- Neil Woods worked as an undercover cop infiltrating some of the most dangerous gangs in the UK
- During 14 years undercover he became disillusioned with the war on drugs and eventually left the police force.
- He tells Insider everything he learned about the drugs trade during his time undercover.
- Visit Insider’s homepage for more stories.
The following is a transcript of the video:
I’m Neil Woods, a former undercover police officer.
I used to infiltrate drug-dealing gangs in the UK.
And this is “How Crime Works.” Drug crime is entirely different from any other forms of criminality.
If the police catch a drug dealer, crime goes up, because there is an unlimited number of people wanting to take that opportunity.
What happens over time is, at every level, is where police catch street drug dealers, they help create monopolies.
So if you catch a dealer who controls half a city, the dealer who’s most able to take opportunity of that is the guy that controls the other half.
In essence, it’s an extremely hostile environment because only the most controlling and hostile gangs are the ones who are the most successful.
Policing drugs has made the heroin and crack cocaine markets in the UK and around the world much more hostile, but also much more competitive.
Because people get arrested, this creates opportunities.
And if you consider that if the police catch a gang which controls a quarter of a city, then the gang that is most capable and able to take up that opportunity and take over control of that quarter of the city is a gang that already controls another quarter of the city.
So it makes for a very combative and competitive marketplace.
The target customers of those organized-crime groups is the most problematic consumers of those commodities.
The most hardcore 10% of heroin consumers consume 50% of the market value of that heroin.
So you can see just how much money there is in dominating or exploiting that hardcore 10%.
You can make an extraordinary amount of money with dealing with relatively few people.
I realized that I had to understand the people around me, which meant understanding a group of people that I’d previously had a huge amount of stigma for.
And I had to readdress that quite quickly, because I had to know about — I had to function like them. But I quickly realized that those people were in a pattern of behavior that was out of their control because of what had happened to them.
And that was important to understand, because by understanding that, I could understand how organized crime was exploiting them and how I could appear to be exploited myself and therefore get the credibility to climb the ladder, buy increasingly large amounts of drugs, and network with the right people.
The most significant dealer, or the most significant foot soldier, I suppose, and at the bottom rung of organized crime, is the most exploited person in the whole supply chain.
And that is the user-dealer.
It’s somebody who is supplying drugs to fund their own habit.
More often than not, they’re doing that because they’ve been forced to do so by organized crime.
But they’re the most important person to get to know, because they are the person that organized crime relies on.
Or, nowadays, it’s quite often children who are the dealers to rely on for organized crime.
A user-dealer, from wherever they’re living, they would go where they’re told in the early morning to where the next-rung-up dealer would be, and they would be given the package.
And more often than not, that package would already be weighed into specific deals and sealed up, heat-sealed in plastic, and given to that dealer, and there would be an agreement that he could take a percentage of those as long as he sold the total number.
Now, if you were to ask me how the day went for the person running a team of user-dealers, that gangster running a quarter of a city, say for example, most of those people I’ve met have been quite professional.
They haven’t used any drugs, they have been efficient, they have got up in the morning early, and they usually do it in shifts.
They’ll split a morning shift and a late shift, and they’ll do it in rotation as a team.
They will check which SIM card goes in their phone or which phone they’re using for the day.
They will have a separate SIM with a database of numbers which are of most use to them.
They will check in with their companions, and they will meet up with the person that they’re working with for that day.
And what that would normally mean is that they will have a driver.
They will sit in the back of a car quite often, and they will be driven around where they will be either doing deliveries to user-dealers, sometimes meeting in the back of that car, or sometimes meeting at remote locations, which will change on a rotational basis or on a whim.
They will keep a careful eye on locations where there is a stash, where they are stashing their next resupply of drugs.
They will also keep tabs on people who are doing the measuring-out and the heat-sealing to make sure that they’re doing that correctly.
They will constantly be in contact with whoever is tasked in the policing of those people to make sure everyone is staying honest and working according to the team ethos, shall I say, and that makes sure that no one’s ripping them off.
In essence, it’s an extremely hostile environment, but I have to reiterate, it’s the presence of people like me in that marketplace and it’s general drugs policing and the use of police informants which creates that desperately violent marketplace.
The gangs that are the most successful are the ones who are most able and willing to use immediate violence.
And so that threat of violence and that intimidation becomes one of the most important tools of the trade.
And so they have to put time into that, they have to put effort, they have to bring discipline into that control of people.
So they need to give tighteners to people, they need to constantly build their reputation.
So if there is a group of sex workers who are committed to buying the heroin or crack from that gang, then they will remind them of that, and they will use violence to do so.
I had actually given up undercover work just before the Burger Bar Boys investigation.
But I was manipulated, persuaded into doing it because two other undercover operatives had tried to get close to them, and they’d not got close, dangerously not got close.
But it was an extraordinary amount of work, and it had really serious ups and downs.
So, I went to Northampton and I picked on two vulnerable people to manipulate.
And I decided these were the people who were going to eventually introduce me to the Burger Bar Boys.
Because I knew they were connected to them.
I knew that they’d been dealing for them at one point.
And after lots of work, I eventually persuaded them to introduce me to the Burger Bar Boys.
And that was a terrifying experience.
And so I was directed to where they were holding court, their little headquarters at the snooker club.
I was directed to the washrooms, the door burst open, and this hooded figure went into the toilet cubicle and stood on the toilet and looked over, and he said, “What’s this?” And he kept asking other questions and then rephrasing the questions, trying to catch me out.
I knew the guy looking down at me from the cubicle was implicated in seven different murders.
In particular, I knew he was the person who’d sourced two submachine guns for a multiple murder of two women.
Then four hooded figures came in, and as the door bashed open and they started walking around me, every so often one would headbutt me on the side of the head on the ear.
And I was getting jostled around more and more.
And then all of a sudden he said, “All right, then. What do you want?” As soon as he said the words, “All right, then. What do you want?”
The four hooded figures had walked out.
And I said, “I’ll have one on one, please,” which meant I’ll have a 1.4 deal of heroin, 1.4 deal of crack.
And I handed over my 40 pounds (18kg), and he gave it to me looking down on me.
And then I got his phone number. He put Woody, he actually put my name in the phone, his phone.
And I started to buy increasing amounts from them more often and gather evidence of conspiracy against the gang.
I was in.
The most important task that I had, to get that phone number, to get that beginnings of trust, I’d got it.
That was it.
It was just the most intense operation.
There was always something, and there was always that threat of violence.
It never went away.
Never went away, not for one minute. And, anyway, seven months, it lasted.
And I was pleased to think by the end of that seven months that I’d gathered evidence against 96 people, the six main gangsters plus 90 other people.
And I knew there was no one else to meet.
There were no new phone numbers, there was no names I hadn’t heard of already.
I’d caught everyone.
There were police from five different counties, hundreds of people involved in the arrest phase.
Loads of doors being smashed in.
And a week or so after the event, I spoke to the intel officer, and he said to me, “Yep, we managed to interrupt the heroin and crack cocaine supply in Northampton for a full two hours.”
All of the belief I had that had been eroding away over those years, and it had been eroding away, I had to give in to the evidence before my eyes, really, and realize that this is futile.
Now, what this does is it increases corruption.
If you have allowed a dealer or a gang or a cartel to increase their share of the market, then they are richer, which means they have more money to invest in corruption.
In Mexico, there used to be 20 cartels.
Now there are three.
Each one of those three are richer than those 20 used to be.
Sweden has an extraordinary drug gang war going on, and they’re not just using machine guns, they’re using grenades.
They’re using IEDs.
They’re blowing each other up.
There’s literally hundreds of bombs going off in Sweden between drug gangs competing to control drug markets across northern Europe.
This is something that we should pay attention to, especially as Sweden takes pride in having the toughest drug laws in Europe.
Cause and effect, I would say.
The most significant change in the drug markets has been the shift of online.
The dark web, the dark markets.
The lack of physical contact means there’s less violence, so that’s a good thing it’s moved online.
And also there is a way online, in some regard, of having self-regulation, because there’s reviews left, so people can increase the likelihood of better-quality commodities.
Claims by FBI agents or whoever it is that they can crack codes and use hackers to bring these markets down, it’s not true.
The dark markets will continue to become more efficient as a response to policing.
Since I’ve left the police, I’ve written a memoir, and that’s called “Good Cop, Bad War.”
My position is the position of my organization, which is the Law Enforcement Action Partnership.
We advocate for the full regulation of all the drug markets to take control away from organized crime.
And, increasingly, we’re becoming the most important voices for reform.