DIRTY cash smuggled into Dubai, fake passports for murderers and refugees and a notorious British criminal called ‘Europe’s El Chapo’.
This is the new frontier of organized international crime that has emerged in the United Kingdom and is constantly being investigated by the National Crime Agency (NCA), also known as the British FBI.
In my new podcast, I reveal some of the organisation’s most hard-fought investigations to take down criminals at the top of the UK’s most ruthless gangs, in operations spanning the globe, from the Costa del Sol to recent gangster haven Dubai.
Since the agency’s founding ten years ago, its work has resulted in more than 12,500 arrests, prison sentences totaling more than 21,100 years, seizures of 2,000 tons of heroin, cocaine and cannabis, and seizures of more than 3,100 firearms.
The most high-profile operations included a Kim Kardashian lookalike who smuggled millions out of Heathrow and the overthrow of Robert Dawes, once considered Europe’s biggest drug supplier.
The cocaine kingpin was first convicted of a crime when he was just 11 years old, but made a name for himself when the drug came to the Nottingham area in the 1980s.
Dawes’ deadly combination of intelligence and violence made him one of the most influential and feared organized criminals on the continent.
But his criminal empire collapsed in 2015 after a slip-up led to his arrest at his Spanish home on the Costa del Sol.
The story of how NCA officials eventually caught up with Dawes and brought him to justice is just one of the cases explored in Underworld: Behind The Scenes of the NCA.
After establishing himself as a major player in the Midlands drug trade in the 80s and 90s, Dawes expanded across the UK and into the Netherlands.
Police chiefs launched a detailed investigation into his activities, uncovering criminal connections across the UK – from Merseyside to Manchester to London – but he was always one step ahead of the authorities. In 2001, he received a tip that the police were after him and he moved to Spain.
The NCA took over the investigation and it became clear to senior investigating officer Rob Hickinbottom that Dawes was going to great lengths to hide his criminal activities, which included dealings with mafias around the world.
Dawes’ Organized Crime Gang (OCG) was one of the first groups to use encrypted communications devices. The phones cost £1,500 every six months and gave him the ability to send messages that could not be intercepted.
“His network is complex and extensive. Corrupt officials all over the world work for him,” explains Rob.
“He also operated with encrypted communications, which made it very, very difficult for law enforcement to get in and understand what they were doing.”
In 2013, the NCA finally achieved a breakthrough. An undercover investigation revealed that Dawes’ network planned to transport 1.3 tonnes of cocaine to France.
The agency worked with French law enforcement and its operation resulted in the seizure of the drugs and more than 100 arrests.
But for Rob, that wasn’t enough… because they were missing the top man.
“We knew that Dawes was the man behind it, so we set out to prove that he was the person behind this cocaine shipment,” he explains.
A two-year investigation led the NCA to a hotel in Spain where Dawes met a high-ranking member of a Colombian cartel.
NCA officers and Spanish authorities were able to enter the hotel shortly before Dawes’s business meeting and set up “drop-down” recording devices to monitor his conversation.
In what Rob describes as a “eureka” moment, authorities were able to record a two-hour conversation between Dawes and the Colombian gangster, in which Dawes discussed his criminal enterprise and received information about high-level corruption around the world.
But crucially for the NCA: he also incriminated himself with the 1.3 tonnes of cocaine seized in Paris.
“He broke his own golden rule … not to brag about these things,” said prosecutor Andy Young, adding: “This was certainly the right moment … because he is convicted on his own terms.”
Dawes was finally arrested in an early morning raid on his villa on Spain’s Costa del Sol in 2015, two years after the cocaine seizure in Paris. He was extradited to France where he was tried, which eventually took place in 2018.
Dawes was found guilty and sentenced to 22 years in a French prison. Earlier this year, he received an additional five years in prison for paying his defense attorney to include false documents in the court file.
Rob says the scale of Dawes’ global criminal activity earned him the nickname “Lord of Crime” in a Spanish newspaper – and he says the violence, scale of cocaine shipments and widespread, global network of criminal contacts put Dawes at the top brought to the list The NCA’s priority list.
“It’s not just one man,” Rob says. “This is a very high-profile crime boss who is behind a lot of bad events and violence. We take great pride in bringing this type of person to justice.”
My deep dive into the world of serious and organized crime also shows how the NCA took down two crime bosses who helped murderers and drug traffickers evade justice by supplying them with fraudulently obtained Real Passports (FOGs).
Anthony Beard, 61, and Christopher Zietek, 67, supplied organized criminals with FOGs over a five-year period.
Recipients included Glasgow murderers Jordan Owens and Christopher Hughes, Liverpool drug dealer Michael Moogan – who was sentenced to 12 years in prison in March this year – Manchester fugitive David Walley and suspected Scottish drug dealers Barrie Gillespie and James White.
Customers paid between £5,000 and £20,000 for the coveted documents that allowed them to travel around the world undetected.
“Costa del Crime”
Like Dawes, some criminals are fleeing the UK to avoid justice – and many can’t resist the allure of the area in Spain often referred to as the Costa del Crime.
The area is so important to the NCA’s work that it even has officers in the Iberian Peninsula working with Spanish counterparts to investigate organized crime linking that part of Spain to the UK.
Steve Reynolds, regional manager for the Iberian Peninsula at the NCA, says criminals were first lured to the Costa del Sol in the 1970s because there was no extradition treaty between Britain and Spain. Even though there is one now, the attraction remains for other reasons.
“The cocaine trade between South America and Spain is very active,” explains Steve. “And obviously the UK is one of the main users of cocaine. That’s why many British cocaine dealers like to go there and do their business.
“But it’s also just a nice place for people to live and go about their business. If you’re a criminal and you make good money from it, you want to live in a nice place.”
But it’s not just the Costa del Sol – the NCA’s work has caught up with British criminals across Europe and in Dubai.
A huge international money laundering operation collapsed in October 2020 after British Border Police found a huge amount of cash in suitcases en route to Dubai.
The suitcases were carried by two women, Tara Hanlon and Megan Reeves – who turned out to be just two cogs in a well-oiled machine run by gang leader Abdulla Alfalasi.
Gang bosses communicated with the couriers and arranged the shipments via a WhatsApp group called “Sunshine and lollipops”, the NCA revealed
The OCG had smuggled £104m of dirty cash from Heathrow to the Middle East on 83 different trips in less than a year.
Hanlon, a Kim Kardashian lookalike, had already successfully smuggled £3.5million into Dubai and was now trying to pull off a further £1.9million – and, like Dawes, couldn’t resist the urge to brag about her haul.
NCA officers found social media posts in which she boasted about her stay in Dubai and advertised her hotel room at the Five Palm Jumeirah for £500 a night.
Hanlon was sentenced to nearly three years in prison along with 15 others for her role in the smuggling operation. The ringleader Alfalasi pleaded guilty and was sentenced last July 2022 to nine years and seven months.
In the ever-evolving criminal underworld, the law is never far behind – especially when you’re flaunting cash.
Listen to the first four episodes of Underworld: Behind the Scenes of the NCA Wherever you get your podcasts now.