Merseyside's habitdieshard

Liverpool has become the centre of Britain's black economy, powered by drugs dealing on a grand scale. The rewards are massive, as two men know well. One is behind bars, the other free and thriving
Click to follow
The Independent Online
Curtis Warren is serving a 12-year jail sentence in Holland for drug running, but his influence still reaches out from behind the bars of a continental prison to the parts of Lancashire where he made his base. Last week, Greater Manchester Police revealed that a member of its force had been arrested for questioning about methods used by Warren to launder his profits. In a week in which Brian Iddon, one of Bolton's MPs, called for a royal commission to examine the decriminalisation of drugs after the shooting of a five-year-old boy in a Bolton street, the case of Curtis Warren is evidence of the scale of social disorder created by the selling of illegal drugs.

One of Liverpool's greatest mysteries is where the money comes from. Strangers are struck by the run-down feel of a once-great port that has fallen on hard times. Yet, amid boarded-up shops, deserted streets and the faded grandeur, there are pockets of wealth: a designer-clothes shop, a flashy night club. On the hard-bitten streets of Toxteth and Skelmersdale - or "Skem" - children wear designer trainers and jeans despite the fact that official statistics show that many must belong to the families of the long-term unemployed. Expensive cars cruise the streets, and a remarkable proportion of the kids flaunt mobile phones. They cannot all be the dependants of Premier League footballers.

Local police believe that part of the explanation lies in Liverpool's grip on Britain's drugs trade. This view is echoed by North-West Business Insider, a regional business magazine, which declares in its August issue: "Just as Liverpool merchants once masterminded the slave trade, Liverpool criminals now control a disproportionate amount of the importation of illegal drugs into the UK."

Within this contemporary class of merchants two names are paramount. Curtis Warren, aged 34, is already behind bars; his long-time mentor and associate is currently the subject of an intensive police and customs investigation. It is tempting to dismiss the pair as small-town op- erators, lovable rogues from Liverpool. This is seriously incorrect.

Warren was given the label "Target One" by Interpol across Europe. When he was arrested last year at his 16-room home in Sassenheim, Holland, in a joint operation code-named Crayfish between British customs and the Dutch police, he was shifting 500kg of drugs a month. A raid on a ship in the nearby Rotterdam Europort uncovered 800kg of Colombian cocaine, with a street value of pounds 75m. Further raids in Holland netted more drugs, plus grenades, automatic weapons and CS gas canisters.

Warren had outgrown Merseyside. His web spread to London, the Midlands and Scotland. Raised in Liverpool 8 - Toxteth - he was a cheeky "scally" who dabbled in stolen cars and minor street theft. That was before he got close to the man who is the focus of the continuing investigation, a major international drugs dealer, known inevitably as "Mr Big" in the Merseyside underworld. Warren's new friend revealed to him the rich rewards from dealing in drugs, particularly cocaine.

WHILE "Mr Big" preferred to deal with international middlemen, Warren went one stage further, setting up deals directly with cocaine cartels in Colombia, heroin producers in Turkey, and cannabis growers in Spain and Morocco. He was like a drugs wholesaler with Britain as his retail market. "Like a broker in legal commodities," says Steve Brauner, editor of North-West Business Insider, "he would negotiate a price with the supplier - in his case, the Colombian cocaine cartels - before selling on several slices of the consignment at a mark-up to other criminal organisations. The profit on those deals meant he was getting the rest of the consignment for nothing. His profit on any drugs brought into this country on his own account was 100 per cent." Estimates of how much he made range from pounds 40m to pounds 180m.

Much of that found its way into the Merseyside economy. Following Warren's conviction in June a six-man Customs and Excise squad in Salford has been piecing together his business empire. So far it has uncovered 250 rented terraced houses and flats in Liverpool, worth an estimated pounds 8m; a luxury apartment in London's Docklands; a mansion near the Royal Liverpool golf course; two petrol stations and several apartment blocks in Turkey; a Bulgarian wine-manufacturing plant (cocaine can be dissolved in alcohol and subsequently recovered).

The investigators are certain that this is the tip of the iceberg. They know, for example, that in mid-summer a steady stream of travellers on buses and trains from Liverpool to London clutched holdalls. Mingling with tourists, they would exchange cash sums at Bureaux de Change as high as pounds 500,000 into large-denomination notes in Dutch gilders or German marks. That money would be banked in offshore tax havens. The couriers from Liverpool were paid pounds 300 a time for their journey south. There was no question of them absconding with the money: Warren's reputation for violent retribution ensured that.

The disclosure that a Manchester police officer had been arrested as part of the inquiry into Warren's money laundering was no surprise. Warren, and his mentor, who presents a seemingly legitimate front, are suspected of close ties to the police.

Warren's problem was to get money from the offshore accounts back to Merseyside. (Despite his expanding empire, he remained close to his roots, driving round Toxteth in an open-top Lexus, wearing a shell-suit.) His route of choice was to back small businesses with loans. The arrested police officer's father set up a string of small companies which appeared to lack the means of acquiring any income, yet held money in the bank. Warren was careful to keep his name out of any documents. It appears on no Inland Revenue record, nor has he ever claimed benefit. The house by the golf course at Hoylake was bought in the name of a dead man.

The terraced houses in Liverpool appear to be owned by a respectable property company - except that it is in receipt of a mysterious offshore loan for pounds 2m and is reluctant to say who exactly lent the money.

Warren did not need paperwork. He tended to turn up at the company in which he wanted to invest with a bag containing pounds 500,000 in cash. There were no papers to sign: he was never going to have recourse to law if a deal turned sour.

While newspapers gloried in Merseyside's vicious 1995 "drugs war" between the long-established Ungi/Fitzgibbon gang and new, mostly Jamaican, rivals, there was no mention of Warren or "Mr Big". They were above a feud conducted by street dealers. These were men they supplied, but their turf battle was their own affair. However, the shooting of the gang leader David Ungi did give Warren food for thought and he was trying to broker peace between the gangs when he was arrested (presumably their war was bad for business).

WARREN'S name had cropped up four years ago when an investigation into a pounds 250m drugs deal collapsed. Warren and a partner, Brian Charrington, a career criminal from Teeside, were allegedly trailed to Colombia to set up a deal to import 900kg of cocaine, to be hidden in metal ingots. Both men were arrested and charged. Then the charges against Charrington were dropped on the orders of the then Attorney-General, Sir Nicholas Lyell.

Two senior police officers from the North-east had told Tim Devlin, Sir Nicholas's parliamentary private secretary, that Charrington was a valuable informant. Mr Devlin took their concern to Sir Nicholas who agreed to drop the charges, but the end of that case signalled the end of the case against Warren, too, and he was duly acquitted. Outside the court he taunted customs officers, saying he was off to spend the pounds 86m he had made from the deal. Soon afterwards he went to live in Holland.

He still does so, though involuntarily, and now he is inside police and customs are concentrating on "Mr Big". Little on paper links him with Warren, although he is thought to have been the joint purchaser of the flat in Wapping. But a lack of hard evidence is not the only problem.

Customs officers have been warned to base their investigation at least 30 miles away from Liverpool for their own safety, and officers planning drugs raids have been told by Liverpool police that their safety can be guaranteed for just four minutes. They may be heavily armed and may plan arrests with care but their targets are no less cautious. Any unknown car near a target's house will be identified and the information relayed by children with mobile phones.

While they work overtime to capture Warren's mentor, police and customs are also aware that the clock is ticking in Holland. The trial judge in The Hague rejected a request from the prosecution for a 16-year sentence for Warren, claiming he was not one of the "heaviest" criminals in the drugs business. One man sentenced with Warren has already been freed and, with parole, others will be out next year. Investigators worry that Warren is still pulling the strings from his prison cell.

Drugs is a booming business on Merseyside, and one argument for decriminalisation is that, somehow, you feel the police and customs will never manage to close it down.

Drugs by the shipload

Curtis Warren specialised in a method of drug smuggling not previously seen by enforcement agencies. When he was arrested near Rotterdam he was overseeing the consignment of 800kg of cocaine hidden inside aluminium ingots. Customs officers fear he had taken delivery of at least one previous identical cargo. Gone is the idea of a casual smuggler with a few kilos of drugs hidden behind the panel of a lorry. Warren and others like him treat smuggling cocaine, heroin, cannabis and Ecstasy as a full- time profession.

In Britain last year, customs seized more than pounds 500m worth of smuggled drugs. Much more, though, gets through, creating a trade running into billions of pounds. With his big talk and ideas, Warren will have found a ready audience among his suppliers. They prefer to deal with people who will buy in bulk. They have to: otherwise they simply cannot offload the quantities they are producing.

While the supply side is a sophisticated industry, so, increasingly, is policing. Enforcing drugs laws costs Britain around pounds 500m a year, slightly less than the amount seized. That does not include the cost of keeping drug offenders behind bars where they account for about 10 per cent of the prison population.

No level of policing will eradicate the problem - the potential rewards are just too great. It is a depressing fact that while Warren is in prison, someone else will soon claim his mantle.