The commuting criminals: How London’s drug gangs turned to the Home Counties to beat the police

When the Met decided to crack down on them, the Woolwich Boys shifted their operations to Kent

London street gangs have shifted some of their drug-dealing operations to the Home Counties under pressure from high-profile police tactics that have led to the break-up of dozens of gangs in the capital, senior detectives said today.

Police arrested 10 people in dawn raids at the end of a three-and-a-half month operation tracking couriers shuttling crack cocaine hidden under their clothes by train from the gang’s South-east London stronghold to a series of rented houses in Gillingham, Kent.

The gang took over houses used by vulnerable drug users to run their dealing operations in the town after intelligence reports suggested that gangs were moving some of their operations to avoid an anti-gang drive by the Metropolitan Police.

Officers said they had targeted all tiers of the gang – from financiers to teenage pushers – as part of an operation that was identified nearly six months ago following a series of arrests of teenage Londoners in Gillingham earlier this year.

Officers said that with today’s arrests of the suspects, aged 16 to 41, they had disrupted a major distribution network operated by the gang, known as the Woolwich Boys.

“We have seen a spike in offences being committed outside of London,” said acting Detective Chief Inspector Mick Reay, who led yesterday’s operation. “Although they’re moving out of London, the proceeds of criminal activity are coming back into London and are used to buy more drugs, and more firearms and to fund their lifestyles. There may be a perception by those involved that if they move their criminal activities outside of the London area, they will have an easier time of it.”

A separate raid on a second gang in east London last month led to the arrests of 10 gang members for offences including drug dealing, and several who were held in connection with a burglary in Essex, amid evidence of wider illegal activity in the counties around London.

Many of London’s gangs are territorial, based on postcodes and estates, but senior officers said that some of the better organised groups had sought to spread their areas of influence outside of the capital where there is less competition between rivals and potential lucrative areas to exploit.

Gangs have long identified so-called softer targets outside of the capital but senior detectives believe their intensive activity and improved intelligence-gathering of the estimated 3,200 gang members operating in London has increased pressure on the illegal operations. They point to cuts in youth violence, including stabbings and shootings, of more than 20 per cent in the last year.

Officers in protective gear battered down the door of one home in Woolwich during a series of co-ordinated raids at 5.30am in Kent and London today where a 21-year-old suspected gang member lived with his family.

During early searches, police said they found a small amount of drugs and £1,000 in cash in one room. The suspects were being questioned yesterday at police stations in south London on suspicion of conspiracy to supply class A drugs, including crack cocaine and heroin.

The youngest members of the gangs were paid to sell the drugs on the streets while more senior members supplied the homes, collected proceeds and brought the cash back to London for further drug purchases.

Scotland Yard identified more than 250 gangs operating in the capital last year, which has been cut by a third after action by officers, splits between groups and attempts to encourage young members out of the gang lifestyle.

Detective Chief Superintendent Dean Haydon, the head of Scotland Yard’s Trident anti-gang crime unit, said that nearly 900 gang members were in prison and another 200 were subject to other measures including antisocial behaviour orders.

“We dismantled some gangs that are no longer viable, some collapsed of their own accord, or they joined with other gangs,” he said.

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