Caution: you are about to enter gangland Britain

British gangs are disorganised, crude and parochial. Triads, Yardies and Mafiosi are not. They're here. And their methods are catching. By Jason Bennetto
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The Independent Online
An assassin sips tea in a south London cafe before stepping up behind two men and firing a handgun into the back of their heads. A Chinese restaurant-owner in Glasgow struggles to open the door of his Mercedes, the lock of which has been deliberately jammed with matchsticks. Suddenly, he is hacked down with four blows from a meat cleaver. The leader of a group of black gangsters dies in a hail of bullets fired by three rivals as he attempts to leave a London drugs den.

This is modern gangland Britain. Gone are days of the working-class mobsters, ruling with a razor blade and an iron fist. Organised crime in the UK is more complex than ever before. It is also, according to a recent investigation by a parliamentary committee, a "substantial" and growing problem that is involved in every illegal money-making scheme imaginable.

Britain does not have a "Mr Big", or single national organisation that controls the distribution of drugs, with gang members in every city and an interest in every major scam. But we do have an increasingly violent and sophisticated number of organised outfits. Some have influence all over the country which extends even into the world of finance.

The British banking system is used to laundering illegally obtained money. By investing in the UK, criminal groups can hide their original source and obtain a legitimate cover for their income. This technique enables foreign criminals to gain a foothold here without stepping on British soil. Police believe between pounds 2.5bn and pounds 4bn of criminally generated money is entering the UK financial system each year.

But the vast majority of gangs control small patches of the UK with specialist interests. These are the Glasgow drug gangs, the Newcastle protection racketeers, the north London forgers, and the south London crack dealers. However, there is evidence that these small zones of influence are beginning to merge and grow.

It is this concern that has prompted the National Criminal Intelligence Service (NCIS) to compile a gangland register. From October six police forces and customs officers will provide details of suspected organised criminals. This pilot scheme will be extended to all forces in April, and will for the first time provide a composite picture of gangland Britain.

"We want to be able to spot trends quickly," says Peter Richie, head of the Organised Crime Unit at NCIS's Strategic and Specialist Intelligence Branch. "We want to see whether a Mafia-style gang is developing."

While all agencies acknowledge that organised crime in Britain is small compared to countries such as Italy and the US, NCIS already has a list of 366 "criminals of major significance". The vast majority - 227 - are in the South-east, mainly London, with roughly equal numbers in the North- east (47), and the North-west (45), and half as many in the South-west (22), and the Midlands (25).

Almost all organised crime in the UK is bound up in the control and supply of drugs. Police believe this is responsible for more than half of all the illegal activities of these groups. In the North-east and North-west of England the figure jumps to around 80 per cent. But more and more gangs are getting involved in currency counterfeiting, firearms smuggling and money laundering.

Every city has its own gangs, although so far no gang or family has occupied such a powerful position as the legendary Krays (although even they failed to extend their influence much beyond south London).

One of most powerful family outfits of recent times has been the Arifs, a large extended family from Stockwell, south London, who were involved in armed robberies and drug smuggling and owned a string of clubs, pubs and restaurants - almost certainly bought from the proceeds of their criminal activities.

The family first gained notoriety in May 1977, when Osar Arif was acquitted of the murder of a guard during a security van robbery in which pounds 103,000 was stolen. The vehicle's windscreen was shattered with a sledgehammer and the crew was blasted with a shotgun. Bekir Arif was later jailed for five years after being convicted of disposing of guns.

Their reign during the Seventies and Eighties ended after a series of successful police operations: during an attempted armed robbery in November 1990 one of the gang was shot dead by detectives and Dogan Arif, 42, the head of the family, is currently serving 14 years for his part in an pounds 8.5m drug-smuggling plot.

In Scotland in the past six months rival drug factions fighting for their share of a business worth pounds 10m a year have carried out a number of killings and attacks in the Paisley area of Glasgow. In March, John Kelly was shot in the face in a crowded bar in Paisley. The shooting was followed by three more in the area in as many days. In one, Andrew McLaughlin, 31, opened his door to an unknown man who blasted him with a shotgun. He died on the way to hospital.

In May, David Ungi, 36, died under a hail of bullets after his car was blocked by a black VW Golf at a crossroads in Liverpool. The killing is believed to have been carried out by a rival gang.

In the North-west and North-east of England, the distribution of drugs is often controlled through bouncers who operate in pubs and clubs. The door men, who are part of criminal organisations, allow only their own dealers into the premises or are paid a percentage from freelance traffickers. In Newcastle the fierce rivalry between different groups of bouncers has led to a number of shootings.

There is growing evidence that a loose-knit national network is being established between some of the traditional family or working-class gangs. Some swap services, such as the hiring of guns or hitmen, and trade drugs.

"Recent investigations have continued grossly to underestimate the ingenuity and resourcefulness of the British criminal classes," says Dr Barry Rider, a senior legal academic at Cambridge University. "This is particularly so in regard to financial frauds and money-laundering services."

None of the traditional criminal groups has been well organised or ambitious enough to extend much beyond its home base. But they have prevented rivals from encroaching on their territory through the use of violence and their contacts with the local community.

Only the terrorist groups in Northern Ireland have had the fire and manpower along with the willingness to use extreme violence to prevent any significant encroachment of newer gangs.

Since the late Seventies, as new ethnic communities established themselves in Britain, a different type of organised criminal has emerged. The strongest of these are the Chinese Triads and the Jamaican Yardies, who operate within their own communities, at times extremely violently.

In 1991 the problem of extortion, or "tea money", became so severe among London's Chinatown community that restaurant owners called on the Government and police for help. The final sanction used by Triads against anyone who fails to pay is to be chopped with a 14in beef knife.

Four separate Triad societies are now operating throughout the UK, with bases in every city with a large Chinese community. Strathclyde Police, for example, report that these four triad groups have all firmly established themselves among the Chinese communities, mainly in Glasgow.

"In recent years," say the police, "a Triad group achieved notoriety in Glasgow with the professional killing of a Chinese businessman. Inquiry into the murder revealed the depth to which the Triad societies had infiltrated the Chinese community in Glasgow and the power they wield through extortion, drugs and gambling." The police were unable to charge anyone with the murder largely because witnesses were too frightened to testify. Triads use intimidation, and the inbred fear of their organisation to prevent members of the Chinese community from informing against them.

The influence and power of the Yardies has gradually grown along with the boom in crack cocaine. Although predictions that Britain was going to face an American-style "invasion" by West Indian gangsters has proved unfounded, in recent years the police have reported an upsurge in violent Yardie drug wars.

John Brennan, detective sergeant of the South-East Regional Crime Squad and one of the country's leading experts on Yardies, says that the Jamaican gangs now control most of the supply of crack cocaine in London, Manchester, Birmingham, Nottingham, Leeds and Bristol.

Yardies often use brutal tactics against rivals. In 1991 in north London a Nigerian drugs courier had her face and breasts ironed by a drugs gang to obtain details of her shipment. Boiling water was poured over her head when she passed out during the torture.

In March 1994 a cocaine dealer shot two unarmed policemen - in the back and in the leg - as they carried out a routine check in a south London street. Leroy Smith, who was convicted in February of attempted murder, had boasted to his girlfriend: "Those two deserved to get it. I should have got them good and proper."

Japanese Yakuza gangs and the Italian Mafia have also established themselves in Britain, primarily via money-laundering. But the most recent threat to Britain, according to both police and NCIS, are criminals from the former Soviet Union. The break-up of the USSR, they argue, has resulted in weakened or non-existent border checks and a gradual decline in law and order. This has enabled gangs to exploit weak banking regulations in their own countries to launder money through the UK. There have also been fears that increasing numbers of firearms will be smuggled into the country.

Organised crime is alive and kicking in Britain. But despite the glum predictions, British police have as yet found no evidence to suggest that Britain is likely to be overwhelmed by gangs or run by a "godfather" figure. As the Home Affairs Select Committee concluded: "Organised crime raises images of the Mafia or the Krays ... but to confine concern to such relatively tightly organised groups would be to miss most of today's criminal activity which, if more loosely organised, is nevertheless actually more threatening."

THE MAJOR OPERATORS

TRIADS

Who they are: Chinese gangsters, originally from Hong Kong and South- East Asia. Four main societies: 14K, Wo Shing Wo, Wo On Lock, San Yee On.

Where they are based: London, also in Manchester, Hull, Glasgow.

How they make money: drug trafficking, prostitution, credit card fraud, protection, extortion, illegal gambling and immigration. Also counterfeiting, video piracy, money laundering.

Power rating: expanding their interests in the UK. They use violence and intimidation within Chinese communities to maintain power. There is great difficulty in persuading witnesses to come forward because of brutal reprisals and intimidation.

YARDIES

Who they are: often inaccurate term used to describe drug dealers with links to the Caribbean, in particular Jamaica. No evidence that they are run by bosses; usually a Yardie with a reputation for violence and murder obtains the services of British Afro-Caribbeans to help to run drug rackets. Many simply appropriate the Yardie title to gain respect .

Where they are based: mainly in south London, particularly Brixton, also Manchester, Bristol, Birmingham, Leicester, Nottingham, and Leeds.

How they make money: almost exclusively through drug dealing. Jamaican gangs now control most of the supply of crack cocaine in the UK. Also gun trafficking and protection rackets.

Power rating: Yardies are distinguished by their readiness to use extreme violence and firearms. There are also concerns about their increasing use of witness intimidation. Police believe that with the increase in the crack cocaine market, the Yardies are the group most likely to push the police into arming themselves more widely.

TRADITIONAL FAMILY GANGS

Who they are: often working-class groups of criminals who operate in a specific patch, frequently controlling the distribution of drugs. Families make up the core of gangs, which have a strong regional identity.

Where they are based: every major city has its gangs, but there is evidence of growing links between the different outfits, particularly in the distribution of drugs. Major centres: London, Glasgow, Manchester, Liverpool, Newcastle.

How they make money: mainly enterprise crime with little penetration of the financial world, and in drug trafficking, often through control of pubs and clubs. They have moved from traditional crimes such as armed robbery to counterfeiting and fraud, and are also involved in extortion, protection rackets, and theft of heavy goods vehicles.

Power rating: recent outbreaks of killings between rival drug gangs in Glasgow, Manchester and Liverpool illustrate their willingness to revert to violence. However, they do not have the ambition or power to expand much beyond a single city, though there is some evidence of a loose network.

OTHER ORGANISED CRIME GROUPS:

Eastern Europeans

Particularly from the former Soviet Union. They use the British banking system to launder money, but are also involved in gun running.

Terrorists

Despite the ceasefire, both Republican and Loyalist terrorist groups are still fund raising in Northern Ireland through armed robberies, extortion, protection rackets, smuggling, illegal gaming, video piracy, and gun running. The groups also control many pubs and clubs. Sections of some Loyalist groups are involved in drug dealing, but the IRA refuses to handle drugs.

Mafia

The National Criminal Intelligence Service has reported an increase in Mafia-related activities in the UK in the past five years, particularly in London. In the UK they have focused on fraud and drug trafficking, but are also involved in gaming.

Bikers

These includes the Hell's Angels, who have 12 chapters in the UK - an estimated 250 members, involved in firearms, drug trafficking, car theft and extortion. Several gangs are believed to have set up legitimate businesses with an underground banking system.

West Africans

Particularly Nigerians, who have been involved in housing and benefit frauds, forgery and fraud. Only a small number of "cells" in operation, comprising about 50 people, mainly in London.

Colombian cartels

Almost exclusively involved in drug trafficking and money laundering.

Turks and Kurds

There is evidence of a small number of clans involved in drug trafficking, extortion and car theft. Political groups, Dev Sol and PKK, have become involved in criminal activities to bankroll terrorism. About 1,000 members here.

Vietnamese

There is some evidence that the Triad gangs are hiring the Vietnamese to carry out violent hits and high-risk jobs.

Asians

A growing number in the Pakistani and Bangladeshi communities, often set up in response to racist attacks. The Home Office has warned that a demographic time bomb is about to explode, with young Asian criminals about to come of age. Favoured crimes: extortion and protection, credit- card fraud, drugs, immigration, smuggling and car theft, mainly in Bradford, London, and Bolton.

Japanese Yakuza

Members of the Japanese organised crime Boryokudan ("group of violence"). Little direct involvement here, but some evidence of laundering money by buying up UK property.

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