A tragic episode in a long war on violence that police thought they were winning

Manchester mourns after another shooting, but huge progress has been made since its 'Gunchester' low

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The Independent Online

As recently as five years ago, police in Greater Manchester were responding to up to seven firearms incidents a day. While it may have been more than a decade since the term "Gunchester" was first coined to describe the city's burgeoning firearms epidemic, no matter how hard detectives tried to dismiss it as an unwanted relic of the 1990s, the fact was simple: Manchester had a serious problem with armed gangs.

But things have changed. Despite the tragedy that unfolded in the quiet cul-de-sac on a pebble-dashed estate in Hattersley on Tuesday, senior officers have until now been quietly confident that they have been waging a successful war on armed violence.

The statistics confirm that belief. Between April 2011 and March 2012 there were 39 firearms discharges, four of which were fatal. Since April, police have been called to 15 reports of shots fired and, while the death toll now stands at six, four of those are linked to a single investigation.

By contrast, at the height of the Gunchester era, 27 people died and 250 were injured in a five-year period. Of course, the city was no stranger to organised violence even then. In the latter part of the 19th century, parts of the centre were the turf of the most feared "scuttlers", where gangs such as the Bengal Tigers would engage rival groups from Ancoats or Harpurhey in fatal knife battles.

And Manchester pubs still resound to the celebrated story of how its home-grown hard men, the Quality Street Gang, saw off the Kray brothers in a fist fight at Piccadilly Station when the East End twins sought to export their particular brand of menace to the streets of the North West.

But the city's problems began to escalate in the 1980s, explained Ben Black, author of the book Shooters, which chronicles the rise and fall of gun crime in the city.

The Moss Side riots, 90 per cent unemployment rates and the arrival of crack cocaine in south Manchester prompted a growing epidemic of violence. Gangs such as the Gooch and the Doddington battled to control the supply of drugs on the streets.

The national media, increasingly focused on the city's burgeoning cultural scene, became aware of its darker side with the shooting 14-year-old Benji Stanley as he queued for a takeaway in Moss Side. For the police, the situation was spiralling out of control.

"It came to a point when they realised that their ties with the community had become seriously weakened. This crept up on them from behind. They didn't see it coming first time round and it took them a long time to stamp it out," Black explains.

Through the ensuing years, the feuds became increasingly fatal with the arrival of powerful automatic weapons in the hands of the gangs such as the Uzi and the Mac-10. When this supply dried up, the gangs turned to converted replicas from Germany and Lithuania. But it was time for the police to fight back. In 2004, Operation Xcalibre was set up to combat a menace that was scarring communities and damaging the reputation of the city

A mixture of covert and uniformed initiatives saw gang members stopped on the streets, intelligence gathered and the local groups, housing authorities, schools and social services galvanised to get guns off the streets.

Whenever weapons were recovered, they were destroyed at high-profile media events and, as a result, gun crime fell year on year. But the real breakthrough came about following the 2007 shooting of Tyrone Gilbert at the funeral of Ucal Chin, a young father with friends in the Longsight Crew.

Gooch leaders Lee Amos and Colin Joyce opened fire into a crowd of mourners as they drove in convoy into the 90-strong crowd. Senior police described the pair as "psychopaths". They were on licence from prison and believed to be behind an upsurge in violence. When 11 members of the gang were later convicted at Liverpool Crown Court after a massive police operation which drew on techniques now well known to viewers of The Wire, shootings in Greater Manchester plunged by 92 per cent.

The quelling of the South Manchester gangs has been a major coup for police. Serious criminals have now got the message that discharging a weapon is "like firing a flare into the sky saying 'come and get me'," one senior officer said last week.

But there are new, worrying trends emerging, explained Black. The focus has switched to areas such as Salford – where Indian student Anuj Bidve was murdered last year – and to the post-industrial white working class eastern suburbs where this week's shootings occurred.

Here local families, often involved in relatively low level activities, dominate the criminal landscape. "If you are not from the area, you may not have even have heard of them. If you are from there you will know them and you will fear them," said the author.

"They are local hard men – well known to people involved in crime but who may not have lengthy criminal records. While they are locally notorious they are not people who have troubled the courts. They are part of a boozy, pub culture, linked around amateur boxing which these men feed into."

But he added: "Gunchester does not form the backdrop to what we've seen this week. The south Manchester gangs are still operating and active, but they are shadows of their former selves."