Police investigating what they say is the UK’s biggest ever drugs conspiracy have arrested 13 men in dawn raids.
The arrests follow a National Crime Agency investigation tracking drugs allegedly smuggled into the UK in lorry loads of vegetables and juice.
The conspiracy was around the importation of more than 50 tonnes of drugs, worth millions of pounds, from the Netherlands, officers say.
NCA branch commander Jayne Lloyd called the arrests “massively significant”.
The arrests took place in London, Manchester, Stockport, St Helens, Warrington, Bolton, Dewsbury, and Leeds.
“We believe it’s the biggest ever conspiracy that we’ve seen in the UK,” said Ms Lloyd, NCA regional head of investigations for the north of England.
The 13 are suspected of being part of the UK arm of a well established organised crime group that allegedly used Dutch and British front companies to import heroin, cocaine and cannabis.
Four men and two women arrested in April by Dutch police, on a European Arrest Warrant, are awaiting extradition to the UK and are suspected of being part of the same conspiracy.
The 13 men are alleged to have imported drugs on numerous occasions between February 2017 and October 2018, including three consignments intercepted in 2018 with a total street value of more than £38m.
“We suspect these men were involved in an industrial-scale operation – the biggest ever uncovered in the UK – bringing in tonnes of deadly drugs that were distributed to crime groups throughout the country,” Ms Lloyd said.
The investigation is linked to an operation in 2015 that saw 13 people jailed for a total of 176 years after the seizure of more than 100kg of heroin.
Ms Lloyd said she hoped the arrests would “have a big impact” on the county lines drugs trade – in which drugs are transported form cities to users across the country – which was having a “devastating effect on the public, vulnerable children and the economy”.
“By working closely with partners here and overseas, in particular the Dutch national police, we believe we have dismantled a well established drug supply route,” Ms Lloyd said.
This investigation has got results thanks to cross-border European co-operation.
Six arrests by Dutch investigators were under the EU’s European Arrest Warrant, which aims to swiftly extradite suspects to face justice in the UK.
But the UK won’t be able to use this tool if it leaves the EU without a security deal.
The UK will also, overnight, leave Europol and Eurojust – both of which were involved in this investigation.
They co-ordinate the sharing of information and evidence that police and prosecutors use to put serious criminals behind bars.
The government has, however, today published a 159-page “No Deal Readiness” report.
If you get to page 153, you will find it admits that leaving the EU without a deal amounts to a “loss of capability” for British police.
And it further admits that the proposed alternatives “cannot fully compensate for the loss of EU co-operation tools”.