'Probably organized crime': Montreal police probe wave of arsons, extortion attempts
MONTREAL — The greater Montreal area has witnessed a notable increase in arsons in recent months, with restaurants, cafés and vehicles the frequent targets.
Police and other law enforcement experts say most of the fires are likely tied to extortion attempts by organized crime.
"The first common denominator is there's probably organized crime involved," André Gélinas, a retired Montreal police sergeant-detective, said Tuesday in an interview.
Gélinas, a former intelligence officer, said some of the fires could be connected to turf wars — notable examples in Montreal occurred among pizzerias and towing companies, he said. But what's very likely is that most of the cases involve protection rackets, he added.
Criminals, he said, offer business owners "protection" in exchange for fixed monthly payments. Those who fail to pay are vandalized by the same criminals.
"What's particular is organized crime is asking for money to protect the owners from the organized criminals."
On Tuesday, Montreal police arson detectives were investigating after more than two dozen vehicles were set ablaze just after midnight in an industrial sector of a southwestern borough. Const. Véronique Dubuc said police did not rule out a link between the two separate cases, in which a total of 30 vehicles were torched in two lots not far from each other in the Lachine borough.
Police in Montreal said they have noted an uptick in arsons this year, with 193 cases and 30 arrests between January and April, compared to 120 cases and 20 arrests over the same period one year ago.
Montreal police Chief Fady Dagher said this week police were investigating a string of arsons targeting Lebanese cafés, whose owners are being allegedly punished for refusing to submit to extortion attempts.
Dagher, speaking Monday to mark his first 100 days as chief, said the alleged arsonists who had been caught had acted on behalf of others. Investigators, he said, were trying to figure out who issued the orders. Aside from cafés, other businesses had also been targeted, he added.
"We arrest the suspect who is paid $200 or $300 who has no idea why they are setting the fire," Dagher said. "But what interests us is climbing the ladder."
In March, three police services launched Projet Mèche, a co-ordinated investigation targeting extortion, threats and arson against merchants in Montreal, its northern suburb Laval and the North Shore. They created the probe after several merchants reported being victims of threats, armed attacks, arson, extortion or gunfire.
In some cases, restaurants have elected to close their doors. One Lebanese restaurant in Laval, north of Montreal, did so last week, telling media the business was firebombed four times after he refused to pay protection money.
Gélinas said extortion persists because it's lucrative and the fear it inspires makes people reluctant to come forward.
The retired officer said that in discussing with colleagues, he believes the wave of extortion cases might be explained by a rebounding restaurant industry freed from pandemic rules and closures.
"So these social parasites have noted the economic activity rebound," Gélinas said. "They're a bit like sharks who smell blood in the water; these guys smell money."
This report by The Canadian Press was first published May 16, 2023.
Sidhartha Banerjee, The Canadian Press