So, who does run Toxteth?

It's a classic battle for turf. Two gangs shooting it out over who controls a drugs and protection racket. Now there's been a murder and tit-for-tat retaliation. Tony Bell investigates
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The Independent Culture
Earlier this month, David Ungi, an unemployed 35-year-old man, was gunned down by masked gunmen as he drove his Volkswagen Passat through the Toxteth area of Liverpool. The killing, described by the local press as a "gangland-style execution", follows a series of violent incidents between two rival gangs.

Tit for tat, attack for attack, perhaps now killing for killing, Toxteth residents are frightened. Frightened that more lives will be endangered as the two heavily armed factions struggle for control of what one local bluntly calls "a drugs and protection racket".

The incidents began in February when a relative of David Ungi's was shot and seriously injured. On 21 March Ungi himself was involved in a fight in nearby Aigburth. Later that day someone tried to shoot him. He escaped, but refused to report the incident to the authorities.

His luck finally ran out on 1 May. Since his death there have been two further shootings in and around Toxteth.

The police believe that the gang, with which David Ungi was involved, is white. Their rivals are black. Yet Merseyside police say this is not a race issue. One officer shrugs: "It wouldn't matter if they were all black or all white. They'd still be trying to kill each other. It's territorial. You'll find drugs at the bottom of it."

David Ungi died on North Hill Street. On this straight, wide road which leads to the banks of the Mersey, nearly 200 floral tributes mark the spot where he fell. The grid-iron street pattern is the only reminder of the days when it was fashionable to have an address in Toxteth.

Empty shops among the terraced and semi detached houses - and the groups of unemployed men standing around - underline the reality of inner-city life. Detective Superintendent Roger Corker, who is heading the murder investigation, says there has been a reluctance by people to come forward: "We are putting together the jigsaw, but several pieces are missing. I would ask the community to contact us with anything that they feel is relevant."

"John", a community leader who asks not to be identified, doesn't think locals will be rushing to help Mr Corker. John doesn't even want his comments recorded. "What happens if you're mugged when you leave here and the tape falls into the wrong hands? I don't want a visit from these people."

He explains why people are scared: "They know who did it, but they won't say anything because they're scared they will be shot. They are also frightened of being caught in gunfire on the street. They have no faith in the police, because there are young men around here, black and white, who are armed to the teeth. I don't mean with shotguns. Some of them carry Uzis. And they're crazy enough to use them."

John points out that although the gangs in question do not have names, people know who belongs to which group: "It's well known. Most of the young kids involved are just the foot-soldiers. You don't see the big guys much, especially in the past two weeks."

While, according to John, one set of rivals are primarily a family concern, their opponents are "a group of people with the same business interests". One gang has been around for about 20 years; their shadowy challengers are Johnny Come Latelys - Johnny Come Latelys with ambitions.

There is a lucrative trade in drugs in Toxteth - not merely "Black crack" but heroin, LSD, various amphetamines, cannabis, Ecstasy. The young are targeted by dealers. High unemployment levels mean a corresponding crime rate as drug users fund their habit.

Hit, a drugs information agency, says that although there are no specific figures for Toxteth, the area is recognised as having a high level of drug abuse, certainly higher than the rest of Liverpool. Some residents think the area has been hyped up as a place well on its way to recovery from the social problems that led to the riots of 1981.

Various ministers for Merseyside, from Michael Heseltine to the present incumbent, Robin Squire, have presided over initiatives that have directed millions of pounds into the local economy. The urban programme, a mixture of central and local government money amounts to £33m; the Task Force fund puts in another £9m for "economic regeneration". Poverty 3, a five- year programme, addresses ethnic minority issues. Project Rosemary brings in another £50m and has been responsible for creating 1,300 jobs as well as building new houses. And the Liverpool City Challenge plays a central role.

Ben, in his early twenties and unemployed, is not impressed. "Kids have nothing to look forward to when they leave school, so the situation just goes on." Ben says that many of the social problems - no jobs, poor housing and drugs - are still present. So the dispossessed turn to crime.

Some of the younger gang members use the centre John runs. He keeps a dossier of the incidents involving guns on the premises. One entry describes how a youth pointed a gun at the head of a staff member and pulled the trigger. John claims that it was only the fact that the gun jammed that another death was avoided. "Most of them are just posing, trying to intimidate or bully the staff by flashing guns about, but it gets out of hand sometimes." He predicted more violence as Ungi's associates attempted to avenge his death. "If I hear that a black person has been shot," he said, the day after the murder, "I'll know the retaliation has started."

John did not have to wait long. A week later two men wearing balaclavas entered a gym in the Kensington district of Liverpool and shot a 25-year- old man. He escaped with arm injuries. He has requested that police do not release his name.

Michael, in his mid-twenties, is a former gang member. He claims he has nothing to do with the two warring factions. Still, he has seen some of the arsenal owned by those who manage Toxteth's alternative economy.

"They've got a lot of different weapons available, but the men who are serious don't carry them all the time. That's too risky. Some of the kids carry guns for show, but that's asking for it. If you're armed, you've got to be prepared to use it. Even though a lot of them aren't, they would rather use it than lose face."

Michael refuses to say why he joined the gang, or the ages and numbers and operations of members. No one will.

The rumour that one of those involved in Ungi's murder is a 16-year- old doesn't surprise Michael: "The kids get involved because they see guys driving nice cars and splashing money around." According to John, the 16-year-old is still around: "I've seen him. He's carrying on as though everything is normal. He's convinced nobody is going to point him out. He's probably right."

As the shootings continue, people trot out clichs gleaned from American television programmes. "A climate of fear exists in the community," one woman told reporters last Thursday after police arrested three men in connection with the murder.

Another described the neighbourhood as "the streets of fear" after a house was raked with bullets. Inevitably, the incident was described as "a drive-by shooting". Local newspaper headlines proclaiming a "Revenge Alert" add to the tension, although one police officer believes imaginations are working overtime: "The only people who are in real danger are the gang members involved. Obviously if they start firing weapons indiscriminately, then innocent people may be hurt."

Two of the three men arrested on Thursday have been released without charge, while another, aged 20, has been charged with offences unconnected to the Ungi case; possession of drugs, ammunition, and a CS gas cannister. One of the three was present in the gym when the gun attack took place earlier in the week and police are wary about releasing any names. The fact that they have even been questioned may be enough for those who wish to avenge the murder of David Ungi.

John shakes his head. He says it will be a long time before Toxteth returns to normal: "Wait until after the funeral. That's when it will get really bad. That's what people around here are bracing themselves for."

One woman who lives near the scene of the murder is sick of the gangs, sick of the drugs. What is to become of the children, she asks. When do they get a chance? "We just want to get on with our lives and ... and these ... these people have got us terrified "Perhaps it is time we all stood up against them. They couldn't harm us all. Could they?"