UK's biggest drug gang smashed in hit on £100m cartel

After two years infiltrating Colombian network, Scotland Yard nets smugglers who have amassed a fortune in just 18 months
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The Independent Online

Britain's biggest cocaine gang was smashed yesterday in a series of international raids on a Colombian drug cartel, Scotland Yard said.

The South American drug smugglers and money launderers made more than £100m from selling cocaine in Britain in just 18 months, police believe.

A dozen suspected gang members, including the alleged leaders, were arrested in London during early-morning raids. Fourteen people ­ among them the suspected cartel boss ­ were seized in Colombia. Two more suspects were arrested in Spain.

Scotland Yard described the criminal network as the biggest and most organised drug gang to be successfully broken by the police in Britain. Officers from a secret Metropolitan Police unit have spent the past two years infiltrating the Colombian network, which until now has evaded several investigations.

The gang is thought to have been operating in Britain for many years and to have netted a total of £200m.

Detectives predicted that the raids would severely hit the cocaine supply in Britain, and could force up street prices.

So far cocaine worth £20m has been recovered, with about £3m in cash. During yesterday's raids in London 10 men and two women were arrested, most of whom were Colombian.

A further 20 suspected money launderers and street drug dealers were arrested earlier in the year. One was detained with a bag containing £250,000.

Most of those held were Colombian nationals with leave to remain in this country, but a small number were Spanish.

Police intelligence traced large quantities of cocaine being shipped to London, some via Spain, and smuggled through ports, mainly Dover. The drugs were sold in London and distributed to dealers throughout the country.

A number of bureaux de change and money transfer outlets were used to launder most of the money. In one case, a single money transfer shop handled £17m in a year, and a man who worked at a delicatessen sent £10m in cash to Colombia.

Much of the "clean" currency was electronically transferred to Colombia via a network of accounts and financial institutions. The Colombians even set up their own money exchange centres and ran cafés to launder the cash.

In Colombia yesterday police seized about 114m Colombian pesos (£30,000), vehicles, bullets, communication equipment and documents in raids in the cities of Cali and Pereira against suspected members of the drugs network.

Officers also discovered records of deposits in Colombian banks and exchange houses sent from Europe, amounting to about £11m.

This is the latest in a series of operations against Colombian drug traffickers based in Britain, which reflects the growing threat from Latin American cocaine gangs.

About 100 police officers were involved in yesterday morning's raids in Holloway, north London, Beckton, in the east of the city, and Brixton in the south, which were co-ordinated with the raids in Colombia.

Police said that most of the suspects were living "low key" lifestyles to avoid attracting attentionand were sending the vast profits from drugs back to Colombia.

The cartel was infiltrated by Scotland Yard's secretive special projects unit, whose existence was only made public last week.

The 30-strong team of detectives has been pursuing the cartel for two years, after picking up intelligence of its operations in the UK.

Detective Chief Superintendent Sharon Kerr said yesterday: "It's the biggest drugs operation and cartel that has ever been seen in this country. If you look at the totality of it, it's enormous.

"This was the final stage of an operation against an enduring, sophisticated and hard-to-penetrate criminal network.

"It's an example of how we can take out an entire criminal network from the top tier organisers right down to those who peddle drugs on the streets."

She added: "At the moment we are aware that this organisation has netted in excess of £100m in the course of the past 18 months. This will have a significant impact in terms of the availability of cocaine in London, and clearly prices will rise ... No law enforcement agency ever has been able to penetrate this network."

The operation was led by Detective Chief Inspector Martin Molloy. He said: "I think this will be extremely significant, it will be seen as a warning not to bring cocaine into the UK.

"This is a major, major operation for us. This is the first time we have worked so closely with the Colombian authorities, and it affects a number of other countries, including America and Spain."

Earlier this month, officers from the National Crime Squad seized $6bn in US government bonds ­ which are thought to be fakes ­ at a property in Surrey and arrested nine men as part of an unrelated operation against suspected British, Colombian and Ecuadorian drug gangs.