Tow truck turf wars: Toronto sees rise in violence liked to organised crime

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Just before sunset, a volley of gunshots rang out in the parking lot of a northern Toronto apartment complex.

When police arrived, they found a black tow truck pinned between two other vehicles. The driver, Hashim Kinani, 23, was slumped in the front seat, having been shot several times.

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Despite efforts by the emergency crew, he was pronounced dead at the scene.

The brazen murder followed a week of arson attacks which left the burned remains of tow trucks scattered throughout the city.

The coronavirus lockdown has quietened Canada’s largest city, but there has been little reprieve for an industry rife with violence and intimidation – and some tow-truck owners fear that organized crime has pushed the industry to a breaking point.

Two boys, aged 15 and 17, were charged on Thursday with first-degree and attempted murder, and Toronto police told the Guardian they do not believe Kinani’s murder was related to an ongoing turf war.

But he was the fourth Toronto tow-truck driver to be murdered in less than two years. Several others have been shot – or shot at – including one who was targeted just hours after Kinani’s death.

In a statement to the Guardian following Kinani’s murder, Ontario’s ministry of transportation said it was “deeply concerned” by the violence in the towing industry and was working to “deter this behaviour”.

A recent investigation by the Globe and Mail found at least 30 arson attacks targeting tow-truck businesses, though that figure has now risen since the spike in violence over the last few months.

In March, a collision reporting centre in northern Toronto was set on fire. Another was vandalized and an accelerant-doused object found amid the broken glass, say police.

That same month, two drivers were shot and numerous vehicles set ablaze, prompting anger and frustration from Ontario’s premier, Doug Ford.

“We’re coming for you, and we’re going to catch you,” Ford warned the attackers. “The party’s over.”

For many drivers, the violence feels unrelenting.

“I worry about waking up to find my truck on fire outside of my house,” one driver, who has worked in the industry for 13 years, told the Guardian.

Much of trouble stems from “accident chasing” – where truck operators race their rivals to be the first at the scene of a crash.

Some repair garages will pay tow truck drivers a “finder’s fee” for damaged vehicles, making “chasing” an incredibly lucrative field.

The lure of profits – and the relative lack of oversight – has attracted organized crime. Last June, police conducted a series of raids under the name Project Kraken, charging more than 70 people – including seven drivers – with offenses ranging from firearms possession to conspiracy to commit murder.

Police recovered Tasers and body armour, and found that numerous drivers were armed and “prepared to shoot other tow-truck operators over an ongoing battle over territory”, said Toronto’s police deputy chief, James Ramer.

But nearly a year after those high-profile raids, critics say the problems have only got worse.

“We’ve got guys racing down the highway to be the first to arrive for a tow, threaten each other, bang into each other and even shoot each other. Things need to change,” said John Henderson of the Fair Towing Task Force, a lobby group advocating for industry reform.

Henderson and others have called for greater regulation and licensing, as well as the establishment of an oversight body, to rein in what they say is an increasingly saturated industry with few clear standards.

“Trucks are just popping up every few days with new names and faces, and then they disappear just as fast. Their one motive is to eliminate competition and own the road. It’s crazy these days,” said the driver.

In theory, the towing industry is regulated at a municipal level in Ontario, but according to the Canadian Automobile Association, only 17 of Ontario’s 444 municipalities have clear rules, meaning swaths of the province have become a free-for-all for drivers looking to circumvent or exploit exiting loopholes.

Companies say they also want clear regulations for truck maintenance and safety – as well as better training standards for drivers.

Henderson says a number of “unscrupulous” drivers are using modified trucks – not actual tow trucks. “If an unlicensed, unregulated guy picks up your vehicle, he’s never going to see you again. He’s going to charge you as much as he thinks you’re going to pay.”

With the government preoccupied by the coronavirus pandemic, businesses worry that legislation that has been repeatedly proposed will once again be forgotten.

But Henderson hopes the recent shooting will put lingering crisis back in the spotlight.

“Because let’s be clear: someone was killed,” he said. “We need to fix this.”

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