Photo of the author (left) with one of the guys we met on our travels by Alex Sturrock.
DISCLAIMER: this guy was not involved in any heroin dealing.
Selling drugs is wrong and illegal, but is it fun? I wanted to find out, so I found a gang of heroin dealers from one of the most economically deprived areas in London and hung out with them for a night so I could find out the answer to the above question. Here’s what happened.
I called Darren (a member of the gang whose number I acquired through a friend) when I’d reached the East London train station he had said to meet him at. After two rings, he answered the phone and told me to wait where I was and he would call me back.
A few minutes later he called back and said he was approaching in a silver Mercedes A-Class, which I should get into as soon as it stopped outside.
When I got in, there was a driver and a young-looking guy sat in the front, and one guy in the back, who introduced himself as Darren. They all seemed pretty mellow, which I attributed to the strong smell of weed in the car. Darren was wearing a plain white Prada windbreaker, a black pullover and black jeans.
It was quite a tight fit in the back of the car as me and the photographer Alex were squashed together with Darren in the back. This was a bit weird, but on the whole, it wasn’t as awkward as you’d think.
After a brief discussion of what we were going to do that night, Darren instructed the driver to take me to a friend’s house nearby. We pulled into the close of a housing estate and all got out of the car. They were pleasant to me at all times, but it was obvious that they didn’t really trust me since we had only just met. The whole time I was there, all three of them were constantly on the phone — both taking calls from people who wanted to buy drugs and making calls to people who they could buy drugs from. They all talked in code. A typical phone call went something like: “Yeah? Bring the lumpy. Where’s the dinger? Yeah. Hurry up.”
The longest sentences were like three or four words long. I guess you can’t be too specific when you’re doing this job in case the police are tapping your phone.
In an effort to make the atmosphere a little less intense I jokingly asked that if they thought I had done a good job by the end of the day, whether there was a possibility I could join their gang. After chuckling to himself, Darren looked back at me with a stone cold expression and said that he would never roll with someone he did not have complete trust in. If he got “caught slipping” he needed someone who would not run off but stand up and fight, even if outnumbered. I noticed Darren had scars on his face and forehead. He told me it was no good acting tough when you were among gang members, only to run away if caught alone. He also said it was essential that he had a reputation in his area, so he wouldn’t get “moved to” if seen out by himself. It is common for dealers to rob other dealers and taking risks is all part of moving up the ladder. Darren didn’t like to take risks by buying large amounts from or selling large amounts to people he did not know, but every now and then he would do this if he thought the risk was worth it financially.
A call came through about picking up half an ounce of “B” (brown, aka heroin). Darren had to meet someone so stayed behind, but the driver, Bonx, and the young-looking guy, Merka, took me with them to pick up the heroin. While driving along I noticed that all of them were dressed as if they were going to a job interview at a high street store. They told me this was so they didn’t look out of place driving an expensive car. Darren and Bonx never wore hoodies, unless they were going to do some “dirt”, in which case they would burn their clothes afterwards. Bonx told me that some days he’d drive around all day selling drugs dressed in a suit.
We pulled into another enclosed housing estate where we were met by three or so young guys that Bonx told me were working for him, selling anything from “white” (crack) to “Bobby” (heroin). They told me here that one of the main rules of being a heroin dealer is to never drive around aimlessly with drugs in the car. You always have to go to a house to pick it up before going to an arranged point to sell it to someone. The gang had a number of housing estates where they knew people and where they felt safe to hang out. In one of the houses, they were breeding pitbulls and Rottweillers. They bred these dogs so that police would be discouraged from stopping and searching them when out on the street. Asking someone to let go of their aggressive dogs while they were searched is not something a police officer would want to do, Bonx said.
Bonx went into a house and came out with a shotgun, which freaked me out a little. We were on a close with a row of houses on each side, but Bonx was brazenly showing off and posing with his gun. At one point a man and his young child came out from the house we were stood outside and got into his car, while Bonx stood there waving around a shotgun. I brought a bullet-proof vest with me to wear as a joke and Bonx encouraged me to put it on so it would look like I was from the “boy dem” (police).
I spent a lot of time talking to the younger guys I had met. They were pretty much what I expected from your average East London teenager—into grime and influenced by films such as Scarface, New Jack City and Goodfellas. They seemed no older than 13 years old, so it was hard to imagine them carrying guns and selling drugs, but that’s what they did.
Bonx got another call and we were off again, with some of the gang we had just met following in a car behind. Bonx drove around the narrow residential roads of East London at about 50mph with old school West Coast rap blaring at full volume the whole time (he only liked this style of rap because the rappers spoke about what they actually did, unlike rappers today who told tales; 50 Cent was a “snitch”, in his opinion). He told me it was essential that he could drive proficiently at high speeds so he could escape from the police. We were going to pick up a handgun and the keys to a Mercedes that the gang had leant to another gang to use in a “two eleven” (an armed robbery) in return for a cut of the money. Bonx had just come out of prison after being on remand for a year on an armed robbery charge, which was dropped when the witness failed to show (he grinned when he told me this, as though he had something to do with the no-show). Bonx did his first armed robbery when he was 14 years old. He had been convicted once before for this, so didn’t like the risk involved. At the age of 16, he had enough money to start dealing heroin.
After a brief stop to pick up the keys and handgun, we headed off to meet someone who Bonx had arranged to sell half an ounce of heroin to. He commented that he didn’t feel completely safe where we were going, so it had to be a quick stop. Bonx had a number of people he regularly sold to. Any time he had heroin to sell, they had to come and buy it from him. These people would have to buy at least half an ounce twice a week. I asked him what happened if they didn’t have the money, and he replied by telling me that there are things you can do to make people come up with the money. He told me he liked to use his fist to intimidate people, but said he also sometimes brought along a strap (gun) if he had heard rumours of his buyers wanting to change dealers. He talked about setting people alight or kidnapping their parents if someone stopped buying from him and started buying from another dealer. Bonx talked about dealing as something that he and his friends had to do to survive. He didn’t think it was a fun or glamorous lifestyle.
We pulled into a poorly lit car park behind a housing estate, where Bonx picked up £400 in exchange for half an ounce of heroin. While sat in the car, I noticed Bonx’s expensive-looking watch and asked him if he bought lots of jewellery with the money he made. He shook his head in dismay and said that he never spent money on jewellery. Any he had was the result of robbery. His watch was taken off someone outside a rave in South London. He wanted to use all of his money to make bigger amounts, he said. At this point, he pulled out the money he had just received and waved it around saying it would be used to buy more drugs to make more money.
The phone rang again. It was another order for an ounce of heroin. By this point I was getting bored. Like most jobs, selling drugs gets pretty tedious after a while. It’s just as monotonous as an office job, but instead of getting a mean email from your boss if he’s not happy, you will most likely end up getting gunned down, or at the very least brutally tortured. I made my excuses as they drove to their next buyer and they obligingly dropped me back at the station where I had first been picked up. I’ve not seen or heard from them since.
In conclusion: I don’t think I’m tempted to take up a career as a heroin dealing gang member. Why? Too boring.