On a summer afternoon in 2019, a drive-by shooting in broad daylight shocked the inhabitants of Birmingham. The volley of gunfire – eight shots in total – took place outside a primary school near the city centre. Witnesses saw a man stumbling for cover and collapsing on the ground, having been shot three times. He died on the scene.
The man was Dante Mullings, the alleged head of a county lines drug trafficking network. His executors, from a rival gang, were seeking revenge for a brutal stabbing that had happened the day before. They were jailed earlier this year, but – after prosecutors noted the ready availability of the weapons for the attack – fears in the city are now growing that gangs in the West Midlands are embroiled in an arms race to control the region’s drug trade.
The West Midlands has often been maligned as the “gun crime capital” of the UK, due to rates of gun crime that surpass London. And firearm offences in the region have been rapidly increasing – up 17 percent in half a decade – amid a slew of tit-for-tat gangland assassinations, as the area increasingly serves as a hub for narco-trafficking. This year, four teenagers were murdered in just five months in Birmingham, and gunshots were even fired at a vigil for one of the victims.
Now there are concerns that gangs are militarising like never before. The rate of firearms seizures is rising after some 136 were impounded by police in less than two years, as more guns are imported in from Eastern Europe. And the weapons uncovered – which included submachine guns and sawn-off shotguns – are increasingly lethal.
“Birmingham, because of its size and geographical location, is ideally suited for drug gangs to spread out and distribute to the surrounding counties,” says former undercover detective sergeant Neil Woods, co-author of author of Drug Wars: The Terrifying Inside Story of Britain’s Drug Trade. “The supply lines create the need for weapons, because of the lucrative and intensely competitive nature of the unregulated drug market.” The West Midlands Police and Crime Commissioner (PCC) Simon Foster has also stated that he believes “almost all firearms offences relate to drugs”.
The strife, though certainly not all drug-related and much underpinned by worsening inequality, shows no signs of abating. According to minutes from a recent police meeting, levels of violence in Birmingham city centre have soared to higher levels than before the pandemic. The West Midlands was the only UK area where overall crime increased last year–with violent attacks comprising 46 percent of offences (although the rise was put down in large part to more domestic violence reports).
“Many different factors are driving the increased violence,” said Alison Cope, whose son Joshua Ribera, also known as Depzman – one of the UK’s most promising young rappers at the time – was stabbed to death in Birmingham in 2013. “There is poverty, cuts to youth services, and worsening mental health. It is all fuelled by social media conflicts which can escalate very quickly, especially when young people are seeing each other for the first time in months.”
But some community figures take a more straightforward view. “Many of the youngsters perpetrating this violence and beefing with each other are doing so over territory,” said Mohammed Ashfaq MBE, the managing director of drug and alcohol treatment service Kikit. “A lot of it stems from gangs nicking others’ customers, stealing gear, and selling skunk, crack and heroin on each other’s patch.” He also noted that crystal meth can now be found on the streets of Birmingham.
In a statement to VICE, the West Midlands PCC, Foster, cited a recent Home Office commissioned review that said the illegal drugs market is driving more than a third of Midlands murders and almost half of national acquisitive crimes, excluding fraud. In an attempt to reduce demand, the West Midlands authorities have effectively decriminalised drug use for those caught with personal amounts (in lieu of a prosecution, the accused must attend a substance misuse course), but adequate funding and support for a wider suite of harm reduction and early intervention policies remains lacking.
“One of the missing links is a lack of preventative services, which have been cut to the bone over the last decade,” he said. “It has fuelled the harm and crime that flows from drug addiction.” In what could be a grimly prophetic statement, his predecessor David Jamieson said in March upon his retirement: "A tidal wave of violence is a very real possibility. Stabbings could escalate, gun crime could soar, drug gangs could flourish and the foundations of our society rocked.”
Despite the office’s progressive policies, and the work of a violence reduction unit, Foster acknowledged that much more needed to be done to tackle the root causes of violence. “I believe that there is an urgent and pressing need for increased long-term investment in youth services that have been decimated in recent years,” he added, while he has also criticised how Tory budget cuts saw the police force lose more than 2,000 officers over 10 years.
In the West Midlands’ third largest city, Wolverhampton, all 12 of its youth centres closed following dramatic cuts in youth services spending of 91 percent since 2014. As austerity took hold and demand for some drugs increased, it is no wonder that becoming a drug dealer, within an estimated £11bn UK market, seemed to become a more attractive job prospect for some.
“Organised crime has long taken advantage of inequality,” said Woods, the chair of Law Enforcement Action Partnership. “Reputation building and score-settling are driven by profit motives. It’s not just in the West Midlands and the UK, it’s a dangerous, violent pattern that is happening everywhere as a result of this unregulated market.”
In one grim example of the horrors of the area’s illegal drug trade, members of a Birmingham gang were imprisoned at the end of last year for the brutal murder of a vulnerable drug user. The victim, whose foot was partially amputated in the fatal attack, had become embroiled in a turf war as rival gangs fought for access to and control of his home.
“Even in the West Midlands,” Woods added, “where they have a sensible approach to reducing the demand by looking after problematic drug users, we can’t stop things from getting worse until we have a dramatic, central shift in policy to legally regulate the supply of drugs.”