How a Tweet Led to the Downfall of a $1 Billion Drug Cartel

The Kinahans are accused of running a murderous criminal gang comparable to the Camorra in Italy or Los Zetas in Mexico. As the law catches up with them, it appears their ties to big-match boxing could be their undoing.

19 May 2022, 11:59am

Daniel Kinahan was at the top of his game. Living it up in a luxury apartment at the Palm Jumeirah resort in Dubai, the boxing-loving Irish gangster had just been name-checked three times by heavyweight champion Tyson Fury on a viral video clip

“I’m just after getting off the phone with Daniel Kinahan. He just informed me that the biggest fight in British boxing history has just been agreed. A big shoutout to Dan, he got this done, literally over the line. The two-fight deal, Tyson Fury versus Anthony Joshua, next year,” Fury, one of the world’s most famous boxers, says in the June 2020 video clip. “So a big thank you Dan for getting this deal over the line. All the best, God bless you all, and see you soon, peace out.”

An error occurred while retrieving the Tweet. It might have been deleted.

To many of the hundreds of thousands of sports fans viewing the clip, the name Daniel Kinahan may have meant little. But to those in the know, it was jaw-dropping evidence of how embedded the 44-year-old and the money he and his family had made running one of Europe’s biggest drug cartels had become in world boxing. 

Less than two years later, Daniel Kinahan is on the ropes, his charmed life in Dubai on the brink of collapse. VICE World News reached out to Fury’s team for comment on his links with the Kinahans, and is awaiting a response. There is no suggestion Fury is connected to any crime. But his namecheck of Kinahan in 2020 acted like a Bat-Signal for international authorities to work together to go after the Kinahans, sparking a dramatic chain of events that ended with the Irishman’s two fiefdoms – organised crime and boxing – colliding in a ball of flames. 

“Icarus flew too close to the sun,” said a serving US Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA) official who has tracked the Kinahans since 2017. “Daniel flew directly into the sun, holding hands with Tyson Fury,” the official, who was not authorised to speak publicly, added.

In an unprecedented move last month, the US Department of the Treasury's Office of Foreign Assets Control (OFAC), alongside police chiefs from Ireland and the UK National Crime Agency, announced a series of sanctions on the Kinahan organised crime group’s seven key members including Daniel, his father Christy Snr. and brother Christy Jnr. The Kinahans stand accused by the US government of running a “murderous” transnational drug and gun trafficking organisation worth $1 billion, comparable to the Camorra in Italy, Los Zetas in Mexico or the Yakuza in Japan. 

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Clearly worried the gang was gaining too much legitimacy in the US due to its links with a host of professional fighters including heavyweight champion Fury and MTK Global – one of the most influential companies in the sport, formed by Daniel Kinahan in 2012 – the US government offered up a reward of ​​$5 million for information leading to the disruption of the Kinahans or the arrest or conviction of its key members. The declaration of war on the Kinahan gang included the freezing of US assets and businesses linked to the cartel and a European arrest warrant on murder charges for Daniel Kinahan’s most trusted lieutenant, Sean McGovern. 

Wanted posters for the leaders of the Kinahan gang issued by the DEA in February. Images: DEA

“The Kinahan organised crime group smuggles deadly narcotics, including cocaine, to Europe, and is a threat to the entire licit economy through its role in international money laundering,” said the US Treasury, which described Dubai as a “facilitation hub” for the gang’s illegal businesses. 

US authorities vowed to use “every available resource” to dismantle the cartel’s criminal networks, which include scores of front companies – often food wholesalers – used to move tonnes of cocaine, heroin and cannabis around the world and launder the proceeds.  

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Drew Harris, Commissioner of the Garda, Ireland’s national police force, said the sanctions were just the first phase of an operation designed to land “a heavy blow, if not a crippling blow” on the crime group.

Indeed, for Daniel Kinahan, who has pushed out a stream of positive spin about his role in boxing, and who has consistently denied any role in serious crime, it’s been a bad couple of months. 

In March, Thomas “Bomber’ Kavanagh,” who ran the UK arm of the Kinahan empire, was jailed for 21 years at Ipswich Crown Court for his involvement in smuggling cocaine, cannabis and money laundering. Ireland’s Criminal Assets Bureau has stepped up seizures of businesses and properties linked to the gang – including a £3.8 million mansion in Dublin.  

Then the United Arab Emirates (UAE), where the gang has been living since 2017, announced that it would be freezing the Kinahans’ assets. And, as the boxing industry has begun – belatedly – walking away from the Kinahans, MTK Global announced it was ceasing operations. 

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John O'Driscoll, Assistant Commissioner for the Garda, said that the US has denied entry to 600 individuals connected to the Kinahan gang, mainly those with connections in the boxing industry.  

Although he has been arrested, Daniel Kinahan has never been convicted of any crime. Even so, he has been named in court hearings in Ireland and Spain as the head of a criminal organisation that has been linked with multiple homicides, drug trafficking, firearms supply, corruption and money laundering. A report into Europe’s cocaine trade published in May by the European Monitoring Centre for Drugs and Drug Addiction linked the “notorious” Kinahan cartel to 20 murders in Ireland, Belgium, the Netherlands and Spain, facilitated by “specialised crime cells…established in order to kill rivals”.

The Kinahan gang leaders. Image: US Treasury.

While the fall of the Kinahan empire may appear sudden, it had been coming since boxing enterprises linked to the gang expanded outside of Europe. “It was a big mistake going into America with the boxing business and it’s been blow after blow for the Kinahan gang since the US sanctioned them,” investigative journalist Nicola Tallant, author of Clash of the Clans, a book on the Kinahans, told VICE World News. “On a personal basis, the arrest warrant for McGovern was a massive hit for Daniel Kinahan. McGovern is his mentor, he’s been there from the start. And it means they are a step closer to Daniel Kinahan himself.”

Tallant said she thinks the biggest fear the Kinahans have is that they will be hauled over to the US – a country they never expected to be prosecuted in – on money laundering charges like Mexican cartel boss Joaquin “El Chapo” Guzman, who got life plus 30 years in the US in 2019.

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“OFAC [Office of Foreign Assets Control] designations of this type are the most serious signal the US government can send about an individual,” said the DEA agent who has been tracking the Kinahans for years about the implications of the sanctions. “Beyond the obvious seizures and arrest warrants, the real power is the US telling the entire world financial system these guys are finished. And international finance has to listen to America on this stuff.”

What’s for sure is that the Kinahans are rattled like never before. But why did it take the authorities so long to act with such concerted effort, and how was Daniel Kinahan allowed to infiltrate the world of sport to such a powerful degree? 

Ironically, it was Daniel Kinahan’s ceaseless desire to be a top boxing figure – and his refusal to stay in the shadows – that appears to have quickened the downfall of the criminal outfit built by his father in Dublin in the 1980s. 

Christy Kinahan Snr., known as the “Dapper Don” because of his taste in clothes, grew up in a relatively comfortable family in the Irish capital, according to Tallant. A champion kickboxer involved in fraud and stolen goods, he moved into heroin trafficking after Dublin’s main supplier was arrested and quickly turned healthy profits, earning himself leverage over the former republican paramilitaries – who had fought in the Troubles during decades of bitter conflict mostly in Northern Ireland – but now turned to serious crime.

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After being jailed for six years for heroin supply, during which time he learned Spanish and Dutch and built criminal connections behind bars, the senior Kinahan moved to Amsterdam in the Netherlands, Europe’s drug supermarket, to set up a business smuggling coke, heroin and weed into the UK and Ireland. 

“Christy learned his trade here in Holland,” said a retired Dutch federal police officer, who remains a consultant on key criminal cases and cannot be identified in the press for safety reasons. “His connections here led to the nexus with Spain, where we saw this movement of traditional Amsterdam-based gangsters move south [to Spain] to avoid heat. [Christy] was part of that first generation to connect Amsterdam and Spain.”  

Christy Kinahan Sr. moved his operation to Spain’s Costa del Sol in the 2000s and invited over his two sons, teenagers Daniel and Christy Jnr., who had grown up in their mother’s flat in Dublin, to help out. 

The business quickly expanded from Europe to South America and the Middle East, establishing direct links with Colombian cocaine exporters, becoming a one-stop-shop for heroin, cocaine, cannabis, guns and money laundering services. The Kinahans were bringing so much cocaine into Europe they were overheard by Spanish police planning to buy their own container ship. 

Daniel Kinahan arrested in Spain in 2010. Photo: Solarpix.

In 2010 the Kinahans were busted by Spanish police, with father and two sons arrested, and raids on properties in Spain, the UK, Ireland, Cyprus, Belgium, Dubai and Brazil. The police found the gang had financial interests spanning the globe, from Libya and Panama to China and Latvia. After recovering €500 million in assets, including a corner of Brazil where the gang were planning to build hundreds of luxury apartments, the police in Spain boasted that they had taken down the “Irish mafia”. 

But the Spanish operation was botched, none of the Kinahans were jailed and while they were forced to lay low, the so-called Irish mafia was far from finished. 

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After the prosecutions in Spain collapsed, Daniel Kinahan established his own boxing gym in Puerto Banus near Marbella on the Costa del Sol and by 2015 he’d moved from training to management, signing up around 100 boxers. 

But the gang’s involvement in crime had also intensified. 

The Kinahans became embroiled in a feud with a rival Irish crime outfit, the Hutch gang, after the gangland execution of Gary Hutch in Marbella by James Quinn, a Kinahan henchman. The Hutch crew was accused of hitting back in very public fashion at the weigh-in for a “Clash of the Clans” boxing match, arranged by Daniel Kinahan, at the Regency Hotel in Dublin in February 2016.  

As one of the boxers stood on stage in Superman underwear, armed men disguised as police, including one dressed as a woman, stormed in to assassinate Daniel Kinahan. He escaped out of a window and instead they shot dead one of his closest friends, David Byrne. Hutch clan boss Gerry ‘The Monk’ Hutch and Jonathan Dowdall are due to go on trial for the attack in October. The whole incident was caught on film and became worldwide news. But the aftermath was far more deadly, as a string of tit-for-tat gangland executions saw 10 people murdered in 2016 and a further 6 in 2017. Most victims were Hutch associates executed in Dublin’s streets, but those killed also included people with no connection to crime and innocent bystanders such as Irish father-of-three Martin O’Rourke.  

“The Kinahans became household names, but for the wrong reasons,” said Tallant, the author. “It was a particularly dirty war and there was a lot of public outrage.” 

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As the bodies piled up, the leaders of the Kinahan clan jettisoned their European base in Spain and relocated to Dubai in the UAE. The Gulf city state has become a bolthole for European mobsters, partly because the UAE has no extradition agreement for wanted criminals, and is cloaked in financial secrecy. Using their considerable wealth, the Kinahans began to embed their drug business into legitimate society. 

Despite extensive publicity around the gangland shootings in Dublin, research carried out by the International Consortium of Investigative Journalists found that in UAE the Kinahans were able to set up a series of food, clothing and consultancy companies, with the assistance of powerful business figures in Dubai, which were used as fronts for drug money laundering. It is thought that Christy Jnr. – said to be quieter and more intelligent than his older brother – is the one who inherited his father’s talent for cleaning dirty money.  

The Burj Al Arab hotel in Dubai where Daniel Kinahan held his wedding party. Photo: Karim Sahib/AFP via Getty.

Meanwhile, amid the skyscrapers and beaches of Dubai, Daniel Kinahan was living the life of an opulent gangster. In May 2017, he got married in the lavish, 7-star Burj Al Arab hotel to Caoimhe Robinson, whose previous partner Michael Kelly was shot and killed in Dublin in 2011 in a suspected gang-related shooting.

Their wedding list was like a who’s who of European mobsters. Guests included the cream of Europe’s underworld: Raffaele Imperiale from the Italian Camorra, Dutch-Moroccan gangster Ridouan Taghi, Chilean cocaine smuggler Richard Vega, and Bosnian Edin Gacanin of a Balkan mafia known as the Tito and Dino Cartel. Also in attendance was the DEA, who according to documents shared with the Dutch police, feared at the time that Kinahan and his well-dressed friends were in the process of forming a new super cartel. 

“Yeah it was like a movie,” said one of the first US officials to read the confidential informant’s report of the scene. “Not a care in the fucking world.” 

The DEA immediately flagged the men and their organisations as a new wrinkle in the non-stop battle to stop cocaine from crossing the Atlantic to Europe, now believed to have replaced the US as being the single largest market for cocaine in the world.

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“The first word that springs to mind describing Daniel Kinahan is that he’s manipulative, like his father, but also narcissistic beyond belief,” said Tallant, one of the people who has more insight than many into the man.

“This ego and inability to stay in the background is his downfall, it’s causing him big problems. He must be gutted now, he’s never going to be touched in boxing now because of the sanctions. For him it’s not enough to be behind the scenes making money, he wants to make a name for himself,” said Tallant.

Tallant said although Daniel Kinahan is a “menacing character” with power who “emanates this fear around him”, he also does not like to get his hands dirty. “He did not have to fight his way up to being leader, he was handed it by his father, so he is seen by some as a spoiled brat who was silver-spooned into the position he’s in.

“Criminals describe him as being a ‘windy fucker’, meaning he’s too afraid to do anything himself, but would direct others to do it. He wouldn’t have a problem ordering a murder, like you could order a pizza tonight, but he wouldn’t do it himself. His biggest fear, they say, is to go to jail, that’s what keeps him awake at night.”  

While Daniel Kinahan was building criminal networks in Dubai, he was steadily becoming an increasingly influential figure in professional boxing. Another guest at the wedding was Fury himself, who, Tallant wrote in Clash of the Clans, was ordered to delete a tweet wishing Kinahan well. His promising career had tanked due to depression, drink and drugs, but Fury had been given a new lease of life when Daniel Kinahan decided to take him under his wing and become his manager and agent. Kinahan was passionate about boxing, and eager to sports wash the Dublin murders out of his hair. VICE World News reached out to Fury’s team for comment and is awaiting a response. However there is no suggestion Fury is involved in any crime.

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Meanwhile, the DEA and Europol – the EU’s policing agency – were building their evidence on the Kinahan gang’s global network, one with investments and criminal links across every continent and in multiple business areas. Tallant’s investigations have revealed that Europe and Dubai aside, the Kinahan gang’s influence spans countries from Malawi, the US and Australia to Azerbaijan, Mexico and Pakistan. Apart from boxing, the gang also has financial interests in aviation, cryptocurrency, renewable energy and property. 

“The police have effectively shut down the Kinahans in Ireland and the UK. But if you look at their influences on a map, they have these trajectories going everywhere,” said Tallant. “If you look at where MTK Global [the boxing firm started by Daniel Kinahan] were, that’s where the Kinahans were. You name a country, they have their tentacles in it.” And that included the US. 

In 2019, 15 tonnes (33,000 pounds) of cocaine, thought to be worth around $1 billion, were seized at Philadelphia’s port on a cargo ship bound for Europe. At the time, Irish police said they suspected the shipment, one of the biggest coke busts in US history, was ordered by a cooperative of European gangs including the Kinahans. The US was being used as a new waypoint in the trafficking of Europe’s cocaine. When it became clear, after Fury’s shout-out in 2020, that Daniel Kinahan was behind a series of high profile boxing fights in the US, those who had been tracking his criminal career and his rising legitimacy within the sport decided it was time for action.

While Daniel Kinahan was being investigated for his role in organised crime, he was receiving huge amounts of money from Top Rank, the biggest boxing promoters in the world. Last month, days after the US sanctions on the Kinahans, Top Rank chairman Bob Arum admitted the company had paid Daniel Kinahan a total of $4 million on “consultancy fees” for four Fury fights between 2019 and 2021. 

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The money was paid to Dubai-based company Hoopoe Sports Agent, one of several Kinahan-linked firms sanctioned by the US last month. Arum said the Fury fight deals were arranged by Top Rank’s former general counsel,  Harrison Whitman, who now works for Probellum, a boxing promotion firm with alleged links to the Kinahans, all of which have been denied by the company. Arum said that despite being promised by Daniel Kinahan that he had cleaned up his life and become a legitimate business owner, he severed connections after the Irishman started to use “bully tactics” and he discovered Kinahan might “still have been involved in some nefarious activities”. 

Then came the Fury namecheck in 2020, which was, according to Tallant, no slip-up. “It was 100 percent choreographed by Daniel Kinahan. No-one namechecks him without him telling them to,” she said. 

But it was a mistake. Matt Christie, editor of Boxing News, a British weekly boxing magazine, told VICE World News it was a “hugely” pivotal moment for the Kinahan gang’s involvement in the sport. 

“That was an effort to legitimise Daniel Kinahan and it grabbed the world’s attention. People in boxing could no longer turn a blind eye to his involvement,” said Christie.

Within days, Ireland’s acting Taoiseach Leo Varadkar spoke out in parliament against Daniel Kinahan’s influence and Ireland’s sport minister Brendan Griffin said his power in boxing was “completely unacceptable”.  The media in the UK and Ireland jumped on the story, while sports broadcasters including Sky Sports and BT Sport began to distance themselves from boxers linked to Daniel Kinahan.

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The story had big implications in the US. “You can be a drug trafficker in Dubai focused on Europe and that’s a European problem,” said the DEA official. “But involvement in boxing [in the US] turns it into an American issue. Money transfers, wire fraud, conspiracy – these are the bread and butter cases of the US federal system.”

In 2021 the BBC aired Boxing and the Mob, an expose on Daniel Kinahan’s links to organised crime and the aura of menace he had over the sport. Most people in the boxing world were too scared to appear on the programme for fear of reprisals. However former boxing world champion Barry McGuigan told the programme Kinahan was a “dangerous man” who had brought “an element of terror” to the boxing world. Four days after its release, the programme makers received threats, according to police in Northern Ireland. In a lengthy statement Daniel Kinahan said he had helped “organise over a dozen major world title fights”, and denied any links to organised crime.  

Daniel Kinahan and Tyson Fury in Dubai in February 2022. Photo: Instagram

Despite the outing of Kinahan in the media, the pro-Kinahan PR continued unabated. In February, even though Fury and his team said they had cut ties with Kinahan in 2020, the boxer and Kinahan were pictured hanging out in Dubai. In March this year, Mauricio Sulaiman, president of the World Boxing Council, met Kinahan in Dubai, and in a column for the WBC appeared to praise and back the gangster, who he was pictured alongside. Sulaiman has since apologised for the “innocent mistake”. 

Last month, shortly after the Kinahans were sanctioned, Fury was grilled by a Sky Sports journalist about his connections with Daniel Kinahan. He replied that the sanctions were “none of my business” and deflected questions about his relationship with Kinahan before terminating the interview, saying he would not be doing any more interviews with Sky. There is no suggestion of criminality by any of the fighters advised by Kinahan. 

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“I don’t think boxing can be proud of the way it’s behaved,” said Tallant. “It hasn't walked away for moral reasons, that they didn’t want drug traffickers involved. They’ve all just run for cover when they can no longer defend the indefensible.”

What confused the matter was that Daniel Kinahan’s influence on boxing was not entirely malign, said Christie. “In a perverse way, his thought process within boxing is to be admired. In the beginning, he was all about getting better deals for the boxers who historically sacrificed huge chunks of their pay to managers and commissions. That’s a very different picture to the involvement of ‘mobsters’ in the past – Kinahan’s aim was not to fix fights or to get richer from the sport.” 

“There is no suggestion he [Daniel Kinahan] wasn’t doing a terrific job when it came to securing opportunities and good pay for those he represented. He was involved with world champions, leading promoters and played a part in negotiating some very big fights. He wasn’t short of influential cheerleaders who were advised to remind everyone what a terrific job he was doing.”

But Christie said the game is now up for Daniel Kinahan in boxing. 

“There is no evidence to suggest he remains in boxing. Though the boxers he represented may wish to remain loyal to him, their careers are likely over should they retain that loyalty. Similarly, any promoters would be stupid to retain their working relationship with him. It would seem he has nowhere to go in boxing as things stand.”

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Boxing’s legitimation of Daniel Kinahan has put the sport in a tight spot, said Christie.

“Boxing walks a perpetual tightrope because of its violent and brutal nature so, surely, it must be seen to be squeaky clean in all of its affairs outside the ring. A figure like Daniel Kinahan being involved does the sport zero favours when it comes to PR.”

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In recent weeks Probellum has had to fend off allegations it is linked to the Kinahans. In March Pakistani politician Rai Taimoor Khan Bhatti tweeted several pictures of himself with Daniel Kinahan: “Met @probellum on aligning vision on boxing for Punjab & how to make this sport bigger for our youth. Looking forward to hosting Daniel in Lahore to discuss Pakistan’s first International fight with foreign world class boxers Inshallah. Will share more info in the upcoming weeks”. VICE World News reached out to Mr Bhatti for comment and is awaiting a response.

The trademark for Probellum was registered by MTK Global, the firm co-founded by Daniel Kinahan. Last month TV channel Eurosport ditched plans to show boxing matches promoted by Probellum. However, Probellum president Richard Shaefer denied there was any connection between the company and Daniel Kinahan and said he would drop any boxer found working with Kinahan.

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But the Kinahans’ involvement in boxing has not just impacted the world stage, it has had a toxic effect on boxing at grassroots level. Tallant told VICE World News the gang used boxing clubs in Dublin as recruitment grounds.

“One of the options for working class people to escape crime is boxing, and instead it’s been poisoned by these drug dealers who are using them as hunting grounds for soldiers to do the gang’s dirty work,” Tallant said. 

Tallant said one “very vulnerable kid”, plucked from one of Dublin’s boxing clubs, became an enforcer for the gang but ended up shooting the wrong target victim, and then shot himself in the head by accident.

Back home on the streets of Dublin, the Kinahans are viewed with mainly “fear and revulsion,” Tallant said.

“The way they waged war on the streets of Dublin in 2016 was horrific. They have destroyed neighbourhoods, turned friends on friends and poured blood money into already devastated communities. Certain places in Dublin have had the community spirit wiped out. They left a sort of darkness.”

However, Tallant said that the gang’s impending takedown sends a message to communities that gangsters most often end up brought to book. “If you have a vision of an untouchable crew like the Kinahans living it up in Dubai, and swap that for a vision of a crew spending the rest of their days behind bars, that’s important for people to see.”  

Is it the beginning of the end of the Kinahan organised crime gang? Or can the outfit, as it did when it was assailed by the Spanish authorities in 2010, somehow shrug it off?

“It certainly is the beginning of the end. They are in a very precarious position now for the first time ever,” said Tallant. “But it is not going to happen that quick. Even so their collapse could be well advanced by the end of this year.” 

In the meantime, as the net closes in on them in Europe, the US and Dubai, where will the clan go?  

Tallant suggested they may head to Oman, a country on the south coast of the Arabian Peninsula, but doesn’t believe their families will follow them.

“I don’t think they will hand themselves in. The gang will try to push further into the Gulf for safety. They may well move to Oman next, escaping to territories that will never sanction them. But they are cornered wherever they go. Will they want to go and live in Pakistan or Afghanistan? Who’s going to go with them?”

Tallant said she has been told by police that the “gangsters’ molls” of the Kinahan mafia are already packing up and on their way home to Ireland. “I think the Kinahans are going to be strangled financially. No-one is going to want them if the police cut off their money. 

“The collapse is more than just the closure of MTK, it’s the collapse of their lifestyle, their sense of untouchability, their power and their connections. The party’s over.”

 Additional reporting by Mitchell Prothero


Tagged:

Crime, united states, Cocaine, Spain, boxing, Ireland, dubai, organised crime, Tyson Fury, worldnews, world drugs

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