Undercover cop who gained trust of three generations of gangsters

A former undercover police officer who spent years infiltrating drugs gangs has spoken about what he learned from three generations of Liverpool gangsters.

Neil Woods, 50, spent 14 years undercover trying to bust major drug operations by befriending dangerous criminals.

In his book, Drug Wars, Neil spoke to three men who were involved in Liverpool drug gangs to try and understand how the city's criminal underworld had changed.

Neil said he was shocked at how guns had become so easily available to teenage gangsters, as the city's criminal underworld became meaner and more violent.

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Speaking to the ECHO, Neil said: "In Liverpool we interviewed three generations of gangsters. The oldest got into it in the 1970s, dealing heroin, and was the right hand man to Curtis Warren.

"The second got into it in the early 1990s – that was when organised crime was becoming more organised, slicker, more corporate and more international.

"The third one was a 16-year-old who escaped county lines after starting dealing when he was 12.

"We asked them all, 'as a young gangster getting into this, how easy was it for you to get access to a gun?'

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"The first guy said 'I could have asked the higher ups and they would have spoke to me in detail to ask why I needed a gun and told me not to be stupid'.

Neil Woods, former undercover cop of 14 years, pictured here at work during his police career.

"The second one said they had access if they needed them, but you would never give them to young people.

"The 16-year-old said, 'I would need a couple of hours'."

Neil, who is a board member on the Law Enforcement Action Partnership, added: "[This boy] said, 'last time I wanted [a gun] I went to the guy and he said he wouldn't have one in until tomorrow, but he said I could have this hand grenade'.

"He was 15 and that was over territorial beef.

"Merseyside residents should be asking themselves what it will be like when the fourth generation of gangsters are operating."

Neil's undercover police work involved infiltrating drug gangs and earning the trust of their members, in order to try and get closer to the high ranking crime bosses.

But he said his work, and the work of undercover drugs agents, has only served to make criminal gangs smarter, harder and more professional.

Neil never worked undercover on Merseyside – but since leaving the police force he has written extensively on policing tactics used across the world in responding to the war on drugs.

Neil said: "What people should be more concerned about is the policing they don’t know about and that’s what I used to do working undercover. It made communities less safe.

"I started at the bottom and tried to work my way up. The first time I bought heroin and crack in 1993 the tactic hadn’t been widely used in the UK before.

"No one knew that the police were out there doing that and the first time it was easy and the guy said ‘mind how you go, take care, be careful you don’t get arrested’. It wasn’t too bad at all, he was friendly.

"But very quickly, organised crime knew there was a new tactic and you couldn’t believe that the person buying from you wasn’t a cop in disguise and so the streets got more violent for everyone and people were more intimidated as a result of police in that marketplace."

Neil claims the kind of tough policing tactics used in the war on drugs have also fuelled the rise in county lines drug gangs, adding "that's my fault too".

He said: "

"It’s the success of [tactics] like that which lead to it evolving to a point where they are using children."

Neil also pointed to an example of police tactics which he claims changes the behaviour of drug dealers and organised crime gangs on the streets of Liverpool.

He pointed to the disruption tactics used on the streets of Liverpool in the wake of the murder of David Ungi in May 1995.

Just days after the execution style shooting in Toxteth, the ECHO reported armed police officers were patrolling the streets of Liverpool.

Armoured estate cars carried a team of police armed with Heckler & Koch semi-automatic carbines.

This was the first time routine armed patrols had been deployed on the streets of mainland Britain in peacetime, instead of armed teams being dispatched for specific operations.

Neil said: "With Ungi, armed patrols had a direct impact on gangs carrying weapons. That’s when they got hold of automatic weapons. Increased armed patrols mean guns are picked up more by the gangsters."

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Neil claims police tactics for dealing with drugs gangs don't wipe out the drug market, they simply "change the shape of it".

This is why Neil started to see legalisation as the only solution and would support a change in government policy on drugs.

You can read more about Drug Wars by Neil Woods and JS Rafaeli on Penguin Books.