A slice of the action

They used a machete to try to separate Louis Makin from his arms and legs. No one's talking, but the police and ambulance men recognise the signs of the bad old days of the Manchester drugs war. A new breed of gangster is in town, and they will go anywhere, do anything (and do anybody) to get what they want
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On Sunday night 25-year old Louis Makin was helping a friend to decorate his house. As the paint dried they watched the highlights of the Charity Shield football match. Before the final whistle blew on Arsenal's 3-0 victory over Manchester United, two balaclava-clad men burst through the front door. They were armed with machetes. Makin made a dash for the back door. As he saw his friend fly through the garden, he himself was knocked to the kitchen floor. The first machete blow clipped his shoulder. As he lay sprawled on the lino, the two men hacked at his body. When Makin raised his limbs to protect himself, his right arm was all but severed. The attack was sudden, and very bloody.

Shortly before midnight an ambulance attended the scene in Thompson Street in Leigh, Greater Manchester. Makin was barely conscious. At the Royal Bolton Hospital doctors spent 48 hours trying to stem the bleeding. It was feared that Makin would lose his arm, and possibly also a leg, but surgeons saved both. His condition is critical and police are prepared to launch a murder enquiry. His friend is under 24-hour police protection.

Detectives are uncertain whether Makin was even the intended victim. They are not ruling out the possibility that he was accidentally caught up in a string of terror tactics by rival drug-dealing gangs fighting over the local heroin and cocaine trade.

Eleven days previously, it is believed that the same men attacked a 37- year old man with machetes at his home in Sumner Street in nearby Atherton. Police were called after a gun had been discharged, and a second man in a nearby house had been badly beaten. Police also have information about a further assault in the immediate area, days before. None of the injured has pressed charges. Police are appealing to local people to report any strange cars and unfamiliar young men seen in the area.

Ferocious gang violence is far from the norm round these parts. Leigh and Atherton are both geographically and traditionally removed from Manchester's inner-city blight; they are much closer to Wigan than the main gang turfs in Moss Side, Cheetham Hill and Salford.

Clive Heather, an ambulance officer of 25 years' standing, works at the central management unit in charge of the entire county. He is shocked by recent events in an area normally associated only with routine domestic violence, and high spirits after the pubs close. He says: "This has come as quiet a surprise. These incidents are totally out of character. There's something organised building up in the area and it's very, very worrying."

His gut feeling, he adds, is that this will not be the last of it. After two ambulance officers were physically attacked in separate incidents last weekend, he called on staff in the area to be prepared for a "tit- for-tat scenario". Like their colleagues in Manchester's better known hot spots, staff are being warned to don bullet-proof jackets. "It's a question of heightening the awareness of our staff for their own protection," he says. "We'll be keeping a careful watch on the area to see whether it's going to become another hot spot. If it is, we'll act accordingly."

That Manchester's gangsters will travel to establish their brutal authority is no surprise. Gang politics in the city are in turmoil. A new breed of young gangsters are on the look-out for their slice of the action. Simultaneously the total action is rapidly decreasing. Money is tight, and things are not what they were. New areas must be exploited. Competition is tough and tempers are easily frayed.

The current crop of gang bosses made their fortunes on the back of the rave explosion of the late Eighties. They had wrestled control from their predecessors before Mrs Thatcher won her second term. A wind of change was blowing through the underworld. Blags, safe-breakers and hard men in Jags belonged to a bygone era. The new kids on the block were perfectly - if accidentally - poised to reap the huge rewards of the acid-house boom.

A decade ago the average bobby on the beat had no idea what ecstasy was. It was a quiet revolution that was to spill out of Manchester's night- clubs to change the face of Britain. It was a big deal that made a lot of gangsters very, very rich - some certainly became millionaires.

It was worth much more than the heroin trade of the Eighties. Weekend in, weekend out ravers purchased ecstasy, speed and acid in order to dance all night and then smoked cannabis to chill out, come down and sleep it off. Tens of thousands of ravers travelled from all over the country to Manchester and the North-west.

And if you control the night-club door you control the supply of drugs on the dance floor. Gangsters provided the bouncers and the bouncers decided who could deal drugs in their club. As things got nasty the bouncers charged as much as pounds 50 an hour to keep "troublemakers" out. The gangsters got even richer.

Then, in the early Nineties, everything went pear-shaped. The tabloids were screaming blue murder, a girl on ecstasy died, and rival security firms were waging a "door war" over control of the now lucrative bouncing contracts. The police had to clean things up. The Criminal Justice Act gave them more powers to do so.

By now ecstasy culture had permeated to the furthest reaches of society. Every clubber (they'd stopped calling themselves "ravers") knew someone who knew someone who could get them pills, whizz, tabs, hash. They were no longer reliant on dodgy dealers in shady corners of clubs. At the same time, new strains of super-weed infiltrated Britain from Amsterdam. Growing your own was the new hobby. The gangs started losing valuable mark-up.

New money and new contacts abroad began to bring new and more sophisticated guns into play. A gang war between the main factions that had rumbled on in one form or another since the early Eighties reached dizzy heights. The full Americanisation of Manchester's gangs was complete when, in broad daylight, gangsters opened fire on each other with machine-guns at a crowded carnival.

The writing was on the wall. Forty balaclava-clad Salford hooligans fought running battles with riot police inside Home night-club. The gangsters were killing the goose that laid the golden egg. The public were scared off and in 1994, like many clubs before it - and even more after it - Home closed. The police had the gang bosses under round-the-clock surveillance. Unable to operate openly, they recruited and armed teenagers on mountain bikes to run errands, money and drugs. If they were caught, at least they were under the age of criminal responsibility. Now the teenagers have grown up and want their slice of the action.

But there's very little left intact. The last large credible dance club closed last month. The police are driving the "bad apples" out of town; armed police set up blockades, stopping - and thoroughly searching - known gangsters' cars on approach roads to the city centre. What few protection rackets there are, are tied up. Ram-raiding the growing number of designer stores is no longer an option, now that the council has finally erected closed-circuit TV cameras.

Malcolm (not his real name) says he can't be bothered to stand on street corners selling "stones" (crack cocaine). On an average day he's lucky if he makes 40 quid. "Dibble" (the police) are right on top of him. And anyway that's a kid's job. He's 18 and been "running" (a gang member) for years. He's owed some proper "change" (money). There's plenty of "players" (gang bosses) driving around in sports cars, and he wants his. He's "packing" (armed) and if he's got to "drop" (murder) someone to get it, then so be it. (The competition's tough, and tempers are easily frayed.)

And that brings us back to Louis Makin. He lived a million miles from the inner city pressure, but the gangs are expanding in search of change. He wasn't involved. He wasn't "running". He was just in the wrong house at the wrong time.

HE WASN'T the first innocent bystander to get caught up in the killing, and he won't be the last.

Last January Davinia Brown was out celebrating her 16th birthday with some school friends. At a city-centre cafe they ran into a couple of lads who invited them to a party. When they arrived by minicab at Laindon Road in Longsight, a lone youth stepped from the shadows and opened fire with an automatic machine-pistol.

He wasn't strong enough to handle his sophisticated weapon and the shots were scattered wildly off target. More than 20 rounds peppered the cab and the gable end of a nearby house. Davinia was hit in the head. Despite taking a bullet in his leg, the taxi driver was able to drive her at high speed to a local hospital. After extensive brain surgery, against all the odds she survived.

Although Longsight is not geographically far removed from the old gang turfs, it was until recently a relatively trouble-free area. That was until Orville Bell, a 18-year old Longsight boy, was shot dead in his sports car during a robbery. The tit-for-tat drive-bys and ambushes during the last two years have claimed the lives of several and wounded too many to record. The designer weapon of choice is the 1,000-round-a-minute Ingram Mac10, a close-quarters machine-pistol made for special forces. Residents live in fear of their lives. They cannot drive too fast or too slow or wear their hoods up in the rain, lest nervous, trigger-happy neighbourhood boys mistake them for the enemy.

Longsight has been split right down the middle, along traditional Moss Side gang lines. Old Trafford and Whalley Range have long been similarly split. Stretford is going the same way. Meanwhile, gangs from Salford have stretched out into Wythenshawe, where the number of violent incidents involving firearms has leapt up.

Manchester reportedly has more routine armed police patrols per capita than anywhere else in Britain, bar - obviously - Ulster. But morale is not good. A Home Office report last year noted that the force had the third-highest rate of retirement for reasons of ill health. At one time it was 115 officers below strength, because of illness and absenteeism.

After years of watching their peers getting away with murder the new breed of gangsters, like Malcolm, know that the only way to get respect is to pull a gun at the drop of a hat. Whereas in the past warnings were issued and beatings doled out, today they shoot only to kill. Increasingly they're armed at all times. The new breed are fearless.

In May a teenager was visiting two fellow gang members who were on remand at Strangeways for attempted murder. At lunch time, and in full view of very obvious security cameras, members of a rival faction confronted him. Armed with knives and screwdrivers, they chased him back into the visitors' centre. The teenager took refuge with prison officers. Days later the youth was leaving a police station under police guard when rivals ambushed him. Two masked men fired shots. Officers dived for cover and a stray bullet smashed a window, narrowly missing a detective.

No matter how much gang politics and street fashions change, one thing remains omnipresent: the culture of silence and intimidation. Despite employing ever more sophisticated ballistics techniques, police face an uphill battle to put gangsters away. Even if Louis Makin's attackers are caught, it'll be a courageous person who points the finger and identifies them.