An elite police unit of armed officers has been secretly operating against the growing threat from hired hitmen, Scotland Yard revealed yesterday.
The specialist squad of crack detectives has prevented dozens of contract killings since it was set up eight years ago, but until now has remained one of the Metropolitan Police's best-kept secrets.
In the past 18 months alone the special projects unit has saved the lives of up to 35 people from hitmen, and seized £19m worth of drugs and £2m in cash.
The killers are paid as little as a bag of drugs to murder a rival, while the top tier of hitmen can get up to £20,000 to take out a top criminal. Contract killers have been hired to commit murders abroad and foreign hitmen have been brought to the UK by London crime gangs. Most of the contracts involve drug dealers - many of them in the crack cocaine trade - killing rivals.
The unit, consisting of 30 of the Met's most highly trained detectives, includes firearms and surveillance specialists. About a fifth of the squad are women. As well as combating contract killings, the unit deals with drugs cases and large-scale firearms trafficking.
The elite unit, which is based at a secret location in London, has never lost a case in court.
Detective Chief Superintendent Sharon Kerr, head of the Flying Squad and with overall charge of the unit, said the decision to confirm its existence was to reassure Londoners that the police were taking an aggressive approach to gun crime. She said: "It's the most sensitive unit within the Met and the cases they have been involved in have not always entered the public domain because of the sensitive nature of their work. They are up against the most violent criminals in London."
The detectives are on 24-hour standby to respond to intelligence of contract killings as they are about to happen. In about 70 per cent of cases, the intended victim of a hit is told by the unit that he or she has become a target.
Some intended victims are leading underworld figures. In some cases, they later become suspects themselves as they try to take revenge on other gangs.
The unit's head, Detective Chief Inspector Martin Molloy, speaking about it publicly for the first time, said: "If there is a phone call, we can have 30 detectives on the scene very quickly. We deal with fast-time, life-threatening situations."
In the past 18 months, the unit has been involved in 27 investigations. There were 80 murder attempts against the 35 individuals it saved.
In the past few months, the unit seized 14 guns that were loaded and ready to use. Some were fitted with silencers and laser sights.
In response to gang violence involving guns, drugs and protection rackets in the Green Lanes area of Harringay, north London, last year, the unit was given the task of identifying potential hitmen coming in to the area.
They watched men believed to be contract killers and arrested two suspects on the way to Green Lanes with loaded guns and silencers.Reuse content