A brazen murder last week of a suspected smuggler linked to the Hells Angels is being interpreted as the latest sign that Quebec's most notorious biker gang is making a comeback.
But as scores of gang members are being released from prison, organized crime experts say the Hells are not only seeking to reassert control of their traditional illegal enterprises. They are also branching into new businesses and trying to reinvent the way it operates.
The death of Sylvain Éthier, gunned down Thursday night as he was leaving his home in Saint-Thérèse, is part of a cleanup within the organization, said Sylvain Tremblay, a former Sûreté du Québec officer who worked on cases involving biker gangs.
Éthier was arrested in March and accused of being a ringleader of a large contraband tobacco ring. He may have failed to heed warnings that those being released wanted their territory back, the ex-SQ investigator said.
"They're trying to restore order among those who wouldn't toe the line," Tremblay told Radio-Canada.
Hells Angels 2.0
The Hells Angels were temporarily destabilized in the years that followed SharQc, a 2009 police crackdown that targeted drug trafficking and gang activity in Quebec and New Brunswick, and resulted in 156 arrests.
But the crackdown also encouraged the biker gang to adopt a newer, more subtle approach to their activities.
"The Hells Angels want to be very far from the street, farther than before because they don't want to be arrested again," said André Celidot, an organized crime expert and former crime reporter for La Presse.
Radio-Canada's investigative program, Enquête, reported recently that the Hells Angels have ties to numerous "vape shops" across the province. It also revealed the gang was selling apparel to raise money for upstart chapters.
According to Celidot, the gang is also strengthening its grip on Montreal's drug trade in a way that emulates methods used by the Mafia.
"They are doing what the Mafia do: they now are relocating their territory to other people and they receive cuts from the drug trafficking on that territory," he said.
The gang delegated tasks to a series of smaller clubs across the province, whose members oversaw business in Quebec's underground while Hells Angels members served time in prison.
"From one day to the next, these men were incarcerated and were required to call in outside forces," Tremblay told Radio-Canada.
As part of Enquête's report, it said that smaller clubs composed of bikers, such as the Red Devils, Dark Souls and the Devils Ghosts, have thrown their support behind the Hells Angels.
A possible rise of violence
Some worry that Éthier's death could foreshadow a surge in violence in Montreal's underworld.
"There will always be violence in that world," Celidot said. "They don't settle their conflicts like us."
But Guy Lapointe, a spokesperson for the SQ, said that history suggests criminal organizations like the Mafia and the Hells Angels have determined that negotiation is a far more powerful tool than violence when it comes to dividing the spoils of business.
"This is not to say there might be some disputes for certain parts of territories, but we don't expect anything that is going to come close to the war that there was in the 1990s between the Hells Angels and the Rock Machine," Lapointe said.
Here to stay
As the Hells Angels works through its conflicts and gang members are released from prison, law enforcement and organized crime experts have drawn the same conclusion: the biker gang is not going anywhere for now.
"It would be utopic to think that we can totally annihilate organized crime," Lapointe said.
"Now I think we can hurt them. I think that we can affect them. I think that we can really put them down. But completely eliminate them? I don't think it's possible."
Celidot voiced the same concerns, adding that the only way organized crime can be thwarted is not by anti-gang legislation and operations, but by targeting their source of income.
"They are too strong, too well-structured, well-organized," he said. "And now it is too late because they are rich."