Pay attention to what's going on in the world of drug seizures, and you'd think most traffickers these days had worked out how to transport narcotics in pretty inventive ways. Dissolving ketamine in Listerine bottles, molding cocaine into the shape of individual Pringles and packaging them up in tubes, hiding MDMA crystals inside live clams—that kind of thing.
So the news that a gang has just been sentenced to a total of 125 years in prison for trying to hide drugs in flower boxes almost evokes a sense of nostalgia for the days of Howard Marks and George Jung, back when traffickers all had funny mustaches and regularly did coke off big knives. Back when smugglers brazenly took suitcases full of powder onto commercial flights and celebrated by having pool parties and doing more coke off of big knives.
The trafficking gang, from Holland and the northwest of England, posed as a flower wholesale business to smuggle drugs and large quantities of heroin, cocaine, MDMA, amphetamine, ecstasy, and cannabis from Europe into the UK. The contraband was smuggled over the Channel in semi-trucks, before being dropped off and distributed from the gang's bogus flower company in Lancashire.
Everything appeared to be going well for the gang, until March of 2014, when Border Force officials discovered a pistol, a submachine gun with a laser sight, 28 rounds of ammunition, more than 1,000 pounds of cannabis resin and skunk, 13 gallons of liquid amphetamine, 13 pounds of coke, two pounds of ecstasy, and 132 pounds of amphetamine in a semi-truck driven by Dutch national Pieter Martens, who was sentenced to 24 years in jail for the part he played in the foiled importation plan.
Less than two weeks later, officials made another seizure at the Channel Tunnel. This time, the truck they opened up contained almost one ton of heroin, cocaine, amphetamine, and cannabis, hidden in flower boxes.
A couple of months later—on July 1, 2014—52-year-old Nigel Watson from Telford was arrested in Coquelles, near Calais, after officials found 66 pounds of heroin and 99 pounds of MDMA in the truck he was driving.
The UK's National Crime Agency (NCA), working with a team in the Netherlands, was able to link all of those seizures to 40-year-old Dutch national Mohammed Imran Bhegani and his deputy, 44-year-old Sajid Osman. Bhegani, the investigators discovered, had planned everything, getting another 13 shipments delivered to a location in Albion Mill, Accrington—the fake wholesale flower business—rented and run by Osman and 56-year-old Nizami Esshak, of Accrington, Lancashire.
NCA officers raided the premises on August 26, 2014, and found more than 440 pounds of cannabis inside, as well as a further 176 pounds in a van outside. There, they arrested Osman and Esshak, as well as 28-year-old Taimur Zahid, from nearby Chorlton-cum-Hardy, and 27-year-old Hussain Farooq, from Stockport, both of whom were there to buy drugs. Benny Planken, a 30-year-old Dutch lorry driver, was found to have imported the weed found at Albion Mill and arrested.
Bhegani was arrested later at Esshak's home in Accrington, before Dutch investigators raided properties linked to him in the Netherlands and found a load of evidence against him, including price lists for drugs and SIM cards and phones that had been used to contact drivers and the gang's customers.
"In terms of organized crime, Mohammed Imran Bhegani was right at the top of the tree. He was an international drug dealer with high-level contacts in mainland Europe. Bhegani had the ability to transport vast quantities of illegal drugs and weapons from the continent and into the UK," said NCA regional head of investigations, Greg McKenna.
"Osman and Esshak were his trusted associates, charged with overseeing the UK end of the operation, taking delivery of the consignments and arranging the onward distribution. To operate on such a commercial scale the group needed the professional skills of haulers like Watson and Planken, among others, to bring in their illicit cargo. As one was arrested, another would be brought in to take their place," McKenna said.
Yesterday, Bhegani was sentenced to 36 years in prison at Preston Crown Court. Osman was jailed for 26 years, Esshak got seven years, Farooq was given two years, and Zahid was sentenced to two years and three months.