Harlesden - the West Bronx of London - is the place where bodies have sometimes literally littered the streets. People are shot with machine guns in broad daylight and stabbed in full view in high street shops. The gun culture has taken hold. Black on black violence is increasing, has increased and shows no signs of diminishing.
London North West Ten is the home of the Heinz factory. It is also home to fifty seven of ethnic groups. From a petit bourgeois inner suburb, serving the moneyed classes of nearby Notting Hill and Holland Park, it has slowly, but surely, drifted down-market. First the immigrant Irish came. Their presence can still be seen in the bars in the High Street. Then the West Indians spilling over from Ladbroke Grove and, today, asylum seekers from the Horn of Africa and elsewhere. The houses reflect the former glory; today many are split up into flats. The namesof the roads too: Military heroes like Wrottesley and literary allusions too in Wlyde way.
NW10 is nothing if not an area of contrasts.Wembley and Harrow nearby have large Anglo-Asian communities. They have built Britain's biggest Hindu temple, the Swami Narayan Mission temple. It is a tribute to sacrifice and service. It has real Gold leaf on its roof. The Diwali festival there in November attracts fifty thousand worshippers.
There are huge public housing projects too. The Stonebridge Park estate in the north-on the Harlesden/Wembley frontier- is an urban wasteland, a monument to misguided public policy. Massive tower blocks, few communal facilties, even the pubs are shut and boarded up. It is a fertile breeding ground for deprivation and crime.
Throw drugs and money into this volatile mixture and violence soon emerges. The white powder economy-cocaine and crack cocaine-is big in London. Those who control it have fortunes at their feet. The fast life-cars,women, jewellery, the lot-theirs to be had. The Jamaican 'Yardies'-so called because of being formed in back-yards fill this void. Trans-shipment is not that difficult from their homeland, one of the recognised entre-pots for coke to reach western europe from the growing fields of Colombia and Venezuela. It has proved lucrative. But as with all territory, it needs protecting. That has increasingly meant using firearms(which are illegal in the UK).
In fact, Yardie style gangsters fighting for control of the multi-million pound crack cocaine market are now the most difficult and violent criminals faced by British police, an officer said recently.
Commander Alan Brown, head of Scotland Yard's Flying Squad, said the scale and nature of the gangs' activities had increased significantly in recent months, with many incidents characterised by shootings for the most trivial of perceived slights.
In the white powder economy, it's a dog eat dog world. Thieves and honour do not readily mix.
"A lot of the time it comes down to simple economics," says British-born Ryan, 26, now retired from the crime scene having been involved in numerous robberies and shootings in Harlesden and nearby Willesden, where he grew up.
"You want to sell drugs but you don't want to go to all the trouble of smuggling them into the country. It's much easier to find someone who has got the drugs, put a gun to their head and take them. Everyone does it. Most of the time it's OK, but every now and then you pick the wrong person and that's when wars start. I've seen people get shot, I've lost good friends to it, but you just accept it, it's the way things are."
There are just two hundred Yardies active in London, according to journalist Tony Thompson who has written extensively about them, yet they have been held responsible for at least sixty murders, many since the Turf Wars started in earnest just two years ago. Seven were killed in just one six month period. The circumstances of some killings read like the annals of Chicago at the time of Capone:
January 2000: Dean Samuels-stabbed to death in a mobile phone shop. He was taken by air ambulance to hospital but was DOA-dead on arrival. Four black youths fled the sceneof the crime.
June 2000: Albert Lutterodt found dead in Acton,West London after neighbours reported hearing a volley of shots.
July 2000: Dean Roberts, a drug dealer, shot down in a hail of bullets sent by enemies unknown from a mach 10 machine gun. That is called a 'spray and pray'-it fires 1200 rounds a minute.
August 2000: Fifty one year old sound engineer, Henry Lawes, gunned down by five men outside his home in Harlesden. He slipped after the initial volley and was finished off on the ground in cold blood.
It is hardly surprising that the average life expectancy of a 'Yardie' in London is said to be just thirty-five.
According to figures released recently, 21 people were murdered in London during 2001 in drug related shootings, marking a slight rise from the year before. All the victims were black. There were 67 other attempted murders. Although the gangsters have previously concentrated their activity in five "hotspot" London boroughs, there are signs that their violence is spreading all over the capital.
Commander Alan Brown, head of Scotland Yard's Flying Squad, said the scale and nature of the gangs' activities had increased significantly in recent months, with many incidents characterised by shootings for the most trivial of perceived slights. Mr Brown, who leads the task force Operation Trident against "black on black" crime provided the following examples:
· One man's sarcastic remark about another's hairstyle
· A man mistakenly treading on the foot of a gangster in a nightclub
· Entry to a nightclub refused by a doorman. In this incident, the man trying to enter returned and was alleged to have fired a gun randomly at other people waiting in the queue. Eight people were injured
· A row between a DJ and a party goer on New Year's Day. The gunman fired at the DJ, hitting his neck. The bullet then passed through a wall and hit another man. Both men died
Locals, in the West Indian takeaways and bars, talk glibly about another shooting as an everyday thing. But, for some, living in gunland is traumatic. Hazel, who was too scared to give her full name, peered cautiously out of the doorway of her terraced home in St Mary's Road in Harlesden. She used one hand to hold back her eager four-year-old son as she scanned the scene for potential gunmen. After checking the coast was clear, she marched her son across the road and into the relative safety of a butcher's shop.
"'I left Jamaica in 1981 because I couldn't take the violence no more," said Hazel. "During the election, more than 900 people were killed. It was like living in a war. Gunshots every night, blood on all the street corners. Young boys in cars driving up and down with their guns out of the windows. I lost people that I loved. I couldn't take it."
But moving to London did not mean she had escaped the violence of the Jamaican Yardie gangs.
"'At first, Harlesden was paradise, a home from home," said Hazel. "'We had our food, we had our music and many, many friends. Life was good. But now the violence has followed us here. I don't hardly use the room at the front of the house no more. Them boys don't care."
Violence corrupts and gun violence corrupts absolutely. London's Metropolitan Police set up a special operation to deal with the Yardies. Operation Trident started in Brixton, South London but has since widened its remit to encompass all of the capital including Harlesden. There have been some successes, some convictions, but the code of omerta and simply not 'grassing-up' within the black community is very strong.
July 2000: Shots ring out into the queues outside the Chicago night club in Peckham, South London. Eight lie injured. Two thousand revellers are in the club at the time yet when the police sweep for information, the wall of silence is stunning. Three hundred and fifty claim to have been "in the toilet" at the time of the shooting, two hundred and seventy are questioned but yield little of use and hundreds simply give false addresses. It's called survival.
But what is more disturbing to the police is the growth of home grown 'Yardies', second and third generation children of the diaspora who set themselves up in lookalike gangs. Ten years ago, the vast majority of the victims of black-on-black violence were Jamaican and living here illegally. Today, they are almost all British. A new generation of young guns, many of them still teenagers and almost all of them under 25, have modelled themselves on the original Yardies and now match them in brutality, cold-bloodedness and sheer bravado, particularly in the capital. Shots are now fired in London daily and incidents involving handguns are running into double figures every week. Feuds that would once have been solved by fists or knives are now settled by the bullet.
Another 'everyday' London incident: A 19-year-old dragged from his car after a chase through west London, pistol-whipped about the head and shot in the leg. The following day a 20-year-old man was charged with three counts of attempted murder and other gun offences after a shooting rampage through London's West End in which two bystanders received gunshot wounds. The incident allegedly began after an argument with a bouncer at a night-club. The front-line is all over town.
And the potential for the very young to get involved is very great. According to Mr Brown there was a pool of youngsters, aged 11 and 12, who would be drawn into the gang culture unless communities pulled together to try to stop the criminals in their tracks.