Information 'black hole' on Britain's drug gangs

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The Independent Online

Most of Britain's top heroin and cocaine traffickers operate with impunity because of a "black hole" in information about them, an intelligence assessment has found.

Most of Britain's top heroin and cocaine traffickers operate with impunity because of a "black hole" in information about them, an intelligence assessment has found.

The police, customs, MI5 and MI6 know nothing about 60 per cent of the country's heroin smugglers, the study discovered. The findings, details of which have been seen by The Independent, have led to a change of strategy against traffickers in class-A narcotics.

Customs and Excise officers, backed by M16 and MI5 agents, are now concentrating on foreign drug sources and supply routes rather than traffickers in the United Kingdom.

The intelligence assessment of Britain's most prolific 25 heroin traffickers discovered that about half operated from abroad, while the remainder were in London, Liverpool, Manchester, Birmingham, Glasgow and Edinburgh. But, the study also reported that there was a "black hole" in intelligence and that only about 40 per cent of the heroin kingpins were known to the authorities. The remaining 60 per cent were either working from abroad with lieutenants in the UK, had set up elaborate unidentified networks or were based in ethnic communities that law agents had no contacts with, such as the Bangladeshi community in east London.

A similar lack of intelligence surrounding cocaine traffickers has been identified, although the problem is not as acute.

Details from the study have been passed to the National Crime Squad, Customs, security services and Home Office ministers, which make up an inter-agency drugs group.

Heroin and crack cocaine have been identified as the two most dangerous drugs being used in the UK. Heroin sales reach about £2.3bn a year, followed by crack with £1.8bn.

Of the 25 top heroin traffickers identified, several had no criminal records. About half lived abroad in countries that included Turkey, Albania and Azerbaijan. "It would be wrong to assume that if we arrested everybody on that list the problem would go away," said a law enforcement source.

"It would be a mistake to believe that dealing with what you know will have an impact. If you imagine the heroin industry as a radar screen, the chunk that we know very well is made up of white Anglo-Saxon bank robbers and Turks that we have known for years. They represent 40 per cent. Sixty per cent of the screen is blank.

"We have big gaps in our knowledge, for example in the Bangladeshi community. We know there is a problem but we don't have any intelligence," said the source. Traffickers are increasingly using "clean skin" couriers without criminal records and who speak foreign languages and operate with fake passports.

Customs and other agencies are refocusing on attacking the assets of the known traffickers who have been laundering vast quantities of cash in Britain, often through bureaux de change. "You target businesses, share holders, the heroin and the profit – all these increase the risk in trafficking," said an intelligence source.

But the biggest shift in resources is abroad. "We are working across borders," said the law enforcement source. The approach includes hitting poppy crops in Afghanistan, the source of up to 90 per cent of Britain's heroin, and targeting the supply chain in Turkey.

The assessment also identified a boom in Colombian cocaine traffickers moving into Britain and mixing with Spanish communities, most notably in west London.