Close-knit gangs who deal in death

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The Independent Online
THE POLICE and MI5 have identified 30 drug gangs who are controlling the distribution of heroin throughout Britain and Ireland. Detectives also believe there is a new threat from the South American drug barons, notably from Colombia, who are planning to ship large quantities of heroin into Europe for the first time.

The National Criminal Intelligence Service, drug squads, customs officers and MI5 have been tracking the distribution of heroin in the UK, which has seen a huge increase in the amount on sale during the past few years.

Most of the UK heroin gangs are Turkish groups based in north London and Liverpool, which are the two main distribution points for drug trafficking throughout the country and to Dublin. But criminal gangs from Kosovo and Armenia are also heavily involved. These groups are estimated to import between 85 and 90 per cent of the heroin in the UK.

Each organisation has about 12 "active players" or senior figures, as well as dozens of runners, drivers and organisers. The leading figures almost all have long criminal records. Intelligence suggests that the gangs are increasingly turning to murder to maintain their control over the drug trade.

The gangs launder much of the huge profits from the heroin trade through restaurants, pubs and clubs. The criminals are also involved in vice, prostitution and protection rackets. The police have found it very difficult to infiltrate the gangs because they are close-knit, often only employing family members or long-term friends.

There is also some evidence of a small number of white criminal families starting to go to Europe to buy heroin directly rather than waiting for it to be smuggled across the Channel.

Most of the heroin smuggled into the UK comes in trucks via Dover. A tiny amount is swallowed or hidden by couriers and brought into the country via airports and through the Channel Tunnel. The majority of the drug comes from opium grown in Turkey, Pakistan, and Afghanistan, and arrives via countries such as the Netherlands, Germany, the Czech Republic, Slovakia, Bulgaria and Hungary.

Once the drug is brought in on trucks it is sent to London and Liverpool. The Merseyside gangs supply the drug to Glasgow and the whole of Scotland, Dublin, Manchester and the North-west. Bradford, Hull, Birmingham and Bristol are secondary distribution points. As the drug gets broken down into smaller packages local dealers distribute it to towns and rural areas.

The police and customs admit that despite record heroin seizures they have had almost no impact on availability of the drug or the street price, which remains extremely low.

Vince Harvey, director of the UK division of the National Criminal Intelligence Service, said: "Heroin offers the highest profits and attracts the most serious criminals. A significant number of these criminal organisations have some connection with Turkey. The key players are well established in the UK.

"London and Liverpool are the strongholds. Manchester, Birmingham, Glasgow and Bristol are the secondary bases. It is a well-established route - heroin is available everywhere you want it now."

On future trends for the dealers, he said: "There are some indications that the South Americans are now moving away from only selling cocaine and are growing heroin."

Mr Harvey is part of a government working party that is drawing up measures to allow the assets of suspected criminals to be seized without first obtaining a conviction. The Home Office is expected to bring in new laws to allow police and customs officials to confiscate money and assets of suspected drug dealers. The alleged criminals will have to prove that they legitimately obtained their possessions and cash, or face losing them.