Heroin gangs compete for slice of £1bn racket

Author: By Ian Burrell, Home Affairs Correspondent

A power struggle has broken out for control of Britain’s £1bn heroin market, with a new breed of Pakistani drugs syndicates emerging to challenge the supremacy of the Turkish crime gangs.

Customs chiefs and the National Criminal Intelligence Service (NCIS) are alarmed at the rise in smuggling direct from Pakistan, and fear growing levels of violence as rival gangs fight for control of the trade. Heroin from Pakistan is already wreaking havoc in cities in Yorkshire, Lancashire and the Midlands, which are being saturated with the drug. An NCIS officer said: “The impact this is having on local communities is quite scary.”

The change has come about because Pakistani gangs have begun using large numbers of heroin mules on flights into Britain. The mules are carrying 5kg (11lb) packages in suitcases or strapped to their bodies, with the gangs adopting the”little but often” principle of smuggling.

The development has forced a rethink of the way heroin importation is tackled by the investigating authorities. Until recently they had believed the heroin supply in Britain was dominated by Turkish and Turkish-Cypriot gangs who were able to transport lorry shipments of 150kg and more. Such large-scale importation has created an environment for Britain’s worst heroin problem yet, affecting inner-city estates, former pit villages and rural communities alike.

With increased use has come greater scope for profits and Pakistani criminals have recognised the geographical opportunities provided by their home country’s proximity to Afghanistan, the source of nearly all the heroin that finds its way to Britain. Flights arrive at Manchester airport each day from Pakistan, where heroin from this year’s glut harvest in Afghanistan is available for 50 pence a gram but can be sold in Britain for 150 times more.

A senior Customs source said a new evaluation of the British heroin trade had revealed that Pakistani criminals – and to a lesser extent groups from the Indian and Bangladeshi communities – were playing a far greater role in the import of the drug than had previously been thought. He said: “Outside the concept of the traditional Turkish criminals organising the thing, we are beginning to illuminate a picture of involvement in Asian communities.”

But many of the mules are being caught. In September, Manchester customs officers seized 20kg of heroin hidden in food flasks and suitcases, on a flight from Islamabad.

Last Wednesday, three British-born Pakistani men were jailed for their part in a plot to smuggle heroin worth £1m into Britain. The gang, from Birmingham, used female couriers to bring consignments from Amsterdam into Britain by ferry. The mastermind of the group, Mohammed Khalid, aged 25, was jailed for 20 years, by Canterbury Crown Court.

Aftab Hussain, aged 27, and his brother Ibrar Hissain, aged 25, were found guilty of conspiracy to smuggle heroin through Dover Eastern Docks in 1998 and 1999 and were each given 12-year jail terms. A fourth man was jailed for 16 years for conspiracy.

Another Birmingham-based Pakistani gang was smashed in July, again trying to bring in heroin through Manchester. The gang included Mohammed Saeed Choudhary, aged 71, who was jailed for six years.

The new trade is feeding a crisis in heroin addiction. The Customs source cited Bradford, Leicester, Coventry and parts of London as having particular problems. The criminal intelligence service referred to growing tensions in Leicester and Stoke-on-Trent caused by rival heroin gangs competed for domination.

An NCIS officer said that 18-year-old Asian youths in the Midlands were regularly buying “nine bars” (9oz or 250g of heroin) and paying for it with up to £9,000 in cash. He said: “These are teenagers who are able to put together substantial amounts of cash to buy drugs and I find that very disturbing.”

Kamlesh Patel, director of the ethnicity and health unit at the University of Central Lancashire, said he had observed heroin-related problems across towns and cities with substantial Pakistani populations in West Yorkshire, East Lancashire, Greater Manchester and the west of Scotland.

Mr Patel said that in Halifax, which has a large community from Mirpur, on Pakistan’s border with Afghanistan, 12-year-old boys were being bought mountain bikes to courier drugs. “There is a similar picture in places like Kirklees and Bradford. It’s quite a disturbing picture. It is phenomenal drug use,” he said.

Mr Patel said that, inevitability, when dealers found difficulty in selling to people from outside their community they would off-load the commodity among people they knew. Because of heroin use, Asian crime, once typified by non-violent offences such as cheque fraud, was changing. Robbery, burglary and violence were becoming increasingly common, he said.

Mr Patel complained that Pakistani youngsters – and, to a lesser degree, Bangladeshi and Indian ones too – were being easily lured into the drugs trade by the absence of other financial opportunities. He said there was a worrying lack of help for addicts because of the popular misconception that Asian youth did not use drugs. “All the surveys say Asians are the least likely to do drugs. But the researchers go to the so-called community leaders and what they say is accepted. Of course they are going to say, ‘We don’t do drugs’!”

The Customs source admitted that the investigating authorities had let down Asian communities by not doing enough to address the heroin influx. He said: “It seeps out into the local community and brings with it the acquisitive crime, the muggings and the breakdown of the family. We need to be doing something about that.”

The source warned against the idea that drug importers were Robin Hood figures who brought wealth into deprived communities. He said: “Money spent on heroin is money lost. You don’t see organised criminals coming back and saying they are going to build a community centre.”

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