Ismail Aydin has never seen a man brandish a gun in his shop and hopes he never will. But six years ago, a hitman for the Bombacilar gang shot dead its former owner, Ahmet Paytak, 50, in a case of mistaken identity.
On the Hornsey Road, north of Arsenal’s Emirates stadium, it is deep in the territory of a rival group, the Tottenham Boys. Around the corner there used to be one of the gang’s drug dens. Further along was the Gunner’s Play members-only club and gangland haunt. Both have disappeared, but the killings have continued. Ten murders in a decade are linked to playing itself out in north London.
The latest death was that of , 28, shot dead by firearms officers on 11 December during an alleged attempt to free a senior member of the Tottenham Boys being taken to court, four miles from the shop where Aydin works. On Friday the officer who shot Baker was arrested and questioned as part of a homicide investigation by the Independent Police Complaints Commission.
The power of the Turkish Bombacilar and their Kurdish rivals, the Tottenham Boys, was largely founded on heroin. Contacts in Turkey facilitate the drug’s passage to .
The EU’s drug agency recently reaffirmed Britain’s status as the narcotics hub of Europe, with reported heroin use the highest across the continent.
“Sadly, the UK continues to consume substantial quantities of heroin and cocaine, and unfortunately demand for an addictive drug will always provide an opportunity for the ruthlessness of trafficking,” said Tony Saggers, head of drugs threat at the National Agency, which tackles organised crime.
Speaking inside the agency’s fortified headquarters in Vauxhall, south London, Saggers said it was not only the large, loyal market that made Britain so attractive to global dealers but the profits on offer to gangs such as the Bombacilar.
The wholesale price of a kilo of heroin is between £20,000 and £30,000. An imported kilo cut at 25% street purity provides enough raw material for 16,000 individual deals at £10 a hit – pushing the takings to £160,000.
Black street gangs are frequently hired to protect turf, occasionally as hitmen. Paytak’s killer on Hornsey Road, 31-year-old Michael James, was from a local outfit . “They’re extremely determined to protect their market, they’re ruthless and predisposed to violence and threats, spreading the fear of violence,” said Saggers.
The antipathy between the Bombacilar and Tottenham Boys has resulted in 26 violent incidents in six years, 19 of them involving guns. The parochial nature of the vendetta belies the international character of the modern drug trade. Both gangs supply street dealers selling £10 heroin wraps and crack cocaine “rocks” at the same price. The heroin will have travelled at least 4,500 miles from . The cocaine will have travelled at least 5,000 miles across the Atlantic, the main obstacle for the South American narco firms seeking to exploit the UK market.
“It puts drugs from two different hemispheres into the hands of one street dealer. That requires a global supply chain,” said Saggers.
Crack and heroin are sold by north London dealers as a complementary package. “It is somewhat ironic that the two most addictive drugs are sold together as a package,” Saggers added. The intense high of crack is quickly followed by a crushing low; heroin takes the edge off the downer.
Both the Tottenham Boys and the Bombacilar appear to have no problem in acquiring sufficient amounts of heroin. Almost all the opiates sold by them come from Afghanistan. Cutting the supply of heroin to Britain was one of the main reasons given by then prime minister Tony Blair in 2001 for sending British troops to Helmand province. That war aim has singularly failed. “Almost all the heroin we see here is assessed as having come from the region,” said Saggers.
From Afghanistan, the drug is taken overland via Iran and Turkey, or south through Pakistan, exported from the port of Karachi across the Arabian Sea to eastern Africa, then across the continent to the west coast, often Nigeria or Ghana. Both routes usually end up in Holland. From there, intelligence on the heroin trade identifies ports such as Harwich, Felixstowe, Dover and Folkestone.
The NCA is currently monitoring the potential exploitation of failed states like Syria and Libya for heroin traffickers. Large amounts of heroin passed through Iraq during the sectarian tumult a decade ago. Libya, currently in chaos and close to Europe, is an obvious concern.
“Heroin smugglers are always looking for new transit routes to keep ahead. But the reality is that when you destabilise a landmass, it either becomes more dangerous to move drugs through or it becomes an opportunity. With Libya, we’re not seeing an intelligence picture that reflects either scenario. My opinion is I wouldn’t want to move a high-value amount of drugs through a place that is completely destabilised,” said Saggers.
Regardless of the route, latest assessments indicate that the number of UK heroin users remains broadly static, at around 250,000. Predictions that austerity would usher in a 1980s-style heroin epidemic have proved false. However, analysis of the drug itself reveals an intriguing development: a recent increase in purity that may indicate a desperate attempt to reinvigorate a market that is literally dying off.
“This could well be an attempt to win back a dwindling customer base, but you don’t want it so strong that people start dying,” said drug information analyst Harry Shapiro.
There were 952 deaths that involved heroin or morphine last year, , compared with 579 in 2012, compounding the issue of heroin’s ageing user base. Tim Millar, from the University of Manchester, said: “I couldn’t say with any certainty that heroin’s going to go away, but young people aren’t getting into it.”
Certainly, the Turkish crime gangs will be keenly aware that heroin is struggling to hook a new generation, regardless of the occasional high-profile casualties like Peaches Geldof, 25, who described heroin as “”. The National Treatment Agency revealed last year that the number of people under 35 using heroin and crack cocaine was “plummeting”, with an estimated 41,508 15- to 24-year-old users.
Away from the capital, much of the distribution of heroin throughout the UK is controlled by south Asian gangs – although Liverpool remains the preserve of white British gangs. have collated significant evidence that Pakistani criminals are actively seeking to corner the heroin market in large parts of Britain, using their connections in cities such as Birmingham and Manchester. Crucially, their turf does not overlap with their Turkish counterparts. “You have Pakistani crime groups and Turkish crime groups in generally different parts of the country and the marketplace seems big enough for both of them. They’re distinct, I don’t recall them working together,” said Saggers. The Turkish gangs’ feud, saud Shapiro, should be interpreted as a localised scrap in a stable market where “everybody knows their place”.
Down on Green Lanes, still within Tottenham Boys territory, many say they cannot remember a more peaceful time. “The gangs used to go around here, but now they keep their heads low,” said Yusuf Ceren, 34, outside the Gaziantep Sultan Patisserie. Scotland Yard, meanwhile, is urging the local community to continue sharing intelligence on the gangs, a request that coincided on Saturday with the emergence of a police intelligence report revealing the Tottenham Boys were using extortion to , the militant Kurdish nationalists.
As for counter-narcotics officials, the broader battle continues. Saggers said: “It would be wrong to say we are winning; it’s certainly a battle. We haven’t stopped any crime happening in the UK, but we don’t stop pursuing burglars just because we haven’t stopped the problem.”