Liverpool's traditional concern for its image brought a strong backlash against the Merseyside Chief Constable yesterday after he claimed in a leaked memorandum that the city's growing number of untouchable drug barons were tapping into millions of pounds of regeneration money.
Many who know the Liverpool drug scene would agree that Norman Bettison's claim, part of an analysis in which he positions Liverpool as the drug distribution capital of Britain, is fairly accurate. A senior customs officer made the same observation more than two years ago.
But the chief constable's decision to be brutally honest in a confidential note to local MPs saw him accused of naivety and negativity. The description was "a devastating blow to the image of the city," said the Labour MP Maria Eagle
Mr Bettison, whose candour was part of a well-worn strategy to winkle much-needed funds out of the Home Office, claims crime bosses are using cash from European Objective One funds to diversify into seemingly legitimate businesses. Such funds are intended to help regeneration in the poorest parts of Europe. The businesses are then used to launder profits from illegal activities.
"Merseyside is unique in terms of the scale, extent and depth of organised crime," said the memorandum. "The renaissance of ... Liverpool, fuelled by £1.2bn of Objective One funding, will ironically create increasing opportunities for organised crime to diversify into mainstream business."
Though he would not elaborate yesterday, what is widely known is that Liverpool's drug barons have moved from security firms and nightclubs into domestic and commercial property as a source of investment for their wealth.
Curtis Warren, a Liverpudlian and arguably Britain's most prolific trafficker, who is now serving 12 years in a Dutch prison, is said still to earn a fortune from up to 200 domestic properties and large blocks of commercial property in a Liverpool city centre street. Police and Customs have had little success in tracking the £125m to £185m he is said to have made from the drugs trade. He was convicted in 1997 while masterminding an attempt to smuggle £125m of drugs into Britain from a new base in Holland.
Peter Walsh, co-writer of Cocky, the biography of Warren that examined Liverpool's drug trade two years ago, welcomed Mr Bettison's candour. "It's been like the Emperor's New Clothes in Liverpool for years. No one's come out with this because of the obsession with image," he said.
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