Wearing a green Barbour wax jacket and glossy Hunter wellies, Dan* looks more like a wealthy local farmer than a member of a Liverpudlian organised crime group that imports and distributes heroin and cocaine around the UK. He's here in Cornwall, in the southwest of England, to check up on one of his four teams of drug sellers. "Got to blend in with the locals," he laughs.
With roads at a standstill, limited public transport and people confined to their homes, the last four months of COVID-19 lockdown have proven tough for most business owners. Yet throughout this period, it's become clear that the global drug trade has continued to operate almost as normal: drugs are still being imported, distributed and bought across the world.
So how has Dan's firm managed it?
Dan, 39, and his associates currently run drug selling teams in two seaside resorts in Devon and Cornwall, in England's southwest, and two large naval cities in Scotland and the north of England. They are also involved in the importation of Class A drugs and the smuggling of drugs into prisons, and act as wholesalers to other middle-men.
They form part of a group of dealers the National Crime Agency refers to as the "iconic untouchables" – those middle-tier and command-level gang members who are hard to catch.
Over the years, the gang has brought heroin and crack to countless small towns around the UK, from Cornwall to Aberdeenshire, following the "county lines" model – and it is this line of business that has become their biggest and most consistent earner.
Dan explained that, in the last two decades, they've adapted to many challenges – including the arrests of key gang members, the arrival of cheap Albanian coke and the growth of once-legal stimulant highs such as mephedrone. However, COVID-19 has been their biggest hurdle to date, because it was the first time they have faced challenges across their business, from procurement and logistics to enforcement.
As COVID-19 spread to Europe from China, the gang was quick to react. When they saw other European countries entering lockdown, they realised it wouldn't be long before the UK did the same, so they moved to ensure that towns had a surplus of their gear. However, their usual Albanian supplier, Kris*, was unwilling to provide any extra stock until he'd received full payment for their last purchase. The gang only had around three-quarters of what was owed – and they knew that a new supplier would need an upfront cash payment, as security.
Dan was determined to provide extra stock prior to lockdown, so he lied to the Albanian that sales had been slower than normal. As hoped, Kris charitably gave them extra time to pay, and the gang was able to use his cash to buy stock elsewhere.
With an extra £450,000 to play with, they bought 12 kilos of high-strength heroin and eight kilos of cocaine. As usual, they cut the heroin, so that one kilo became three. The cocaine was cut, too – until it was around 60 percent pure – and also converted into crack.
Dan's cousin packaged up one kilo boxes of heroin and sizeable quantities of crack, before sending them out of Liverpool to the shires via "runners", usually trusted friends or distant relatives. They passed the packages to local workers, who'd been tasked with hiding them in countryside locations including old barns and farmland.
"Most of our runners have day jobs," Dan tells VICE News. "They're usually self-employed or on zero-hours contracts and want to top-up their wages. We pay them up to £1,200 for a cross-country trip."
Early on, the gang assumed COVID-19 would impact international supply and, in turn, local prices. They told workers to increase prices by at least a third, as their next batch was likely to cost more. Dealers informed customers of imminent drug shortages, supposedly due to border closures and panic buying. Dan hoped this would stimulate short-term sales and maximise profit.
"Lockdown or no lockdown, we have strict deadlines to pay our debts, with severe consequences if we fuck-up," he says." Obviously, this meant there was big pressure to get as much cash back in as possible before isolation began."
As a result, he pressurised his workers to sell more than usual. He made daily phone calls to check in on their progress – reminding them to tell customers about the supposed shortage so they'd stock-up. He even threatened to reallocate workers' stock if they weren’t selling fast enough.
By mid-March, the gang believed they were more than prepared for a UK lockdown. "We were feeling dead clever. Smug, even," he says. "My cousin said coke prices were already soaring. Apparently the Colombians couldn’t get across the border to Peru, for the cheap petrol needed to refine the coke."
UK lockdown came earlier than expected and lasted longer than the gang had imagined, but Dan says it started well: "I got shot in the leg over an unpaid debt last year. Lockdown was the first time in months I’d been able to really relax, knowing that nobody was going to kick through my front-door and stab me in front of the kids. My wife did some baking. I started a detox diet, and life was good."
Dan let his associates look after the workers down the line. He even switched his EncroChat phone off and saved £600 on the quarterly subscription. The county lines dealers used taxi drivers for deliveries and let a few trusted people collect after dark. They also did drop-offs during their daily exercise.
"We had two young lads move in with a local fella in Cornwall. They were only supposed to be there a couple weeks, but they were doing a banging job, so we forgot to tell them how long this lockdown could last. They weren’t impressed," says Dan. "Apparently, these urban kids don’t find shit seaside towns that interesting. Them two made some decent money, though. The younger one sent me a selfie and he was wearing a Hugo Boss trackie, instead of his usual knackered clothes."
After a period of relative calm, everything changed. "As we moved into the second month of lockdown, our people down-the-line [in rural towns] gradually stopped picking up the phone to us," says Dan. "It was as though they finally realised how little control we had from afar."
The gang's rural sellers had big piles of cash in their houses because of a spate of panic-buying, which meant their stock was starting to run low far sooner than anticipated. Dan heard rumours his workers were using this cash to buy drugs elsewhere at much higher prices.
The gang relies on a team of mobile runners to travel from Liverpool to collect the cash from the county lines destinations every couple of weeks, from one town at a time. Most of their runners hoped to keep working during isolation, but the gang wouldn’t allow it. "The roads and railways were isolated, so our lads would stand out a mile," says Dan. "This sounds harsh, but we couldn’t afford to lose cash to the Old Bill [police]."
Dan received encrypted messages from unhappy runners struggling to survive on Universal Credit or furlough pay, now that they were no longer benefiting from well-paid, regular trips out to the countryside. "They all pissed me off, moaning about their wages – when I owed nearly half a million pounds to some Albanian gangster, who was probably going to pull a gun on me," says Dan.
Kris the Albanian had been in touch with Dan, and given the firm seven days to pay up.
Dan shouldn't have left home during isolation because he was deemed high risk after having a heart attack in Marbella last year. But in order to pick up the piles of cash and speak to his remote sellers he was forced to make an unplanned trip around the country. It didn’t go well: he only managed to collect a fraction of the cash.
The crew also discovered that one of their emergency stashes – a one-kilo disc of heroin, worth £100,000 – had been stolen from a barn in Devon. They found out it had been taken by a local woman who used to work for them. She'd been using the drug with her boyfriend, as well as trading it for crack.
Dan bought a cheap burner phone from Tesco and called the woman from Liverpool. "I told her to get that cash back to me in three days or I'd cut her fingers off," he says.
She didn't give it back, and stopped answering Dan's calls. The gang were furious.
"This industry has a bad reputation, but we do tend to look out for one another," says Dan. "And we only ever threaten violence as an absolute last resort. We're not dogs."
No Devon locals were willing to obtain the drugs and cash by force, even in return for a hefty payment, as they feared police attention. Ironically, the group had no choice but to avoid the Albanian's increasingly irate phone calls, while desperately awaiting the end of lockdown.
Dan's workers gradually sold any remaining heroin and crack. With such limited stock, they’d long-since stopped selling on credit, prioritising only those who could pay upfront. Some heroin users became ill from withdrawal, while others went to clinics for methadone, but the demand for credit was constant. Dan says this is most likely because customers were unable to shoplift to pay the bill: "There's probably a lot of debt at the local level right now, more than the lads let on to. We’ve never seen this many people asking to work it off."
So what did Dan and his crew learn from lockdown?
"It's a different fucking world down there. People don’t get it. If they robbed shit in the city, they’d be dead by now. We never could’ve imagined that much could go wrong in 12 weeks, and we won’t be sending that much drugs down the line again."
In terms of their business as a whole, the crew found that demand for cocaine declined significantly during isolation. Most lockdown coke sales could be attributed to heroin users seeking to make their own crack at home, once local crack supplies had depleted.
The gang all believe there’s very little cocaine in the UK at the moment. As a result, they have increased their prices by up to 50 percent, and now add extra benzocaine, a cutting agent with numbing properties. Similarly, they reckon heroin supplies have depleted too, with prices around a third higher than normal.
"If there’s a second lockdown we’ll definitely supply more weed too," says Dan. "Demand far outstripped supply, from the very start of isolation. Normally we refuse to buy from the Albanian grow houses, as they tend to crop too early, but we had customers wanting to pay 50 percent more than usual for that shit.”
The wave of EncroChat busts – a series of police raids over the last two months that resulted in hundreds of arrests and drug seizures – came as a shock to the gang. "People’s doors started randomly going through, and mates that’d been quietly selling for years were arrested. Even the careful ones were getting banged-up," says Dan. "None of us knew what the fuck was going on. Obviously, Old Bill had cracked EncroChat. But I’m on a different network, so couldn’t understand how so many seemingly unconnected people were being busted. It was the worst possible timing, as we didn’t know whether to lie low or go out on the warpath [selling drugs]."
Overall, lockdown was highly stressful for the gang, with a significant theft and workers going off the radar for weeks on end. Did Dan ever consider going back to the day job?
"Nah. Absolutely not," he laughs. "Between the price increase and extra stock, we did alright out of lockdown in the end, and easily doubled our usual profits. Once we’ve sorted things with the robber, it’ll be better than ever. I’m just waiting for the Albanian fella to come back online so we can get him that cash…"
* Names have been changed to protect identities