Chinese snakeheads on skunk

I found this story in the Scotsman yesterday – but the background story behind it featured below is even more interesting, reminding me of a novel by Timothy Mo called Sour Sweet – well worth a read if you are interested in Triad  activity in England (or in Scotland as the case may be)

MORE than 600 cannabis plants, with a street value of £180,000, were seized by Tayside Police yesterday in a raid on a flat in the Perthshire village of Alyth.
The raid on a flat at the Old Mill Buildings in the village’s Banff Road was carried out as part of an intelligence-led operation by the Tayside force. A 25-year-old Chinese man was detained.

(back ground story by MICHAEL HOWIE)
THE Scotsman today reveals the massive scale of cannabis production by Asian gangs in Scotland – an expanding and increasingly violent trade generating hundreds of millions of pounds for organised crime.
Scotland has, for the first time, become gripped by illegal drug production on a huge scale, with hundreds of Chinese, Vietnamese and Malaysian gangs operating a network of cannabis factories.

Police have smashed 143 factories run by south-east Asians since the gangs set up business in Scotland two years ago.

But detectives say the problem is getting worse, with more cultivation being set up, increased violence between rivals, and stronger links emerging with human trafficking, prostitution and counterfeit goods.

Houses, flats, farm buildings and disused warehouses have been taken over, with “gardeners” going to extreme lengths to cover their tracks.

Nearly 70,000 plants capable of producing £21.6 million worth of the drug have been recovered. But senior officers say this is “the tip of the iceberg” and have stepped up the fight against the Chinese-led gangs, who have increased their stranglehold on the drug trade in recent months.

A national task force has been set up in response to the problem. Its job will be to track down the “Mr Bigs” at the top of the organised crime chain.

Some 127 people from south-east Asia have been arrested since the gangs set up business in October 2006. But police admit a clampdown, known as Operation League, has failed to bring down the most senior figures. Despite judges setting tough sentencing guidelines for those involved, the number of new cannabis factories appears to be increasing.

Detectives do not know if the “skunk” cannabis – an extremely potent variant of the drug – is being produced for the domestic market or for export. But what has become clear is the increasingly violent tactics employed by gangs to protect their illegal enterprises, including abductions and attempted murders.

IN NUMBERS

143
number of cannabis farms uncovered in Scotland run by south-east Asian gangs.

69,583
number of cannabis plants found.

5
number of years growers face in jail if caught.

£21.6 million
potential yield of plants seized.

2,502
number of plants recovered from Scotland’s biggest cannabis farm, in a warehouse in Ayr.

127
number of people arrested.

A growth industry hidden in suburbs

IT HAS become the growth industry that no-one wants. No-one, that is, except the Chinese gang leaders making millions of pounds from the production of cannabis on an unprecedented scale in Scotland.

The drug factories could not be more unassuming – or unlikely. The production lines in what has fast become one of Scotland’s biggest criminal enterprise are typically found in quiet suburban housing estates.

From the outside, few people would guess what lies inside the modern, detached houses favoured by the gangs. Inside is an astonishing sight, as whole rooms are transformed into hothouses, with hundreds of cannabis plants covering almost every inch of floorspace.

Sophisticated growing systems are installed to create perfect conditions for the plants to flourish. A morass of wires powers a complex array of growing equipment, including feeders, lamps and ventilators. Each factory costs about £15,000 to set up. But the profits can be immense, with each plant capable of producing more than £300 of cannabis.

In June, police uncovered a massive cannabis factory in a house near Dornoch, in the Highlands, that contained more than 1,000 plants – capable of producing more than £300,000 of drugs.

A complex network of criminals is employed by each cannabis gang, each with a specific role. Detectives say they resemble a business, with various departments overseen by a “board of directors”.

“There are various levels of the organisation,” says Detective Chief Superintendent Stevie Whitelock, head of intelligence at Strathclyde Police and the man who led Operation League. “They will have individuals responsible for identifying the property for lease, going round looking for vacant warehouses and vacant houses. There will then be individuals who will come in and do the joinery work, the electrical work. Then you will find people coming in to set up the cultivation, the lights, the plants.

“After that you have the gardeners who tend to the plants and harvest the commodity. You will then have a group of people who come in to take the commodity away, sell it on. There are also individuals responsible for moving the money about.”

Police have significant successes at the department level, closing in on a number of managers as well as scores of rank-and-file workers. But the directors, on the whole, remain elusive. It is not yet known whether they are operating within Scotland, elsewhere in the UK or from their power bases in south-east Asia.

The operations are understood to be headed by Chinese, with an army of Vietnamese and Malaysian “foot soldiers” carrying out the risky dirty work. Many are illegal immigrants living in cramped, squalid conditions inside the factories.

The recent emergence of serious violence among those involved – including arson attacks on cannabis factories – has led police to believe turf wars have broken out between rival gangs in Scotland.

Some of these gangs are known to have links to cannabis factory operators south of the Border. Police in Scotland initially feared the gangs had been displaced from England as a result of detectives there getting wise to their operations. But the phenomenon has become a global issue – with Italy, France and Australia among those hit by the cannabis crime wave.

In response to the explosion in production in September the Home Office announced the appointment of the UK’s first cannabis factory co-ordinator. Mark Matthews, a former Merseyside chief superintendent, is spending the first few weeks in the job getting to grips with the true extent of cannabis cultivation.

Last year, police discovered some 3,000 operations in England and Wales – almost all found in anonymous, ordinary homes.

Police say the lives of the gardeners, and unsuspecting neighbours, are seriously threatened by the risk of fire. Since late 2006, five serious fires have been reported at cannabis factories in Scotland, although no-one has so far been injured.

One way the gangs keep their costs down, as well as their profile, is by tapping directly into the electricity mains. It is thought each factory is effectively stealing an average of £24,000 a year – costing power companies millions of pounds.

One way the criminals have evaded detection is by thoroughly insulating their factories so that heat-seeking cameras cannot pick up the intense heat given off by the growing lamps that send temperatures in the factories soaring above 40C.

Factory operators are also placing mothballs near letterboxes and keyholes to disguise the pungent smell given off by the plants.

The industry has shown a remarkable growth since a cannabis farm was found in the Kilmarnock area in 2006. Within a short time, more were discovered in Lanarkshire, Paisley and Glasgow.

But they have since spread. While 95 Asian-run cannabis factories have been uncovered in Strathclyde, another 13 have been discovered in Grampian, 11 in Lothian and Borders, ten in Tayside, seven in the Highlands, five in Fife and two in the Central Scotland police area.

“I’m convinced this is just the tip of the iceberg, not only for Scotland but across the UK,” says Mr Whitelock.

Those involved in cannabis growing are also involved in other organised crime activities. “We have had indigenous crime groups for many years but what we have here is crime groups who are using Scotland as a base to produce cannabis.

“But it’s not just about cannabis – they are also involved in the DVD markets. The money from these activities is going into the coffers of organised crime and will be used to facilitate human trafficking, including the prostitution of young girls from south-east Asia.”

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