Traffic: the real story, as revealed on the frontline of the global drugs industry

From the farmer to the pusher, the drugs baron to the drugs tsar, the people behind the headlines
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The farmer: Abel Chirimoskaiosa

For a decade, dirt-poor peasants like Abel Chirimoskaiosa have been planting illicit opium poppies to bring in extra cash, even though the plant is not a traditional crop in Colombia.

"We used to grow onions and potatoes," said Abel, a farmer of the Guambiano tribe. At 26, he is the youngest of six brothers eking a living on the slopes of the Andes near Silvia, in south-west Colombia. "When our neighbours started cultivating the poppy, so did we. It was less work and easier money." Now he can buy a scooter. One poppy can yield up to 20g of opium gum, which a farmer sells for about £3.50. A pound of potatoes, by comparison, fetches only 8p at market, and needs costly fertilisers and heavy digging. Slicing and scraping poppy pods is also labour-intensive but secret laboratories will take all that farmers can supply and transform it into heroin of unsurpassed purity. It is far more valuable than treacly Mexican heroin.

Opium paste is also far lighter to carry than potatoes or maize. On market days, the Guambianos must haul their bundles along rugged mountain roads and 10,000ft-high passes.

After slashing and burning new plots, farmers scatter poppy seeds and within three months the plants are chest-high. They need little weeding.

Colombia's heroin production has surged by 25 per cent in a year in spite of the government controversially spraying herbicides from aircraft. Suggestions to switch coffee for opium get a bitter laugh: a glut has sent world coffee prices plunging, so beans aren't worth much more than potatoes.

The smuggler: Alison McKinnon

A drugs courier, or "mule", Alison McKinnon was arrested after a body-piercing set off an airport metal detector as she was preparing to board a flight for Britain from Istanbul. A body search revealed that she had 3kg of heroin strapped to her chest.

McKinnon, from Devon, told the judge: "I am very sorry. This was the first time and it won't happen again."

She was jailed for five years in August last year, but was allowed to marry fellow Briton Max Allen in a short ceremony after she was sentenced. Prosecutors had asked for a longer sentence, but the judge took into account her co-operation in identifying her Turkish accomplices. Selahattin Menguc, a Turkish citizen living in Britain, was also given five years for supplying the heroin that McKinnon was carrying.

According to the NCIS report, "Most of the heroin reaching western Europe is supplied by trafficking organisations in Turkey."

Turkish gangs also import large consignments of heroin in ship containers. But the NCIS report also highlights smuggling on cross-channel ferries, aboard which up to 75 per cent of cocaine imports are made hidden in cars, lorries or on the bodies of foot passengers.

The drug baron: Curtis Warren

Brought up in Toxteth, Liverpool, 37-year-old Curtis Warren is believed to own 270 properties and also to have amassed a personal fortune of about £100m.

Most of his properties are in the north-west of England but he is also thought to have assets in the Netherlands and Dubai, as well as a controlling interest in a Spanish casino and a vineyard in Bulgaria.

Nicknamed "Cocky", he rose to power in the early 90s as an enforcer for a powerful north-west businessman and villain known as the Silver Fox.

Warren spectacularly escaped conviction for a huge importation of cocaine, concealed in oil drums, in to north-east England. He approached Customs officers at his collapsed trial to boast to them that he was "just off to spend" his ill-gotten millions.

He was finally jailed in 1997 while masterminding an attempt to smuggle £125m of drugs into Britain from his new base in Holland.

He was sentenced to 12-years and then received a further four years for kicking to death a fellow inmate at his high-security Dutch prison. Warren is believed to be still making a small fortune from his property empire.

The Customs officer: Terry Byrne

Terry Byrne was a fresh-faced 18-year-old when he became a Customs officer, and he has been climbing the ranks ever since. Now aged 57 and a grandparent, he serves on Customs' board as director of law enforcement.

Most of his career has been spent working for the department's investigations branch, where preventing the influx of illegal drugs into Britain has become an increasingly challenging goal.

"Nobody doubts that drugs trafficking is at a dauntingly high level," he said yesterday, "with estimates putting heroin supply to the EU at around 130 tonnes a year, and cocaine at over 200 tonnes."

Hoping for any reduction in what Mr Byrne has described as the "wretched" international drugs trade would, he implied, be wishful thinking.

"Law enforcement will have to meet the evident challenge," he said. "The aim is to reduce the availability of class-A drugs in the UK rather than to lock up a few criminals, whether really organised or not."

Regulatory checks and working on the "front line" are the starting points for officers to crack down on drug trafficking, together with more in-depth investigations.

However it is not the excitement of capturing a drugs smuggler trying to pass unnoticed through Customs that is the priority for officers, added Mr Byrne.

"It is, we believe, more important that the drugs do not reach the UK market than that we pursue the personal glory of making seizures at UK borders."

The pusher: Peter Docherty

Nicknamed the Blob, 20-stone Peter Docherty, a former computer technician, made a fortune dealing high-purity China White heroin to addicts in Glasgow. He was arrested by police at Glasgow Central station and promptly swallowed £9,000 worth of the haul. Officers held him in a police cell until the heroin could be recovered. A raid on his house later uncovered £5,000 of heroin divided into wraps alongside £2,500 in cash. Docherty, 31, was jailed last February for six years by Paisley High Court.

Docherty had installed surveillance cameras outside his home as well as a metal front door, believing it would buy him enough time to dispose of his drugs if police ever raided his property. He treated his customers with contempt and ordered female addicts to perform sex acts on him in return for drugs. China White heroin was linked to the deaths of six users in Great Yarmouth, Norfolk, in 1999. The NCIS report suggests African-Caribbean drug gangs who have been associated with a bloody turf war over the dealing of crack cocaine in London have now become "actively engaged in the supply of heroin at street-level".

The victim: Cathy Longstaff

Described as "the perfect daughter", 15-year-old Cathy Longstaff was found in a coma in her bed, by her mother, after a suspected heroin overdose.

Until last summer, Catherine was said to have been active in her local Pentecostal church. She had wanted to become a doctor. Along with two friends she had won £1,000 in a charity competition after helping to renovate a hospice.

Her headteacher, Ed Lott, said: "Catherine was capable of the highest levels of achievement, both academically and socially. She was always at or near the top of her year-group in tests and also distinguished herself as an energetic charity worker and fundraiser.

"She worked long and hard to improve things for the elderly in her local community and was a founder member of an action group which has won national awards and recognition."

Catherine is believed to have become a victim of the growing availability of heroin in and around her home town of Bishop Auckland in County Durham. The intelligent and outgoing teenager was in a coma when she was found and was certified dead on arrival at hospital. She was two months short of her 16th birthday.

The drugs worker: Sophina Prestridge

On the streets of east London, heroin costs as little as £2 a wrap. The drug has had a particularly devastating effect on the Bangladeshi community, where children are increasingly dropping out of school because of their addiction. Sophina Prestridge gets to see a level of drug abuse that many of her community would prefer remained hidden. "It is rampant," she says. In households where three or more siblings may share a bedroom, youngsters learn how to smoke or inject the drug from older brothers. Six years ago Mrs Prestridge's project, the Addaction Tower Hamlets Community Drugs Team, had only a couple of Bengali clients. It now has about 200 under 25.

The Drugs Tsar: Keith Hellawell

Britain's first, and probably last, Drugs Tsar stepped down from his post last week. Keith Hellawell, the United Kingdom Anti-Drugs Co-ordinator, was just three years into the 10-year strategy he had drawn up for the Government, when his post was dispensed with.

Mr Hellawell was initially presented as the Government's one-man solution to the drugs scourge. Last week he said: "I have never seen myself as someone riding in on a white charger to change the world." He admitted people had warned him his £106,000-a-year role was likely to be something of a poisoned chalice. Now the anti-drugs role will again be the responsibility of the Home Office.

The politician: David Blunkett

"This is the decade for tackling the scourge of drugs," said the new Home Secretary on his first walkabout after taking up his post in June. By Mr Blunkett's side as he toured a housing estate in Brixton, south London, was Commander Brian Paddick, one of the Metropolitan Police's brightest and most progressive officers, who has pioneered a project that allows officers to deal with cannabis users with a verbal warning.

Mr Blunkett agreed that heroin and crack were the "absolute priority" for police.

But the new Home Secretary has made it clear that there is room for debate on liberalising the laws on soft drugs.