The giveaway was the staff rota. Heathrow airport worker, Farhan Iqbal, 31, wasn't due to be in work on the 23rd of November, 2017, but National Crime Agency drugs officers – already watching for a suspected smuggling ring that had been importing directly from Bogota – saw him in full uniform wandering aimlessly around Heathrow Terminal 3.
NCA officers had scooped up one drugs mule on the 20th of May, during what they called a "suicide mission" – i.e. carrying many kilos of high purity cocaine in a body belt. While any smuggling attempt has an element of boldness, the confidence of the bid made officers think that an inside man was helping with safe passage.
As Iqbal arrived in the airport, Colombian Camilo Pulido Suarez, 37, calmly landed at Terminal 2, inbound from Bogota, and caught a bus to Terminal 5. Before he reached the passport security checks he headed to the arrivals toilets, a wheelie case pulled along behind him. Iqbal, suddenly full of purpose, headed in that direction at the same time.
Minutes later, NCA officers pounced. Inside one toilet, they found Suarez, the compartments in his trolley case slashed open, with a package containing 5.9kg of cocaine – street value: £480,000 – in his hands. He also held a Wilkinson Sword razor; unfortunately for Iqbal, the razor packaging was found inside the airport worker's pocket in the cubicle next door.
Iqbal had been the inside man for a Colombian drugs cartel, using his uniform to deliver a razor to the mule to slash open the packaging – a blade in the suitcase would increase the likelihood of it being detecting by baggage checks – and then assisting in the removal of the drugs before the mule ever reached passport control.
Senior Investigating Officer Mark Abbott says the unravelling of the drugs plan began when one key staff member always happened to be in work on the dates of successful importations. "From matching the dates of previous drugs busts, and working with Heathrow and Border Force, we studied staff attendance, sick leave and swipe card data moving in certain air-side areas of the airport," he tells me. "Everyone has a pass and it leaves a trail of what area they are in and when. One suspect, Iqbal, emerged, especially as he was due to be off sick for many weeks."
The Dark Web may be seen as the new marketplace for UK-based drug dealing, but contraband still has to be smuggled into the country, with most drug importation still relying on cheap flights and Channel Tunnel trips through either vehicles, cases or body belts. There is also, of course, smuggling through intimate means, often in eye-watering amounts. Abbott says, "The largest internal smuggling I've seen? You're probably looking for 500g, up to a kilo. It might even be higher than that, but that’s the usual ballpark."
While it attributed a boost in postal couriering of guns and drugs to Dark Web dealers, the National Strategic Assessment of Organised Crime 2018 reported that dealers involved in the Dark Web were typically new to any form of drug dealing. The report states, "Many young people involved in – or on the cusp of involvement in – cyber dependent crime in the UK are unlikely to have been involved previously in other crime."
According to the NCA data, a record 60 tons of cocaine were seized from transport containers – lorry, boat or plane – during 2016. An NCA spokesperson speaking about the data says organised criminal gangs from the Balkans continue to dominate within the wholesale import cocaine market. "[They] have a presence in all major UK cities and towns, and operate supply networks reaching back to source and transit countries," they tell me. "The largest volumes of cocaine continue to be trafficked via canalised maritime traffic."
This year has seen a boom in unique drug smuggling cases. In August, a gang was sentenced for attempting to use a shipment of dog biscuits to hide the smell of three quarters of a ton of cannabis – £2.1 million worth. Four men, including a 73-year-old pensioner, were part of an established organised crime group who got a combined 28 years. The plan had been focused on delivering the biscuits from a warehouse in Spain to a fictional company based in rural Kent, where the shipment was intercepted.
In the same kind of realm, a bright orange and blue stock racing car isn't exactly discreet, but Antonius Hendriks, 50, who owned the vehicle, and his assistant Rene Neuteboom, 35, hid £2.6 million of drugs inside the truck used to transport it, and regularly drove it unchecked around Europe. When caught, they claimed they were en route to a race competition in King's Lynn. However, officials found 40 kilograms of cocaine and 280 kilograms of cannabis hidden in 60 separate holdalls within specially adapted compartments inside both the roof and structure of the race car and its transport truck.
In court, where Hendriks and Neuteboom were sentenced to ten years, ten months and nine years respectively, a judge heard the stock car had successfully entered the UK 20 times, even though neither of the men involved had competed in a race during that time.
The National Strategic Assessment of Organised crime 2018 stated a future boom in drug smuggling would come from drone technology, which is already used to drop drugs into prison yards. One dealer received six years for smuggling £48,000 worth of drugs into prisons by this means, and a specialist detection force was promptly set up to stem the tide. "More likely, [drones] will be for local distribution of drugs inside the UK," adds the NCA spokesperson. "This will allow suppliers the ability to carry out deliveries themselves, cutting out a middle man and remaining 'hands off' the commodity."
This growth in drones will make prosecutions difficult – importers often only face prosecution if they are caught red-handed with drugs. Speaking about the Iqbal-Suarez conviction, Abbott says, "It's critical you catch them in the act, or else vital evidence disappears. However, once you have that, you can unlock other aspects of the case. The phones that were retrieved from the Colombians highlighted a fairly large conspiracy; the eventual indictment went back all the way to February, 2017, pre-dating what we had already, and we were able to identify 15 suspected importations."
Having an inside man was key to the Heathrow deception. Iqbal argued he was acting under duress, that the Colombian group had bullied him into it, but this was rejected in court. Abbott says, "Iqbal was integral to this conspiracy, being responsible for over £1 million in drugs. As an inside man, he was able to take an element of risk away for them. If you have inside help, you could smuggle anything – guns, counterfeit, drugs, people."
In October of 2017, another inside man – a UK official in Dover – was arrested after an attempt to smuggle 37 kilograms of cocaine and 7 kilograms of heroin. Ten handguns, a quantity of ammunition and three silencers were also concealed in a holdall inside a vehicle, destined for a UK-based organised crime group.
While Border Force, the police and the NCA make arrests, a record amount of drugs are still being produced. According to NCA official data, Colombian cocaine production reached 1,000 to 1,100 tons in 2017, while opium production in Afghanistan increased by 87 percent. These huge increases in drug production across the globe mean UK dealers have less need to dilute, or "bash up", their product should it get through border control, leading to a higher potency at street level – the ramifications of which we've seen in ever-increasing drug deaths and hospitalisations.