Last year I bumped into Pieter Tritton several months after he was released from a 12-year prison sentence for masterminding a string of cocaine importations into Britain from South America. Discreet and calm, but with a sense of adventure, "Posh Pete" – as he was known in the criminal world – wasn't your average cocaine gangster. He grew up near middle class Stroud in Gloucestershire and studied Archeology at Cardiff University. In 2005, he was busted by Interpol in a hotel room in Quito, Ecuador, in possession of a tent impregnated with 7.8kg of cocaine.
His book, El Infierno, about how he survived a decade of jail time in Ecuador, has just been published. But I was interested in how a mild-mannered Cotswolds boy ended up an international drug runner in the first place, so I caught up with him for a chat.
VICE: Hi Pieter. Did this drug thing start off young?
Pieter Tritton: I was involved in drugs from an early age because of all the free raves in the Gloucestershire countryside in the 1990s. I dabbled a bit in pot and amphetamine when I was 14, and took ecstasy when I was 15. There were so many people taking drugs, it seemed normal. Seeing drugs being sold so openly, I started selling to cover the cost of partying.
What was first thing you bought and sold?
An ounce of "Durban Poison" [weed] when I was 14. I started selling ecstasy pills, too.
Weren't you scared of getting caught?
I did get caught, selling pot and LSD at sixth form. My parents were extremely worried and upset about the dealing, so I stopped, but that didn't last long, because at university no one knew where to get drugs. Cardiff was only down the road from Stroud, so I just nipped home, made a few phone calls and started selling cocaine, pot and ecstasy to supplement my meagre student loan. I was selling about a kilo of coke a week. I dropped out of university and decided to up my game, selling on the free party scene and to students because I needed the money.
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How did it take off from there?
I moved to Bristol and started selling coke, pills and pot. I've always had this knack of being introduced to people further up the chain – I don't know why. I got introduced to some really big players in south Wales, by the people I was supplying. It was a bit of reverse engineering. I said to my customers, "I can get more of this at a better price, so why don't you talk to the people you're getting it from and see if we can sell to them?" So they introduced me to their suppliers, who happened to be the hard men of the Valleys, the bouncers running security on all the nightclub doors. I'd tapped into a huge supply network.
How big a player were you at this point?
I was a sole trader. I had my outlets, so to speak, which were reliable distributors in Cardiff, Gloucestershire, in the Welsh Valleys and in Bristol. I wanted more, though, so I sat down and looked at a map, and Scotland seemed a good place to expand to. Prices there were ridiculously high, so I called some of my old friends and asked if they knew of anyone up there who was up for being supplied with good quality drugs to sell. I ended up shifting drugs to Dumfries and Galloway and Edinburgh. At this time I was getting rid of about 500 to 1,000 kilos of hash, 30,000 ecstasy pills and five kilos of cocaine a month. It was fairly lucrative.
But it was starting to get quite nerve-racking by then. I knew I'd be looking at serious jail time if I got caught. When you start dealing at those levels you are getting involved with the big gangsters in London and Bristol, the ex-armed robbers. You start seeing guns on the table.
Did people take the piss because you were middle class? How did you swim in that world without getting hurt?
I did have a nickname: Posh Pete. I've always been able to step into any world. I can hang out with aristocrats and multi-millionaires in manor houses, as well as people in the criminal underworld, in no-go areas in Cardiff and Bristol. I've been able to walk into any situation and walk out again. I view everyone, no matter who you are or what you are, as an equal.
Anyone try to kill you?
Yes. I started going out with a girl in Bristol whose ex-boyfriend was a Yardie. He decided to engineer the robbery of two kilos of coke from me and went out partying. Very quickly I found out where he was. I called a meeting at some steps beside Browns, a restaurant near Clifton. For back up I didn't have muscle, exactly; instead, I had two guys who were psychotic, highly dangerous. We were parked up opposite the steps and saw their car circling with an open window and a guy in the back carrying a gun, ready to shoot me on the steps. I called him and told him to meet me in the restaurant. I sat down, and it's packed, and he comes in all boisterous, threatening to kill me, with a 9mm tucked into his trousers. I stood up – the restaurant had gone dead quiet – and said, "What you going to do, shoot me in front of all these people, are you that stupid?" He walked out and I got most of the money back in the end.
Did your family and friends know what was going on?
By this time I'd stepped up the coke to ten kilos a week, I was earning about £30,000 a month and I was living it large. I was renting a wing of a manor house in Slad Valley, where Laurie Lee wrote Cider with Rosie, and driving a Mercedes Compressor, Saab and Volvo. Questions were being asked, like "What are you doing for money?" and, "What the hell is going on?" I had a cover as an antiques dealer, which is something I did do a bit of.
How did you move into international smuggling?
Actually, I had already smuggled drugs into Britain while I was at Cardiff University. I became friendly with an older student who had pill-making contacts out in Amsterdam, so we decided to put together an import. I think it ended up being 2,000 ecstasy pills. I hired a car and drove over. The suppliers were a strange bunch, a bit like a Scientology cult. They were supposed to have vac-packed the pills and put them in the lining of a bomber jacket, but they were just loose in the jacket. When I got back to Calais on the ferry, a dog indicated my car because my jacket was in it. They pulled me in, so I put on the jacket. They never searched me with the dog, so I got away with it.
"I think the only way they are going to solve all the problems around drugs is to legalise them, grow them as a normal crop, control and tax them like alcohol and tobacco. That takes out the criminals."
What made you branch out to South America?
In 2002 I got five years in prison after the police found 5,000 pills and a load of cannabis, cocaine, amphetamine and heroin in my lock-up in Gloucestershire. Right at the start of my prison sentence I was thinking, 'If I'm going to carry this on when I get out, I need to rethink. Obviously I'm well known in Britain now, so the only thing I'm going to do is high value, low volume cocaine smuggling.' But with 9/11 happening, I knew security was getting ramped up. I knew it going to be tough. One day I was reading a story in The Sunday Times about a guy who had impregnated a load of coke into some plastic garden furniture; immediately, I thought, 'That is definitely the way forward – that is genius.'
How did your plans come into action?
When I got released after two-and-a-half years, I went to London to get introduced to a Colombian and Chilean. They were bringing coke into Britain impregnated in rubber, in the groundsheets of tents. The Colombian had a contact in Cali, an ex-military guy who was in charge of sourcing the coke, putting it into the rubber, packaging it and getting it to Ecuador for smuggling over to the UK. He was a gym instructor, very calm and collected and friendly. But the flipside of that is that I knew he wouldn't hesitate to kill me. Any sort of doubt or problem, you'd be, you know, dead.
I wanted to do the first trip myself. I didn't want to start sending people to do stuff I hadn't done already done; I wanted to know what I'm talking about. So I flew over to Ecuador, met the guy from Cali, who gave me the tent with about 3kg to 5kg of coke in its groundsheet. I bought lots of gifts at the airport to make me look legitimate and, after a little scare at customs in Holland, I'd got the tent home. As the South Americans had shown me, I extracted the coke out of the tent. We re-pressed it and cut it and made about £100,000 selling it on.
What was the buzz?
Weird thing was that, as soon as we'd finished that job, the money wasn't really interesting me. I think I'm a bit of an adrenaline junky. It was just the whole challenge of it. I just stuck the money in the cupboard and thought, 'What's the next adventure?' Because it'd worked I just carried on importing the cocaine tents, this time using "clean skin" passengers with no criminal records. We did about eight trips before the police finally caught up with us.
When did you realise the game was up?
We were under surveillance for two years, as I later found out. Very near the beginning the police had busted one of my labs while I was in Cali. They had arrested my Colombian contact and he became an informant. From then on it was just a dead-end road. I knew they were monitoring me. We had someone on the pay roll in London who was getting information from the police. This guy ran a check and told me I was the subject of a massive police operation. I got smuggled out of Britain by some Turks, I disappeared to a house in France. Stupidly, I did one last trip to Ecuador, and that's when I got busted in the hotel room with all the coke.
How did you survive in prison over there?
Because I had contacts in Europe who were outlets for the product that the gangs in prison wanted to sell: cocaine. I portrayed myself as being a possible broker. In return, I was left alone, protected, seen as one of them, part of the group. I ended up selling cocaine on two wings for them.
What is it about you that took you from the Cotswolds to running drugs for Colombian gangsters in an Ecuadorean jail?
I had a lot of hunger to make money and make things good for the family. That was the driving factor. In the end, my mum didn't want help. She ended up dying while I was in Ecuador.
Do you feel guilty about getting involved in such an unethical trade?
Yes, I have felt guilty. Several of my friends have died from overdoses. None directly in connection to me, as most were heroin overdoses. I have felt bad when people have started to get in a mess, but at that point I have nearly always either refused to sell anything to them and often tried to help them. I don't like seeing people get addicted, as my mother was an alcoholic, and I know how difficult that is for everyone around them.
Are you a legaliser?
If you go to the root of the coca trade, it's just guys in a jungle growing it because not much else is viable. It's only after you go up a few steps, when you hit the cartels, that all the criminality gets involved. There needs to be another way, rather than this phoney war on drugs; it's just a way for a load of people to make money, a bit like the arms industry. I think the only way they are going to solve all the problems around drugs is to legalise them, grow them as a normal crop, control and tax them like alcohol and tobacco. That takes out the criminals.
What are your plans now?
I'm trying to set up an import-export business from South America.
Not that. Things like bananas and pineapples. I'd be stupid not to, with the contacts I've got there. Legal products are the way forward.
This interview has been edited for length.
El Infierno, by Pieter Tritton, is published by Ebury.
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