Page last updated at 12:25 GMT, Friday, 18 May 2007 13:25 UK

UK agency seizes 3bn of cocaine

Operations against organised crime uncover everything from dog couriers to arms dealers

The UK's new nationwide law enforcement agency says it seized one fifth of Europe's cocaine supply in its first year of operation.

The Serious Organised Crime Agency said 73 tonnes of cocaine with a street value of 3bn were uncovered.

In its annual report, Soca reveals it has prevented 35 potential murders and drawn up a list of 1,600 crime chiefs.

But critics have called for more transparency - saying it is difficult to genuinely judge its progress.

The agency began operation in April 2006 following the merger of the National Criminal Intelligence Service, the National Crime Squad and other law enforcement agencies.

In its first annual report, Soca said it had:

  • Seized cocaine worth 125m to producers - a major hit to traffickers
  • Arrested 749 people in the UK and 1,096 overseas
  • Achieved a 95% success rate in the courts, including with inherited cases.

Soca's chiefs said they had already begun to see the effects of new ways of fighting crime - but cautioned they were in a "marathon not a sprint".

X-ray: Pellets of cocaine in a drug mule
X-ray: Pellets of cocaine in a drug mule

Sir Stephen Lander, chairman of Soca and the former head of MI5, said the organisation was only at the start of a long haul against organised crime.

But he said crime bosses were already in no doubt they were facing a strategy in law enforcement.

"These people are not untouchable," he said. "We are getting some of them and will get more of them."

Sir Stephen said comparisons with cocaine seizures from before Soca's inception were impossible because of the way figures were previously calculated.

But he said intelligence that some cocaine on sale in the UK was now being cut to a purity of just 25% suggested the past year's seizures had affected traffickers' ability to supply.

Operational successes

In one operation in the past year, Soca said it had successfully stopped organised criminals bringing rocket propelled grenades and automatic rifles into the UK.

Cocaine being destroyed by Soca agents
Cocaine: 73 tonnes
Heroin: 1.5 tonnes
Ecstasy: 4.4m tablets
Opium: 260kg
LSD: 1m doses
Source: Soca

Bill Hughes, director general of the agency, said he could not give any more details because it was an ongoing investigation.

Major inroads had been made into understanding the Colombian cocaine wholesale market, he added.

Soca said it had recruited three supergrasses - criminals who had decided to turn "Queen's Evidence", although there was no information on what kind of sentences had been given to those who had turned against their former crime partners.

Much of its work had also focused on boiling down 80,000 organised crime leads into 1,600 "Mr Big" figures who were directly responsible for harm in the UK.

Other drug seizures included just 1.5 tonnes of heroin. Mr Hughes said heroin was harder to target than cocaine because of the way it was trafficked.

But a large Soca team in Afghanistan had recorded early successes investigating parts of the "hawaladar" banking network - a traditional system in central Asia abused by wholesale heroin traffickers and other criminals.

Caution over figures

Martin Barnes, head of expert UK charity Drugscope, said Soca needed to do more to prove its impact.

"Soca has had some notable successes - but its report acknowledges that these disruptions are 'probably temporary' and it is too soon to expect to see evidence of the dislocation of criminal markets in the UK," he said.

Targets missed over seizing criminal assets
Comparisons with other years diffcult
Tories say too few prosecutions

"It will need to devise effective and transparent indicators to demonstrate how its activities are impacting on the harms caused to UK individuals and communities by drugs."

Home Office minister Vernon Coaker said Soca's first year had shown the new strategy in targeting organised crime as a business, while focusing strategically on reducing the threat rather than necessarily the number of arrests, was already paying off.

"In its first year Soca has made a real impact by seizing large quantities of class A drugs, making well over 1,000 arrests and preventing massive amounts of fraud - these are all fantastic achievements.

"It has managed to establish itself as a major law enforcement agency and I applaud the hard work and determination of all the staff."

But shadow home secretary David Davis questioned how effective the agency had genuinely been in its first year.

"Soca has prosecuted fewer cases in the UK courts than its predecessor and missed its targets on seizing criminal assets," he said.

"It is critical that Soca learns the right lessons during this early period, so it can develop its operational capacity to disrupt and put behind bars those involved in serious organised crime."

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