THE NURSES and orderlies at Manchester Royal Infirmary have witnessed a few punch-ups over the years. But nothing had prepared them for the sight of two armed gangs chasing each other on mountain bikes down the hospital corridors. As staff tried bravely to barricade doors and protect patients, members of the Gooch Close Gang and the rival Longsight Crew hunted each other through the wards, the X-ray department and the fracture clinic. CCTV cameras caught the thugs, masked in hoods, balaclavas and bandanas, using hospital trolleys as battering rams to try to reach parts of the building. The storming of the city’s main hospital, in July last year, followed several incidents earlier that day. A member of each gang had been taken to hospital with gunshot wounds, while another Goochie, Leon Johnson, had been mown down in a hit-and-run attack. Each was being visited by relatives and friends when word spread that the others were in the hospital, and the Longsight thugs phoned for back-up. "The arrival of the second group caused panic,” said prosecutor Robert Elias at a subsequent trial. “Staff, patients and visitors fled for their lives." Ten young men were later jailed for either affray or public order offences. ‘A hospital should be a sanctuary,’ said one exasperated detective, ‘not an arena in which to settle violent disputes.’ Yet the fact that such a brazen display should happen in Manchester’s main accident and emergency hospital came as little surprise. And twelve months later, in July 2005, they were at it again: the Gooch and Doddington gangs fighting hand-to-hand and loosing off gunshots in Manchester city centre at 2.30 on a Wednesday afternoon. The truth is, Britain is in the midst of a gang epidemic.
As late as five years ago, most British police forces would deny they had a gang problem. Now it seems senior officers are almost falling over themselves to claim ‘my patch is worse than yours’. A retiring Merseyside Chief Constable said Liverpool was unique for the reach of its criminal gangs, particularly in drug importation and distribution. The head of Nottinghamshire Police says his force is ‘reeling with murders’ and cannot cope. The Metropolitan Police this summer identified at least 193 criminal networks in the capital alone, ranging from international cartels to undisciplined street crews. So who are these groups, how numerous are they and where have they come from? The precise number of ‘gangs’ in the UK is unknowable and ever-changing. Compile a chart and it’s out of date within a week, as different groups wax and wane with startling speed. Some researchers also distinguish between ‘crime firms’ and ‘street gangs’. The former come together purely to commit crimes, while the latter may offer social and psychological succour and engage in a range of activities as well as crime.
Everyone agrees, though, that they are here, they are deadly, and they are growing. When academics from the University of Glamorgan studied data from interviews with almost 5,000 arrestees across England and Wales, they found that 15% had either current or past experience as gang members. This suggests there may be 20,000 active gang members across the nation – and that’s just among adults aged 17 and over. Of course, gangs are nothing new in the UK. One particular kind of mob culture was actually pioneered here: football hooliganism. Every town with a professional soccer club has its hoolie firm, but they have tended to be classed as disorderly thugs rather than criminal enterprises, even though they are monitored by the National Criminal Intelligence Service. Some hooligans entered the rave scene in the late 1980s, as organisers, ecstasy dealers and security teams, but still the police viewed them as a rung below the breed of hardcore ‘gangsta’ that had begun to appear.
The new breed was propelled by the growing availability of two commodities, drugs and guns. London and Manchester were the first cities to feel their heat. The headline-making conflict that saw Manchester labelled ‘Britain’s Chicago’ erupted in the mid-80s between the volatile armed robbers of Cheetham Hill, north of the city centre, and the frontline drug dealers of Moss Side, to the south. It was followed by an internal war within Moss Side itself, leading to such pointless killings as the murder of schoolboy Benji Stanley. At the time, Manchester’s problems were almost unique – but times were changing. In 1991, Lancashire Chief Constable Brian Johnson told the Association of Chief Police Officers that murderous gangs were fighting to control the drugs traffic in Britain. So powerful were they, and so well armed, that they threatened to steamroller the specialist police units tasked with taking them on. His words had the edge of truth, yet organised crime remained a dirty phrase in British law enforcement. As a senior Liverpool detective told one criminologist, ‘We put organised crime in a box marked, “Do not open, too difficult to handle”.’ Eventually that lid could be held on no longer, and Pandora’s Box blew open. Liverpool’s mid-90s gang war between the white clans of inner-city Dingle and the black lads of Granby was a foretaste of internecine feuds in several cities. The late 90s saw the arrival of such lethal weaponry as the MAC-10, a rapid-fire submachine gun designed for jungle warfare. It soon became a favourite accessory, supplied from former Eastern Bloc countries or by unscrupulous gun dealers who reactivated decommissioned models. One young gang leader, the wheelchair-bound Julian Bell of the Longsight Crew, used his £500,000 compensation from a motorbike accident to buy the guns and body armour to fight the neighbouring Pitt Bull Crew.
The trend in the new millennium is for the more powerful urban crews to deliberately encroach into nearby cities. Sheffield is the most glaring example. The Steel City had a thriving club and drug scene but no gangland culture. Outside mobs saw easy pickings and muscled in on drug dealers working alone without protection. The recklessly violent Doddington Gang from Manchester appeared there, as did the St Ann’s Crew from Nottingham, one of that city’s three main black gangs. After some of their members were ambushed in a Sheffield takeaway and taxed of jewellery and mobile phones, the St Ann’s lads swore revenge. A hit squad returned in a convoy of cars with a shotgun and blasted to death an innocent father-of-seven, 42-year-old Gerald Smith, as he stood in the doorway of Donkeyman’s Afro Caribbean club in Spital Hill. The tragic irony is that the gang who had mugged the St Ann’s men were not locals but members of yet another outside mob: the infamous Johnson Crew, from Birmingham. “The real background was territorial control and power of rival gangs of young men in Midlands cities,’ said Mr Justice Wakerley, jailing nine St Ann’s men for a total of 195 years for Smith’s murder. ‘You were part of a gang that was ready, by the use of force or firearms, to show your dominance – that you were kings.’ The killers responded with laughter and jeers. Several similar murders in Sheffield prompted South Yorkshire Police to launch Operation Maple. ‘It became evident that criminal gangs from places such as Manchester, Nottingham, Birmingham and London were infiltrating the area by meeting women, becoming entrenched in society and intimidating the area's own criminals,’ said Detective Inspector Andy Bishop. ‘Robberies, shootings, kidnappings, reports of torture and even murders became linked with these gangs and the drugs trade. They identified criminals they saw as easy targets and it got to the point where the violence [was] becoming a huge drain on police resources.’ Since Maple began, officers have seized almost £2 million worth of drugs, including crack cocaine, of heroin, ecstasy and cannabis, and recovered more than 20 guns. One of their biggest successes was the capture of drug dealer Keisha Williams, aged 23, with £30,000 of crack cocaine. Williams fronted a massive dealing operation from a subway for a Jamaican drugs baron believed to be heavily involved in gun crime.
The West Indian involvement has been key to the spread of gangs in many UK cities. A 2003 report suggested Jamaican Yardies had invaded Britain at an ‘alarming rate’ and their control of the crack trade had gradually spread north, reaching as far as Aberdeen. Of 43 police forces in England and Wales, 36 reported a problem with Yardie gangs. Yet despite their almost insane brutality, the Yardies have not always fared well against home-grown rivals. In Birmingham, Jamaican interlopers were faced down by the ‘homeboys’ of Handsworth and Lozells: the Burger Bar Boys and the Johnson Crew. The Burgers and the Johnnies, however, then turned their guns on each other in a tit-for-tat spiral, culminating in the tragic killing of Charlene Ellis and Letisha Shakespeare at a New Year’s Day party. Far from cowing the gangs, such high-profile incidents seem only to heighten their bravado. The Birmingham gangsters have even made and distributed DVDs of their exploits. Leeds was relatively free of gang violence until the murder of towering gangster Clifton ‘Junior’ Bryan in 2000. Having survived at least one previous assassination bid, Bryan was apparently lured to a house in Manchester with another man, Denis Wilson, and shot in the head. Their bodies were then bundled into the trunk of a car, which was later found abandoned in the Harehills district of Leeds. Bryan’s young acolytes, known as The Youth, or Yout’, were then faced with competition from an influx of Jamaican drug sellers, The resultant bloodbath led to the launching Operation Stirrup, which began in 2001 and is now a permanent police campaign against the gangs.
In London, the term ‘Yardie’ has become so ubiquitous as to mean almost any Jamaican, African or black gang. These include the Cartel Crew in Brixton, the Lock City Crew and their rival Much Love Crew in Harlesden, the Spanglers and the Fireblade in north-east London, the Kinglands Crew and the Hackney Posse in the east, the Ghetto Boys in Lewisham, and the Peckham Boys and Younger Peckham Boys. Then there are the Muslim Boys, the name used by between 50 and 100 members of several gangs in neighbourhoods around Brixton, Peckham, Lambeth, and Streatham, south London. Many of them have access to automatic and semi-automatic weapons and Detective Chief Superintendent John Coles, who heads Operation Trident, the Scotland Yard unit that targets gun crime in the black community, blames them for several murders, attempted murders, and a series of robberies. ‘They began using the name Muslim Boys as a macho thing,’ Mr Coles told the London Evening Standard. ‘One or two might have converted to Islam, but it's nothing to do with religion, or terrorism. As far as I'm concerned they're the same thugs, engaged in the same crimes, whatever they can do to make money.’ Ethnic crime groups are heavily represented in London, easily the nation’s biggest and most cosmopolitan city – though it should be noted that the Glamorgan University researchers found most gang members were white.
London Turks and Kurds control much of the heroin importation to the UK, and occasionally their feuds break out into open warfare, as in the infamous Battle of Green Lanes, when 40 men armed with guns, knives and baseball bats battled outside a social club. By the time police arrived, 21 men had been injured, one fatally. ‘It is family controlled and for years it has remained covert,’ said a senior Metropolitan Police officer of the Turkish heroin trade. “It is extremely powerful, controlled more from Istanbul than London.’
Outside the major urban centres, gang problems are less acute, but growing. Youngsters from the flatlands of East Anglia to the council estates of Paisley are adopting the street slang, wearing the clothes, selling drugs and even acquiring guns. The gang leaders are usually childhood friends, brought up in poor areas, searching for the elusive quality of ‘respect’ – which in their world often equates as fear. If the criminal world is a layer cake, at the bottom are teenage gangs with members as young as ten, based on housing estates. Members may then graduate to more serious crime gangs, stealing high-value cars, snatching jewellery and watches, dealing wraps of crack and heroin. On the next level are villains who control large-scale operations such as drug distribution – the so-called ‘ten-kilo’ men, and protection rackets on pubs, clubs and bars. At the very top are the big drug importers and moneymen: the Turks, the Asians, the Colombians, and a few indigenous mini-cartels, mainly from London and the Home Counties or Liverpool. Some of these crime groups have political links in their countries of origin. What know single grup has ever done is achieve representation at every level – until now. For some time, Customs officer have been watching a surge in the wealth and influence of Asian gangs, particularly from Pakistan and India. Often fuelled by anti-Western sentiment, they are smart, savvy and ruthless. ‘They control the entire heroin supply chain from cultivation in the Middle east to sale on the streets of the UK,’ said one investigator. ‘No other crime group can do that, it makes them uniquely powerful. And that’s frightening.’