Organised crime groups are taking increasingly audacious risks as they attempt to smuggle large quantities of drugs into lockdown Britain, senior police figures say.
Analysing the latest operations of transnational criminal networks, the National Crime Agencys head of drug threat said that police were making more significant seizures during the pandemic than normal.
Lawrence Gibbons said that with restrictions on movement, the absence of flights and with only essential travel advised on many routes such as Eurotunnel, international drug dealers were being forced to make high-stakes decisions.
“Lockdown restrictions mean they are having difficulty moving drugs,” he said. “Because there is less opportunity they are taking more risks by moving drugs in bulk.
“If youre a drug dealer [in Belgium or the Netherlands] and youre trying to get your 100kg of cocaine into Britain, you would often split that into four lots of 25kg. If one gets stopped, three get through. But because of the lack of opportunity theyre either sending two lots of 50 or 100 in one go, which they wouldnt normally do. Weve had some massive seizures.”
At street level, drugs are also being moved around in larger quantities. NCA intelligence reveals dealers are less likely to offer sales of, for instance, single rocks of crack cocaine and instead are offering bulk deals to limit interaction with users.
Disguise, said Gibbons, had also become an established tactic for street dealers. “Many disguise themselves as key workers – some as couriers with yellow high-vis slips to look as though they are making official deliveries [medical supplies].
“Others have changed their timings so they only work certain times of the day or night, rather than a 24/7 service.” he added.
Although global drug production in countries such as Colombia and Afghanistan, where heroin is produced, has remained largely unaffected by the pandemic, localised shortages in the UK have seen the price of heroin double in some places.
However, the drugs charity Release has called for UK police to suspend its dismantling of drug syndicates and “de-prioritise drugs”, both for users and suppliers, warning that it could disrupt the availability of illicit substances and push addicts to try more harmful alternatives.
Its monitoring of the UK drugs trade since the lockdown had, though, indicated the market was durable. “Since the lockdown, the market has been relatively stable, with small price increases across all substances, and reports of purity declining, especially for heroin and crack cocaine,” said Niamh Eastwood, a Release spokesperson.
Steve Rolles, senior policy analyst at charity Transform, said that most initial research into the impact of the lockdown on the drugs trade had confounded expert predictions. “Drug markets have been a lot more resilient than most people expected in terms of supply,” he said.
Among recent seizures involving the NCA was the recent dismantling of an international drug-smuggling ring in Galicia, north-west Spain. In total four tonnes of cocaine were seized along with a small flotilla of “boats and speedboats” used for transporting the drugs. Twenty-eight people were arrested.
Last Tuesday UK Border Force officers intercepted a van in northern France claiming to be carrying medical supplies to a UK hospital but found to be also transporting 285kg of cocaine worth more than £25m at street prices.
Days earlier a lorry holding 260kg of cocaine was stopped by UK officials at the French entrance to the Eurotunnel.
Yet police believe organised criminals are mostly targeting UK container ports, using a practice Gibbons called “rip on, rip off” where drugs are stashed in legitimate shipping containers and are then retrieved, often using corrupt port officials. Last Tuesday NCA investigators were alerted to a suspicious break-in at a vast container terminal in Tilbury, east London. Two Albanian nationals were arrested after allegedly trying to retrieve around 16kg of cocaine from a refrigerated container which had arrived from Belize on 1 May.