The senior detectives whose job it is to hunt down organised crime groups are often tight-lipped when it comes to talking about their work. It's a sensitive role that involves taking down cash-rich firms who use a web of corruption, money laundering and violence in order to avoid detection and maintain their businesses.
Last month, Tony Saggers retired from his role as the National Crime Agency's most senior anti-drug gang cop after two decades investigating high-end drug distributors and traffickers operating in Britain's highly lucrative drug market.
In this exclusive interview, he spoke to me about the changing nature of drug smuggling, organised crime and the inside story of the seemingly never-ending cat and mouse game between elite cops and drug barons.
VICE: You've been a serving police officer for 30 years. When did you first come across the drug world?
Tony Saggers: It was as a uniform PC, when I was 19 years old, in 1989. I arrested someone for about a dozen gram wraps of amphetamine in Newmarket. During my early career I was exposed to a lot of drug addiction; seeing young people at school and then seeing them three years later as heroin addicts. It was a hard learning curve for a young man. I saw the dark side of drugs from an early age.
After joining Suffolk's drug squad you moved to investigating organised drug crime at a higher level at the National Crime Squad (which became the Serious Organised Crime Agency and then the National Crime Agency). What was it like going up the drug chain, from street arrests to investigating Mr Bigs?
Each year was an eye opener. The more immersed I got and the higher level of crime I moved into, the more I understood that it was an actual industry, completely profit-driven, with a lot of collateral harms. Then there was the corruption of officials, the use of firearms, the hundreds of thousands of pounds of cash exchanged between people.
Over the 90s and 2000s I saw the UK, as a drug marketplace, become an epicentre for international traffickers. Having gone from being actually quite excited by finding some bags of amphetamine in Newmarket town centre in 1989, I'd come on a journey – I guess like a parallel journey to a drug dealer who eventually became an international drug trafficker. There must have been people my age in the late-80s who were working their way up the supply chain as I was working my way up the enforcement side of things.
WATCH: How to Sell Drugs
Who's been the most high profile drug gangster you've dealt with?
Curtis Warren was ahead of me in the game, because he was already big in the 80s, when I was at school. He was working at the upper echelons of organised crime and made a name for himself out of nowhere to become one of Britain's most notorious drug traffickers.
I was an expert witness at his trial, interpreting the drug trade language between Warren and others during bugged conversations recorded by police. I was also an expert witness during Warren's drug proceeds order in 2015. It was my role to demonstrate the scale and breath of his activity, to decode his 20-year drugs career. I reviewed thousands of sheets of paper, basically evaluated his drug business from the 1980s to 2013.
He'd used code words to indicate the size and frequency of consignments packed into his fleet of articulated lorries transporting drugs across Europe. Over nine months I came up with an assessment of the scale of Warren's drugs activity, the rate he was working at and the countries across which he was trafficking. This supported the prosecution to come up with an estimate of Warren's earnings of £198 million.
Even though he was a criminal I could look at him and think, 'You were very good at that.' He was confident and he was a risk taker. The reality is that, in his day, he was achieving things in the drugs world that a lot of people were aspiring to but couldn't. He had contacts in 30 countries around the world. He had a network similar to today's organised crime groups, but 20 years before his time.
What have been the biggest changes to the way crime groups operate within Britain's drug trade in the last two decades?
The world has become smaller via transport, logistics and the ability to move cash. Everything is much more fluid now. Networking is easier through technology. So the drug industry is more efficient and drugs are moved quicker than ever before. There are an increasing number of opportunities for people to be corrupted and exploited.
Cross-cutting is common now among organised crime groups. So you might get a group that are smugglers by trade with drugs as their primary commodity, but they will use the same logistics to diversify into moving people across Europe – immigration crime and trafficking people for exploitation. More gangs are also becoming cash smugglers. There is massive industry in cash smuggling, getting currency out of the UK and into Europe. They may also get involved in high value thefts of vehicles out of the country, and firearms.
How have the gangs themselves changed?
Britain has become far more multicultural, which is a good thing, but there's a much wider demographic of criminals now, hiding within these communities. In the 1980s and 90s crime groups trafficking drugs into the UK involved foreign nationals from about six countries. Now, there are between 30 and 50 nationalities, which means a wider range of supply routes from all over the world. Targeting this is much more complex. In the 90s you could stereotype to a high degree of accuracy the national backgrounds connected with importing drugs; with crack cocaine it was primarily Caribbean and white British, and for heroin it was Pakistani, Turkish and white British. Not any more.
What's the main thing the public doesn't get about the gangs running Britain's illegal drug trade?
They do not understand what they're subscribing to, where the money goes, who the people they are buying drugs from are, and what else these people are actually doing apart from supplying drugs. What I've learnt over the years is just how harmful the revenue generated through drugs is. Those who choose to buy drugs seem to be deliberately or subconsciously removing themselves from the responsibility of funding organised crime. You might think, 'I know the guy who supplies my cocaine, he's a nice bloke, he doesn't do anything else apart from drugs.' Maybe he doesn't. But he's not buying his drugs from Colombia; he's buying from a supply chain based on profit regenerated into the lifestyles of wealthy drug traffickers or into a wider threat of harms, such as firearms, people trafficking or a sex industry that requires young, exploited women. Those things don't happen without significant funds from drugs.
What do you think of people who are addicted to drugs?
During the NCA's work tracking down fentanyl, I saw people go on social media saying, "Addicts are low lives, why should we care." But they are not low lives; they were once good people leading good lives, and they are still someone's daughter, son, husband or wife. I've never struggled with the challenge of looking at drugs through the eyes of the user or dealer.
I was the expert witness in Pete Doherty's prosecution for perverting the course of justice following the drug death of a filmmaker. I was responsible for interpreting and describing film footage of drug use that day. I highlighted the fact that Doherty said he was not prepared to give her crack because she had been clean for several months. Public perception is that none of them care, but the trial offered a rare insight into the fact there is a degree of responsibility among friends, even if they are using these kind of drugs.
By the way, I wouldn't be stereotyped for being a fan of the Libertines or Babyshambles, but I'm a big fan of his music. I own his back catalogue.
How much of an earner is the illegal drugs trade for organised criminals?
For most organised crime groups, drug trafficking is their cash generator and their insurance policy. Drug profits allow them to dabble in other crimes. If they fail in these other ventures, the investment and the profits available from drugs will allow them to fail without consequence. If they succeed, they will plough more drug profits into growing the other side of the business.
How is the cat and mouse game between drug gangs and drug cops going? Is it skewed against the cops?
Organised crime groups spend months planning and investing in their next venture. Law enforcement has to first understand the situation, deploy some intelligence, then design a strategy to counter it. So we are usually playing catch up.
But it falls back to resources. While you're trying to stay on top of a major drug situation, there is rightly pressure to do work around immigration crime, or human trafficking, or the big surge in firearms crime. The criminals are running free, and the NCA and our counterparts are pushing against a headwind and carrying the burden of other weights. Drugs are so cash rich and profitable for the criminals, meanwhile law enforcement is considering at the next meeting which one of the 15 drug groups it will be targeting its resources at. It's a battle of attrition.
Even when you can disrupt them, drug gangs are highly adaptable, is that right?
Unless you completely dismantle an organised crime group they will just problem solve whatever obstacles are put in front of them. They just reform and rebuild. For example, during a drug trafficking trial in 2012, the defendant's barrister claimed it was ludicrous to think his client would try and smuggle drugs into the UK through JFK airport, because of such high security, post 9/11. I had a few hours to counter this argument and found out there had been at least 50 cases of drug gangs corrupting airport staff at JFK since 9/11. So there was increased security for counter-terrorism, but it did not deter drug traffickers. When a barrier is put in front of organised drug criminals, they will work out a way round it.
Does Britain being an island not help keep out the drugs?
We have a 360-degree border – land, air and sea – but we don't have 360 control over it. One of the threats we've seen recently is private light aircraft, helicopters and micro lights from the near continent, because they can do these crossings very simply. Policing air space and the coast is not easy. Of course, organised criminals will put their focus on the non-policed areas, like the small landing strips, the beaches and the marinas that can't be given the same level of focus as an international seaport or airport. That said, some excellent results have been achieved in this area.
Is it true that the harder police try to stop drugs coming into a country, the more profitable it is for smugglers?
Yes, there is some truth to that. It's a perverse outcome. The more effective enforcement is, the more likely the wholesale kilogram price is to increase. It's about risk and reward. If it's perceived to carry risk to import drugs to the UK, the cost of overheads, payments to third parties and the initial sale price all have potential to increase.
Did you come across much corruption?
In the UK it's mainly, but not exclusively, people doing manual jobs at ports or airports. They tend to be sought out and corrupted. One of biggest examples is baggage-handlers involved in "rip on, rip off", where they know a certain suitcase is coming and they will remove it before it gets checked. Corruption is generated either by greed or by a minor misdemeanour that is exploited, and before you know it you are in a situation where things have snowballed out of control.
I've seen lorry drivers in the UK being paid £20,000 for taking one consignment of drugs into the UK, when their annual wage is £30,000. That's a big carrot to dangle in front of someone who is in debt or struggling to pay their mortgage. This is where criminals will always have the upper hand on law enforcement, because they've got access to all the money. £20,000 these days is profit from one kilo of coke. If you have a hundred kilos in the back of a lorry and you write off one to pay for a driver, that's a good investment. I haven't seen any examples in the UK where top end people have been corrupted by drug traffickers.
What about abroad?
I've visited about 40 countries as part of my job and seen high end corruption; entire air strips opened in west Africa to take cocaine flights, sea ports in east Africa and parts of east Europe made accessible to organised criminals by senior figures in law enforcement and government. Where this kind of corruption prevails is where life is cheap and where people aren't being paid what they think they should be.
An important feature of corruption in other countries is fear. If you refuse an approach to be corrupted in certain places – South America, west Africa, the Balkans – you are at risk of being murdered. People are being shown photos of their children going to school. So when an official in the UK gets corrupted, they haven't got any of that mitigation. They are not threatened with death, or killed, like in other countries.
The drug trade has seeped into all parts of society; not all gangsters are street thugs done well. Did you arrest any fine, upstanding organised criminals?
It's not uncommon. Certainly those running crime groups are not all from big cities; a lot of the bigger players have naturally moved on and live in villages in rural counties because they have invested in big properties. For example, there was a lawyer, earning €100,000 a year, who went to Peru and swallowed a body full of cocaine with his girlfriend to take back to Lisbon via London.
On one operation, our main target was an international drug trafficker who was also a sponsor of the local football team. He paid for the refurbishment of the local village hall, donated to charitable events. He was that neighbour with a big house. He was big in the community, but with a logistics background that allowed him to become a smuggler.
Has there ever been a point where you thought you were winning?
No. But I did feel a sense of success every time we disrupted or dismantled an organised crime group. You don't stop preventing bad things from happening just because you can't solve the bigger picture.
Purity of heroin and cocaine is now back to normal after a huge dip in the early 2010s. Was this reduced purity down to law enforcement's strangle-hold on supply?
There were some massive, multiple ton seizures in Turkey and Iran during that period. These contributed to a significant increase in wholesale heroin prices, up to £30,000 per kilo, which coincided with an opium drought in Afghanistan, due to poppy blight. What's more, the pound crashed against the euro and dollar, which meant the trading value of the pound on the international market was weak. So all those things conspired. Some suppliers stockpiled the heroin, but most increased the price. The dip in cocaine purity was caused by the crash of the pound to the dollar and euro, and the introduction of benzocaine, a sophisticated cutting agent, which made cocaine go a lot further without people realising.
Have any big drugs syndicates moved to influence global or regional markets?
If a nationality of organised criminals breaks into a national market and tries to sell it for cheap, cutting their margins to gain dominance, they can help bring the price down in a country. For example, expert evidence interpretation of ledgers recovered from Albanian cocaine traffickers in the UK demonstrated they were charging below market level kilogram prices. A year on, the market price had fallen. They continue to undercut.
There are about 3,000 organised crime groups in the UK, many of whom are involved in drugs dealing or trafficking. Around 10 percent of these are deemed to have assets of more than £1 million. How do you choose which gangs to target?
We gather intelligence using a network of informants, undercover officers and intelligence systems around the world. We monitor known organised crime groups in UK using a range of means, such as bugging of cars and homes. From this comes pictures of activity and levels of threat. Then you have a prioritisation process that decides which of those OCGs needs to be targeted by our resources. The reality is that a massive amount is known about lots of criminals, but we can't target them all. A lot of justification goes into a decision to target someone. Someone acting with impunity today could be number one target tomorrow, not because of what they've done in the last 24 hours, but because it's their turn; the attention has turned to them rather than someone else.
It's been suggested that the police exaggerate the monetary value of drugs seized in big busts to gain more dramatic media headlines. Is this true?
It does still occasionally happen. As the former lead for expert evidence, I have tried to apply a high degree of integrity around what a seizure of drugs is worth, in terms of wholesale and street value. It's rare now, but I have seen an amount of drugs seized and I won't be able to find the maths in the value they've put on it in the media. For example, a police force has put a figure of £20 million on a seizure of cocaine, and the biggest figure I can put on it is £6 million. I know that the expert witness in that force will have to tell court in a few months time, with the height of integrity, what the real value of that seizure is. You would hope the officer would never buckle under the pressure to replicate an inaccurate figure, as that is the training in this field and it is a matter of integrity.
Why does it happen?
Sometimes a police force might use the most extreme example in their area of how far a kilo can be split by a gang, and extrapolate from that. They are getting carried away with fact that they know one gang might split a gram 15 ways, so it gets factored into their calculations, even though this extreme may no longer be common practice. When big seizures are made, let's tell the public a representative figure – we don't need to sensationalise the numbers.
What can police do about the growing dark web market?
Dark web drug markets are still less than 1 percent of street level supply; it's still a parallel market to the street trade, as opposed to an alternative market. The vast majority of drug users are buying their drugs face-to-face, because that market relies on trust, introductions, establishing relationships. Sitting next to someone before you decide to risk 20 years in prison if they are an informant or police officer. I don't believe the dark net offers anywhere near enough of that.
But the dark net does pose a threat, so our job is to target and undermine the platform, rather than the drug dealers themselves. We do things to break down the dark web's integrity and credibility, so that people feel less likely to want to go there. We want to make people lose faith in it.
How do you do that?
We need to make sure we don't end up with vendors becoming cult figures, so we need to undermine their reputation, ID them and out them. There needs to be less kudos with being a big supplier on the dark web, because that's not healthy.
Is the dark web preferable than the more violent street market?
This argument that "well at least people are not dealing with criminals" doesn't hold up. These sellers are still making it easy for people to take drugs, because they are having them delivered to their home address. We've got to get away from thinking that's a good thing. People are not buying from reputable places, they are not getting synthetic dugs from a lab environment. The dark net has no quality guarantee.
How can police check all the mail?
If work is done to disrupt postal delivery, customers lose faith. You need to make it a less reliable place to do business and we try to do this by targeting postal hubs. Border Force do a lot of profiling of international mail coming into the UK, but there could be more work done in this.
So is the war on drugs a failure?
I hate the phrase war on drugs. I call it our response to the drugs threat. It's very fair comment to say that despite the best efforts of enforcement with the resources available to us, we haven't been able to protect vulnerable drug users. However, I've seen lots of success – locking up traffickers for 25 years, taking away millions of pounds of assets, preventing them from putting harmful drugs onto the streets. Other people step in their place, of course, but we don't give up – we can't just turn a blind eye.
It's only because we don't do it enough that we don't have as big an impact as we could. When they say the war on drugs has failed, what it means is that insufficient resources have been available to do more frequently what actually proves to be quite successful: drug treatment and drug enforcement. It would be a very sad day when law enforcement cooled down its attitude to the drug situation. But prohibition alone is not the answer. It's also about the public's lack of responsibility, because they are fuelling this industry.
How can Britain's drug problem be solved if supply cannot be stopped?
I know it's a cop out for me to say, having not solved the battle against drugs, but we cannot achieve anything without the consent of the community. I know it's a really simplistic view, but I just don't get why our society wants to distort its mind so frequently and at such volume that drugs are now one of the biggest commercial markets in the UK. What I still don't know the answer to is why our society seems hell bent on using every single available drug that is presented to them to try. We live in a great country – surely there are lots of other things people can turn their mind to, to get their stimulus from.
What's really unhelpful at the moment is this barrage of "drugs will be safe if you test them". We need to educate young people that drugs are a risk. That even if their drugs are tested, that test doesn't describe what those drugs might do to an individual.
So you are not into what The Loop is doing, testing drugs at festivals?
The Loop is testing a minute fraction of the drugs consumed every day in the UK. What they are doing is making a few people's choices better informed. Can you imagine how much it would cost to put a Loop-type facility in every town in the UK? But with all the little red hearts on Twitter, you would think from social media commentary that it's the only way forward.
I hope it doesn't happen, but when the first person dies after they've taken a drug that's been tested, how are all those campaigning that testing makes drug taking much safer going to respond? Will they still blame prohibition?
What will be the biggest change in ten years time?
There will become a time when the market is saturated. I can really see £30 a gram of cocaine creeping in if the flow continues and demand remains high. That's not a good thing. It just makes it more accessible to another demographic of users, and it will generate more competition, and competition within an illicit market tends to generate violence to gain control. So we could see an even bigger rise in gun and knife crime than we have now. My fear is that if we don't continue to keep pressure on drug traffickers, the organised crime environment will implode, and there is the potential that the country will become a more dangerous place because of conflict between drug traffickers.
That is why I'm so frustrated that in the cocaine market, where egos are high, profits are big and firearms are prevalent, we have a situation where those buying cocaine are turning a blind eye.
Is decriminalisation or legalisation the answer?
I sincerely hope that most drug possession arrests are stumbled across – that the police are not looking for it. Because I know, as a matter of fact, that every police service in this country is too busy to justify focusing its resources on cannabis users, even though it's a crime. There are a dozen different options to consider to deal with the consequences of being caught with drugs. But drugs have to be criminalised. Many problem drug users get help quicker through being arrested than they do by going on a waiting list for treatment.
People say, "If you legalise you take the drugs out of the hands of the criminals." But drugs is such a global, multi-billion dollar industry that it is naïve in the extreme for anyone to suggest that governments who are supplying drugs will be able to do it efficiently and cost effectively enough to take the criminal network out of the equation. If anything, the gangs will become more ruthless – more efficient at exploiting people – to keep the overheads down.
But the drug gangs would take a massive hit.
Drug suppliers can take a hit. You can take 20 percent out of their revenue on a kilo of coke and they'll still make over £20,000 from source. And that's before it's broken down and sold at street level. The biggest revenue generator for many organised crime groups is cocaine. It is so important to underpinning all their activities. So they are not just going to let go of it.