In May of 2019, 15 drug dealers entered a quaint-looking pub in St Ives, a seaside town on Britain’s south-westerly tip. Dressed in identical all-black clothing, they walked up to the bar and ordered a round of beers, before settling down on the old velvet benches lining the room.
They sunk their pints and suddenly began to trash the historic inn, with heavy-wooden tables and chairs flying across the low-ceilinged room. Then they took a photo of the smashed up pub and gleefully posted it on social media.
This attack wasn’t just mindless thuggery. It was planned and implemented by an organised group, a collective of Cornish drug crews combining forces to protect their turf from a common enemy: big city drug gangs. The pub landlord’s crime? Allowing a cocaine dealer from Birmingham to use the venue as a base to sell drugs, taking valuable custom away from local drug selling gangs.
“We threw glasses, furniture and anything we could get our hands on – so the pub was flat-packed like Ikea,” Jon*, a heroin dealer and leader of the group, told VICE News. “The barmaids couldn’t even phone Old Bill, as they’d allowed the bloke to sell coke in there.”
Although the organisation – based on Cornwall’s far west coast, in Penzance – is unnamed through choice, it holds regular meetings for approved members from all over the region. There, they discuss drug business issues and work together to drive away incoming urban gangs, usually with violent tactics. Some members are rival drug dealers by day, while others prefer to describe themselves as militant Cornish nationalists – part of a movement that seeks the recognition of Cornwall as a nation distinct from England.
Their aim is to stop cash-rich city gangs from building lucrative drug franchises in Cornwall. Because of their financial power, the city gangs can undercut the locals with cheap drugs, two for one offers and higher quality products, and reap the profits, therefore dominating local supply.
Jon admitted the group had been involved in a number of violent clashes with out-of-towners, explaining that members are willing to use violence and intimidation towards any locals who work with urban drug gangs.
Earlier this year, members of the group robbed a flat in Heamoor, on the outskirts of Penzance, simply because the locally-born tenant housed two teenage “county lines” workers from Liverpool. Five men trashed the council-owned property, stole drugs and cash, and severely injured the three people inside, with the Liverpool dealers escaping through an open window. One attacker later apologised to the Cornish flat occupant, and said, “It’s nothing personal, mate. Our beef’s with the Liverpool fellas – you were just collateral damage. Don’t help them again and you’ll be fine.”
Jon’s organisation did not emerge overnight. It evolved from a more violent confederacy of drug dealers from Cornwall, named An Gof, that disbanded three years ago but is now back in operation. Named after a Cornish nationalist militant group that carried out a series of arson attacks in the 1980s, An Gof dispersed after Jamal Proctor, a man from the north of England, was nearly stabbed to death in Penzance in March of 2017.
CCTV evidence showed that four men, all members of An Gof, jumped out the back of a silver camper van, wearing disposable white overalls, hoods and dust masks. They chased Proctor down Penzance’s busy high street, stabbed him multiple times and left him for dead. According to local sources, Proctor had made the almost-fatal mistake of robbing a Cornish drug boss of a kilo of heroin, tens of thousands in cash and his valuable work phone, which contained the hard-earned contact details for over 100 customers.
The attack on Proctor resulted in An Gof members’ houses being raided, with authorities discovering a rural ammunition factory in a flat in Redruth, a town 45 minutes from Penzance. The gang lost an Uzi submachine gun, various half-manufactured firearms and assorted ammunition to the police. Several leading members were jailed and the group temporarily ceased activity.
I met an ex-offender nicknamed Blue, a member of the revived An Gof, in a coffee bar near the coastal town of Newquay. He told me that, despite dispersing in 2017, it is now in good health.
The high-profile attack by An Gof on Proctor in 2017 acted as a calling card to drug dealers across Cornwall, he said, and inspired copy-cat groups. He added that An Gof now has in excess of 30 members, including two members directly involved with the Penzance stabbing.
Compared to Jon’s group, An Gof’s members sell higher volumes of both class A and B drugs, and have a reputation for getting things done efficiently. The group is organised into divisions, based on geographic location. Members of each division meet every four to six weeks – usually at a local pub – so they can discuss “business”. Like the other group, they share updates on out-of-town dealers, and plan ways to deal with competitors who wrong them, often violently.
“We don’t go looking for a fight, but we don’t take any shit from incomers either,” said Blue. Revenge attacks carried out so far by An Gof have included a shooting and several punishment stabbings. He explained that group members often stab rivals in the buttocks or thigh, as this is believed to be painful and inconvenient, but less likely to be fatal.
In one attack organised by An Gof in 2018, members agreed that they would kidnap the head of a Birmingham drug crew, who owed one of the Cornish gangs £17,000. They forced their way into the city crew’s trap-house in the town of Truro, before stabbing one of the dealers and grabbing the ringleader, who they pushed into the boot of a waiting car. They drove him to Plymouth, a city an hour-and-a-half away, stripped him and locked him in an empty room. Later that night, they stabbed him and pushed him out into the icy-cold street, with no clothes and no way of getting home. The Cornish organisation gradually recovered the debt, with the Birmingham gang paying in instalments over an eight-week period.
Blue told me that his group always discusses and votes on the best course of action. They also work collaboratively to find the best people for the job, with some members better at administering violence and others more suited to looking-after cash or weapons.
Like Jon’s group, the members of An Gof are not cash-rich like their big city counterparts. Around half of the group’s members have day jobs, ranging from manual labouring to selling freshly-caught fish. These jobs pay the bills, while their drug profits are used to repair their worn-out cars or foot the heating bill in winter. They’re united by the fact they’re not quite managing, and need a side-hustle to survive, rather thrive.
It’s unusual for rival drug dealers to work together in this way, and these two Cornish groups appear to be the first of their kind in Britain. But with the country’s crime map being redrawn due to urban gangs expanding outwards to leech drug profits from the countryside, perhaps it was inevitable.
Violent crime, including stabbings, in Devon and Cornwall has more than doubled in the last decade, with 4,124 violent crime incidents during July of 2020, compared to 1,915 during July of 2011. Drug-related crime has also risen, with 482 recorded drug offences recorded in May of this year, the highest number since records began. These increases have coincided with the advent of county lines business models – with data showing corresponding decreases in these types of crime within traditional supply hubs, like Liverpool and London. Devon County councillor Roger Croad remarked that the rise of knife crime in the region was a result of county lines gangs seeking to exploit rural drug markets.
In the old market town of St Austell, I spoke to Lewis Mapstone, a 29-year-old recently released from a robbery sentence at Erlestoke Prison in Wiltshire. He said there are several well-established Cornish criminal organisations, as well as informal social movements, dedicated to combating drug gangs from outside the area.
The membership of these groups is predominantly white, working class people, mainly dealers and drug crew bosses from rival local gangs, all of whom feel protective of their turf. Most come from poor areas of the county, including the former mining towns of St Austell, Camborne and Redruth. “A lot of these Cornish lads meet in prison, while serving short sentences for drug possession, then find one another online after their release and get involved even more heavily than before,” he said.
On the surface, it appears that these militant-style groups are effective. Blue, Lewis and others all say that the “English” – as they sometimes call dealers from outside Cornwall – tend to leave immediately after an attack. But, as noted by Blue, county lines is prevalent precisely because workers are treated as though they’re disposable. If one person gets arrested or stabbed, bosses simply send another. There are countless young boys willing to take their place, tempted by the latest Air Max or Armani Exchange joggers.
Even so, these local organisations seem to be making day-to-day business trickier for northern drug bosses. I spoke to a county lines boss from Liverpool, named Dan*, who vented about the frustrations of doing business in Cornwall. He told me local organisations collude to ensure people who scam or rob the city gangs are not easily found. So Dan’s gang has started to work with the locals rather than compete.
“It’s almost impossible to chase a debt. They have you running around farmyards and fields. They’re so hostile to outsiders that we often resort to working with influential local groups, just to save the drama.”
Heroin user Percy* lives above a pub in St Austell’s rundown town centre. He said, “Urban gangs often sell heroin for £6 a bag [usually 0.1g], and crack for well under £5 a rock.” Previously, local dealers charged around £10 for the same amount of heroin, and at least £7 or £8 for the crack. “The local dealers hate county lines lads,” he told me.
The county lines phenomenon is nationwide, so why have local drug crews in Cornwall become much more organised in repelling city gangs than anywhere else?
Liverpool dealer Dan has noticed that the strong anti-English sentiment in parts of Cornwall is no myth. Cornwall’s history of violent resistance towards the English dates back centuries, but more recently it’s been exacerbated by the poverty that pervades its coastal communities – where high unemployment, low rates of pay and poor transport links combine to fuel a strong undercurrent of resentment towards England and the Westminster elite.
Antagonism towards incomers – which the Cornish call “emmets” (local dialect for ants) – was most often characterised by attacks on holiday homes and celebrity chef-run restaurants, as well as the now-familiar “turn around and fuck off” signs that appear on the A30 each summer.
I spoke to Jack Bolitho, who was the youngest member of the now-defunct Cornish National Liberation Army (CNLA) – the group that claimed responsibility for nationalist attacks including the fire-bombing of celebrity chef Rick Stein’s Porthleven restaurant in 2017.
“Cornwall’s become a playground for wealthy English people, who are shocked to find out it’s not all cream teas, pasties and Poldark,” he said. “There’s real poverty here, with a large gap between local house prices and wages. It’s probably why kids sell drugs in the first place.”
Cornwall’s unique history of nationalism inadvertently benefits local drug dealers, and puts them in a better position to unite to stave off competition from English gangs. Drug dealers can also work collaboratively with militant nationalists, some of whom will happily kick through the door of an English person for no money at all.
“It doesn’t matter whether these foreigners are tourists or county lines dealers – they systematically disrespect our language, culture and heritage,” Jack told me. This, he said, is why extreme nationalists carry out targeted acts, from burning down holiday parks and second-homes to stabbing urban drug dealers.
With a decade of austerity leading to growing inequality, drug addiction and poverty, it’s no surprise that rural workers are willing to use such violent tactics to defend their income. For many kids in Cornwall’s poorest towns, drug dealing is seen as a legitimate career choice – a way to make something of your life.
Like much of the UK’s periphery, Cornwall’s coastal towns are beset by poverty, and there’s a real lack of hope. When combined with the region’s distinct nationalist sentiment, this creates the perfect storm for increased violence against criminals looking to bleed Cornwall’s drug users dry.