VANCOUVER, British Columbia (Reuters) - Vancouver is crying foul over unfavorable international media coverage about a gang war under way in the Canadian city, which will host the 2010 Winter Olympics.
The violence level, while low by the standards of many cities, has nonetheless become a public relations nightmare for government and tourism officials who routinely trumpet Vancouver as one of the world’s most livable cities.
The metropolitan area on Canada’s Pacific Coast, with a population of about 2.1 million, has had more than 20 gang-related murders since mid-January, but Vancouver Chief Constable Jim Chu said on Wednesday the homicide rate is still far below that of major U.S. cities.
“They should first look in their own back yards in terms of per-capital homicide rates and the violence they have in their cities,” Chu told reporters when asked about articles that have appeared in newspapers outside of Canada.
“These high-profile incidents are so few and far between,” said Chu, who broke with other police officials last month by acknowledging the violence could be described as “a gang war.”
British Columbia Premier Gordon Campbell has denounced reports that Vancouver was losing its reputation as a safe city as a “cheap shot.” Campbell faces re-election in May, and crime is expected to be a major issue in the provincial campaign.
The violence is believed to largely involve smaller gangs, with names such as the Red Scorpions and UN Gang, who are fighting over the drug trade that involves imports of cocaine and exports of marijuana.
While officials deny the shootings pose a major threat to the general public, the escalating violence has nonetheless prompted both the federal Conservative government to vow to toughen laws against organized crime.
Police say they are making progress in arresting those responsible for the violence, and Chu said tourists should not worry about attending the Winter Olympics that will be held in February 2010.
International Olympic Committee officials who visited the city recently to monitor progress of preparations for the Games also downplayed the issue, saying they were not worried that it would discourage visitors.
Reporting Allan Dowd, editing by Rob Wilson