The handover went down as light was fading, in a remote part of the Western Atlantic. Two lonely boats bobbing side by side, one with an illicit cargo, the other ready to receive and hide it. As 157 tightly-packed bales of white powder were switched from vessel to vessel, armed men kept watch. Four tonnes of high-purity cocaine that could fetch £200 million on the street was on its way.
That seaborne transfer, in May 2005, was the climax of a collaboration between some of the world’s most active organised crime groups. Once the run was completed, they planned to ship up to 30 tonnes over the next six months, equivalent to a quarter of the annual intake for the whole of Europe.
The cargo originated with the powerful North Valley Cartel, who controlled much of the refined coca in Colombia. They had sent it across their eastern border to a specialist transport group in Venezuela, who would sail it on a freighter to prearranged coordinates. Now that it had been swapped to a pick-up vessel, the fishing boat Atlantic Warden, it would cross the ocean to the coast of northern Spain and offload again to several fast speedboats, manned by members of the Galician Os Caneos gang, the foremost receiving group in Europe. They would stash the drugs onshore for cartel managers based in Spain to divide between their European customers, including a British syndicate based around Malaga. The UK quota, a metric tonne, was ultimately destined for a crime group in Liverpool, who in turn would parcel it out to their own network of wholesalers to cut, bag and sell it to an eager market.
The handover was the crux, the moment the narcotics moved from the producers of South America to the buyers of Northern Europe. It was also the moment the plot was doomed.
The Atlantic Warden was owned by HM Customs, and its unshaven, bedraggled crew were undercover officers. For more than two years they had lived as itinerant sailors to infiltrate the organisation; one Spanish newspaper later described them as resembling extras from an advert for Fisherman’s Friend lozenges. “They were very brave,” says Tom Chandler (a pseudonym), a Customs officer who helped to coordinate what was codenamed Operation Apparent. “It was an audacious job of great patience and skill.”
As it turned on its return journey, the Atlantic Warden was tracked from over the horizon by a Spanish naval patrol boat, equipped with surveillance radar. Officers knew, however, that they would lose control of the drugs once the Galicians collected it, and could not allow this. As the boat passed near the Canary Islands, masked special forces of the Spanish police clambered aboard. All of the cocaine was recovered.
Timothy O’Toole, a 53-year-old London-Irishman who acted as the linkman between the Colombians and the British, was later jailed for 15 years, while Daniel Baulo Carballo, 44, the leader of Os Caneos, went down for 17 years. It was hailed as one of the most brilliant sting operations in the history of UK law enforcement. “We identified the whole organisation, from the Colombian cartel suppliers to the Venezuelan shippers, to the Spaniard and the Colombian and British groups in Spain, and recipients in the UK,” says Chandler. “That’s very rare.”
It also signalled a golden period of operational success. Over the next two months another 14 tonnes of drugs were seized in joint UK-Spanish operations.
The following year, 121 tonnes of cocaine was seized across the whole of Europe, an annual record that still stands. Nearly half of that total according to one well-informed estimate, was the result of British intelligence.
By 2006, British drugs investigation from street to source was as good as any in the world. The country had developed a multi-layered system to attack the trade at all levels. It started at grassroots, where each UK police force had its own experienced drugs squad working local cases. Above them came the National Crime Squad (NCS), which pursued cross-country distributors and traffickers.
This complemented the work of the anti-smuggling officers of Her Majesty’s Revenue and Customs, eyes and ears in ports and airports. The crown of Customs was its National Investigation Service, whose specialist teams for cannabis, cocaine and heroin actively went after the biggest importers. And the jewel in that crown was the network of drug liaison officers based in foreign countries, feeding back top-level intelligence on the narcos.
Collating and disseminating this “product” was the National Criminal Intelligence Service, which served both Customs and the police. Finally came the security and intelligence services and the military, including special forces, capable of fast-rope helicopter raids or planting covert trackers on suspect ships. All of this was co-ordinated by the Concerted Inter-Agency Drugs Action Group, a committee which met regularly in Whitehall or at Fort Monckton, the MI6 training base in Hampshire, to ensure everyone pulled together.
The “war on drugs” has perhaps always been unwinnable. President Richard Nixon is often considered as the man who initiated it, with a statement in June 1971 when the US military was having to discharge thousands of men who had become addicted to heroin during the Vietnam War.
In spite of intermittent successes, global production and supply persists – of cocaine from South America, heroin from Afghanistan, MDMA from the labs of Europe. In academic policy circles, rather than prohibition and crime-fighting, the argument has shifted towards decriminalisation of drugs and treating addiction as a health issue.
Yet while victory in the drug war may be a chimera, most countries choose to wage it anyway, and the UK did it better than most. The central plank of its strategy was “upstream disruption”: taking the fight to the mafias where they lived and interdicting supplies before they hit British shores.
To improve cohesion, in 2006 upper-level police and Customs investigation was brought into a single Serious Organised Crime Agency. SOCA did not arrive without birth pains, but British pre-eminence in anti-drugs work continued, with British intel eventually leading to massive seizures in Colombia, the biggest cocaine production zone. Even the Americans privately conceded that most of their actionable intel in the Caribbean and Western Atlantic came from the Brits.
“We had a massive impact,” says one former SOCA officer. The street purity of coke declined markedly – generally a sign of scarcity – while the wholesale price was forced up. “We aimed to hit coke at every level, whether it was a swallower at an airport, a car off a ferry,” says another former investigator. “The idea was to control the Atlantic, keep the price as high as possible and keep it out of the hands of young idiots who might shoot each other. Bulk supply went up to £50,000 a kilo. You never win in the fight against drugs, but fifty grand a kilo put it out of the hands of street gangs selling cannabis, amphet and ecstasy. They just couldn’t afford a kilo of coke.”
SOCA felt confident enough to claim that the international cocaine market was “in retreat” and even the cautious United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime declared in 2011: “There are many reasons to be optimistic about the capacity of the international community to achieve a significant reduction of the global cocaine market during the present decade.”
And then something went badly wrong.
As 2020 approaches, this may go down as the decade in which the war on drugs was finally lost. Drug-related deaths have hit a record in the UK. An upward surge in cocaine purity has continued unabated for eight years and the UK has the highest usage in Europe among young people, while the street price per gram has dropped to its lowest since regular records began in 1990. A wave of gang violence and stabbings has been attributed in part to a glut of cheap crack cocaine.
How did the UK get from there to here? I have interviewed a dozen current and former operatives with intimate knowledge of the war of drugs at the highest level, all veteran “narco-warriors” with years of experience. Speaking on condition of anonymity, they say that the carefully made layer cake of anti-drug enforcement has effectively collapsed. And they blame two things: austerity, and the policies of the National Crime Agency (NCA), which in 2013 succeeded SOCA as the country’s lead crime-buster.
There was no mention of the NCA in the Tory manifesto for the May 2010 general election but within two months of the formation of the Coalition government, a white paper laid out the case for a new agency to replace SOCA. Its core mission was virtually identical: to “lead the UK’s fight to cut serious and organised crime”, although it would take on some extra duties and have the power to task police forces and other bodies.
The changes were billed by the new home secretary, Theresa May, as the “most radical reforms to policing in at least 50 years”.
The Home Office briefed at the time that the response to cybercrime would be more coherent, while May told the House of Commons a key priority would be to “protect our borders”. She had a legal duty to set the strategic priorities of the NCA which allowed her to involve law enforcement more directly in immigration issues.
Smuggling or facilitating illegal migrants was redefined as “human trafficking” or “modern slavery” and classed as serious organised crime. At the same time May brought the issue of online child sexual exploitation within the NCA remit. In doing so, insiders say, she distorted the priorities of the agency from the start.
Money was scarce. The NCA was born in austerity, and the Home Office faced a severe budget squeeze. Law enforcement would have to make hard choices about resourcing, and May was clear about what she wanted. No one would deny the need to tackle sexual exploitation or human trafficking, where the imperative of saving a child in peril or a woman in bondage can never be measured by the yardstick used for drug seizures and arrests. And as home secretary, May was determined that the UK would take a global lead on such issues, not least with her landmark Modern Slavery Act of 2015 – although its effectiveness has been questioned by spending watchdogs at the National Audit Office.
However, the prohibition of drugs, insiders felt, was of a different magnitude, the biggest illicit trade in the world. It leads to multiple related problems – violence, corruption, money laundering, addiction and acquisitive crime – and has destabilised entire nations. “It is not just about seizing powder off the streets,” says a former senior manager who worked in both SOCA and the NCA. “Drugs in our world is a collective term for murder, manslaughter and many other crimes. It is a whole ambit of criminality, health and social issues.”
As such, 70 per cent of work was drug-related in the last days of SOCA and the early days of the NCA, he says. “But the NCA had to do something new, and the pressure on government was human trafficking and child exploitation online,” he says. “We were actively told we were doing too many drug jobs and spending too much money on it. The government’s targets were these other areas.”
Gradually, more and more of the NCA’s investigators were pulled away from drugs to the new hot-button areas. The operational arm available for major cases has now shrunk from 2,000 to around 600 officers, according to one source. Specialist drugs teams no longer exist, and the number of people working directly on drugs intelligence has dwindled below a handful, as staff have been farmed out to new areas such as the National Firearms Threat Centre in Birmingham.
“The NCA was dealing with multiple threats – too many – set by the home secretary, the Home Office and the NCA board,” says another former manager. “All of these became ‘high priority’ except drugs, which was just ‘priority’. So when it came to funding and tasking, drugs was always at the back of the queue.” According to the ex-manager, an expert on Class A narcotics, these designated priorities were skewed. “The people behind drugs are serious and organised criminals. That is where the money is, and the violence, and the structure. In immigration and modern slavery, we can’t get past opportunist criminals. We don’t see the link between these areas and serious organised crime, we have been looking for years and can’t find it. It is cottage-industry type crime.”
Far fewer officers now work on long-term narcotics operations. “Hardly anyone is doing drug investigations,” says another senior officer. “The NCA aren’t because it is not high priority, and regional organisations can take their lead from the NCA, so police forces are also doing less than ever. In effect they are replicating what NCA prioritises, such as immigration and so-called modern slavery – fruit pickers, prostitution, women working in nail bars.” Knowledge of the drug scene is drying up. “Typically one investigation will feed another one. You identify the transport or the supplier and that generates the next investigation. If you do fewer investigations, your intelligence cycle is broken and you lose the picture.”
For a while, under the leadership of Keith Bristow, an experienced detective, the NCA just about held the line. Sources say it was the appointment of Lynne Owens as director general in January 2016 that accelerated the retreat of counter-narcotics.
Owens rose from the most junior rank to head Surrey Police, picking up a wide skill set and a master’s degree along the way. She is adept on Twitter, skilled at intuiting the concerns of both politicians and the public, and talks seriously about combating drugs. In 2018, Owens praised the work of her international liaison officers before a Commons select committee, touting “significant seizures of cocaine” off Colombia and Spain, and stressing the need for a “whole system response” to such crime.
In fact, say insiders, she is taking the agency in a wholly different direction. The first public hints were in her 2017-18 Annual Report, which stated: “We are moving away from focusing on upstream seizures where we cannot clearly assess that this will directly reduce harm to the UK.” She instituted a confidential internal review of her agency’s international caseload, to ensure that “all our activity overseas is fully aligned to, and driven by, the agreed national priorities”.
Those priorities do not include drugs. In a break from the past, drugs were omitted from the list of six key ‘threats’ identified by the NCA in its 2018–19 Annual Plan, losing out to child sexual exploitation and abuse, modern slavery and human trafficking, organised immigration crime, cyber crime, money laundering, and firearms. More British people are dying from illegal drugs than ever before, but the issue was relegated. It confirms, say former officers, that the NCA has all but abandoned a serious assault on major trafficking.
Insiders question the depth of strategic foresight around global trafficking. Supply is booming: in 2017, opium production in Afghanistan increased to a record level of 9,000 tonnes; cocaine production in Colombia was estimated at a record 1,100 tonnes.
Already under-funded, NCA has also taken on high-profile “jobs” as diverse and unconnected as the legality of the Leave.EU campaign, the emergence of the synthetic opioid fentanyl, and the Sergei Skripal poisoning. “NCA has been dragged down into distractions,” says an ex-staffer who spent much of his career on counter-narcotics and money laundering cases.
On drugs, the strategy has shifted from global to local and the much-publicised phenomenon of “county lines” – drug sales networks set up by metropolitan dealers pushing supplies to outlying areas, often based around a cellphone and a group of teenage runners.
The stories of knife crime deaths are wrenching and relentless. The Government’s own Serious Violence Strategy, published in April 2018, identifies “drugs and profit” as a main driver in the recent surge in county-lines gangs and the dramatic increase in stabbings nationwide.
It notes the boom in cocaine supply from Colombia and the wider availability of crack cocaine, which has doubled in purity, and finds “good evidence that these dynamics are a factor in the recent rise in serious violence”.
Knife crime offences have risen from 23,665 in 2013-14 to 39,818 in 2017-18. In the same period, the number of hospital admissions is up by almost a third, and the number of homicides last year by knife, 285, was at its highest level since 1946.
All of this may suggest a direct line from the scaling back of the war on drugs to a fall in prices which has opened opportunities for violent young street gangs.
The “county lines” trade has existed in some form for almost 30 years, which makes its adoption as a priority by the NCA bewildering to many of the former narco-warriors. “Why go for county lines?” asks one. “They are dealers. The NCA should be targeting importers and mid-level traffickers.” They see county lines as a symptom, not a cause, of the underlying problem: huge inflows of cocaine, the interdiction of which should be the agency’s true focus.
Is it possible that pulling back from the upstream international operations against traffickers may inadvertently fuel the problem of violence and competition at local level in the UK? As cocaine has flooded in, the wholesale price has dropped from £50,000 a kilo to, at times, as low as £23,000. This has made it affordable to young dealing gangs and their customers for the first time. “We worked out in 2005 that the UK consumption of coke was 27 tonnes at high purity,” says a former HM Customs investigator. “We were seizing only 10 to 15 per cent but that was keeping the price up. Now high-quality coke is freely and cheaply available. Younger gangs decide they’ll have some of that and it has created these turf wars.”
Criminologist Dr Robert Ralphs of Manchester Metropolitan University, an expert on drug gangs, said: “My view is that these new priorities mirror Theresa May’s longstanding interests around immigration and modern day slavery. You could also argue that they (the NCA) have accepted they can no longer win the ‘war on drugs’ in the light of online pharmacies, crypto markets and the growing involvement of developing countries like India and China in the production of synthetic and pharmaceutical drugs.
“As for county lines, I don’t see anything new. Kids have always been used as drug runners. Liverpool have controlled places like Brighton drug markets since the 1980s. Manchester gangs used to call it the ‘granite run’, going as far as Aberdeen running heroin and crack. Tackling the local market makes no difference, new dealers replace arrested dealers within 24 hours and prison is no deterrence – dealers can make more money in prison than they can outside.”
- 40-plus police drug squads nationally
- National Crime Squad, with drugs forming the bulk of the workload
- Customs National Investigation Service has more than 20 specialist drugs teams
- Government classes drugs as a ‘first-order’ priority threat to the UK
- Overseas liaison officers dedicated solely to drugs, network expanding
- No police drug squads
- Regional Organised Crime Units, with drugs a lower priority
- National Crime Agency has no specialist drug teams
- Drugs not one of six key NCA threats to the UK
- Overseas liaison officers handle to a wider range of crime, network to shrink
Observers identify five key areas in which the old system has been eroded:
- local police forces have all lost their specialist drug squads, disbanded or rebadged as firearms, gang, or “special operations” units in the past decade
- the Regional Organised Crime Units, introduced in 2010, take their lead from the NCA’s priorities, so drugs are low on their agenda
- the NCA no longer has any dedicated drug investigation or intel teams, and has moved many of its detectives to other areas it considers more important
- the Border Force, which now carries out customs functions, has prioritised people-trafficking and immigration, to the detriment of stopping drugs and other contraband, and retains little investigative capability
- the overseas liaison officer network is set to shrink, under pressure from NCA managers objecting to the notion that they should be “global police”.
The latter move is currently causing particular concern. Although the results have not been made public, sources say that in Central and South America alone, the NCA intends to close the offices in Panama, Peru and Venezuela, and to cut the office in Brazil from two staffers to one over the next two years. The current liaison officer in Trinidad will not be replaced at the end of his term, and even Colombia, the most important posting and which once had nine investigators, may shrink to just two operational staff. It would take the staff levels back 25 years.
Tom Chandler worked on Operation Apparent in 2006, along with many other cocaine cases, during service in both Customs and SOCA. He spent more years abroad than any drug officer and recently published a book about his experiences, Narco Wars.
“By the early 2000s we had got it right,” he says. “Customs and the crime squads were working closely, and an extensive network of liaison officers worked in source and transit countries like Colombia, Jamaica, Pakistan and Turkey so that shipments could be seized before they hit our streets. Many of the groups responsible for the flow of drugs to the UK were dismantled. I had scores of informants working for me, and later managed investigators doing similar work across the Western Hemisphere.
“Colombia is now producing more cocaine than ever, the flow of drugs has increased and my former sources report that the same old shipment methods are being used, yet the intel has dried to a trickle. If the NCA reduces the number of officers overseas, and withdraws them from key posts or re-tasks them, then the drug problems in the UK can only get worse.”
Chandler decries the emphasis on county lines and other manifestations of a bigger problem. “Never before have Class-A substances been so readily available. Wholesale prices have fallen, supply is abundant. You can get powder delivered to your home or street corner almost as easily as a pizza. Yes, street distribution is a serious problem and the use of young people as runners is scandalous, but the NCA should focus on stopping the bulk flows into the country and disrupting major gangs. There is little point in seizing a few dozen wraps, or a couple of mobile phones, when hundreds of kilos are arriving in our ports and airports under the control of serious organised criminals and beneath the NCA’s nose. That is the real national threat.”
The vestiges of old institutional relationships, particularly with the intelligence services, can still produce spectacular results, such as the seizure last summer of a catamaran loaded with 1.4 tonnes of coke. “Every year NCA will get several big seizures internationally because we have still got the triggers in place,” says a former manager. “But that is a legacy of what we’ve had in place for many years. We get results despite, not because of, what we are doing. Drugs are pouring in. No one is doing any Turkish heroin jobs. Afghanistan has been run down.”
The occasional spectacular cannot mask the stark reality: the number of domestic drug seizures by both the police and the Border Force is now at its lowest since 2004.
In July 2017 the new Conservative government published its latest drug strategy, 48 pages of aspiration about a “smarter, more coordinated approach” and “wider cross-government action”, ignoring the impact of its deep spending cuts.
At its frontier, the war on drugs is conducted largely in the dark. Investigators use informants, undercover agents, electronic bugging, remote tracking, phone and message interception – and assets from satellites to spy planes to warships. Most people know little of this world. So when change happens or strategy takes a U-turn, the public remains oblivious. Until, that is, the consequences start appearing on the streets.
“You’ve got a motorway of drugs in the UK, with thousands of cars and lorries going up and down every day at 70 mph,” says a former NCA executive. “Yet we are looking on the grass verges. Is this blissful ignorance or corporate negligence?”
The officers who spent their lives trying to thwart drug supply are understandably anxious about lost knowledge and capability. But money is finite, politics is reality, priorities always change and the NCA must play the hand it has been dealt.
And ultimately there is the nagging question being asked more and more in policy circles: if the world really wants a long-term answer to illegal substances and the violence and the destabilisation that accompany them, might decriminalisation or legalisation of drugs be the only way out of the endless war.
Peter Walsh is the author of Drug War: The Secret History
- The largely unpublicised demise of the drug squad, once the bedrock of police counter-narcotics investigation
- For an insight into the work of a drug liaison officer abroad, see Narco Wars: the Gripping Story of How British Agents Infiltrated the Colombian Drug Cartels, by Tom Chandler
- The latest facts and figures on drug use in the UK
- The NCA spells out its priorities in its 2018-19 Annual Plan
Photographs by Getty Images