Detective Anisha Parhar, left, and Sgt. Sandy Avelar, who run a program on their own time to try and keep girls out of gangs, pose for a photograph in Vancouver, on Wednesday July 3, 2019. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Darryl Dyck

Detective Anisha Parhar, left, and Sgt. Sandy Avelar, who run a program on their own time to try and keep girls out of gangs, pose for a photograph in Vancouver, on Wednesday July 3, 2019. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Darryl Dyck

‘They want all that:’ Girls becoming more involved in gang violence in B.C.

Girls and women are not immune from gang violence in British Columbia’s Lower Mainland

As gang unit officers for the Vancouver police, detectives Sandy Avelar and Anisha Parhar often pull over boys and men in flashy cars with drugs and guns in the glove compartment. But they also meet girls and women in the passenger’s seat, toting designer purses and expensive jewelry.

The detectives have noticed that often these females are assumed to be naive bystanders or helpless victims. While that may be true in some cases, Avelar and Parhar are pushing for recognition that many of these girls and women are more deeply involved.

“We don’t sit there and say: ‘Every girl’s a victim. Poor girl. She’s going to get targeted. These are the big, bad boyfriends coming in with the tattoos,’ ” Parhar says.

“That’s one facet of it, but I think something important is there are lot of girls that knowingly get involved. They want the money. They want the image. They want all that.”

Girls and women are not immune from gang violence in British Columbia’s Lower Mainland. Females often become involved as girlfriends, but experts say they’re increasingly active participants, carrying guns and drugs or providing their names for houses, cars, credit cards and phones.

While females sometimes mistakenly believe they’re safe from gunfire, they have been killed over the years. Seventeen females have been killed in gang-related violence between 2006 and 2017, according to an analysis by B.C.’s anti-gang agency, the Combined Forces Special Enforcement Unit. Today, prevention programs are targeting girls and women to keep them out of gangs.

Avelar and Parhar launched a program in 2017 to help discourage girls from gang life called Her Time. The program, which is not an official Vancouver police initiative but is supported by the department, educates young women on the dangers of dating gangsters and aims to shed the allure of the lifestyle.

The detectives deliver their presentation in schools, community centres and anywhere else it’s requested. They’ve also teamed up with women who have managed to escape gang life to share their stories.

One woman, who asked not to be identified for safety reasons, says she had a “fantastic” life growing up and never got into trouble. But when she was 20, she befriended a woman who introduced her to work as an exotic dancer.

She met her boyfriend — now her ex — at the strip club. He was a “great guy” in the beginning, she says, but the club attracted shady characters, and soon he was lured by the glamour and status attached to the gang lifestyle. His drug dealing allowed her to quit dancing and live a life of luxury, she recalls.

“I was able to shop seven days a week if I wanted to. I barely wore the same thing twice. We had a beautiful apartment in a very high end neighbourhood of Vancouver,” the woman says.

“The fact that someone wanted to take care of me in every which way made me think he was the one. … Women do stupid things when they are young and in love. I am a prime example of that.”

When he asked her to join him on a trip across the border, she happily went along, looking forward to shopping in the United States. She knew he was going to meet someone but she says she wasn’t involved in the plan.

The decision changed her life forever. Border authorities searched the car of the man her boyfriend was supposed to meet and found drugs. The discovery led them to the car where she and her boyfriend were waiting, and both were arrested that afternoon.

She pleaded guilty to knowledge of a crime and failing to report it and served eight months in a federal prison.

“My family was heartbroken,” she says. “They were of course extremely disappointed in me for getting myself into this situation, as they were never a fan of my ex-boyfriend. Never liked him.”

The woman has since rebuilt her life and says a program like Her Time is long overdue.

“I know women who are dead — women who got so deeply entrenched into that life that it cost them their own.”

The gang landscape in B.C. is so unusual that when Parhar and Avelar travel to the U.S. or other parts of Canada, officers are often dumbfounded by their descriptions of gangsters’ girlfriends. The women may be nurses or lawyers and look like they belong in “The Real Housewives of Beverly Hills,” the detectives say.

Gang membership in other jurisdictions is typically driven by poverty and need, but Avelar notes that feelings of need may be relative. In the Lower Mainland, where multimillion-dollar homes and Lamborghinis abound, young girls and women scrolling through Instagram may feel they “need” luxury goods, she says.

READ MORE: B.C. families left broken and confused when kids’ deaths labelled ‘gang-related’

The main reasons why girls get involved with gangs include the financial lure, a desire for belonging or recognition, glamour, status and protection, Parhar adds.

While they typically start out as gangsters’ girlfriends, they become more entrenched over time, she says.

“Females will be used for proxy. Because they don’t have a lot of negative police history or the police are less likely to stop a female driving in a car than the guy covered in chains, she kind of goes under the radar,” Parhar says.

Gangs capitalize on this by using women’s names to insure vehicles or rent suites, she says. They also use females for “straw purchasing,” in which women purchase guns legally, then the gang fakes a break-in, and those guns end up being used in a drive-by shooting, she adds.

Then there’s sex trafficking, which has long been a facet of organized crime. Parhar says it’s become easier to recruit girls via social media.

“It’s a tough time for youth and that’s why we’re really big on getting that message out,” she says.

In nearby Surrey, a group of girls in their early to mid-teens gathers to practice martial arts. The program run by the anti-gang group Yo Bro Yo Girl Youth Initiative aims to keep vulnerable girls away from the lifestyle.

Social media plays a huge role, says Harneet Sahota, 20, a martial arts teacher with the group.

“Everyone’s looking to fit in, especially in today’s society, with social media, Instagram, Snapchat, everybody putting their best face forward, edited, photoshopped and all that,” she says.

“Especially females, it gets them feeling insecure, like they need to keep up appearances … Once you’re straying, there’s many paths for you to stray down.”

READ MORE: Middle-class gang violence in B.C. breaks from history with higher stakes

Kaitlin Walsh, 14, moved to the sprawling city from Jamaica two years ago. She says she joined the group because she wanted to learn how to defend herself and protect her younger brothers, and it’s helped her build confidence.

“I have the type of personality that is most attracted to people. I’d be talking to people constantly,” she says.

“If it wasn’t for Yo Bro and me knowing what different types of people there are, there’d be a possibility that I would somehow talk to the wrong people, become friends with them and start doing the stupid stuff they’re doing.”

She says when she sees girls befriending or dating boys who are involved in gangs, she wonders: “Why?”

“Guys are more open to that because of the masculinity it brings to them, and the friends that it gets them and the cars and everything that comes with it. But with girls, I don’t know what they’re doing,” she says.

“Sometimes I think guys are just using them for random stuff.”

READ MORE: The unusual suspects: B.C.’s middle-class gang problem

Laura Kane and Amy Smart, The Canadian Press


Like us on Facebook and follow us on Twitter.

Get local stories you won't find anywhere else right to your inbox.
Sign up here

Just Posted

South Surrey and White Rock Chamber of Commerce. (Contributed photo)
South Surrey and White Rock Chamber of Commerce to host virtual COVID-19 town hall

Online event to include local politicians and representatives from Fraser Health, WorkSafe BC

At least one person received life-threatening injuries when a car collided with a semi truck in South Surrey on Friday morning. (Brenda Anderson photo)
VIDEO: South Surrey crash sends one to hospital in critical condition

Road closures in effect after collison between car and semi-truck

Ben “Santa” Cohen visits Ecole Martha Currie in Cloverdale Dec. 4. Santa wished everyone a socially-distanced Merry Christmas out in front of the school. (Photo: Malin Jordan)
Santa visits Ecole Martha Currie in Cloverdale

First gig of the season for Ben ‘Santa’ Cohen; COVID driving most gigs online

Shawn Canil, a Cloverdale-area resident, turns heads with the truck he’s decorated for Christmas. (Photo: Tom Zillich)
Truck’s Christmas decorations lift spirits on Cloverdale man’s commute

‘When I see them smiling, I know it’s worth it,’ pickup driver Shawn Canil says

Gurbaz Singh, deli manager at the Cloverdale Country Market, arranges some gifts in the back of a vintage car. The car is part of the Cloverdale Country Market’s “December to Remember” picture taking area. The market is encouraging people to come down, snap some Christmas pics and share them on social media. (Photo: Malin Jordan)
PHOTOS: Cloverdale Country Market creates Christmas picture space

Market cancels annual Christmas Craft Fair, replaces it with Christmas picture zone

Pickleball game in Vancouver on Sunday, November 8, 2020. B.C.’s public health restrictions for COVID-19 have been extended to adult team sports, indoors and outside. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Darryl Dyck
711 more COVID-19 cases detected in B.C. Friday

‘Virus is not letting up and neither can we’

Demonstrators, organized by the Public Fishery Alliance, outside the downtown Vancouver offices of Fisheries and Oceans Canada July 6 demand the marking of all hatchery chinook to allow for a sustainable public fishery while wild stocks recover. (Public Fishery Alliance Facebook photo)
Angry B.C. anglers see petition tabled in House of Commons

Salmon fishers demand better access to the healthy stocks in the public fishery

(Hotel Zed/Flytographer)
B.C. hotel grants couple 18 years of free stays after making baby on Valentines Day

Hotel Zed has announced a Kelowna couple has received free Valentines Day stays for next 18 years

Farmers raise slogans during a protest on a highway at the Delhi-Haryana state border, India, Thursday, Dec. 3, 2020. Prime Minister Justin Trudeau rejected the diplomatic scolding Canada’s envoy to India received on Friday for his recent comments in support of protesting Indian farmers. Tens of thousands of farmers have descended upon the borders of New Delhi to protest new farming laws that they say will open them to corporate exploitation. THE CANADIAN PRESS/AP-Manish Swarup
Trudeau brushes off India’s criticism for standing with farmers in anti-Modi protests

The High Commission of India in Ottawa had no comment when contacted Friday

Cannabis bought in British Columbia (Ashley Wadhwani/Black Press Media)
Is it time to start thinking about greener ways to package cannabis?

Packaging suppliers are still figuring eco-friendly and affordable packaging options that fit the mandates of Cannabis Regulations

Nurse Kath Olmstead prepares a shot as the world’s biggest study of a possible COVID-19 vaccine, developed by the National Institutes of Health and Moderna Inc., gets underway Monday, July 27, 2020, in Binghamton, N.Y. U.S. biotech firm Moderna says its vaccine is showing signs of producing lasting immunity to COVID-19, and that it will have as many as many as 125 million doses available by the end of March. THE CANADIAN PRESS/AP-Hans Pennink
Canada orders more COVID vaccines, refines advice on first doses as cases reach 400K

Canada recorded its 300,000th case of COVID-19 on Nov. 16

Apartments are seen lit up in downtown Vancouver as people are encouraged to stay home during the global COVID-19 pandemic on Thursday, Dec. 3, 2020. British Columbia’s deputy provincial health officer says provincewide data show the most important area B.C. must tackle in its response to the COVID-19 pandemic is health inequity. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Marissa Tiel
Age, income among top factors affecting well-being during pandemic, B.C. survey shows

Among respondents earning $20,000 a year or less, more than 41 per cent reported concern about food insecurity

Chilliwack General Hospital. (Jenna Hauck/ Progress file)
Chilliwack mother upset about son’s alleged suicide attempt after hospital discharge

Rhonda Clough said 34-year-old son suffering with bipolar disorder should have been kept in hospital

Victoria-based driving instructors are concerned for their own and the community’s safety with the continued number of residents from COVID hotspots in the Lower Mainland coming to the city to take their driving road tests. (Black Press Media file photo)
Students from COVID hotspots travel to Vancouver Island for driving tests

Union leader calls on government to institute stronger travel ban

Most Read