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Overdoses or violent crime have claimed Mac Miller, Juice WRLD and Nipsey Hussle. Its not a fairytale lifestyle, admits an insider but should the business do more to protect its stars?

It might sound callous, but Jacob Thuresons parents, Erik and Judy, were not too worried when they heard about his latest overdose. It had happened a couple of times already and the 18-year-old rapper had always made it out of hospital in one piece. Thureson, who performed under the name Hella Sketchy, was among the wave of emo-influenced trap rappers who came up using the music platform SoundCloud. He had recently relocated from the family home in Texas to Los Angeles after being signed to Atlantic Records.

As Erik drove to work, he cycled through a mental list of options: more inpatient treatment? Thureson had already been to rehab, twice. Ketamine therapy?

There would be no further plan of action. Shortly after Erik left for work, Judy received another phone call. Things were very bad, and they should come to the hospital now. Fourteen days later, on 27 June 2019, Thureson died.

Many young rappers have died in the past few years. Mac Miller died in 2018 aged 26 after consuming cocaine and counterfeit oxycodone containing the synthetic opioid fentanyl. Lil Peep died at 21 in 2017 an accidental fentanyl and Xanax overdose. Juice WRLD died late last year after a drug-induced seizure aboard a private jet. It is believed he swallowed multiple Percocet pills in an attempt to hide them as police raided the plane. On New Years Day, a rare female death: Minnesota rapper Lexii Alijai, the victim of yet another accidental fentanyl overdose.

Alongside these deaths by misadventure, there are the victims of violent crime. Despite being accused of horrific abuse by an ex-partner, XXXTentacion enjoyed massive popularity before being killed in 2018 aged 20 as he was robbed outside a Florida motorcycle dealership. Pittsburgh rapper Jimmy Wopo touted as the heir to local forebears Wiz Khalifa and Mac Miller was killed in a drive-by shooting the same day. Two weeks later, 21-year-old Canadian rapper and Drake tourmate Smoke Dawg was killed outside a Toronto nightclub. In March 2019, Nipsey Hussle was shot dead outside his Los Angeles clothing store.

Lil Peep, who died from an accidental fentanyl and Xanax overdose.

Many of these rappers engaged with their own mortality in lyrics that talked about death, drugs and depression. Death is everywhere in SoundCloud rap: the genres unofficial logo is a teardrop. Smokepurpp posed in a coffin in the artwork for his mixtape Deadstar, and Peep often called the Kurt Cobain of his generation owing to his cherubic face, placid manner and dedication to his ever-spiralling nihilism intoned: Everybody tellin me lifes short, but I wanna die, on his 2017 track The Brightside.

Looking at such lyrics, you might reasonably conclude that these rappers wanted to die. But while some of them did experience mental illness and addiction, their death wish was as much of an aesthetic as the pink hair and facial tattoos. So why did the nihilistic pose become a self-fulfilling prophecy, ending the lives of young people barely out of their teens? And what can be done to arrest it?

One problem lies in the way these rappers careers have built with unprecedented speed. While earlier generations of musicians might spend years gigging before being spotted, DIY rap stars have circumvented the record industrys gatekeepers to accrue wealth and success often while still in their teens leaving them struggling to adapt to sudden fame. Peep went from having no manager to being managed by a very large company that deals with high-profile artists, and with that came more money and more pressure, says his friend and collaborator Adam McIlwee, who performs as Wicca Phase Springs Eternal.

In an industry that is ruthlessly dedicated to discovering the hot new thing, pastoral care can be nonexistent. Record labels often dont care about these rappers. They know that when theyre done, the next SoundCloud or Instagram rapper is behind them, says Calvin Smiley, an expert in hip-hop and social justice at Hunter College in New York. On an even more cynical note, he questions why Juice WRLD was carrying his drugs personally. Ive been around hip-hop artists, and the rule of thumb is that there is a friend who holds the drugs and takes the fall, Smiley says. You wonder: where were his handlers? Where were the people giving him direction?

The role of management is also coming under scrutiny. Peeps mother, Liza Womack, is suing First Access Entertainment, who managed the rapper. She claims that they encouraged drug use on Lil Peeps final tour, would obtain drugs for him, and pushed the rapper beyond the limits of what somebody of his age and maturity level could handle emotionally, mentally, and physically. (First Access Entertainment did not respond to a request for comment, but in a legal filing has said its dealings with Peep were purely of a business nature and not the type of special relationship giving rise to an independent duty of care.) McIlwee claims that Peep had a fight with his management shortly before he died. I know there was a show he did not want to play for whatever reason and [the drug-taking] was him just showing the world he didnt really care.

McIlwee says that labels and management should give artists time to recover. If your artist is in trouble, you have to step in and say its time to take a step back or re-evaluate the release schedule, the touring, he says. So the artist can get healthy and have a long career. But that doesnt happen much, because long careers are boring.

There are signs that lessons are being learned. Giuseppe Zappala of Galactic Records manages Lil Tecca, the 17-year-old SoundCloud wunderkind whose track Ransom reached No 4 in the US and has amassed more than 650m plays on Spotify. He has learned to read Teccas moods carefully: if the young rapper appears overtired, Zappala will clear the schedules. He ensures that Tecca has at least a day off between shows and that tours last no longer than five weeks. Sometimes he brings chefs on the road to ensure he is eating healthily. Sleep is another priority, although there is a limit to what Zappala can do, given that Tecca is a teenager. There will definitely be times when Tec wants to go to the studio until 8am, Zappala sighs. I say: That may not make the most sense, because youve got a show tomorrow at 1pm. Its about trying to instil routine in him.

Fans pay their respects to Nipsey Hussle at the spot where he was murdered. Photograph: David McNew/Getty

But young rappers can face just as much pressure from outside the industry: The environments where these kids come from its not a fairytale lifestyle, says Taylor Maglin, who discovered Wopo and managed him until his death. Its a war zone, you know? Rivals get created, enemies get created. He believes that Wopo was murdered by disaffected members of a rival gang, who were envious of his success. (Wopo was allegedly a member of the Hill District gang 11 Hunnit, and was name-checked in a police indictment shortly after his death.)

XXXTentacions lawyer, David Bogenschutz, says the rapper had been concerned that someone would kidnap or kill him. He was generating money and notoriety. The day XXXTentacion was shot, it is believed he was stalked from his bank to the motorcycle dealership.

The rap game isnt like any other industry, says producer Jimmy Duval, who worked with XXX. There are a lot of guns and bullets flying around.

Smiley says that hip-hops relationships with drugs has changed absolutely. Earlier generations of rappers used drugs as a tool to accrue wealth, speaking about selling them as a way out of poverty, rather than using narcotics themselves (bar weed and alcohol). Once success arrived, drugs were used as a social signifier: music videos depicting tables groaning with bottles of Hennessy and cocaine-dusted mirrors. That reality has shifted to a more flagrant form of glamorisation.

A turning point came at the turn of the 2010s, when rapper Juicy J helped popularise lean, then the drug of choice in Houstons chopped and screwed music scene. An addictive and dangerous concoction of soda, candy and prescription cough mixture containing codeine, references to lean oozed into rap: Lil Wayne celebrates it, Young Thug freely drinks it during interviews, and Juice WRLD said he was inspired to try lean after listening to Future. Roddy Ricchs hit track The Box, currently the US No 1, has an anthemic chorus with a line about drinking lean to get lazy.

Rappers also began hitting party drugs such as MDMA and cocaine, as well as the prescription drugs OxyContin, Xanax and Percocet. Future celebrates molly, Perocets in his 2015 smash Mask Off. (That is a horrible combination of drugs, says Duval of Mask Off: The whole hook is you having a fucking heart attack.) The rapper Lil Pump posed with a Xanax-shaped cake to celebrate reaching 1 million followers on Instagram, a particularly brain-dead stunt given that counterfeit prescription drugs containing fentanyl have been blamed for the 10-fold increase in opioid-related deaths in the US between 2013 and 2018.

A culture of performative excess began to strangle the scene, viewed through the panopticon of social media, which encourages risk-taking behaviour, says Smiley: You have to be on 24/7, because everything is about likes, shares and counting how many followers you have. Thureson posted videos of himself drinking lean on Instagram; when his parents confronted him, he claimed it was purple Gatorade. He told me it was just the culture, his mum, Judy, says. Peep posed with prescription pills on his tongue hours before he died.

Braden L Morgan, known as producer Nedarb Nagrom, was Peeps roommate for three years. He believes Peep abused drugs to alleviate the pressures of touring, which he hated, and that hangers-on offering him drugs made things worse. He was really nice and would say yes to everything, so hed do whatever anyone offered him. And as he got more popular, more people wanted to be his friend, so they gave him the stuff more. He calls Peeps death a horrible accident. He got unlucky. I have no doubt that if he hadnt passed away, he was going to chill out.

Lil Tecca performs at the Rolling Loud festival in New York City. Photograph: Steven Ferdman/Getty

After so many deaths, a brutal comedown. After Peep died, a lot of people stopped partying every day, says Morgan. He has seen drug use tail off among the young rappers he produces; Lil Pump and Smokepurpp announced they were quitting Xanax following Peeps death. The younger kids dont do stuff as much, because they see all the shit that happened in the last few years. For those who do still indulge, drug-testing kits are becoming common. No one was testing drugs before Peep died, says Morgan.

There are promising indications that the rap scene is beginning to course-correct. Theres enough of a bad taste in everyones mouth that saying, go pop a molly doesnt feel right now, says Duval. The backlash has been rumbling for a while: J Coles 2018 diss track 1985 was scathing about SoundCloud rappers. They wanna see you dab, they wanna see you pop a pill / They wanna see you tatted from your face to your heels.

As the narcotic aesthetic becomes less fashionable, rappers are becoming more mindful of the message they are sending to fans. Artists including Isaiah Rashad, Lucki, Travis Scott and Danny Brown have spoken out about prescription drug addiction. Sacramento rapper Mozzy has urged his followers to quit lean. Lucki, considered by some to be the father of SoundCloud rap, talks in Freewave 3 about his mother looking up the effect of lean on his kidneys. Even Lil Xan, easily most cavalier artist in this group, has considered changing his name.

As Miller sang in his biggest hit, it is time to finally start practising some self-care. But the burden should not fall to individuals: as labels and management cash in on this wave, they must take greater responsibility for artist wellbeing. You have to prioritise their health and happiness before music or fame, says Zappala. Its tough being a successful artist, not knowing whether the people around you have genuine intentions.

His goals for Tecca are clear. Im going to develop Tec into an artist who has a 10, 15-year career, says Zappala. When hes 30, hes still going to be relevant.

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Musicians involvement in gang Nine Trey Gangsta Bloods fueled his rise to fame, though he later testified against gang members

The rapper Tekashi 6ix9ine was sentenced to two years in prison Wednesday for his entanglement with a violent street gang that fueled his rise to fame, but was spared a much harsher possible sentence because of his extraordinary decision to become a star witness for prosecutors.

The 23-year-old performer, whose real name is Daniel Hernandez, could have been sentenced to decades in prison for crimes that included orchestrating a shooting in which an innocent bystander was wounded. He pleaded guilty earlier this year to charges accusing him of joining the gang known as Nine Trey Gangsta Bloods.

He has already served 13 months and will be released in late 2020.

After his arrest, he shed the outlaw reputation hed curated online and testified against his gang mates earlier this year, causing some to label him a snitch. The testimony helped get the convictions of two high-ranking Nine Trey Gangsta Bloods members.

Your cooperation was impressive. It was game changing. It was complete and it was brave, said the US district Judge Paul Engelmayer as he announced the sentence, which is far lower than federal guidelines for the crimes, in a Manhattan courtroom.

But the judge said the amount of time the rapper has spent in prison was not enough for the violence of his crimes.

Prior to his sentencing Wednesday, Tekashi 6ix9ine expressed regret for joining the gang, apologizing to his family, his fans and the victims in the case.

Im not a victim. I put myself in this position from day one, Tekashi 6ix9ine said.

He then read from a lengthy letter, saying, I made a lot of bad choices in life, but that does not make me a bad person.

He expressed similar remorse for his actions in a letter he wrote last week to Engelmayer, discussing the relief he felt when he was arrested and his plan to make amends by warning others not to follow in his path.

Im happy that the public was able to witness me dealing with the consequences of my actions because I feel like it sheds a light on what can come from gang affiliation, he wrote.

In a pre-sentencing letter to the judge, prosecutors said his cooperation was extraordinary and was both incredibly significant and extremely useful, enabling them to charge additional individuals. His 1 February guilty plea prompted nearly all of the other defendants to begin plea negotiations, prosecutors said.

Prosecutors have described Nine Trey as one of the most violent outgrowths of United Bloods Nation, with members throughout the country. Tekashi 6ix9ine relocated his family before his cooperation became publicly known and was moved to a different prison facility and unit with no gang members, the government said.

In September testimony, Tekashi 6ix9ine told jurors his role in Nine Trey was to just keep making hits and be the financial support for the gang … so they could buy guns and stuff like that. Asked what he got in return, he responded: My career. I got the street credibility. The videos, the music, the protection all of the above.

Last year, he had a multiplatinum hit song, Fefe, with Nicki Minaj, which peaked at No 3 on the pop charts, and Stoopid, featuring imprisoned rapper Bobby Shmurda.

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It was Britains answer to The Wire. But the gang drama was dead until the rapper stepped in and pitched it to Netflix. Its stars and writer talk grime, gentrification and Boris Johnsons Britain

I told them I was on my way out to meet some singer called Drake, says writer Ronan Bennett, recalling the unlikely story of how he went out for dinner with the Canadian rapper and somehow managed to make himself seem less cool in front of his children. Drake was a fan of Top Boy, Bennetts Channel 4 drama about the lives of drug dealers and residents on a fictional Hackney estate called Summerhouse. He had been recommended it while on tour and loved it so much, he began posting stills from the show on Instagram with clumsy attempts at London slang (real bod man). When he found out it had been cancelled, he decided to bring it back by teaming up with Bennett and pitching it to Netflix.

The pair arranged a dinner in London to thrash out a plan much to the disbelief of Bennetts kids, who had to inform him he was about to meet one of the biggest pop stars on the planet. My children were like, Whaaaaat? he says. But honestly, I didnt know who he was.

Luckily for Bennett, Netflix and quite a few other people did. He was into the shows music, says Kane Robinson AKA Kano, the grime MC who starred in the original series as Sully, a duplicitous but driven dealer. It wasnt a shock that Drake liked it. What was more shocking was that when he posted about Top Boy, the reaction was mad. Youd wake up and have hundreds of messages.

He understands the culture and saw that [the show] needed to come back, adds Ashley Walters, who plays Dushane, the titular Top Boy who rises from low-level street dealer to potential East End kingpin. We were all on the same page it just happens that hes Drake.

Drake fronted a pitch to Netflix in LA and an hour later they had a deal. But Top Boy wasnt the easiest sell. Originally pitched to the BBC as a one-off TV film, the Beeb balked at the language and its stark gang-related subject matter, so Bennett shopped it to Channel 4, which commissioned it and greenlit a second season. The Independent called it Britains answer to The Wire, while Vice dedicated an oral history to the making of it. The show got a mixed reception from residents of Hackney when the Observer screened it to youth groups, but it was lauded by critics for its brutal portrayal of life in east London just after the 2011 riots.

Top girl Letitia Wright in the original series. Photograph: Tristan Hopkins/Channel 4

Bennett cant remember the reason Channel 4 gave for cancelling, but it felt abrupt and left him shocked with a storyline for a third series that looked destined never to see the light of day. I didnt ever think it was going to come back, says Robinson. It looked like it was a non-starter.

But despite the cancellation, Top Boy didnt disappear completely. Both Robinson and Walters were asked about it incessantly as it began to find another audience, first on DVD and then on Netflix. It became a touchstone in the music world, with such grime acts as Skepta working references into his Mercury prize-winning album, Konnichiwa. It proved to be a hothouse of young black British talent: Michaela Coel had a bit-part in the original series, as did a pre-Black Panther Letitia Wright, who stood out as an ethically compromised young gang member. Other grime MCs, including Scorcher and Bashy, also featured before going on to get parts in films. In 2016, rumours that the show was coming back began circulating. Then, during his sold-out run at the O2 in London this April, Drake played a trailer confirming its return.

The UK has changed a lot since Top Boys debut in 2011, especially in the way gangs are viewed. The rise in knife crime has become part of the national conversation, with the media reporting on such concepts as county lines, in which drug gangs send young members to rural locations to drum up new trade. Drug dealers have never been more under the microscope, especially after 2018, when there were 135 homicides in London, 76 of them stabbings. So was there any hesitation in bringing back Sully and Dushane, dealers who manipulate young kids, murder rivals and use knives?

No, says Bennett without missing a beat. I think its important to bring it back in that context. Why? I consider myself a highly political person in everything I do, says the writer, who up until recently was the chair of his local Labour party. But I never beat the audience over the head with a message. However, I dont think anyone who watches Top Boy would fail to realise that the answer to the question Why is knife crime happening? is simple. Its poverty, exclusion and its racism. Thats why these kids feel completely outside the norms of a society that cold-shoulders them, that closes doors on them, that looks down on them, that despises them. And then its a spiral.

Theyre denied any kind of self-respect. Where are they going to find that respect? They need to feel good about themselves and they need to find that value somewhere. They create a different value system and its one that is deeply, deeply fucked up.

Belated return Walters and Robinson in the forthcoming third season. Photograph: Netflix/PA

Robinson and Walters think there is an urgent need to bring a gang drama to the screen, believing the new series will provide a vital window into a world that is still misunderstood. The medias attention [to gangs] is on another level, says Robinson. But who are we if were not talking about the current climate? What picture do people want us to paint? Its not a true story but there are a lot of truths within it.

Whoever is outside looking in, says Walters, should see this as correspondence. Youre getting the people who are down there at street level reporting to the rest of the world. Thats what I see Top Boy as, thats what I see Kanes music as. Its important for people to listen and take time to watch whats going on in these shows, especially the ones like Top Boy that are painting an accurate picture.

Poverty has a smell. Its cheap, bad food. Its damp, unwashed clothes Ronan Bennett Photograph: Antonio Olmos

That picture isnt pretty. In the new series, which will launch on Netflix in the autumn, theres a glimpse of the harsh life inside British prisons, where disagreements from the street continue to fester. There are young men still children, really forced to look after their families and turn to drug-dealing to provide. An immigration story surfaces that has echoes of the Windrush scandal.

Top Boy has always been about showing the wider view of how societal pressures add to the chaos of street life. In the first two series, we see a salon owner and the manager of a chippy struggling to stay open as rents increase. A mother with mental health issues has to deal with her own problems and the needs of her son, who is perilously close to getting caught up in the drug game. For Bennett, thats all a way to paint a fuller picture of life in breadline Britain.

Until recently, wed go around canvassing [for Labour] and you could literally smell poverty, says Bennett. It has a smell. Its cheap, bad food. Its damp and unwashed clothes. When they open that door, you think, Would I like this life? No. Thats why this happens and thats what Top Boy shows.

Walters believes gentrification plays a part. I think its one of the reasons why a lot of knife crime is happening, he says. What were not talking about is how people are being displaced and how somewhere like Croydon has one of the highest knife crime rates because all the kids from Peckham, Brixton and the surrounding areas were being moved there which created war, essentially, because all the kids were being mixed up together.

Then there are middle-class drug users, who have been accused of fuelling the gang problem. A well-off couple appear in season three is that who Bennett is skewering? Ive seen the whole debate about middle-class drug use, says Bennett, who adds that he has never taken or bought drugs. That obviously happens. I guess thats something people have to confront, but for me the answer is decriminalisation. Nothing else works. Would that include all drugs? Yes. Im in favour of decriminalisation but with regulation. I would say to my kids, Please dont do this. I think its bad for your health and taking drugs is really risky. But this is the way to make it less risky.

Bennett points out that in the Shoreditch restaurant were sitting in, there are probably people who have bought or sold drugs that day. Are they fuelling knife crime? he asks, looking around. I guess. But in a bigger way, its the entire apparatus that weve built around the so-called war on drugs that is responsible.

Theres always been a bleak, nihilistic thread running through Top Boy, as young people without much hope struggle to simply get by. Can Bennett see things getting better in real life under a Boris Johnson government, with the hardline Priti Patel in the Home Office? No, not remotely. If you handpicked a bunch of characters in Britain that have less intelligence, less sympathy and less understanding of the kind of social and economic backgrounds that our characters come from, you could not do a worse job. There is no hope that they will have any understanding of what it would take to solve this problem. They are unbelievably out of touch.

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The long read: There are almost 5,000 criminal gangs in the UK. But the old family firms are gone todays big players are multinational, diversified and tech-savvy

Who rules the underworld today, and where do they conduct their business? Once there were the familiar mugshots and Runyonesque nicknames, the clubs and pubs where the usual suspects gathered, plotted and schemed. Now organised crime is run like any other business, and its leading figures look like every other broker or tycoon. We have entered into a world of what Sir Rob Wainwright, until recently Europes most senior police officer, calls anonymised crime. The underworld has become the overworld.

The National Crime Agency has estimated that 90bn of criminal money is being laundered through the UK every year, 4% of the countrys GDP. London has become the global capital of money-laundering and the beating heart of European organised crime. English is now the international underworlds lingua franca. Crime is an essential part of the British economy, providing hundreds of thousands of jobs, not just for professional criminals the NCA reckons there are 4,629 organised crime groups in operation but for police and prison officers, lawyers and court officials, and a security business that now employs more than half a million people.

Just as the names of familiar shops have been departing from the high street, the old family firms of criminals are disappearing, whether in London, Glasgow, Newcastle or Manchester. And just as British football fans have had to learn how to pronounce the names of the legions of new foreign players, detectives have had to learn to do the same for the increasing number of new criminals. Britain was once dealing with drugs imports from half a dozen countries; now it is more than 30. A young person who would in the past have sought an apprenticeship in a trade or industry may now find that drug dealing offers better career prospects. And, apart from drugs and guns, British trading channels now facilitate the trafficking of women from eastern Europe and Africa for prostitution and children from Vietnam as low-level drug workers.

The underworlds modus operandi has shifted in the past quarter century. The international nature of crime and technology are probably the two biggest changes, says Steve Rodhouse, the NCAs head of operations. Speaking at the NCAs unprepossessing headquarters in Vauxhall, south London, Rodhouse explains how the agencys work has mushroomed. Pretty much all of the NCAs most significant high-harm operations now involve people, commodities or money transferring across international borders. The days of having a drugs gang, a firearms gang or a people-trafficking gang have changed because of the concept of polycriminality. Groups satisfying criminal markets, whatever they may be, is now much more common. These are businesses and people are looking to exploit markets, so why confine yourself to one market?

Wainwright, who served as Europol chief for nine years, has also noted this internationalisation of crime. Addressing a Police Foundation gathering just after his retirement last year, he said that Europol, the European equivalent of Interpol, having expanded since its foundation in 1998 when it consisted literally, of two men and a dog admittedly, a sniffer dog in Luxembourg, now dealt with 65,000 cases a year. By 2018, he reckoned that 5,000 organised crime groups were operating across Europe and the mafia model had been replaced by a more nimble model, with 180 different nationalities operating, mixing legal with illegal business and working with between 400 and 500 major money-launderers. This was multinational business with specialists in recruitment, movement, money-laundering and the forging of documents.

The internet, of course, is a major factor. Wainwright likened its effect on crime to that of the motorcar in the 1920s and 30s, when suddenly criminals could escape at speed and take advantage of new markets. He cited the dark web, which he said was selling 350,000 different illegal items 60% of which were drugs but including everything from guns to pornography and even operating a ratings system for speed of dispatch and quality. The combination of new faces of whom the British police and often Interpol and Europol were unaware, along with an increasingly tech-savvy pool of criminals able to disguise their identities, made for a toxic cocktail. Crooks anonymous.

One group with little interest in anonymity are the Hellbanianz, a gang of cocky young Albanians based in Barking, east London. They went online in spectacular fashion in 2017 via Instagram and YouTube rap videos to flaunt their ill-gotten wealth and firepower.

Their most prominent member, Tristen Asllani, who lived in Hampstead, was jailed for 25 years in 2016 for drug dealing and firearms offences which included possessing a korpion submachine gun. He was caught after a police chase in north London which ended when he crashed his car into a computer repair shop in Crouch End. A photo of Asllani, showing him stripped to the waist after he had apparently spent long hours in the prison gym, appeared on a social media page called My Albanian in Jail, with a caption saying Even inside the prison we have all conditions, whats missing are only whores.

The flashy cars and bundles of banknotes on display in the Hellbanianz videos were the result of the importation of cocaine and cannabis, but the gang was also involved in the weapons trade. The pictures showed 50 notes wrapped around a cake and their HB logo written in cannabis. After they were arrested and jailed, other gang members have posted pictures of themselves, taken with smuggled mobile phones, from inside prison where they cheerfully inscribe their gang name on the walls.

Muhamed Veliu, an Albanian investigative journalist, who knows London well, says that the Hellbanianz have been on the crime scene in east London for many years. They are sending a bad message to young Albanians. By seeing such photos, they think the streets of UK are paved with gold Bizarrely, despite the fact they are in the prison, they show the outside world photos of their life behind the bars. He said that there was a concern that the British media stereotyped all Albanians as criminals but, he added, the 2006 Securitas robbery, in which two Albanians played key roles in the theft of 53m from a depot in Kent, was regarded with some national pride back home. It was the crime of the century, it was seen as very different from making money from prostitution, which is the lowest form of crime. It is wrong, of course, but they did need bravery to get involved, and at least they went for a bank that was the feeling in the Albanian community. There are currently around 700 Albanians in British jails.

Albania is Europes largest producer of cannabis, says Tony Saggers, the former head of drugs threat and intelligence at the NCA. It is important not to stereotype, but the Kosovan war led to Albanians pretending to be Kosovan in order to get asylum in the UK. Many of the people who came just wanted a better life, but there were criminals among them who were able to set up illicit networks The UK criminal has a get-rich-quick mentality while the Albanians strategy was get-rich-slow, so they have driven down the price of cocaine in the UK. They knew that if they expanded, they could undercut the market. It helped that their reputation preceded them. The Albanian criminals may be ruthless and potentially murderous when controlling their organised crime, said Saggers, but when they come to the UK they try to be more charismatic and they use fear Were here, we need to get on, that sort of approach. So there is little violence from the older Albanian criminals in the UK, because they know that violence attracts more attention.

The Albanians had already established themselves in a darker fashion when 26-year-old Luan Plackici was jailed in 2003 and said to have made more than 1m from trafficking poor, naive and gullible young women who thought they were on their way to jobs as waitresses or barmaids. Some had to service up to 20 men a day to pay for the 8,000 travel bill from Romania and Moldova.

The international nature of people-trafficking was exposed fully in 2014 by a trial of a gang that imported more than 100 women into Britain. The trial ended with the gang leader, Vishal Chaudhary, being jailed for 12 years. Chaudhary, who lived the high life in Canary Wharf in London, contacted young women through social networks in Hungary, the Czech Republic and Poland, offering work as receptionists, nannies or cleaners in England. But when they got to the UK, the women were forced to work in brothels. Chaudharys team, all of whom were jailed, consisted of his brother, Kunal, who worked for Deloitte in Manchester, a Hungarian heavy called Krisztian Abel and the latters sister, Szilvia, who helped recruit the women.

A cannabis farm discovered in a house in Oldham in 2013. Photograph: Christopher Thomond/The Guardian

There are numbers of young people involved in what the legal system terms forced criminality. The lawyer Philippa Southwell has specialised in such cases, which apply in particular to young Vietnamese people brought illegally into the UK by traffickers and forced to work in cannabis farms to pay back debts of up to 30,000 that their parents have undertaken in order for them to have a new life in Europe.

The modus operandi of criminal organisations is to target children or young adults, trafficking them across the world in a journey that can take months, Southwell says. Those being trafficked from Vietnam, often transit via Russia, Germany and France, by boat, lorry and even by foot. Once at their destination, they will be locked in a premises and made to tend the cannabis plants, by watering them and ensuring the lighting is on. These cannabis grows are sophisticated multi-million-pound drug operations, with the electricity often being extracted illegally and high-value equipment used. The windows of the buildings may be nailed shut. The farms normally operate in rural areas where the chance of detection is reduced.

The boys and young men were in a form of debt bondage, but no matter how hard they worked, their debt never seemed to be paid off. There is a misconception within the criminal justice system that they are free to leave because the doors may not always be locked, says Southwell, but the reality is that they have nowhere to go they are controlled through threats of violence, debt bondage, isolation, fear and other complex control methods that are regularly used by traffickers.

From the Chinese opium dealers in the 1920s, the Italian gangsters in the 30s, the Maltese pimps in the 50s, the West Indian Yardies in the 60s, the Turkish heroin dealers in the 70s to the east Europeans gangsters and Nigerian fraudsters today, there has long been an unfair tendency to blame foreigners as dominant figures in the underworld. While they may have all had their parts to play, the homegrown British villain whether artful dodger or ruthless kingpin has always been the bedrock of the underworld.

Everyone wants to be a gangster, says BX, a young former gang member from north-west London. Everyones seen it on TV and thats what they want to be. They look at music videos and it looks like the people in them are making hundreds of thousands of pounds, although the reality is that they are still living at their mums house. Most of them come from estates and they see their parents going to work, struggling to pay the bills. They come home, their mums not there, and all the places where kids could play are closing down. Nine times out of 10, they leave school without qualifications. So if youre broke, if you cant get a job, youre going to take the opportunity. My parents had no clue what I was up to I didnt come back with any marks on my face.

The recent upsurge in knife attacks has focused attention on gangs. At one stage last year, there were six separate knife murder trials underway at the Old Bailey, all gang-related, all involving more than one defendant, none older than 22. Its not a black thing, its not a white thing, everyones doing it, says BX. Theres no: Im black, hes white, we cant get along any more. There were still ample opportunities for smaller-time dealers: You can make a grand a week.

An organised gang carrying out robberies on scooters in London in 2018. Photograph: MET Police

The hierarchy of gangs remained a key factor. If youre a drug dealer, you have to find people who will do your dirty work for you. The way it works is the elders, who are, say, 24 or 25, they see you doing well, so they might take you under their wing. The young kids acting as look-outs, theyre thinking: Im part of that guys enterprise. That could be me in however many years, I could get promotion. As they say, loyalty brings forth royalty.

Territory is important commercially. If youre doing five keys (kilos) a week and then suddenly youre only doing three a week, it doesnt take long to realise that someones out there taking your customers. So you have to eliminate the opposition. How do you do that? By either taking them out, or tipping off the police. You are never supposed to snitch, but I know one guy, from Southall, whos a millionaire now; he was in competition with a guy from the same area so he informed the police. Theres a not-unfounded suspicion that some informers have continued to commit crimes while under police protection. All the old-school rules theyre gone. I know people who work with the police to get immunity for themselves. I know one who everyone knows works with the police, hes even been shooting people, but you type his name into Google you wont find anything about him and, believe me, his record is way longer than my arm.

The risks are high. Of the people I grew up with, only three of us havent been to jail, although Ive been arrested many times. My older brother has been in and out of jail nine months here, six weeks there. But there are less police than ever, so that gives you the incentive, and even if you get arrested, youre not going to do that long.

While the young gangs have largely replaced the old family-based crews, so have young, helmeted, scooter-riding robbers smashing their ways into jewellers and mobile phone shops taken on the role of the old sawn-off shotgun-wielding bank robbers.

While those smalltime home-grown villains may still thrive, an increasing number of members of the British underworld have followed old imperial traditions and headed abroad to cut out the middle-man, establishing themselves not only in the traditional bolt-hole of Spain, but in the Netherlands, Thailand and South Africa. The person who was to rewrite the rulebook on drug dealing is the street-smart Liverpudlian Curtis Warren, better known by his nicknames Cocky or the Cocky Watchman. Born in 1963, his criminal career started at the age of 12 with a conviction for car theft. By 16, he was on his way to borstal for assaulting the police. Other offences followed, but it was only when he moved into the drugs business, working out of Amsterdam, that he established his reputation as one of the most prolific traffickers of modern times Interpols Target One and the subject of a joint BritishDutch investigation codenamed Operation Crayfish.

While Warrens move to Amsterdam, where fellow British dealers also established themselves, seemed like a smart idea in that he was less exposed to the British police, it was also a weakness, because the Dutch authorities were able to tap his phone without restriction and secure the evidence they needed. (Although they also required English help in translating Liverpudlian for them.) In October 1996, police in the Netherlands seized 400kg of cocaine, 60kg of heroin, 1,500kg of cannabis, handguns and false passports. Nine Britons and a Colombian were arrested, and Warren was soon portrayed as the biggest fish in the net. He was jailed for 12 years for a conspiracy to import what was claimed to be 125m of drugs into Britain. The Observer suggested he was the richest and most successful British criminal who has ever been caught, and he was the only drug dealer to make it on to the Sunday Times rich list. T-shirts with an old mugshot of Warren on them were still for sale in Liverpool 20 years after Operation Crayfish.

Curtis Warren. Photograph: PA

After his release from jail in the Netherlands in June 2007, Warren was only a free man for five weeks. He headed to Jersey, but was under constant surveillance and soon arrested. In 2009, he was convicted of conspiring to import 1m of cannabis into Jersey and jailed for 13 years. Warren was alleged to have invested his wealth in everything from petrol stations to vineyards, football clubs to hotels. A Jersey court ordered him to pay 198m after he failed to prove his business empire was not built on the proceeds of cocaine trafficking. Detectives had secretly recorded him boasting during a 2004 prison visit of funnelling huge amounts of cash via a money launderer. Fuckin ell, mate, sometimes wed do about 10m or 15m in a week, he told some of his visitors. I was bragging like an idiot and just big-talking in front of them, was Warrens explanation later. The Jersey attorney general, Timothy Le Cocq QC, described him as one of Europes most notorious organised criminals. His failure to pay the money resulted in a further 10 years jail time.

He told Guardian journalist Helen Pidd, when she interviewed him in jail in Jersey, that he disapproved of drugs: Ive never had a cigarette in my life or a drink. Ive never tasted alcohol or anything. No interest. His ambition after he was freed was to leave England and never come back. He added: I just wish Id not been such a worry to me mum.

Few people were better qualified to comment on Warren than former NCA man Tony Saggers, who was an expert witness in Warrens trial and proceeds hearing. Curtis Warren was a forerunner, he said. You get people like him who come from a tough background, a council-house environment, and he had a sort of bare-faced courage in some respects, to put himself in places like Venezuela and Colombia, which were probably even more dangerous then than they are now. He put himself at the other end of the supply chain, and in a way established that pattern for the elite drug trafficker. But nowadays, high-level, high-profile criminals play less and less of a role, and make use of others below them in a detached way.

Other British criminals have also cast their nets wide during the past two decades. One of the best-known was Brian Wright, once one of Britains most active cocaine smugglers, who was nicknamed The Milkman because he always delivered. He operated from both Turkish-controlled Northern Cyprus and Spain. In 1998, he was alleged to have imported almost two tonnes of the drug, with the result, according to one customs investigator, that the cocaine was coming in faster than people could snort it. The Dublin-born Wright owned a villa near Cadiz, which he named El Lechero the Spanish for milkman and had a box at Ascot, a flat in Chelseas Kings Quay and used some of his proceeds to fix races on which he then bet, thus laundering his drug profits. Finally arrested in Spain, he was brought back to England and, in 2007, at the age of 60, found guilty at Woolwich crown court of conspiracy to supply drugs and jailed for 30 years.

Some very successful scams have been perpetrated on elderly Britons. John Palmer, who had been involved in the Brinks-Mat bullion robbery (from whence he got his nickname Goldfinger) made his fortune in a crooked timeshare business in Tenerife. A ruthless operator, he took advantage of thousands of gullible souls, many of them elderly holidaymakers, who believed his spiel about the fortunes they could make by investing in timeshare apartments that were never built. Outwardly, he appeared to have it all: the yacht, the cars with the personalised number plates, dozens of properties. He even made it to No 105 in the Sunday Times rich list. Remember the golden rule, was the motto he loved to quote, he who has the gold makes the rules. But in 2001, he was convicted of a timeshare fraud in which 16,000 victims lost an estimated 33m and served eight years in prison.

Then, in 2015, Palmer was shot dead by a hitman in his garden in Essex. There were rumours that he was killed because he might have been cooperating with the Spanish police over another fraud case. His co-accused were convicted in Spain in May this year and the police in Britain have duly issued a fresh appeal for help to find his killer with a reminder that there is a 100,000 reward on offer in case that tempts an elderly underworld grass.

Any notion that Spain might still be a safe haven for expat criminals was dispelled in 2018 when Brian Charrington a close associate of Curtis Warren and regarded as one of the major international drug dealers of his generation was jailed for 15 years for trafficking and money-laundering in Alicante in 2018. Described in the Spanish press as el narco que escribia en Wikipedia, because of his reputation for updating and correcting his Wikipedia entry, the former car-dealer from Middlesbrough had been arrested in 2013 at his villa in Calpe, on the Costa Blanca, an area where some estate agents offer bulletproof glass as a special feature along with the spa bath and barbecue area. There had been wild rumours of crocodiles in his swimming pool, but disappointingly, the police found none.

Charrington was alleged to have brought vast quantities of drugs into Spain via a yacht docking in Altea, north of Benidorm. He claimed his money came legitimately. I buy and sell villas and I pay my taxes, he told the court, but was still fined nearly 30m. Following a lengthy investigation involving Spanish, British, Venezuelan, Colombian and French police, his assets, including a dozen houses and his cars and boats, were impounded. After his sentence, his Wikipedia entry was speedily updated.

The titles of true crime memoirs published in the past decade or so tell their own tale. The Last Real Gangster by Freddie Foreman came out in 2015; The Last Gangster: My Final Confession by Charlie Richardson arrived just after his death in 2012; The Last Godfather, the Life and Crimes of Arthur Thompson, was published in Glasgow in 2007. A requiem for the old British underworld.

In many ways, it was already slipping into a haze of nostalgia. The television series Peaky Blinders has spawned its own fashion accessory industry. You can now buy Peaky Blinders cufflinks shaped like razor-blades, or wear a Peaky Blinders cap and waistcoat from the new David Beckham clothing line, something that might have prompted a dark smile from the ruthless and acquisitive 1920s Birmingham gang on whom the series was based. The website even recommends the Peaky Blinders look as perfect for a stag night: For a theme the ladies will love, you will need to capture the stylish world of the early 20th century with black peak caps, stylish grey or black suits with waistcoat, as well as a dusty black coat and shoes in order to complete the look. (Add a cosh and a cut-throat razor and youll really slay em.)

While the Kray twins brand continues as the underworlds equivalent of Marks & Spencer a framed letter from Ronnie Kray in Broadmoor is currently on offer on eBay for 650 changes in the law have made criminals less prepared to boast about past crimes. In the old days, under the double jeopardy rule, once you were acquitted of a murder, you could never be tried for it again. That rule was overturned with the 2003 Criminal Justice Act, so the days when a villain could explain in their memoirs how they got away with a crime have gone. The 2009 Coroners and Justice Act made it an offence for criminals to profit from accounts of their crimes, so they could no longer sell their stories, or at least officially. The 2002 Proceeds of Crime Act and its increasing use against career criminals has meant that illicit incomes can be seized.

No wonder the Hatton Garden burglary of 2015 that one last job carried out by the elderly diamond wheezers received such attention. Even one of the last of the last, Fred Foreman, was hoping he was going to be offered a role in it. I heard that Terry (Perkins, one of the ringleaders) was looking for me, not long before the burglary took place, so I presume that would have been what it was about, he says.

Perkins died in his cell in Belmarsh prison last year. Foreman, who made his name with the Krays in the 1960s, now lives in sheltered accomodation in west London. He doubts that the current generation of gangsters will ever write their memoirs: I dont think that anyone who has turned to crime these days is going to live long enough to build up a reputation, are they?

But the recruiting sergeants of the underworld poverty, greed, boredom, envy, peer pressure, glamour will never be short of volunteers, whether they live long enough to make a name for themselves or not.

Underworld: the Definitive History of Britains Organised Crime by Duncan Campbell is published by Ebury Press on 11 July

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A new breed of anti-corruption politicians, civil society groups and entrepreneurs are beginning to push back against graft in Mexicos second city

When Mara Guadalupe Aguilar reported the disappearance of her 34-year-old son Jos Luis Araa on the outskirts of Guadalajara, she was surprised that the police asked her to fund the investigation.

They told me they needed money to search for him, to cover their petrol costs and to pay for intelligence reports, she says. Stupidly, I believed everything at first.

Aguilar, a retired nurse, eventually paid almost 70,000 pesos (2,860) to several different police officers in the hope they would help locate her son. They made no progress and she eventually had to sell her house to fund her own ongoing investigation.

This kind of corruption has become very normal, Aguilar reflects, five years on from her sons disappearance. Unfortunately I now have no house, no money and, mostly importantly, I still dont have my son.

But having grown all too accustomed to paying the price for corruption, residents of Guadalajara, Mexicos second biggest metropolis, have begun to push back against this pervasive culture, with political newcomers, civil society and even local technology firms putting forward fresh ideas to create a more transparently run city.

It is hard to overestimate the impact of corruption in Mexico. It affects almost every aspect of governance and development, from policing and political appointments to public works and private construction projects. Global economics experts estimate that corruption accounts for between 2% and 10% of Mexicos GDP, while Transparency International ranked Mexico a lowly 95th on the list of the worlds least corrupt countries in 2015, alongside the Philippines and Mali.

Although police are among the nations least trusted institutions, they too can be victims of Mexicos gang violence. Photograph: Hector Guerrero/AFP/Getty Images

Mexicos impunity rate encourages corruption, with over 99% of crimes going unpunished, according to a 2016 study by Pueblas University of the Americas. This has caused deep distrust of those in power, with a 2015 survey by Mexican pollster Mitofsky identifying political parties as the nations least trusted institutions, closely followed by congress, the police, the senate, labour unions and the presidency.

Yet in Guadalajara, the traditionally conservative capital of the western state of Jalisco, voters have backed a political shift they hope will lead to real change. In last summers local elections, the Citizens Movement, a newish party with an anti-corruption agenda, won control of the vast majority of the Guadalajara metropolitan area, ending the 86-year stranglehold that Mexicos two biggest parties had held over this city of 4.5 million people.

Guadalajara is best known as the home of tequila and mariachi music but its mayor, Enrique Alfaro, hopes it will also soon be lauded as a pacesetter for transparent governance. Since his election last year, 43-year-old Alfaro has slashed public officials perks and salaries to fund social programmes, allowed citizens to vote on what certain taxes are spent on, and given the electorate the right to call fresh elections midway through his term if dissatisfied with his performance.

More empowered and more active citizens are a vital element of the anti-corruption agenda, says Alfaro, a stocky figure dressed in a leather jacket and open-collared shirt, in an interview at Guadalajaras stately municipal palace. We hope we can set an example for the rest of the country.

The mayor of Guadalajara, the capital city of Jalisco state, hopes it will be a model for transparent governance. Photograph: Alamy

Illustrating how commonplace corruption is, Alfaro reveals that hes just revoked the concession of a company contracted to manage Guadalajaras parking meters for allegedly cheating the city out of almost 100m pesos (4m) in unreported revenue. Any businessmen or public officials who acted inappropriately will face the full weight of the law, he affirms.

Yet not everyone is convinced by Alfaro. Local political analyst Enrique Toussaint says his policies dont always stand up to close inspection. While letting citizens vote on what their taxes are spent on sounds progressive, Toussaint notes that only homeowners who pay property tax are presently allowed to participate. Its a tremendous step backwards to an age when peoples political rights depended on their economic status, he says. Its totally regressive and anti-democratic.

Guadalajaras problems with corruption have worsened as the city has sprawled outwards and upwards, according to Toussaint. The citys stunted skyline has been transformed in recent years, with the erection of dozens of high-rise flats and office blocks becoming the most visible symbol of corruption. These projects often violate regulations, he suggests, while influential developers frequently fund political campaigns in return for lucrative permits or concessions.

Some residents are questioning mayor Alfaros transparency. Photograph: Marte C Merlos

Alfaro says his government has identified 170 real-estate projects that infringe the law, most of them having begun under previous administrations. Its too late and would prove too expensive to demolish them, he says, but developers found guilty of infractions will face fines of up to 100m pesos to compensate for the harm theyve caused the city.

Exclusive housing developments are among the scores of Guadalajara businesses the US government has blacklisted for laundering money on behalf of notorious drug barons a problem that dates back to the 1980s, when the families of many prominent kingpins settled in the city. Today, Guadalajara is a bastion of the Jalisco New Generation Cartel, an increasingly powerful group that has been blamed for a rise in extortion and kidnappings, plus the assassinations of the state tourism secretary, a federal congressman, and dozens of police officers.

One of the biggest challenges to public security, Alfaro acknowledges, is that the police have been infiltrated by organised crime as a result of long-standing pacts between politicians and the cartels. His administration has fired 15 officers, but he admits there is no magic formula for cleansing the force of corruption.

The first step towards cleaning up the police force is for the government to not make pacts with criminals, he adds. We decided that under no circumstances would we ever communicate with any criminal group.

Alfaro says he has received numerous death threats, but insists this stance is safer than forging alliances that would leave him indebted to certain cartels and a target for their rivals.

Alfaros anti-corruption efforts have been complemented by civil society groups that have assumed an increasingly influential role in Guadalajara. On 14 July, Jalisco became only the second state in Mexico to strip public officials of their immunity from prosecution while in office. The reforms most ardent advocate was 26-year-old Guadalajara native Pedro Kumamoto, who last year became the first independent candidate ever elected to Jaliscos state congress.

Political activist Pedro Kumamoto is the first independent candidate ever to win a seat in Jaliscos state congress. Photograph: Hector Guerrero/AFP/Getty Images

Kumamoto represents Wikipoltica, a local grassroots movement dedicated to enhancing transparency and civic participation in public life. He has used his historic mandate to pressure other lawmakers into listening to citizens demands, with another notable success coming in May when he helped pass a law that extends citizens rights to recall unpopular officials and vote on what their taxes are spent on across the entire state.

We have a very organised civil society and social movements that have pushed these agendas for many years. I think were just starting to see the effects of 10 or 15 years of work by different organisations, Kumamoto says.

With the recent gains made in Guadalajara now being consolidated and replicated at state level, he believes they could eventually take hold across all of Mexico. This vanguard is going to achieve much, much more, putting us at the forefront in terms of transparency, civic participation and combatting corruption.

The private sector is also doing its part. Last year, local entrepreneurs launched Avisora, a mobile app that enables users to report problems in their communities, from potholes or broken street lamps to acts of crime or low-level corruption. Diego Mndez, Avisoras founder and CEO, says he offered the city, state and federal governments free use of the platform but they all declined because of his insistence on making every report public and his refusal to let them hide potentially embarrassing reports.

I would love to say I trust the governments of my country but unfortunately we dont have trustworthy governments, Mndez says, citing the reports that Avisora receives of police and traffic officers demanding bribes. Its really important to keep track of these reports and not let the government control, delete or censor them in some way.

Home to a thriving tech scene, Guadalajara has become known as Mexicos Silicon Valley. Yet when Alfaro launched Ciudapp, a remarkably similar app that enables the government to crowdsource a real-time diagnosis of problems in different neighbourhoods, he was criticised for paying for a platform developed in Spain instead of using Avisora and supporting local industry.

Alfaro denies any intention to bury inconvenient reports and insists he simply wanted an app with a broader scope, meaning it worked out quicker and cheaper to buy the finished Spanish product than to contract Avisora to develop new capabilities. The two parties have since agreed to integrate both apps so the government will also receive reports from Avisora users.

While Mndez remains disappointed by some of Alfaros decisions, he like many others in Guadalajara is encouraged that those in power are at least making an effort to change Mexicos culture of corruption. Theres no precedent for this, he says. I think theyre learning.

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