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African Mafia: the power of a name

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Is there anyone I hang out with who didn't hear me tell them to run -- not walk -- to Cinematheque to see The Storytelling Class?

The documentary about a bunch of multicultural youth at inner-city Gordon Bell High School made me proud to be a Winnipegger, if for nothing else than the wicked kids the documentary showcased. It also drove home some themes I think about a lot as a reporter, about telling true stories.

In the film, there's a section where teacher Marc Kuly tells students their first assignment in the storytelling group will be to explain their names.

Our names are the first thing we tell others about ourselves, he says, and they are the most basic thing we can share with others about who we fundamentally are.

It hit me hard, and not just cause I have an immediate cringe factor when people frequently call me 'Gabby,' a name that soooo isn't mine. Yick.

So why this warm fuzziness on a post about an inner-city gang that changed the West End into a shooting gallery and runs crack-houses for cash?

Last week, the Freep ran a print story and web story on an illuminating police report prepared for a sentencing hearing for Thon Guot and Mayen Madit, two African Mafia members.

The report garnered a lot of attention, even thought the Organized Crime Unit detective who carefully prepared it wasn't chatting with media.

The Winnipeg Police Service usually does not name gangs, presumably to avoid enhancing each gang's street status.

It's one of those 'damned if you, damned if you don't' approaches. By not naming gangs, we're not necessarily undermining their already entrenched street reputations and explaining to the larger world what's going on with patterns of violence/drug trade power struggles.

That's key, I would argue, to providing a nuanced and informed perspective about crime -- rather than one that operates on irrational fear and unexplained spates of violence.

Some other police agencies will name gangs who are linked to crime (think Vancouver and Abbotsford, for example) in the interest of public disclosure. Newsflash: people know who the Hells Angels are, and who the African Mafia are.

Which brings me to the very thoughtful report prepared by Det. Ryan Howanyk .

Among the pearls of wisdom gleaned from the 20-page document?

How do Winnipeg police figure out if someone is a gang member?

There's a six-point validation criteria outlined in the report, based on the Criminal Intelligence Service of Canada's approach. A person is considered a verified gang member if they hit two of the six criteria, and an associate if they hit one of the six. They are:

  1. Reliable source information
  2. Observed association with known gang members
  3. Subject acknowledged gang membership
  4. Involvement in a gang-motivated crime
  5. Court ruling subject was a gang member
  6. Common and/or symbolic gang identification/paraphernalia

What is the history of the African Mafia?

  • Police first noticed them in 2005 as a splinter of Mad Cow Street Gang (formed in 2004)
  • Police allege Evan Murphy Amyotte (a.k.a. Dirt) and Yassin Ibrahim (a.k.a. Ace) formed the Mad Cows, and Amyotte "preyed" on young male immigrants from Africa to join
  • Started warring with B-Side gang in 2004 and remain rivals until now
  • Eventually, African Mafia forms because B-siders shoot and kill Sirak Okazion Rezene (a.k.a. Shaggy) in 2004, who was associated with Mad Cows.
  • Police say many Mad Cows were displeased with Amyotte because they didn't retaliate for Shaggy's murder and felt they weren't getting enough cash for trading drugs. Hence, the formation of the African Mafia by 2005. Those two factions start fighting over the West End drug trade and exchange open-air gunfire, leading to the shooting death of bystander Phillippe Haiart in October 2005. In response, the city kicks off Operation Clean Sweep -- evolving into the Street Crime Unit -- which still exists to this day.
  • Today, there are 40 to 50 active members/associates of the gang. Police say tensions between Mad Cows and African Mafia have calmed down, say police, because they want to avoid heat from police and focus on making cash money from the drug trade. There's also two new splinter gangs, called Da Pitbull Army (DPA, 2006) and All Bout Money (ABM, 2008).

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About Gabrielle Giroday

Gabrielle has handled the police and crime beat for the Winnipeg Free Press since 2009, meaning she’s seen the best and worst humanity has to offer.

Covering the crime beat in a city known for its homicide rate and violent crime can be challenging, but Gabrielle tries to look at the more complex factors that drive violent events. She began the beat after originally joining the Free Press in June 2005.

Her previous experience contributing to the Globe and Mail’s Report on Business magazine, the National Post, Maisonneuve magazine and NOW Magazine. She was also a member of the editorial board of the Queen’s University Feminist Review, and completed a degree there in politics and English. Some of the Toronto native’s favourite adventures include hitchhiking in the Cuban countryside during a stint studying in Havana, and hanging off the back of a jeep climbing the Kanchenjunga mountain in Nepal.

Gabrielle also felt privileged to write about the first-time elections in the Democratic Republic of Congo in the summer of 2006, and received a grant from the Canadian Association of Journalists and Canadian International Development Agency to write about sexual violence there.

She recently went to Cameroon in fall 2010 as part of an expert election monitoring team, on behalf of the Commonwealth.

When she’s not chasing a story, Gabrielle can be found jogging every morning by the Legislature and down Portage Avenue.

She’s always enthusiastic about stories that involve investigating the road less travelled or the opinion less broadcast.

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