Heroin 'Mr Bigs' targeted in Turkey

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Joint operations with Turkish police have allowed Britain's Serious Organised Crime Agency to target the "Mr Bigs" in Turkey who control the bulk of the UK heroin trade, MPs heard today.

Soca's deputy director Steve Coates said the disruption of organised Turkish gangs on their home territory helped cause a heroin "drought" on the streets of Britain which is driving up the wholesale price of the drug.

Turkish gangs traffic around 70% of the 18-23 tonnes of heroin smuggled into the UK each year, Mr Coates told the House of Commons Home Affairs Committee.

But he played down suggestions that Turkish accession to the European Union would increase the supply of the drug by making it easier for gang members to move in and out of the UK.

Turkish EU membership would allow "more streamlined, structured and faster" intelligence sharing between police forces and would deliver advantages in tackling the drug trade at its source, he said.

Soca currently has eight officers based in Istanbul and Ankara, co-operating with Turkish National Police and other law enforcement agencies in tackling the five major crime gangs which dominate the heroin trade.

While Turkish gangs were also involved in organised immigration crime, fraud, money laundering and copyright offences, these are dwarfed by the scale of the heroin trade.

The same "Mr Bigs" have controlled the trade from Turkey for the last 20-25 years, and targeting them in their home country is more effective than arresting gang members in the UK, who are easily replaced, said Mr Coates.

"I think that we can say with a degree of certainty that the shortage of heroin is not exclusively down to law enforcement action, but we have had a significant impact on it," Mr Coates told the committee.

Thanks to co-operation with Turkish police, "we have been able to reach out and impact these crime groups in a way we have not be able to before", he said.

"We have had a series of significant operations where we have gone into Turkey with the Turkish National Police and impacted on the high-end traffickers."

He added: "Evidence suggests that if you impact the groups nearer the source, you have more effect.

"We have identified five significant crime gangs and we have action plans against those five. Three have been impacted and disrupted and there has been displacement of their trade into other countries because Turkey has been too hot for them.

"This includes disrupting their finances and impacting on their ability to operate - even something as simple as reducing their ability to obtain credit, which makes them lose face when dealing with other retailers. That can slow them down and impact their power base."

Mr Coates paid tribute to the "efficient, professional and competent" Turkish police, without whose assistance Soca could not have achieved the same success in tackling the drug problem.

"Turkey is a priority country for us and we have invested heavily there because it is a country where we can work co-operatively, collaboratively and effectively with local law enforcement," he said.

Some 650 tonnes of heroin is produced in Afghanistan each year, with the bulk of it processed in the country or neighbouring Iran, Mr Coates told the MPs. The Turkish gangs then send it through the Balkans by lorry or ship to western European ports, where the heroin destined for the UK is broken up into smaller consignments to be smuggled past customs.

There is some evidence that recently Turkish gangs have also got involved in cocaine smuggling - previously the domain of Colombians and other South Americans - he added.