Last month, Saeed and Jamal* – two British guys from west Yorkshire – drove their Toyota five hours from the northern Pakistani city of Mirpur to a restaurant near Peshawar, close to the border with Afghanistan, to meet a man to talk business.
The business at hand was three kilos of maal, high purity heroin, from their regular supplier, a Pashtun man known as Khan bai (brother Khan). Witnessing this meeting was criminologist Dr Mohammed Qasim, a researcher at Leeds Becket University, who is exploring the increased involvement of British dealers in the Pakistan to UK heroin trade.
Sporting a big beard and wearing a salwar kameez, brother Khan handed over the heroin he'd bought from a market in Peshawar. In return, Saeed and Jamal gave him 1.1 million Pakistani rupees (£6,600) in cash. The trio spoke about the importance of trust in the heroin trade and how worryingly easy it was to get hold of AK47s in this neck of the woods, before parting company, with the British contingent heading back on the long drive back to Mirpur.
According to Dr Qasim, Saeed and Jamal are part of a new generation of British-born men of Pakistani heritage getting into the heroin smuggling trade. Instead of using their connections to sell the drug on the streets of Yorkshire, they are opting to ditch Britain for Pakistan, where they can operate further up the narcotic food chain in one of the world's major transit countries for Afghan heroin.
This new breed of smugglers, usually in their twenties and thirties, are taking advantage of an increasingly democratised drug trade, favouring the postal system as an easy way of making large amounts of money by frequently smuggling small batches of the drug into Britain, rather than the more traditional method of trafficking in bulk over land and sea, or by exploiting drug mules.
They are doing this at a time when heroin is causing a record number of deaths in the UK, with authorities increasingly unable to stop the drug from entering the country. Despite spiralling levels of opium production in Afghanistan and a rise in the purity and prevalence of heroin on Britain’s streets, Home Office data shows a sharp fall in seizures of the drug at the UK border over the last six years.
In 2017-2018, UK border forces made 63 seizures of heroin, totalling 154kg – just 0.6 percent of the estimated 23 tons smuggled into the country each year. In the last 13 years, the number of people convicted for class A drug trafficking has dropped by nearly three quarters, from 775 in 2004-2005 to 195 in 2016-2017.
An NCA spokesperson told VICE that the high volume of legitimate goods sent in packages from Pakistan to the UK is exploited by traffickers to import heroin, and that there "continues to be seizures of heroin at the UK border from mail and parcels originated in Pakistan". But according to a police source with an expertise in organised drug crime and drug trafficking, the National Crime Agency has had to scale down its anti-drug trafficking efforts due to dwindling resources and a re-focus on other crime threats, such as human trafficking and terrorism. The NCA has also moved to focus more on the bigger drug trafficking gangs over smaller outfits, such as Saeed and Jamal's, which use the huge number of parcels churning through the global postal system each day as cover.
"There are, it seems, an increasing number of British Pakistanis who are today involved in smuggling heroin from Pakistan to the UK," says Dr Qasim, author of Young, Muslim and Criminal, a book investigating Britain's little understood world of young Muslim offenders. "Pakistan's close relationship to Afghanistan and the relatively cheap heroin that can be bought in Pakistan is certainly seen as a well worth [it] business opportunity. They're now seeing Pakistan as not as bad as they had anticipated, because of the potential of making them considerable money. For some of the lads it's offering a better life than life in the UK.
"In Mirpur it's cheaper to live, and there are lots of [the British Pakistani guys] on the run for things like drugs and even murder. It's like a little society out there. In their minds, they are 'living the dream', and it's clear that more young British Pakistanis are deciding to swap a criminal life back home with one in Asia."
Concealing heroin among legitimate goods in the busy parcel post system is not a new tactic. In the past five years, batches of heroin have been found smuggled into the UK from Pakistan inside baby powder bottles, leather jackets, rugs, chessboards, mini chapatti ovens and cricket balls. But it's a crime that, until now, has rarely been orchestrated by British men based in Pakistan.
Dr Qasim says that Saeed and Jamal send around one kilo a month, in batches of several ounces of heroin a time. The drug is sewn into jeans turn-ups and carpets, or hidden among clothes and towels, which are then packaged and sent on to be picked up by accomplices in the UK. Once unwrapped, the imported drugs are bashed up with cutting agents to make six kilos of street heroin for every smuggled kilo of Afghan heroin.
The enterprise is a lot more lucrative than their days selling crack and heroin on the streets in the north-west of England. For each kilo sent back to Britain, the pair make £20,000, which generates them almost a quarter of a million pounds a year. It's also less risky for them than dealing, because they have been adept at distancing themselves from the product when police or border forces do get lucky and intercept one of their parcels.
Unlike some of the British-born men sending heroin back to their old neighbourhoods, Saeed and Jamal fell into the international smuggling game somewhat by chance. In 2014, when they were in their late-twenties, the pair went on the run from West Yorkshire police. Saeed had just attacked someone with a weapon in a drug turf war and Jamal had jumped bail for possession with intent to supply heroin. They decided to flee Britain until the heat was off and hide out with relatives in Mirpur, a city in Kashmir known as "Little England" due to its large British Pakistani community.
Initially they were resigned to living a fugitive life in the "old country". They badly missed their gaudy sports cars, mates and girlfriends at home; instead, all they could see ahead was less money, more religion and a corrupt police force eager to teach flash English guys a lesson.
It was a contact back home in Yorkshire who hooked them up with their man in Peshwar, which has enabled the pair to operate their lucrative postal trafficking business for the last four years without too many complicated logistics.
"I didn't come here to set up selling drugs," Jamal told Dr Qasim, "but everyone needs to make money, and it's not like I can get a job out here. The pay won't be the same as in England and I’ll look like a right mug working out here. It’s not rocket science to see that heroin is worth a lot more in the UK. If we can get it direct from the source, we cut out the middle men and make more profit."
The pair work with eight others in their mini-network, including a brother and two of his friends in the UK, who are responsible for collecting the drugs, bashing them down and supplying them on the streets. Parcels are delivered to one of many specially-rented properties. They do not use the same properties for more than a handful of parcels in case it raises suspicions.
Like many of the British-born crews operating in Pakistan, Saeed and Jamal know that driving around in expensive sports cars and wearing designer clothes like they did back home is not an option. They drive an intentionally low-key Toyota and dress in immaculate white salwar kameez.
"They spoke of having all the top cars in the UK," says Dr Qasim, "but the issue in Pakistan is if you drive a car that’s very expensive, you make yourself a target: people see you as having a lot of money and you could even end up getting kidnapped, as has been the case with some people who they knew."
Saeed and Jamal told Dr Qasim that their personalities have changed since moving to Pakistan. They have had to become more cautious of others, because abroad they aren't surrounded by the trusted network that supported them in Britain. "People out here are corrupt," Jamal told Dr Qasim, "but you learn after a while that the best thing is not to get too close to them, do your own thing. Don't trust anyone. The other bad thing is the weather in the summer: it gets too hot – it's like 50 degrees or something."
Dr Qasim says Saeed and Jamal appear to be living a charmed life. "Life's buzzing, we got everything we need," Jamal told him. They are both living in properties their fathers had built, in Saeed's case a "mega mansion" with 22 rooms. They work out at the gym every day and go for lunch or dinner at one of Mirpur's top restaurants. Religion has become more important to the pair since leaving Britain; they pray and go to the mosque on Fridays, while Saeed has grown a religious-looking beard.
Would they want to go back to England? "If I go back to England, I will end up doing time, like seven to eight years in prison," said Saeed. "Why the hell would I want to go back to that? Life could not be better out here. This is where it all started for us; my parents, grandparents, were born out here, they lived here for all their lives. We complain that Pakistan is crap and that, but people could not be further wrong. I don't need the UK; it's bullshit back there. Look how many people are depressed. People are happy here. All you need is money out here and you can live like a king, trust me."
*Saeed and Jamal's names have been changed to protect their identities.