Last Tuesday evening, Redwan El-Ghaidouni was executed outside his home on a street in suburban West London. The murder, carried out by a hooded man firing six bullets at the former car dealer, left neighbours and the media dumbfounded.
How could this happen in such a respectable neck of the woods, they wondered. After all, El-Ghaidouni's spacious family home, complete with double driveway, was yards from a £22,000-a-year private school, on a street in Uxbridge known as "Millionaire's Row".
"Neighbours spoke of their shock today after an 'ordinary' father shot dead in his driveway in a suspected gangland 'hit' was revealed as a convicted drugs baron," the Evening Standard reported, quoting one resident: "We can't believe it. I thought they were just an ordinary family. His wife volunteered at the local football club and the two kids were always smiling. You'd see them all leaving the house together at the weekends. I just saw his stylish car and thought he must be a very successful businessman."
Of course, the residents of Uxbridge appear to have missed a news story from four months earlier that featured El-Ghaidouni's drug trafficking exploits – the one that explained how the Moroccan-born "Mr Big" had the honour of becoming the first UK criminal to have his assets (in this case a swanky £400,000 flat on the 49th floor of the Torch Tower in Dubai) confiscated by authorities in the UAE.
The surprise expressed by the good people of Uxbridge at finding an international weed importer with a lengthy jail term behind him living in their midst – among the privet hedges and mock Tudor frontages, acting like any other upper middle-class person – is understandable. But in reality, drug barons and other crime lords love suburbia because it's the perfect place to blend in. A guarded cubby hole under the camouflage of mundanity.
In fact, the residents of Uxbridge seem to have a short memory when it comes to crime lords trying to vanish in their sea of magnolia.
Just the other side of the rifle range and golf course from El-Ghaidouni's place, in Manor Waye (and yes, that is Manor Waye), lived a very respectable pensioner called Marc Skinner, with his wife and two kids. The only odd thing about him was that he insisted on maintaining a particularly high, thick hedge at the front of his house. Nevertheless, according to what 76-year-old neighbour Janet Hills later told the BBC, he was "one of the nicest people you could wish to meet".
Except he wasn't Marc Skinner. He was actually Domenico Rancadore, AKA "U Profissuri" (The Professor), erstwhile area chief of Palermo's Cosa Nostra, who once sent a blood-soaked lamb's head to a priest as a threat. When the police came knocking at Manor Waye in 2013, 64-year-old Rancadore – who'd been on the run from the Italian police for 20 years and would later be dubbed "The Godfather of Uxbridge" – leapt over his back fence in a dressing gown and flip flops, only to be grabbed by a waiting officer. He's still facing extradition back to Italy, but remains in Britain on account of his dodgy ticker.
Drug barons, drug kingpins or businessmen – call them what you will, but they're not all that different from everyone else. Some might be sadistic, some might have an Uzi tattoo under that Barbour sleeve, but most of them are just like the rest of us. They want a luxe life: money, holidays, five-bedroom houses, nice cars and a bit of respect from their fellow man.
It's no surprise – whether they're still in the game or shifting down into optimistic (we've all seen the films) retirement – that your average big time player wants to live in a nice area. For those who grew up on a council estate, the driving factor – the reason they've taken so many risks – is to go up in the world, to provide something for their family.
While some go for the ostentatious, footballer-type splurges on pink Land Rovers and "fairytale" mansions, other more modern gangsters prefer to keep things a little more low key, while still providing their children access to a better education and life than the ones they were exposed to.
"Some of them don't want to attract attention – they prefer to live a life away from the scene in which they are involved; away from vendettas, prison and police... and they don't want the country pile, either," a former drug detective with the Serious Organised Crime Agency (now the National Crime Agency) tells me. "Suburbia is the perfect cover, and it's these people, living below the radar, who end up having longer, more fulfilling lives."
This method, unfortunately, didn't pan out for El-Ghaidouni.
There is nothing new about the suburban gangster: the city fringes are an old stomping ground. One of the reasons suburbia is so frowned upon by the metro elite is that the middle-class realm of middle managers and bohemians, depicted in 1970s shows such as The Good Life, have been infiltrated by what they would call the "hoi polloi".
The gradual breaking up of traditional inner-city working-class communities since the 1960s – for example, from the East End of London into the fringes of the Home Counties, such as Essex and Kent – meant some cultural traditions were exported into suburbia. The use of organised crime as a pragmatic way of competing financially with the far more privileged middle and upper classes was one of these traditions.
It just so happened that suburbia, with its increased anonymity and increased access (at the nearest country club) to potentially useful white-collar criminals, suited the new landscape of organised crime well as it moved from the community-based protection rackets of gangs like the Krays to the international drug trade. By the time the infamous North London crime boss Terry Adams was jailed for money laundering in 2007, he was living in the relative sanctity of a leafy suburban street in Mill Hill, Barnet – not in Islington, the turf from which he elevated himself.
"Forms of violent action traditionally associated with the inner city are now common in the swathe of suburban neighbourhoods that constitute London's increasingly ambiguous periphery," wrote the criminologist Dick Hobbs in Lush Life, his book about the changing nature of organised crime in the UK. "This effectively shifts the notion of criminal territory away from an emphasis upon youth, poverty and ethnicity, and focuses instead upon the 'bourgeois utopias' of the suburbs, from where the family firm can join their neighbours and commute into the city, or exploit the new territory of the periphery."
As ethnic groups have also relocated from the inner cities to the suburbs, so too have links with crime. The money made by North East London-based Pakistani heroin importers can be found in the bricks and mortar of suburbia, in areas such as Woodford, rather than in Walthamstow or Leyton.
Can a leopard change its spots? Kenny Simpson of the Scottish Crime and Drug Enforcement Agency (SCDEA) has had an insight into the lives of suburban drug barons via wire taps and other forms of surveillance.
"On the face of it, some will have a normal life, watching cartoons with their kids, putting them to bed, taking them to school. They do all the things that anyone else would do. Some are very loyal to the family unit," he said. "But in the end, they are still thugs. In the process of getting to where they are, they have dished out and caused a lot of physical grief. They aspire to respectability, but it never comes to them. They can't buy it. They'll have nice houses, nice furnishings and nice cars, but their bins are still full of McDonald's wrappers."
For the modern drug entrepreneur, class is neither here nor there. The measure of a successful criminal is time served outside prison and, ultimately, like the world's most lucrative crooks, complete legitimacy.
The real criminal players understand the importance of blending into the fabric and infrastructure of society. It's a necessity if you want to secure and develop a legitimate business, as they act as both a convenient cover and a means to turn bent cash into clean assets. For some, where they live is no different. And what's more effective than losing yourself in the guarded, seemingly sterile lap of a suburban world that's so adept at concealing its secrets?
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