On Monday, eight people were gunned down outside a London nightclub. The perpetrators are believed to be members of a criminal network responsible for 29 murders in the last two years alone. They have introduced an unprecedented ruthlessness to our streets, and they are the new face of organised crime in Britain
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The clubbers were queuing outside Chicago's nightclub in the early hours of Monday morning when two men armed with automatic pistols opened fire from across the street. A spray of bullets hit the screaming group. Seconds later, eight people lay bleeding in the road: three males and five females, among them a 15-year-old girl.

The clubbers were queuing outside Chicago's nightclub in the early hours of Monday morning when two men armed with automatic pistols opened fire from across the street. A spray of bullets hit the screaming group. Seconds later, eight people lay bleeding in the road: three males and five females, among them a 15-year-old girl.

It was the kind of indiscriminate shooting we have learnt to associate with America's most violent neighbourhoods - places like south central Los Angeles and New York's the Bronx - or even downtown Kingston, Jamaica. But this week's bloody attack took place in Peckham, south-east London - just up the road from middle-class Dulwich. The gunmen are believed to have been targeting a rival drug dealer, who happened to be standing among a group of innocent bystanders. Witnesses say that it's a miracle that no one was killed.

Meneliek Robinson was not so lucky when he was ambushed at the wheel of his BMW just over a month ago. Four men on two motorbikes blocked in the 20-year-old as he was driving along the Upper Clapton Road, across the river in Hackney. One of the pillion passengers climbed from his bike, walked to the driver's side, and fired twice through the window. Though he was bleeding heavily, Robinson managed to stagger free from the car, but collapsed on the pavement. The gunman strode over and shot him again from point-blank range, just to make sure he never got up.

What these two incidents have in common is a new, cold-blooded ruthlessness and a willingness to resort immediately to the rule of the gun, which is shocking even in the context of London's criminal underworld. It is these traits, combined with bitter rivalries between black drug gangs, that has characterised the explosion of violence seen on the streets of the capital in the past two years. Since the beginning of 1999 there have been an extraordinary 29 drug-related murders involving black-on-black attacks in London. In addition there have been 23 other non-fatal shootings - many of them botched murder attempts - in the last seven months alone.

The shootings have been concentrated in Brixton in south London, Harlesden in the north-west and Dalston to the north of the City - areas which have long been familiar with drug-related crime. But what makes this round of killings different from previous inter-gang feuds is the involvement and influence of the infamous Jamaican "Yardie" gunmen.

These notorious criminals honed their skills, and their shocking disregard for human life, during the murderous political battles fought out on the Caribbean island in the 1970s and early 1980s. After the 1981 election campaign, in which 600 people died, the Jamaican police cracked down on these gangsters - and many were forced to emigrate. Some went to Miami and Los Angeles, others wound up in New York and Toronto, and a handful made it to London. Others dug in and sat tight among the feared Kingston slums of Trenchtown and Tivoli.

In Jamaica, the gun gangs are known as "Posses", each with its own nickname. The "Yardies" tag - some claim it was coined by a London drugs officer - comes from the phrase "Yard", or "Back Yard", which is what expatriate Jamaicans call the island home. The term "Yard" is also used by Jamaicans to describe their local neighbourhood.

The threat posed by Yardie gangsters was first recognised in Britain in the late- 1980s, but after a rash of scare stories and the failure of the predicted crack-cocaine epidemic to materialise, the problem appeared to have been solved by the mid-1990s. But that was before the current killing spree. Crack, the highly addictive cocaine-derivative that provides an intense but short high, is back in vogue - and the profits to be made from the trade in the drug have attracted many black, British-born criminals to the Yardie image of fast cars, designer clothes and guns as "fashion accessories".

In an effort to counter the growing influence of the Yardie gangs and the rise in black-on-black shootings, Scotland Yard last month stepped up its on-going investigation, codenamed Operation Trident, with the formation of a 160-strong squad of élite detectives backed by a trendy new logo and an advertising campaign.

What detectives have discovered is that while most of the shootings have been carried out by black British criminals involved in drug dealing, it is the rise in the use of Yardie gunmen, brought into the country to order, which is most to be feared. Operation Trident officers claim to have intercepted known Yardie killers "every two or three months" as they try to enter Britain to carry out a contract killing. The hitmen are paid as little as £500 for their work - and their paymasters in Britain provide safe houses along with target details.

As Commander Mike Fuller, head of Operation Trident, explains: "You are talking about people from absolute poverty who have killed before. The legal penalty they face is the death penalty, so you are talking about people with nothing to lose. The thing that's ruthless is that they are quite prepared to kill and to use guns. A lot of British born [dealers] are scared of them.

"These people are not paid much," he adds. "Five hundred quid is the lowest I've heard. But £1,000 is a lot of money if you are coming from downtown Kingston."

If detectives get wind that a suspected Yardie hitman is on his way to Britain, they will try to intercept him as he arrives and "disrupt his activities" - police-speak for frighten the killer so that he does not return. Some Yardies - those who managed to avoid Commander Fuller and his men - are known to have stayed on in Britain, taking over the turf of local drug dealers. But "the most testing thing for us is the contract killers coming in", admits Commander Fuller.

To help counter this import trade in Jamaica's most dangerous criminals, the Met has recently decided to base an officer permanently in midtown Kingston. Despite working from the British High Commission, whose compound includes a tropical garden, palm trees, swimming pool, flowering mimosa and manicured lawn, the job will be no picnic. The chosen officer will have to gather intelligence about Jamaican criminals and routes being used to smuggle drugs into the UK in what experienced detectives have described as one of the most hostile and dangerous environments they have ever encountered.

Just why the police are so concerned about the devastating impact of these imported Jamaican killers was graphically illustrated by the case of Hyrone Hart, 28, and Kurt Roberts, 19. Along with seven other Yardies, the pair entered Britain illegally in 1998 and, during a five-week crime spree, killed and raped and robbed their way through London.

Last December the two were jailed for life for shooting dead Avril Johnson, 30, at her home in south London in July 1998. They were also found guilty of the attempted murder of Mrs Johnson's husband, Kirk, who escaped by playing dead when a bullet meant for him missed by inches. The couple's daughters, aged seven and one, were pushed under a mattress during the shooting.

Hart and Roberts were described as being part of an "execution squad" who carried out violent robberies against suspected drug dealers and rich black people. Hart was also found guilty of murdering a trainee plasterer, Patrick Ferguson, 34, and given a second life sentence. He was found to have convictions in Jamaica for robbery with violence, burglary and escaping custody. Roberts was found guilty of raping a robbery victim in Clapham, south London, and detained for 10 years.

And it is not just in London that the influence of the Yardies has been felt. Operation Trident has found connections with criminals in Liverpool, Manchester, Bristol, Birmingham, Nottingham and Aberdeen. In Bristol, a suspect has been arrested in connection with a killing at a nightclub in Windsor, while in Aberdeen arrests were made involving the sale of heroin. In June last year, seven people were arrested in Wolverhampton in connection with a murder.

While the networks are considered by police to be "loose alliances", they are all connected with the sale of drugs, and particularly crack. Feuds have sometimes broken out over territory and "lack of respect" between criminals; and that is when terrible revenge is both demanded and taken.

Still, Operation Trident has had its successes. Since it began in March 1998, 26 people have been charged in connection with 17 murders and seven people have been charged with attempted murder. There have been more than 200 arrests, with 25 guns and 105 rounds of ammunition being seized. Forty-seven kilograms of cocaine and 15kg of heroin have also been recovered.

At first the police shied away from any public acknowledgement that the killings usually involved black criminals trying to knock off their rivals. Now, however, they make a virtue of the fact - to help galvanise the black community. But as ever with crimes of violence, much of the difficulty for the police is in trying to persuade witnesses to give evidence against people who are not only armed but also have famously little respect for life.

Superintendent Peter Camilletti, from Operation Trident, believes the only way to get on top of the shootings is through intelligence work. "People have got to trust us and we have to be able to protect people who come forward. Developing our own system of informants is also important."

Clearly, while they are making progress, the police have some way to go in winning over public confidence. Despite the shooting of eight people outside a busy club on Monday night, the police have had only a handful of witnesses come forward.

Publicly, Supt Camilletti remains confident of catching the gunmen. "What strikes me is how outrageous these people are - the street was full of people yet they were prepared to fire indiscriminately. They didn't care who they hit."

But perhaps more telling was the comment of another man, who also spoke to reporters the day after the incident: "Saw nothing, know nothing," he said.