Inside Liverpool's Teenage Gun Gangs
A decade after the murder of Rhys Jones, why is the city's gang scene kicking off?
A young man posing with a gun. Photo: Liverpool Echo
We're driving around the north Liverpool suburbs not far from Croxteth, where 11-year-old Rhys Jones was accidentally shot dead by 16-year-old gang member Sean Mercer in 2007. It was the violent rivalry between the Croxteth Crew and the Strand Gang from nearby Norris Green that led to Rhys' killing, brought back into public focus this spring by the TV drama Little Boy Blue.
I'm in the car with Paul Walmsley, a former Mersey drug firm member who was one of Britain's most wanted crooks in the late 2000s, and a criminologist, Grace Robinson. We're here because, after years of falling gun crime in the area since Rhys was killed, it's once again exploded. Last week there were four shootings in seven days, part of a steep escalation of gun crime that has blindsided the authorities and left communities nervously awaiting the next echo of a gunshot. And the most worrying thing is that most of these crimes involve very young men.
As we turn the corner into the Norris Green neighbourhood where Walmsley grew up, we spot a group sitting on a wall. When Paul recognises one of them – I'm later told he's one of the most lethal gangsters in Liverpool, and that those he's hanging out with are key figures on the local gang scene – we stop and get out for a quick chat.
The younger ones don't know Walmsley; we would have been fronted up within seconds if it wasn't for his connection to one of the older faces in the group. Even so, a car circles the block, checking us out. Despite partial regeneration and a crackdown by Merseyside Police's anti-gang Matrix unit since Rhys was killed, Norris Green is still volatile enough to make it a no-go area for most outsiders and police on foot.
Robinson had explained to me earlier that while Norris Green and Croxteth are no longer considered hotspots for gun crime, the trouble has been displaced to even more deprived neighbourhoods, such as those in Bootle, Kirkby and Fazakerley.
There is, she says, a new generation of young street criminals, often recruited by exploitative older criminals, who are fast gaining a reputation for being more blatant in their efforts to evoke fear in their rivals than ever before. When Sean Mercer shot Rhys Jones a decade ago he was armed with a battered World War One revolver and a mountain bike. Today's street gangs are more likely to be on scrambler or quad bikes, packing sawn-off shotguns. Despite the respect for women among Liverpool's criminal classes, these boys tell their enemies, "We're going round yer mam's," before strafing homes with gunfire and sticking petrol bombs through letterboxes.
I ask one of the lads sitting on the wall – who, at 25, has noticed the changing tide – why he thinks it's all kicking off this summer, when as recently as spring of 2016 the police appeared to have been containing it. "This generation is crazy. They just don't care," he says. "There's no fear and it's so easy to get a gun. They don't go to school and they have no money, apart from a bit of money [earned] selling weed. Their mum's a skaghead or an alcoholic, and their dad's inside for murder or he's dead. These shootings, it's not over money or drugs. They have nothing to lose – the only thing they care about is respect."
WATCH: 'The UK's Young Reoffenders', our documentary about a group of young men stuck in a cycle of crime.
For gang members wanting to prove a point, firearms and scrambler bikes are an efficient way of spreading fear and causing serious harm from a distance, before making a quick get-away. Police admit the growing availability of powerful guns on Liverpool's streets is a major problem.
Denis Moran, a recently retired police officer who was attached to the Matrix unit, told me that teenagers, who are regularly sent out of Liverpool to the countryside to sell drugs, are also stealing firearms to order: "There is a link to County Lines here. Young men are going out to deal drugs in Cheshire, Cumbria and Shropshire, and they are being tasked with stealing shotguns for use back on the city streets."
He says shotguns used by farmers to kill vermin are being grabbed from farm houses while the owners are out ploughing the fields. He believes that while many shootings are sparked by neighbourhood rivalries and petty insults, some are linked to debts and disputes over the lucrative trade in home grown cannabis.
To deep delve into this meltdown you have to gain insights into the minds of the kids in the middle of all this trigger-happy chaos.
Robinson, who is researching gangs and youth violence at Edge Hill University in Liverpool, has spent many hours speaking to young gang members and youth offender specialists in the city's northern, almost completely white, suburbs.
Behind the bravado, the black North Face jackets and scraggly "ketwig" hairstyles hide some of the country's most neglected and deprived children, who appear locked into a life of crime and violence from an early age.
"It's difficult to help them because their families are often involved in gangs. Their dad is in prison, their grandad is in prison and their mum's boyfriend is a gang member. One lad I'm speaking to, his mum is with a gang member and she's getting all her kids to rob and sell drugs. They think it's fine," says Robinson.
She says every one of the young gang members she has spoken to have fragile home lives: they are either in care, in one-parent families or being passed around between relatives. Most of them are kicked out of school by 14. "I spoke to one yesterday," says Robinson, "he said he couldn't stand it. He hated the teachers telling him off, so he started hitting them. So he's not been back to school since."
Liverpool's northern suburbs have always been rough places to grow up. Released from prison last year after being jailed for his involvement in a £3.5 million heroin smuggling plot, Walmsley has been a career criminal since his teens, gaining favour among the elders for being smart and keeping his mouth shut. Now, at 48, he's a life coach who is helping young offenders desist from being involved in street gangs.
According to Walmsley, the explosion of violence among the new generation of gangbangers is down to a power vacuum created by the removal of an upper echelon of gang members in north Liverpool following the Rhys Jones killing. He says a similar wave of random violence followed a police sweep of Liverpool gangland in the 1990s. Severing the head of the beast takes out senior players, says Walmsley, but it also leads to chaos on the streets.
"When I was grafting, there was a hierarchy. Now everyone is autonomous," he says. "A new generation is emerging and they have to make a name for themselves; they have to have a reputation, so therefore they have to do something to gain that reputation. It takes only seconds to spot someone on their turf, have a gun delivered into their hand and fire it at someone, but it gives them ten years' worth of credibility. Mobile phones are like having a form of CCTV in everyone's pockets: you are alerted as soon someone is on your patch."
Well-known Liverpool gangland face "Billy" – who "terrorised" the city's gangland in the 2000s, according to Walmsley – was released on a tag earlier this year after serving a lengthy jail term for a string of firearms and drugs offences. Billy tells me that these days, because it's even more about notoriety now than before, the more blatant the better. This is why so many of the recent shootings have occurred in the middle of the afternoon.
His wife, who is a nurse at a local hospital, says she sees one shooting victim a night. "Last week my cousin was arrested for a shooting, but he ended up being questioned at Birkenhead police station because every police station cell in Liverpool was full of people in custody because of all the shootings," says Billy. "You'd respect murder in my time, but now they'll murder over anything. Liverpool is a 'cesspit' that's been abandoned by the government. How much are the houses worth in London? Round here they go for £30,000."
Almost a decade of austerity has hit Liverpool's already deprived suburbs, such as Knowsley, hard. As poverty has been ratcheted up, in some cases young people have been tempted into crime just in order to earn the money they need for food. It's no surprise, then, that the Dickensian-style practice of "child criminal exploitation" is creating an army of kids who are criminally savvy at an increasingly early age.
"Youth offender workers are seeing younger and younger children getting into trouble with gangs in Liverpool," says Robinson. "On the promise of money and sometimes even food, school children are being asked to break into houses – because they are small enough – and stash weed. One seven-year-old was caught holding someone else's weapon in his school bag."
Children with law-abiding parents are turned against them. Robinson says one father grew concerned after his teenage son had been away for weeks on end selling drugs in Cumbria for a Liverpool gang. He explained to his son that he loved him, and that his bosses had no respect for him. The boy was told by gang members that his parents were just trying to stop him having fun, so he told his father he would get a gang member to come and batter him if he didn't leave him alone.
In January, a young gang member who had failed to pay a small drug debt was visited at his parent's home in Liverpool's Kensington suburb. He was not in, so the gang tore through the house, stabbing his father in the process.
Once they are isolated from their friends and family, the knot tightens, says Robinson. Older gang members exploit their trust by giving them "free" money, drugs or lodgings, only to demand back their debt in servitude. Even if these young people have the courage to try to leave, the crimes they have committed are used against them as a form of blackmail to scare them into staying.
These lads shun alcohol. Instead, they smoke huge amounts of weed, not just because they are growing the stuff, but to help mask emotions they can't deal with, believes Robinson. As with Sean Mercer, it's easy to pass them off as emotionless "feral" kids who just need to be caged. Yet, dig down and things are not so one-dimensional.
"They've got a front on them. You wouldn't think they are involved in any sort of crime, because they are so innocent-looking. But when you can get them to be open and honest with you, they are actually very likeable. They speak softly and they are polite," says Robinson. "On the surface they haven't got respect. They don't respect their parents. But when they open up, which is not all the time, it's there."
The rewards are fleeting for these kids. Unlike previously successful gang members like Walmsley, who were able to get out of Liverpool and move into a big house in the countryside or on the waterfront, the current crop are slowly shooting themselves into a dead end. "Most of them do not move out of the area in which they grew up," says Robinson. "They never get promoted to something else. They end up in prison or dead."
Unless, that is, they are offered a way out.
Against a rising tide of poverty, and as young people in some of the UK's most deprived boroughs become even more driven to the edges of society, Walmsley is using his experiences to get teenagers off Liverpool's gangbuster treadmill. "I want to give them a sense of worth, of achievement, of belonging," says Walmsley, who got into writing and counselling while in prison. "Because right now they should be with their family, the people who really love them, not with people who in 20 years time will not give a shit about them.
"We need to make them aware they have a choice, instead of shunting them to one side and treating them like scumbags. Because they are not – they're human beings: they deserve a chance."
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