Montréal, part of Quebec's youth protection services (DPJ), he is gulping down a complimentary Sprite and making the most of a cookie spread laid out for us. Quebec's youth-protection organization has recently been thrown into question by the popular documentary Les voleurs d'enfance (The Childhood Robbers). Though the film alleges bureaucratic incompetence and neglect, X is a poster boy for the system.

"Never have we rescued somebody so involved with a gang's core," says Daniel Nault, X's probation agent. Nault points out that it's equally rare for somebody as young as X, who is eighteen, to penetrate a gang's upper crust.

For the sake of X's safety, his details are vague. He too grew up in one of the city's suburbs, not unlike Cloverdale. He was fourteen when he figured he needed money and started selling dope with a gang that had links with the Bo-Gars. After a couple of years, he branched out on his own; when he started moving serious quantities of drugs, the Bo-Gars noticed and proposed him for membership (though apparently the decision wasn't as democratic as it sounds). Things got "crazier" for X. He excelled at the crooked and quickly became involved in the everyday goings-on of the Bo-Gars: prostitution, Internet pornography, DVD piracy, cocaine and crack dealing, and dépanneur robberies. "I saw some things," X says.

It was bad luck that involved him in a drug deal gone wrong. When a Bo-Gars higher-up was assaulted, the blame was laid on X. He went into hiding, only leaving his apartment when he had to. It was enough to convince him to change his ways. He took a job at a Tim Hortons, but not before gang members attacked his brother when they couldn't find him. X has managed to stay clear of the Bo-Gars since then, either because they don't know where he is or no longer care. He says it's nice to be able to walk around the block of his new neighbourhood without wondering if he'll ever see his apartment again. But some things don't change. "I'm still always looking over my shoulder. It's become a habit."

X is lucid about the way of life he left. "It's the American dream, having nothing, then getting the Mercedes. There's the problem." This dream has always found a faithful companion in the suburb-the suburb being the embodiment of all its ideals. Happiness in a house, a clean nearby park. Happiness in a new car. Happiness in having what your neighbour has. And now? "It's hell," says Nault. "We were telling the police five years ago, and they never did anything. Now they've completely lost control."

Nault's words conjure the image of the Wild West, but the gang violence of today's suburbs is not the birth of anarchy that many claim. Gangs are simply introducing new rules that are disrupting an old game. Notions of community may be crumbling, but wealth as status has continued as a perennial feature of the landscape. Expressing shock and horror at the phenomenon, however, has become an important element of a last line of defence. Public denials are simply the eleventh-hour manifestation of an "us versus them" mentality, a fumbling attempt at the consolidation of an old identity.

"It wasn't always like this," Pierrefonds mayor Monique Worth tells me-at least not when she lived in Cloverdale some forty years ago. There is no denying that the suburbs, increasingly multi-ethnic and lacking the vibrancy of an urban core, are changing. Following the Second World War, the stability that suburbs offered was appealing, one might even say intoxicating. The way of life seemed simple, its rewards concrete. It's a way of life that many feel is worth protecting. But suburbs as they existed back then were doomed to disappear as soon as they were built, as soon as somebody decided to put them outside of the city, as soon as they were allowed to expand without limit.

And as suburbs-that liminal space between farm and city-continue to expand, it's clear that the Bauer killings and the rise of gang activity are marked by the same specific desperation: a fear of being left out of the great march forward. The West Island is a frontier in more ways than one. It has always represented the westernmost point of Montreal's development. Pierrefonds Boulevard, which takes you from one end of the West to the other, is the heart line of this development. The street grows relentlessly, leaving in its wake single-family homes, strip malls and soccer fields. Its ravenous advance isn't over. Lac des Deux-Montagnes is now the closest area that borders Montreal at its western end, and Pierrefonds Boulevard has it in its sights.