The UK drug trade's body count is nothing compared to the slaughter happening across the Atlantic. Despite all the YouTube gun fingers and teenage drug dealers claiming they'll "shank a man" for also selling ten bags in their neighborhood, only six percent of homicides in England and Wales (around 30 deaths last year) are connected to some form of gang activity. In the US, the number of gang-related deaths is estimated at around 2,000 a year. In Mexico in 2010, there were more than 13,000 cartel-related homicides.
That said, while the narcotics game might not be a particularly murderous one over here, there is certainly an undercurrent of violence involved—though it's not anywhere near as dramatic as the landscape of turf wars and tear-ups the internet's junior slingers seem keen to convey. Instead, the violence takes a more insidious form, where the victims are often the young and the vulnerable.
This was hinted at in a joint report published last week by the UK's National Crime Agency and National Police Chiefs Council, which looked at how city gangs are sending teenage runners to exploit out-of-town drug markets. It said many of these kids are being exposed to violence and coercion as a result of working in such a hazardous illegal market. But what is it that makes one drug market more violent than another? Is it the presence of organized criminals, crack cocaine, or sadistic debt collection strategies? Is it the availability of weapons, or perhaps the lengths drug users will go to in order to get their next fix?
Criminologist Ross Coomber set out to answer this question by comparing the experiences of those involved in drug markets in two English urban coastal areas, Plymouth and Southend-on-Sea. His report, A Tale of Two Cities: Understanding Differences in Levels of Heroin/Crack Market-Related Violence, uses interviews with local drug users, dealers, police, and drug workers to give an insight into what makes a drug market tick, and what it is that makes it violent.
Plymouth, an old naval city on England's southwest coast with a population of 300,000, shares some characteristics with Southend, a large holiday resort town with a population of 176,000 on the southeast coast. Both are surrounded by countryside and detached from major cities. Both have seen better days, with areas of concentrated deprivation in which their drug markets are based. Southend is less isolated from a major city, being 40 miles from London, while Plymouth is 120 miles from Bristol.
Coomber found there was a marked difference between these two drug markets. In Plymouth, almost all of the street-level drug sellers were locals addicted to heroin; they sold drugs to buy drugs. In Southend, however, the vast majority of street drug sellers were young, non-addicted, out-of-town runners who sold heroin and crack purely for profit.
The way these two markets were run had a direct impact on violence. The "user-dealer" dominated drug market in Plymouth, it turned out, was being controlled at arm's length, predominantly by gangs from Liverpool, 300 miles up the M5. The Liverpudlians stepped into the city 15 years ago, shortly after a string of local dealers were jailed in a police clampdown following a bloody turf war. London gangs attempted to muscle in on the action soon after by introducing crack to the market, but made the mistake of sending young black men to what, at the time, was a virtually all-white city. Armed with intelligence, police sat outside Plymouth station in unmarked cars and picked the dealers off one by one. It's one of the reasons why there are still very few crack-only drug addicts in Plymouth today.
Heroin, however, is a different story. With 2,000 regular users spending, on average, £20 [$30] a day, Plymouth's street drug market is potentially worth about £280,000 [$437,000] a week. Liverpool gangs bring the heroin down to Plymouth, where a wholesaler stationed in the city is responsible for distributing the drugs among a group of trusted user-dealers. Like most out-of-town drug operatives, in order to blend in and leave without a trace, the wholesaler sets up shop in the home of a drug user, a practice called "cuckooing." They give the tenant free drugs in return for the use of their home as a stash house, and as is the nature of these things, by the time the police come a knocking, the wholesaler is long gone.
Cops are hopelessly outmaneuvered by the drug crews. When police managed to take out one of the main drug gangs in the city, officials at Plymouth City Council decided to see how many weeks it would take for the drug trade to get back to normal. They didn't have to wait that long: it took three hours.
Wholesalers are responsible for running their own mini-fiefdom, which includes administering punishment beatings to people who don't pay their debts. Every three months, the Liverpool bosses move their wholesaler onto another city, to keep the police guessing and prevent them from establishing their own rival business. Coomber found that the Liverpool gangs had a "light touch" policy toward Plymouth's drug market, leaving drug users to serve up to drug users, meaning turf war-type disputes were therefore pretty rare.
This was not the picture in Southend. In the Essex town, home to 1,150 addicted heroin and crack users, the market was dominated by a procession of young, entrepreneurial crews commuting the hour-long journey from London to sell by the seaside. Violence was much more frequent than in Plymouth, as there was increased competition between gangs to supply Southend's heroin and crack users. However, most of the violence was not between rival dealers, but between dealers and users, mainly because they didn't like each other.
"By far, the most cited aspect of drug market violence was not seller inflicted, as much market stereotype would lead us to expect, but instead it was associated with robberies and assaults on younger drugs runners, or 'shotters,' who were targeted by heroin and crack users," said the report.
Layla, a 36-year-old heroin user from Southend, told Coomber: "There is a lot of violence, there's a lot of robbery from drug dealers... the young lads, because a lot of it is youngsters, people will phone up to say, 'I want five of each.' So they'll come out with ten shots, and the person that's scoring off them, they'll hold a knife to them, or just blatantly rob them. Or they'll find out where they're serving up from, because they move from people to people's flats, and they'll just go in, balaclava, in there, with a hammer, do the young lad, or young girl, whoever it may be, and just rob them of their drugs. It goes on all the time; every week you hear about one person being robbed."
In November of last year, 24-year-old drug dealer Anton Levin, from Dagenham in east London, was stabbed to death after being lured to a flat in Southend. His three killers had intended to ambush and injure him in order to steal all his drugs and money.
Part of the problem in Southend is that, unlike Plymouth, the buyers and the sellers have no regard for each other. Coomber was told the London boys treated the Essex "junkies" with disdain. They talked down to them, sold them poor quality drugs, had an intimidatory attitude and often kept them waiting for drugs as they faced withdrawal. That said, the violence worked both ways. "It is a violent scene here. You got to be careful. I've been stabbed in the leg. I've been cut down the leg with a Stanley [knife]," Byron, a 36-year-old heroin and crack user, told Coomber.
When the Londoners cockooed drug users' homes to establish bases for supply, it was not by mutual consent, as in Plymouth, but instead tenants were coerced into having their homes taken over, before being abused and eventually kicked out.
The report found the London dealers, who had been coming to Southend for the past decade, also had a reputation for carrying out "predatory sexual activity" toward vulnerable women and girls. Glyn Halksworth, the strategic manager of drug services in Southend, told me women face significant violence from drug dealers, including kidnap and rape.
"We've noticed, from speaking to people in drug services, that those on the peripheries of gangs, particularly young female drug users, end up getting kidnapped, beaten, hospitalized, and raped," he said. "We see women who get involved after being given freebies, and who are dissuaded from going to rehab because they have too much information. There is a fear factor, so this does not often get reported to the police."
Many of those interviewed by Coomber remarked that most of the London dealers in Southend were young black men, often identified as being "Somalis." This was reflected in a flurry of headlines four years ago in the Southend Echo, such as "Somali gangs bring back terror to the tower block" and "Town drugs ring run by Somalis." While not all of the London drug gangs coming to Southend are of Somali origin, Somalis have a large presence between London and Essex, particularly in the key waypoint of Basildon.
Last year, Mohamed Hassan, the leader of a Somali drug gang that ran drugs in Basildon, was jailed after what the papers called a "Reservoir Dogs-style attack" on an undercover detective in 2012. The officer only escaped after jumping 12 feet through a first floor window.
I spoke to Adan, a youth worker working with Somali drug dealers in south London, to ask him if the London Somali crews are still heading out of the capital to find new business. "A lot of the south London boys, from Woolwich and Streatham, they go to Southend to sell drugs. Their elders control a lot of the Essex line out of London, through Basildon. They ain't the battle-hardened soldiers of Mogadishu or Al-Shabaab; they're just kids who want to live the hip-hop dream. They want the honey and the money, and to show off about it on social media. Some of them are not streetwise; they don't understand heroin—they think dealing drugs is like working in a shop."
Despite a succession of high-profile police raids on drug gangs, the situation is getting worse. In January, Southend's District Commander Chief Inspector, Simon Anslow, admitted that the town had become a "drug dealing playground" for London gangs, who had been responsible for a violent "crimewave." Between July and September of 2014, there were six stabbings in Southend, all thought to be drug gang-related, two of which resulted in deaths.
"There has been a proliferation of gangs selling drugs in Southend, and the violence connected to that," said Halksworth. "We are seeing more foot soldiers, and gangs have many tendrils into the community. We are working with police to tackle this, to see what we can do to support them."
Both Coomber and the NCA's reports reflect an issue that is only now bubbling to the surface, that the drug trade is a zone into which vulnerable drug users and low-level drug dealers are sucked in; but for whom there is little compassion in the courts, or from wider society.
A quarter of all people convicted of supplying class A drugs in 2010 were 21 or under, and the number of teenage drug dealers arrested, charged, and locked up for drug dealing is rising every year. In the UK there are, at the very least, 70,000 retail-level drug dealers, many of whom end up selling drugs via a mix of coercion and because they have little hope of getting a job in the legitimate economy. They enter a brutal world where young women are exploited for everything they have. That many vulnerable girls gravitate towards this scene and become dependent on it exposes the inadequacy of a welfare system that should be looking out for them.
Meanwhile, it says much about the reaction of teenagers today who are faced with a total lack of opportunity—compared to their predecessors who got hooked on heroin in the 1980s and 1990s—that they are far more likely to be selling it now than injecting it. But with that comes a whole new set of dangers, not only for them, but for others who get wrapped up in their world.
By Max Daly - Vice UK/Aug. 17, 2015
Photo: Marco Tulia Valencio