Drug gangs using new 'respectable traffickers'

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The Independent Online

The crime families that formerly controlled the drugs trade in Britain have been ousted by a new breed of "clean skin" individuals with no criminal record.

The crime families that formerly controlled the drugs trade in Britain have been ousted by a new breed of "clean skin" individuals with no criminal record.

Customs chiefs are reassessing the drugs threat in light of evidence that the cocaine and heroin supply chain is increasingly dominated by outwardly respectable people.

The "clean skins", as they have been dubbed by customs investigators, have been picked by Turkish heroin mafias and South American cocaine cartels because they are invisible to British law-enforcement agencies. The international syndicates are increasingly reluctant to have dealings with the crime families, which are well-known to the authorities.

A Customs and Excise source said: "These clean skins do not get in trouble with thepolice. They are very low profile and have no criminal records. They pay their bills, drive ordinary cars and use public transport."

He said some of the recently identified "clean skins" were foreign nationals who have been living in Britain for more than 20 years. They are believed to have been importing huge quantities of drugs into Britain since at least 1992.

Typically, "clean skins" operate behind the respectable front of an import-export business. Those with financial acumen are being asked by the drugs mafias to work as money launderers, sometimes heading foreign currency exchange bureaux.

The existence of these previously invisible drug lords followed an analysis of the drugs threat ordered by the new chairman of Customs and Excise, Richard Broadbent.

The emergence of the clean skins has confounded traditional law enforcement thinking that the supply trade was largely controlled by old-style British crime families, whohad abandoned their previous involvement in armed robberies in favour of the greater potential profits of narcotics trafficking.

Members of the Kray, Richardson and Fraser families have all been convicted of serious drugs offences. More recently the Adams and Arif families have become notorious in London, with the Thompsons in Glasgow and the Warren clan in Liverpool.

Although some of the traditional crime gangs remain active in the drugs trade, particularly in the supply of so-called recreational drugs such as ecstasy and amphetamines, customs chiefs believe their contribution to the availability of cocaine and heroin in Britain is very small.

Customs sources said some of the most notorious British crime figures linked to drug smuggling were "quite old now" and no longer had an important role to play.

A source said: "Our criminal intelligence radar screen is faulty right now. There issomething wrong in the way that we have been defining the [drug supply] problem. You are only likely to become a target criminal if you have been caught before."

The concept of "clean skins" first emerged in Northern Ireland because of a change in tactics by the Provisional IRA after so many of its members were being arrested bythe police.

The IRA realised that those being arrested were known to the police for other offences and began a policy of hiring teenage recruits with no criminal records. MI5, the British Security Service, called the new recruits "clean skins".