'Criminal networks' overtaking Downtown Eastside open-air markets busted in police sting

Cops market crackdown

Two men have been charged in a sting operation by the Vancouver Police Department, and police aren't done yet.

With criminal networks using the Downtown Eastside (DTES) open-air market and websites like Facebook and Craigslist, police began investigating the flow of stolen goods from the city's commercial core to the rest of the region earlier this year.

Inspector Gary Hiar, the VPD's officer in charge of the general investigation section, says multiple small groups are working independently and exploiting the market and individuals residing in the DTES.

"Local residents, many of whom traditionally tried to make ends meet by selling second-hand goods on the street, have essentially been muscled out by criminal networks," he explained. "These criminal groups have taken over the block and are trafficking stolen property. Locals are being recruited by these criminal networks to go out and steal from stores and are paid just pennies on the dollar for what they bring back."

"While some of the stolen product is being sold on the street, the vast majority is being driven out of the DTES, stored in stash locations and resold on online forums like Craigslist and Facebook Marketplace."

DTES market was for locals to 'make a few bucks'

Insp. Alison Laurin, who's in charge of the district the DTES is in, says she's concerned about the impact the change in the open-air market is having on the community.

"Traditionally residents used this informal open-air market as a means to make a few bucks," she said. "They bought, sold, and bartered items like DVDs, second-hand clothes, and other recycled items sometimes obtained by binning."

While not allowed under city bylaws, the VPD haven't taken action against the market in the past because it was one of the few means of earning an income many of the participants had, Laurin said.

"However, in recent years we've watched this informal binners market slowly transform into a place where criminal organizations have pushed their way in and pushed out the local residents," Laurin said.

The market has become a breeding ground for crime in recent years and fuelled the shoplifting spike recently seen by residents and shop owners in the city's downtown neighbourhoods.

'Criminal networks' prey on residents to recruit them

What's happened is the organized criminal networks have taken over the market, forcing the DTES residents out of business, essentially, and then recruited those same residents to steal specific items to be resold, "like a shopping list" says Laurin.

"Impoverished and drug-addicted people are now being recruited to steal by predatory fences, who in turn pay pennies on the dollar for stolen goods and resell them to bargain-hunters who are all-too-willing to turn a blind eye," she said.

She called the practice predatory and made an appeal to those shopping on sites like Craigslist and Facebook.

"If you think it's ok to come down to this block in search of a deal or to turn a blind eye when you see a deal on Craigslist and Facebook Market Place that's too good to be true, you're being complicit in this cycle of crime and it's hurting people," she said.

The charges announced Dec. 6 should serve as a "shot across the bow" to others working to move stolen goods this way, Laurin added.

Those charges are against Nezamoddin Jelali, 60, of Surrey and Vancouver resident Aaron Castillo-Anguiano, 43. Jelali is charged with three counts of possession of stolen property and one count of trafficking stolen property, and isn't allowed in the DTES.

Castillo-Anguiano faces three counts of possession of a controlled substance for the purpose of trafficking and two counts of possession of proceeds of crime. He's also banned from the DTES and banned from any places that sells second-hand goods.

Hiar says the pair were the most active, but that police are watching 25 others, 19 of whom don't live in the DTES.

As part of the investigation, Hiar noted police had collected many stolen goods. He shared a tip to anyone who owns or uses items often stolen, suggesting items be engraved or made identifiable in case they are stolen. If police are able to seize stolen goods, that will make it easier to return to their rightful owner.

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