A dozen convicted members of the Cartel
Longtime tabloid hack and sometime VICE contributor Graham Johnson has written a new book called The Cartel, which explores the behind-the-scenes nefariousness carried out by the Cartel, the UK’s biggest drug gang. Sure, "the Cartel" isn't the most original name for a drug gang, so that's kind of disappointing, but I suppose names don't really matter when you have a firm grip on the European drug trade.
I called Graham up to chat about the bleak reality of escaping the even bleaker reality that plagues some of the UK's poorest areas.
VICE: Hi, Graham. So, how big is Britain’s biggest drug gang?
Graham Johnson: The police I spoke to said it’s like a global corporation with hundreds—possibly thousands—of employees in a rigid hierarchy. It’s got hundreds of millions, possibly billions of pounds if you count the asset values of the businesses they own and the drugs they trade. It was founded in 1973, and it’s still going strong now after 40 years.
Where's it based?
It started in Liverpool, and it’s still mainly controlled in Liverpool—but it has hooks in Amsterdam, Spain, Portugal, Turkey, South America... all the usual suspect countries. I interviewed the Amsterdam police, and the first thing they told me is that they investigate everyone—Triads, Eastern European gangs, and the Italian and Russian Mafias—but they roll their eyes when you mention the "scousers" because they're the ones they have to deal with constantly.
How's it been going on for so long without any major knocks to the organization?
Well, parts of it have been shut down, but they all opened up again. The people who run it are excellent disaster capitalists, so every time there’s a recession or a big shock to the normal economy, they profit. They started importing huge amounts of cannabis in the 70s—trying to move it from the cult market of students and hippies into the mainstream market—then quickly started importing heroin. The recession in the early 80s made the economy collapse, especially in the north, and allowed the black market to thrive.
Did the most recent economic crisis affect the drugs trade again?
Well, that’s why I wrote this book. There's a huge structural change in organized crime every time there's a recession, which always leads to 30 or 40 years of problems. In 40 years, when there's a spaceship smuggling drugs to the moon, or whatever, there'll be some behavior that'll be a direct result of what's happening in today's economy. Particularly youth unemployment, because if someone's offering $150 a day to serve up drugs in an estate in Birmingham or Nottingham, or wherever, you're going to take the wage.
Some of Liverpool's gang kids, from a previous project about Merseyside gangs, by Stuart Griffiths
Do you think the unemployed youth of today who are getting sucked into that world are going to be tomorrow’s kingpins?
Definitely. If you read my book, there are interviews in there from people who went from selling five-pound deals on a street corner to being big senior managers in these cartels. It’s just a career path. You start off selling a bit of weed on a bike when you’re 14. Then you get a firearm and shoot a few people, spray up a few houses, kick in a few doors for someone, and get paid a couple of grand. Then you get a job as a runner. Then you get a job as a worker in Amsterdam packing drugs, then, the next minute, you’re the senior manager.
Is there scope for further globalization of the drugs trade?
Yes. I went to see the Mexican ambassador in London, and he said that if the Cartel ally with Mexican drug gangs, then you’ll have a real big cocktail, which could be the future of the drug trade. Cocaine use in Britain is nowhere near saturation levels, so the Mexican gangs still see Europe as a huge potential market, meaning the next generation will have cheaper and higher quality cocaine.
Is the police effort coordinated across borders?
It is, yeah. And that’s what’s unique about Merseyside police; they’re the only police force outside the Met with “level three” capability. That’s a Home Office term that means they’re geared up to conduct international operations.
Do you think efforts to bring them down are going to work?
No. You can only destroy something like this if the demand goes away. When people stop snorting cocaine or taking mephedrone, or whatever they do on the weekend, then the Cartel will collapse or invest in some other form of organized crime. It’s not a policing issue, it’s an economic issue. Organized crime is a function of injustice in society. It’s not about listening to rap music, or single moms or single dads, or whatever people want to blame it on. It’s all about poverty and powerlessness because all these cartels are run by people who couldn’t get access to opportunities in the economy that you and I work in.
Aren’t you a bit scared that by exposing organized criminals you’re going to get some unwelcome attention, like a visit from a hit man?
Yeah, I’ve had all the usual threats—the police coming around to tell me that there’s someone looking for me, that kind of thing—but that’s kind of going away now. Knock on wood.
So do they tend to be empty threats?
Most are, but I’ve had two that were proper. I wrote two other books, Powder Wars and Drug Lord, and they exposed a couple of drug dealers who’d purchased and conned a couple of royal pardons out of the Home Office and gotten out of jail. They got nicked for perversion of justice and were put on trial, so I had to go to court and give evidence and, during that process, it was made known to me that there was a contract on me from one of these drug dealers.
I met an enforcer for one of the dealers a while later at a Pizza Express, and the first thing he said to me was, “I thought about killing you twice.” During that trial, his boss had said to him, “That guy has got to go, he can’t continue to write these stories in the paper,” but he luckily switched sides and came to tell me the story instead. We're kinda buddies now.
Ah, that’s nice. There's a follow-up to this book coming out at some point, too, right?
Yeah, The Cartel 2 is coming out next year and will explain the shift in power that's currently happening. The people who hold the power now are the street rats—they're called "creatures"—who are armed to the teeth. They go to the old godfathers and say "We don't care about your reputation. If you don’t give us these drugs and let us into the Cartel, we'll throw a hand grenade through your front door and blow your house up.” So the hierarchy has gotten flatter, and it’s the street gangs who have the real power because the old ones are too scared to stand up to them.
Where do they get all these weapons?
A lot of grenades and explosives come in in containers from China, Africa, and South America. If you're a dealer, you might chuck a 1000-kilo load of coke into a container and be left with a massive space, so you add 300 grenades. You can get hand grenades off military personnel, too. The British Army is basically made up of children from shitty estates in Liverpool, Manchester, Glasgow, Newcastle—all the shitholes of Britain.
They join the army and get paid almost nothing, so when they come home and see all their mates—who are dealing—they might offer them a thunderlash, or something, then the dealer will go, "Next time you're in the store, can you get us an SA80?" That's just the way it goes.
Interested in hoodlums selling drugs and blowing up houses? Buy The Cartel here.
Follow Simon on Twitter: @simonchilds13
More from Graham: