Today, the highly lucrative British drug smuggling trade is an amorphous, sometimes deadly, free-for-all, teeming with interconnected players from all walks of life. Using the dark web, anyone with a laptop can become an international drug smuggler. The battle to stop drugs crossing our borders has wilted, as authorities have become increasingly overwhelmed, outwitted and under-resourced.
It was not always like this. During the rise of the global drug trade in the 1970s, 1980s and 1990s, a cabal of adventurers and Mr Bigs ran things in the UK. They faced off against an elite squad of investigators, who chased them over land, air and sea.
A new book about this high-stakes game of cat and mouse, Drug War: The Secret History gives fresh insights into this world of notorious smugglers and incorruptible border sleuths. So I spoke to the book’s author, investigative journalist Peter Walsh, about his work sifting the facts from the myths and why we've reached a watershed moment in tackling the drug trade.
VICE: So, let's go back to the start. When did the war between drug smugglers and the British authorities kick off?
Peter Walsh: Until the mid-1960s, some Customs and Excise officials used to just throw cannabis in the sea if they found it at ports. It wasn’t something they came across often. The former Customs officers and old-time smugglers I interviewed for the book told me that 1965 seemed to be a pivotal year: Bob Dylan came to UK and the Beatles openly talked about their cannabis use. It was the time of rising counter-culture and youth movements and of immigration from places such as the Caribbean, India and Pakistan, where cannabis just happened to be grown.
It all changed for the authorities in 1967, with a huge freight seizure of Indian cannabis at Heathrow airport. Then Customs realised drug smugglers weren't just hippies, but organised networks, and something had to be done.
Who were the first Mr Bigs of the British drug trade?
One of the original British drug barons was Gurdev Sangha, alias ‘the Doctor’, an Indian-born laser scientist who in the late 1960s controlled the first big cannabis smuggling network into the UK that we know of. It was his shipment found at Heathrow. He later smuggled cannabis in drums of radioactive waste to put people off searching them.
Howard Marks was highly significant. Like most of the original Mr Bigs, he just dealt in cannabis. He was a classic middle man; he put people together. It wasn’t the Marks organisation, it was the Marks network. He was involved in the London underworld a lot more than people realise, creating connections for them in the 1970s and 1980s. His operations spanned everywhere from the Americas to the Far East, sourcing cannabis from numerous places, particularly Pakistan.
Then there was a duo called Bobby and Ronnie – Bobby Mills and Ron Taylor – two diminutive guys from south London and Scotland, respectively. They met while doing their National Service in the army in the 1950s. They later became partners in crime and established themselves as big-time cannabis smugglers, who sourced from Morocco.
They had a ship that used to run five times a year bringing at least a tonne of cannabis every time. In the late 1970s that made them bigger than anybody. They were proper underworld figures, although they were non-violent. Everyone in London knew them, and they sold to the Quality Street gang in Manchester and to the gangs in Glasgow, Liverpool and Birmingham. They used to entertain their underworld friends and business partners in a club called Chaplins in London’s West End, where deals were done.
Liverpool is now one of the UK’s major drug trafficking hubs. When did that start to thrive?
The Liverpool gangs were big players in the British drug trade from the 1970s onwards. They were effectively untouchable on Merseyside, because so many people had been corrupted, including the police. They ran the docks, they corrupted the dock workers, the shop stewards, the whole shebang.
The most famous smuggler was Tommy Comerford, one of the top targets identified by Customs in the late 70s. Customs sent their two top anti-drug teams up from London to Liverpool but found it hard to get Tommy because a lot of the investigators were southerners so they stood out like a sore thumb. One investigator went undercover into a pub in Liverpool, dressed like a docker in work boots and donkey jacket, and within less than a minute everyone in the pub was whistling the theme tune to Dixon of Dock Green.
In the early 1990s Liverpool’s drug smuggling scene was dominated by Curtis ‘Cocky’ Warren, a street kid. He was significant because of the scale of what he did. He always went right to the sources, getting cocaine imported direct from Colombia, ecstasy from the Netherlands, heroin from the Turks and cannabis from Morocco.
How did a street lad from Liverpool get to deal directly with the Colombians?
In a word, Amsterdam. It was the Stock Exchange for drugs at the time. A lot of the deals were brokered there. The city was a natural meeting place, plus it had longstanding connections to South America through the Dutch Antilles and Suriname.
Warren’s firm was the biggest drug smuggling outfit in the UK in the early 1990s. To be the biggest coke importer in the UK was a big deal, to be the biggest heroin importer in the UK was a big deal, to be the biggest importer of both is just weird, but he was. And he’s just a personable scalliwag from Toxteth.
They got him in the end. He’s only been out of prison for six or eight weeks since 1996. Saying that, anyone who has had any dealings with him, you won’t find a bad word said about him.
What skills did you need to become an OG drug baron?
The ability to network, to cultivate people. The drug trade is about buying and selling, you’ve got to be a dealer. That’s why people from the used car trade got involved in the British drug trade early on, because they were naturals, they knew how to buy cheap and sell high.
They needed an ability to do deals with people, to buy and sell and keep their customer happy, to not be intimidated by foreign languages or extensive travel to strange places. They were often quite cosmopolitan, interesting people. They had to be open-minded, adventurous, have a certain kind of bravery. For example, John Alan Brooks, a drug smuggling legend on the Costa del Sol who was known as a transport guy. He was a fearless yachtsman, he never lost his bottle. He was worth his weight in gold to traffickers because he would pull off outrageous things; he was not put off by risk at all.
It was not about being a villain or a thug because violent people were not good at this job – they were seen as being a pain in the arse. They intimidate everyone. Howard Marks couldn’t fight his way out of a paper bag, and he was one of biggest.
Also, evading the authorities. To this day, there have been some elusive characters who were never caught. The British police and Customs investigators have been after one well-known, multinational Scottish drug smuggler since the late 1980s. He has links to the Russian mafia, Colombia, South Africa, Serbia, Ibiza, Cyprus and Thailand. But he’s eluded them.
How did they operate?
None of them were what I’d call mafias. With the British guys there was no strict hierarchical structure. Many of them were small groups, with maybe three or four key characters.
It wasn’t just about personality, courage and charm. There was a technical element to this trade. Drug smuggling is essentially about transportation, you can buy drugs easily, you can sell them even more easily, but the tricky bit is getting them from A to B– particularly into the UK as it’s so well-policed. For example, haulage company directors became major players in drug trafficking, because they understood the nuts and bolts of transportation and how to circumvent the authorities.
According to your book it wasn’t just criminals who wanted a slice of the drug trade, it was corrupt police drug squads too. Tell me more.
Customs came across police corruption countless times while investigating drugs cases in the 1970s. In 1971 the head of Scotland Yard’s drug squad, Vic Kelaher, was caught at the scene of a big cannabis handover while Customs were carrying out surveillance. He said he was working undercover but the circumstances were dubious at best. Customs bosses contemplated charging him but didn’t because it was too political. Two years later three of his drug squad detectives were jailed for falsifying notes on drug cases.
Met Police Flying Squad detectives would regularly nick someone for, say, ten kilos of hash, take nine of them to sell on themselves and just charge the offender with one kilo. In one scandal, about 100 kilos of seized cannabis – the Met’s biggest bust at the time – was kept in a store room to be shown as evidence at trial. After the verdict, the senior drug squad officer said he’d take it to incinerator. But it turned out he hadn’t, because the same stash was later found being sold on the streets.
There was so much corruption they had to keep clearing out the Met’s drug squad. That’s why Customs and Excise were the main drug warriors, because the police could not be trusted to keep their hands off the drugs. On the other hand, the Customs drug investigators had a reputation for being incorruptible.
By the mid-80s drugs were being found everywhere in Britain. How did Customs investigators up their game to catch the big fish?
By the end of the 1980s the drug trade was getting bigger. Cocaine had started coming in heavily, primed by ecstasy. Heroin and cannabis were still big. Customs had to improve their undercover work, which was a bit amateur-hour up until then. They learned from the best, who happened to be the Royal Canadian Mounted Police and Greater Manchester Police. One of the tactics Customs used was to set up deep-undercover operatives, working on multiple cases by staying ‘in legend’ (taking on a persona) in the criminal world for a long period, sometimes years.
The best of these was a Customs investigator whose fake persona was a character called Guy Stanton. His persona was that he was the son of an old-school London villain who had made money in Amsterdam. Guy was a fixer. If you needed a boat or a lorry, he would get it.
What was he like, 'in legend'?
The officer himself was a hard nut which helped. He was burly, had a ponytail and was a trained boxer, a tough guy. He was gruff. I’ve met him, and he can put the stare on you. He psyched out violent coke smugglers. He was good at giving villains the impression he was a serious player, that he was on a par or bigger than them.
He had a flat, authentic identity documents, a life – everything had to check out and withstand scrutiny. He was kitted out with a £50,000 Rolex confiscated from drug smugglers by Dutch police and a sky-blue Rolls Royce taken from a British VAT fraudster. He worked alongside a high-level informant, who introduced him to a lot of high-end drug traffickers. They were a tag team.
He was undercover for ten years. He met all the major figures of the time: the Adams family, the Turks from north London, Curtis Warren from Liverpool. He was at the centre of the web. In fact he knew scores of criminals, globally. He had guns pointed at his head. He was in a shootout in Suriname. He went to Mexico, Colombia, Miami, Afghanistan. But he couldn’t go to court, as that would blow his cover. So he passed all the intel to a handler. ‘Guy’ told me it was always the lieutenants he had to look out for because the main guy wants you to be real.
How different is this era to now?
It seems archaic now, almost quaint. It was a fascinating game of cat and mouse. The Customs investigators loved their job and the smugglers loved it too. The investigators thought it was great fun chasing smugglers around the world, testing their wits against each other. There were risks, but compared to being, say, a uniformed police officer, it was not normally that dangerous. Only one member of the Customs Investigation Division has ever been killed while investigating drug smugglers, in 1979, and it’s not happened since.
When did it all change?
From 2006 the Serous Organised Crime Agency, which was misleadingly labelled ‘Britain’s FBI’, took over the investigation of high-end traffickers and adopted a policy of going after the alleged Mr Bigs – they called them ‘core nominals’. They did not investigate seizures if it did not involve a core nominal on their list. But they'd got it completely wrong. They were too late. By the 2000s, the drug trade had shattered into a thousand pieces, into multiple smuggling crews and players, and the power of the Mr Bigs had lessened.
Why did the drug trade shatter like this?
It started with ecstasy, the leisure drug that came from nowhere. It changed people’s approach to drug-taking. It normalised drug use and therefore it normalised drug smuggling. As Britain’s drug market expanded, and everyone could afford coke, all sorts of people were seeing the opportunity to smuggle it in because it was so ubiquitous.
You say we're at a watershed moment in the global drug trade now. What is going on?
Global consensus on drug prohibition is disappearing. My book starts in 1961, with the UN Single Convection, which enshrined a worldwide ban on drugs. It was driven by US moral and religious thinking. It was a blanket ban.
Yet in the last ten years, with the end of cannabis prohibition in Canada, Uruguay, and certain US states, and decriminalisation in Portugal and other European countries, we are seeing not just the erosion, but the potential collapse of this whole edifice of prohibition.
Have politicians in the UK changed their tune on tackling the smugglers?
In the late 1980s there was so much fear about drugs that there were demands to bring in the armed forces to deal with the issue. In the 1990s the government appointed a drug czar. But then there was a wave of MPs who admitted using drugs when they were younger and the issue was kicked into the long grass.
Now, politically, drugs as a major issue disappeared off the agenda in about 2000. Neither Labour or the Tories mentioned drugs in their last manifestos. Immigration is a much bigger issue now. This, coupled with austerity hitting attempts at catching smugglers, has resulted in the lowest drug seizures in 14 years, despite record opium and cocaine crops. You don’t have to be a genius to know more drugs are getting in.
Have the authorities given up?
No. But drugs is not one of the National Crime Agency’s six key threats now, which is extraordinary seeing as the drugs trade is the biggest illegal criminal enterprise in the world and powers much of organised crime. A mountain of heroin and coke is ready to hit the west but there is no NCA policy to deal with it. The NCA are more concerned with County Lines.
Am a right in thinking that the authorities just do not have the resources the drug smugglers have?
The NCA is the child of austerity. It has been underfunded and under-manned ever since it was set up in 2013. They don’t have the resources.
But it’s not just about money. The public feel more strongly about knife crime and County Lines than drug smuggling, because those are the things they can see, whereas the drugs smuggling trade is not visible to the person in the street. It’s a case of 'out of sight, out of mind.' So the NCA has been fighting without enough troops, and seem to have decided not to make a big operational issue out of drugs.
What should be done?
The Border Agency has withdrawn customs checks at minor ports and airports, so there are almost no checks in some places. Today, you could sail a yacht loaded with cocaine into Fleetwood or Littlehampton and nobody will take a blind bit of notice.
So British drug policy is adrift at sea. You have to make a choice. Either you legalise or you prohibit and enforce that prohibition. If you prohibit and don’t enforce, you surrender to organised crime.
'Drug War: the Secret History' is out now via Milo Books.