Colombian 'hit' that set off a UK cocaine war

A drugs baron from Liverpool built up a £200m fortune through his links with the Colombian cartels. But when he tried to cheat the South American traffickers, he was brutally assassinated by a contract killer. Now police across Europe fear an international drugs war between the two syndicates

Even by the standards of gangland executions, it was a ruthless hit. The gunman sauntered up to his target outside a gym on a Liverpool council estate. From under his jacket he calmly produced a pump-action shotgun and, from close range, aimed at his target's head. Colin 'Smigger' Smith, Britain's so-called Cocaine King with an estimated personal fortune of £200m, was dead.

Six months on, his assassin remains at large despite a massive police investigation. Only now, though, can the circumstances behind the murder of Britain's biggest cocaine baron be revealed. It is a vicious tale of duplicity, violence and retribution in the shadowy world of international drug dealing.

But Smith's killing carries more profound implications, threatening a ferocious war between Britain's original drug syndicate, the so-called Liverpool mafia, and the largest Colombian cocaine suppliers to Europe, the Cali cartels. At stake, say underworld sources, is control of Britain's £2bn cocaine market. They revealed that Merseyside's crime gangs believe Colombian cartels ordered the hit on Smith over a missing consignment of the Class A narcotic worth £72m.

Merseyside police are aware of at least one meeting in which the heads of Liverpool's cocaine trade met and agreed to avenge the death of Smith, a high-stakes player whose 1,000kg deals were legendary and sometimes affected the price of cocaine throughout Britain. Police throughout Europe are concerned that any attempt by Liverpool's gangs to target the Cali cartel's sophisticated cocaine distribution network will produce a spate of killings.

Sources in Amsterdam, where Liverpudlians and Colombians operate together to disseminate cocaine across the continent, claim that Liverpudlian expat dealers in Amsterdam, Spain, Portugal, Bulgaria, Turkey and South America - allied to the Merseyside mafia - have been warned to prepare for a 'mafia-style bloodbath'. Already Liverpool dealers are understood to have shot at least one senior Colombian cocaine emissary in Amsterdam.

Smith's murder raises the question of how a suspected foreign mercenary could fly into Liverpool and assassinate one of the country's best known cocaine barons - the first time a Colombian cartel has successfully eliminated one of Britain's biggest dealers on UK soil.

Officially Merseyside police will confirm only that the investigation into Smith's murder 'is ongoing', but detectives believe that his death has triggered a standoff in a volatile business. Liverpool's gangs have traditionally worked directly with their Colombian counterparts, with Smith's syndicate buying cocaine from South American networks whose origins can be traced back to the infamous cartels that controlled international cocaine traffic in the 1990s.

Established in the late 1970s, the Liverpool mafia protected its power base by forging close links to the IRA and, in particular, a contract-killing outfit called The Cleaners, a group of paramilitaries believed to be responsible for more than 20 drug-related assassinations around Liverpool.

Merseyside police, the only force outside London to possess a level three capability, meaning it is able to tackle organised international crime, has repeatedly warned that Liverpool's cocaine barons are heavily armed and capable of murder. One drugs bust in the Netherlands, involving 1,600kg of cocaine hidden in sardine tins belonging to Merseyside traffickers, was linked to a subsequent haul of 3,000 rounds of ammunition and two silencers.

The Cali cartel, despite many high-profile arrests, has evolved into one of the most powerful crime syndicates in the world. A senior British detective described the opening of hostilities with such a long-established Colombian cartel as 'unwise' - an understatement worthy of coppers' black humour.

Colin Smith, 40, balding, was not an archetypal gangster. His success in the cut-throat world of international drug dealing was built on a flair for calculating complex smuggling operations and schmoozing contacts, not on violence and intimidation. The rise of the father of five to the summit of Britain's cocaine trade came in 1996, 20 years after he started selling £5 bags of cannabis while a pupil at Liverpool's New Heys comprehensive.

Unlike his peers, Smith was never really flash, preferring to adopt a low profile by wearing old Lacoste shirts and driving a Ford Mondeo around Liverpool. For protection, he hired Stephen Lawlor, 34, who ran a Liverpool firm of nightclub bouncers that doubled as foot soldiers. A source close to Liverpool's cocaine scene said: 'Lawlor wasn't just your usual security boss pumped up on steroids. He was clever. Lawlor rose to become Smith's full-time understudy.'

In time, Smith delegated responsibility for dealing directly with the Colombians to Lawlor. It was a decision that would result not only in Smith's assassination, but also to the growing friction between the Colombian cartels and the Merseyside mafia. During the spring of 2001 Lawlor arranged for a 500kg load of cocaine to be smuggled from South America to Amsterdam and then to Britain. Relations then between the Cali gangs and Liverpudlians were healthy. As usual, the deal was done on trust; on credit until peddled on the street. Again, as agreed, the 500kg would be 'bashed up' to produce a yield of 900kg, each with a street value of £80,000.

Lawlor never saw a penny of the £72m deal. In May 2001 he was shot as he left a Liverpool party. British army corporal Peter Clarke, 23, was later acquitted of the murder. Even so, Clarke's older brother, Ian, 32, was shot dead in a revenge attack four months later. Weeks after that, Lawlor's brother, Tony, was murdered. Amid the ensuing chaos, the 500kg of coke vanished. Smith told the Colombians that the Liverpool mafia had never received the missing drugs.

The underworld source said: 'Smigger decided to front it out. He was a good blagger. He told them Lawlor had kept all the details of the deal to himself. He told the people from the Faraway Place [the Liverpool mafia's nickname for Colombia] that the load was probably rotting on a dockside somewhere in Holland and that he knew nothing about it.

'Smith was a trusted operator who built his fortune by keeping his word, not behaving like your normal gangster. At first the Colombians believed him,' said the source. But an informant, believed to be a close lieutenant of Smith in the Netherlands, told the Colombians a different story. Smith, it seemed, knew exactly where the mystery consignment was. A Dutch businessman with links to the Liverpool mafia said: 'Smith had no problem recovering the cocaine. It was in containers lined up on the docks like a row of new cars.' An established network of Liverpool gang members based in Amsterdam was secretly tasked with selling the drug. A meeting in Amsterdam was arranged between the Colombians and Smith's syndicate. The former demanded a 'yellow pedal' - a police charge sheet or newspaper cutting proving that the goods had been confiscated. Smith could not produce one. The Colombians warned him of dire repercussions if he did not hand over the money. A standoff between the two gangs developed, one that would presently claim a Colombian scalp.

The source in the Netherlands said: 'The Colombians contracted a top emissary in the Flat Place [underworld slang for the Netherlands] to recover the debt. He went to Amsterdam, but he was shot by Smigger's firm.' Police have also investigated an Amsterdam shooting of a prominent Liverpool dealer currently in jail on drugs offences.

The source added: 'The Colombians couldn't believe that a bunch of scallies who they saw as being lower down the food chain were treating them like this. They put a contract out to kill Smigger. And in November last year they finally caught up with him.'

Smith was shot just after 8pm on 13 November last year as he left Nell's Gym in Speke, Liverpool.

In the aftermath of the murder meetings of senior Liverpool criminals were bugged by police. One meeting, held late last year, was recorded in the Marriott Liverpool South Hotel, popular with Liverpool football players and close to John Lennon Airport, from which Smith's killer is believed to have made his getaway. Those aware of the meeting's agenda liken it to a 'mini-Appalachian', a reference to a famous get-together of Mafia bosses in Fifties America. The comparison was telling. Merseyside police had been tipped off about the mafia convention. A senior police source, who cannot be named, said: 'A lot of these heavy fellers checked in. One of them asked a manager to switch off the CCTV. Everyone expected Smith's allies to get revenge immediately. But it's taken months to unravel. It's a nest of vipers,' added the officer.

Last Thursday Britain's equivalent of the FBI, the Serious Organised Crime Agency, revealed that it confiscated 89,000kg of cocaine last year, most of it from Colombia, a 20 per cent increase on the previous year. A Soca source confirmed it was investigating Colombian involvement 'across the entire supply chain' of cocaine in the UK.

British detectives are now preparing to target Puerto Banus, a luxury suburb of Marbella in Spain from which Smith had flown before his murder. It is a popular foreign base for British cocaine dealers. Among those on British police's 'most wanted' list is Liverpool drug fugitive Scott Coleman, 33, whom detectives hope to catch before it is too late. As one Merseyside source said: 'Colin was a nice feller, but sometimes he didn't pay his bills. And everyone knows what happens when you don't pay your bills.'

The Liverpool-Cali Connection

They call it Easydrugs. With counter-narcotics officers able to monitor emails and telephone conversations, the latest modus operandi of Liverpool's cocaine dealers relies on catching budget flights from Merseyside to contacts throughout Europe, relaying messages and instructions in person, often returning the same day. Such methods help explain why officers have failed to dismantle the Liverpool mafia and curtail its 30-year reign at the pinnacle of the drugs trade.

The Liverpool mafia was Britain's first drug-dealing cartel, formed in the late Seventies by heroin baron Tommy 'Tacker' Comerford, gaining strength after a group of white, middle-aged, former armed robbers brokered a strategic alliance with young black gangs following the Toxteth riots. Under the control of a shadowy former docker called 'The Banker', it became the richest gang in the UK. Strong links to corrupt port officials and haulage contractors ensured its status as an accomplished smuggler.

As cocaine's popularity soared, links were forged with the notorious Cali cartel, a Colombian cocaine-supplying gang. The cartel was grateful to the Liverpool mafia, whose contacts and own distribution network allowed it to crack the European market. Yet its single biggest break came when the rival Medellín gang was smashed in 1987. Since then, the Cali cartel has suffered a number of arrests, with its founders, Gilberto and Miguel Rodríguez Orejuela, extradited to the US in 2004. Although operating under a number of different aliases, the cartel has continued to evolve and remains one of the most fearsome in the world. Amsterdam has emerged as the city in which most Liverpool and Colombian dealers operate.


Mark Townsend

The GuardianTramp

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