MEMBERS of the biggest drugs smuggling operation in Scottish history have been jailed for more than half a century in a landmark case for prosecutors.
Fifteen gang members have been sentenced to a combined 51 years and six months in jail for bringing millions of pounds worth of cocaine, amphetamines and cannabis into Scotland.
In total, 31 people were arrested, many in foreign jurisdictions, in an operation which involved more than 50 Scottish police officers as well Spanish, Dutch, French and Dominican Republic law agencies.
Arrests carried out as part of Operation Trust uncovered more than £8 million worth of drugs, as well as £188,170 in cash, while vehicles worth £172,750 were also seized.
The investigation lasted two and a half years, with cases appearing in court throughout that time, but police and prosecutors have now spoken out for the first time about how they trapped the gang.
The Crown Office said that in terms of its scale and the police effort required to bring it to justice, this was the most extensive drugs gang ever tackled in Scotland. It was run along the lines of a conventional business, with experts in finance and transportation – also working with other criminal gangs – on the payroll. This discovery has led to officers identifying three more organised crime gangs currently operating in Scotland.
The Glasgow smuggling network was led by Craig Hunter, of West Calder, and Colin Wilson, of Glasgow, both 40, who prior to Operation Trust had been subject to previous police investigations. By picking off Hunter and Wilson’s foot soldiers one by one, investigators forced them to take a more hands-on role, allowing police and prosecutors to build a case against them.
Operation Trust started with a package intercepted at Manchester Airport on 11 July, 2010. It was labelled as coffee from the Dominican Republic but actually contained £2 million worth of cocaine.
Dave Veazy, 33, and Brendan Hobbs, 32, were arrested and subsequently jailed for seven years each. However, police and prosecutors realised the pair were just part of a much bigger crime gang and started running surveillance and building information.
At the start, Hunter and Wilson were careful not to get too closely involved, showing detailed knowledge of counter-surveillance tactics.
At the same time, investigators said, the pair could relax their guard, even turning up at court to see if their henchmen would be granted bail.
Shona Barrie, a procurator fiscal in the west of Scotland who oversaw the operation, said: “Patience was going to be required and not showing your hand – taking out the lower-level players and circling around the guys at the top.
“Eventually, Hunter and Wilson were arrested because they had to become hands-on. They were a significant operation, principal players in Glasgow, and spread across the Central Belt.”
Hunter received three years and nine months and a confiscation order of £65,000, while Wilson was sentenced to five years and seven months and ordered to pay £64,000. They were sentenced at Glasgow High Court in October 2011, but the confiscation orders were only issued in the last two months.
They received a lesser sentence than some of the other members of the gang because they could only be convicted for the crimes they physically committed.
As well as cocaine, the gang was shifting cannabis, amphetamines and cutting agents used to dilute pure drugs to make them more valuable.
In an indication of the scale of their drug smuggling, the gang bought five tonnes of lactose from a legitimate and unsuspecting company, which it used to mix with amphetamine to increase its value. Detective Chief Inspector Richard Ness, who led the police investigation, said: “I think the seizures across the board were phenomenal and it has highlighted the sheer volume of controlled drugs that are coming into the streets of Scotland from overseas.”
Police had to tread a careful line between allowing deals to take place so they could build evidence while also preventing the public from harm.
This was the case with James Mangan, 54, who was jailed for seven years and four months after being found in possession of £1m of cocaine, but who was not arrested at the first opportunity. “He was seen handing over drugs to the person who was then stopped,” Barrie said. “But we kept our powder dry with him to see what his further activities were. He was then caught with a second handover.”
The investigation into Operation Trust revealed criminals were running procedures very much in line with conventional business models.
Despite smuggling millions of pounds worth of drugs, the group was handed confiscation orders of just £603,158. Investigators believe that since the Crown Office has become more successful at using proceeds-of-crime powers to strip people of wealth and property acquired through crime, criminals have responded by spending their profits as quickly as possible.
Lindsey Miller, head of the serious and organised crime division, said: “Proceeds of crime depends on what they [the criminals] have. If there are no assets, no big houses, no flash cars which they have paid for, [there is nothing to confiscate].”
“They [the criminals] are concerned about this [proceeds of crime legislation],” Miller added.