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Last Updated: Monday, 26 February 2007, 06:10 GMT
Tamil gangs tackled from 'within'
By Debabani Majumdar
BBC News, London

Samurai sword
Samurai swords are often the weapon of choice for gang members
For a 26-year-old, Abhya's face seems to have too many scars.

"That was someone trying to take my eye out with a broken beer bottle," he said pointing to the circular scar almost encircling his right eye.

"And this here was a cut from a samurai sword," he added, showing a cut which extends from his hairline to his right eyebrow.

The scar sent shivers down my spine, but Abhya, who did not want to be identified, describes a confrontation with a rival group at a wedding in 2005 in Ilford, east London, in a matter-of-fact way.

"They chased me down the high street. When I confronted them, one of them cut me on the forehead."

Those who attacked Abhya were members of a Tamil gang.

Since 2000 Tamil gangs in London have been involved in many gory confrontations, which have resulted in 10 deaths, spurring the Metropolitan Police to set up a special task force, Operation Enver, to tackle Tamil gang-related incidents.

Abhya says he used to 'hang around with friends' and got involved in fights, but denied being in any organised gang.

Community 'intimidated'

A childhood friend's gruesome death in 2003 jolted him into reforming his ways. His friend was 23.

"He was watching TV downstairs and I was upstairs with other guys when a group wearing masks came and shot him thrice through the window. He died on my birthday."

Chief Inspector Derrick Griffiths, who has been involved with the special task force, said there are five main Tamil gangs in London.

They are based in East Ham and Walthamstow in east London, Wembley in north-west London and Merton and Croydon in south London.

The East Ham group is the biggest with 30 core members.

But a series of crackdowns, patrols and installing CCTV cameras on the High Street over the past 18 months has driven the gangs into hiding.

Poster of a victim of gang-related murder
There have been 2,000 gang-related murders since 2000

Despite these measures and a relatively quiet two years, people still live in fear as police were only able to secure convictions in two of 10 murders, said Mr Griffiths.

"All crimes were detected and people were charged but what we found was the level of intimidation was so high that we couldn't get anybody from the Tamil community to come to court and give evidence," he said.

The gang violence shocked the nearly 100,000-strong Sri Lankan Tamil community in London.

Vellupillai Jegendira Bose, 58, who owns an estate agency on East Ham High Street, faced the wrath of the gangs when he attended a community meeting called by the police.

"After the meeting I was joking with the officer that I may need protection, and when I returned someone had shattered the display window of the shop," he said.

'Funding' rebel struggle

Most of the violence has resulted from inter-gang rivalries and revenge attacks stemming from territorial control, community leaders believe.

Historically the gangs have largely been involved in credit card frauds and extortion from local businesses.

A police operation uncovered that in the past two years alone, credit card frauds by Tamil gangs amounted to 70m.

In Newham, for instance, gang members demand 10,000 to 15,000 a year from shops and businesses while they confiscate cars from people and demand up to 3,000 for their return, Mr Griffiths said.

Chief Inspector Derrick Griffiths
Mr Griffiths believes money extorted by gangs is laundered to Sri Lanka

And the money is sent to Sri Lanka to fund the struggle by Tamil Tiger rebels, he added.

Rebels are fighting for a separate homeland for the country's 3.1m-strong Tamil population following decades of alleged discrimination by the majority Sinhalese.

But this has been repeatedly and vehemently denied by community leaders although some do believe that the Tamil Tigers use gangs to threaten people.

Paul Sathianesan, a councillor in Newham, said: "The anti-social behaviour is damaging race relations and spoiling the image of the community, but it is mostly territorial control with these boys. They have nothing to do with the fighting in Sri Lanka."

'Show of power'

Mr Griffiths said they have successfully subdued some gangs by arresting and slapping ASBOs on main players, but many businessmen like Mr Bose say some should be deported to send a strong message.

Deportation is a tricky issue, said Mr Griffiths, although police have submitted at least 24 names to the Home Office.

"The boys get rid of their ID papers so when they are taken back to Sri Lanka the immigration there says we can't prove their nationality," he said.

"Also many of these boys are second generation Tamils who are born and bred here."

The window of the shop that was attacked
The window at Mr Bose's shop was shattered by gang members

Mala Krishnaraja, 56, who heads Tamil Community Forum, said young children are most vulnerable.

"Boys of 12 and 14 are being lured by the gangs. The attraction of having money and flashy cars and the show of power gets the children interested in gang culture."

The police have carried out regular raids to seize weapons from gang hide-outs. While their weapon of choice seems to be samurai swords, axes and daggers, guns have started infiltrating the leadership, some of whom now carry pistols, Mr Griffiths said.

Following the recent spate of shootings in south London, which claimed the lives of three teenagers, a police report identified 169 groups, more than a quarter of which have been involved in murders.

With regard to the Tamil gangs Mr Griffiths said their next target will be money launderers and Tamil Tiger fundraisers.

Even people from the community agree that recent measures have brought the gang menace under control.

Action from 'within'

Mr Griffiths said: "Unreported crimes are still a problem but the number of intelligence reports have gone from one in two to three months to 10 or 15 a week. The intelligence flow is very important in relation to future action and our success."

Although optimistic, Abhya believes every time a gang is subdued the next generation takes over.

"Teenagers follow their brothers or cousins... We need to help these boys rather than classing them as gangs as that gives them publicity," he said.

"People need to go to schools and speak to these boys. The action needs to come from within the community."

Detectives link Tamil murders
17 Jun 03 |  London
Tamils preying on Tamils
25 May 02 |  UK News

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