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Reverse ferret in Mexican drugs cartel link

I guess it must have been a slow news week at the Observer. After several pages raking through the cooling ashes of the election result and the coalition, and blowing mightily on whatever glowing ember of the impending Labour leadership “battle” it could find, Obs-editor John Mulholland found he still had 10 or so pages to fill before Donald Trelford’s non-apologia for the Tiny Rowland-Mohamed Fayed-Harrods affair. Time to reach for the “holdable” file and see what’s stashed in there.

Here’s a good one: an in-depth report on how Mexican drug traffickers have taken over Liverpool Docks and are using it as the base of their evil trade:

Observer report How Liverpool docks became a hub of Europe's deadly cocaine trade

The real thing: Just the feature for a slow news day

It begins in typical Insight® delayed-drop style:

There is little about Alderwood Avenue to suggest that a new battle to control Europe’s cocaine trade began in this grim corner of the tough Liverpool suburb of Speke. Only the most inquisitive visitor might, among the boarded-up windows and steel-shuttered shops, pause to inspect the unprepossessing gymnasium where the local hard-nuts once met.

Thus the scene is set for reporter Mark Townsend’s breathless description of a typically violent drugs-related gangland killing of a Mr Big, Colin Smith, who is, almost inevitably, known as the “Cocaine King”.

Several hundred words on, we learn Smith’s killing was the result of a “hostile takeover” by a group of fellow gangsters “including one gangland figure known only as ‘the Bird of Prey’.”

“The consequences of that takeover are now causing consternation among police and drug enforcement agencies: a new generation of Liverpool gangsters – ruthless, brazen and extremely violent [as opposed to the merciful, timid and mild-mannered gangsters of old]– had spied a business opportunity in Mexico.” At last we have the promised Mexican angle.

Townsend then dishes out the usual line about how the Mexicans are the modern-day Thugees (my comparison, not his), who, according to one chap from the Serious Organised Crime Agency (Soca),  “are now so violent, so scary, that the Colombians are literally in thrall.” Cue sordid details of how violent and how scary the Mexicans are.

OK, so where’s the promised scally angle? Well, according to unnamed “Mexican counter-narcotics officials”, the Mexican army has been so successful in stemming the influx of coke into the US (oh yeah?) the cartels are looking to broaden their international trade.

“According to intelligence reports on both sides of the Atlantic, Liverpool may be target number one,” says Townsend. Hang on – what’s that may? Is there any proof? “The huge volume of container shipping that makes the Mersey one of the busiest thoroughfares in the world is a gift to a sophisticated drug-smuggling organisation,” says no one in particular. Well, yes but, no but…

“The Mexicans are shifting their operations. Mainly the cartels are beginning to traffic to the UK, but also Spain. The cocaine is in containers and the main port of entry is Liverpool…” At last, someone unequivocally coming out and saying the coke is being shipped by the violent Mexicans into Liverpool. And who says this? Who is this brave individual who casts scorn on the more mealy-mouthed and is prepared to name names and state just the facts, ma’am? “…said one Mexican official.” Oh. No names named there, then.

But, “police believe”, Bird of Prey and his evil henchman “Pancake” (no, I’ve just checked the byline again and this is not being written by Chris Morris) are “almost certainly” talking to the Mexican cartels.

“With menacing understatement, Liverpool police told the Observer that the issue of Mexican cartels targeting the largest enclosed dock system in the world is a ‘highly evolving’ situation.” Well, I suppose it might be, depending on what you mean by “highly” and by “evolving”. Different, but equally valid, definitions might lead you to suspect the comment is in fact “menacing overstatement”.

But then overstatement is the lingua franca of this sort of underworld, and this sort of story. Smith and the Liverpool gang were based in a gym and had connections with the boxing world – hardly a cool idyll of litotes and ironic subtlety. According to Townsend, “Pancake is described as a fearsome individual, typifying a new generation of thug who has made the big time, and operates in a fashion poles apart from the methodical dealings of Smith.”

As proof, he offers evidence of how “CCTV footage taken from a Liverpool nightclub, Palm Sugar, reveals Pancake’s penchant for aggression. Denied entry by a bouncer, images show him hurling a right-handed punch at the doorman’s jaw. During the ensuing chaos, Taylor [a fellow gang member] is seen hurling chairs at the nightclub’s security as revellers scream in fear.” Clearly no gentlemen, then, but I would suggest that CCTV footage from any number of nightclubs throughout the UK on the very same night would probably show similar scenes.

Pancake is also “linked” to the “assassination” of Liverpudlian drug dealer Nicky Ayers. The link, it turns out, is that he “squabbled” with Ayers. “Pancake was questioned by Merseyside Police, but not charged,” says Townsend, somewhat flatly.

OK, this is all good knockabout Sunday newspaper supposition, overhyped opinion masquerading as fact and raking over of meagre clues to spot the tiger that isn’t, but let’s get down to the nuts and bolts: is this Mexican coke smuggling through Liverpool the real thing?

Well, after several thousand near breathless words, near the bottom of the next to last column on the second page of this luridly written and eye-catchingly if somewhat unhelpfully illustrated report comes the telling phrase:

So far, there have been no cocaine seizures in the Mersey docklands.

This, my friends, is what is known in the trade as a “reverse ferret”: a single, indisputable fact that, if it doesn’t quite topple, seriously undermines the whole elaborate house of cards that has been so painstakingly built up.

But despite this serious change of direction, our reporter is not one for back-pedalling. Townsend tries to dig himself out of this hole with the assertion: “But recently, Spanish authorities at the port of Valencia found 2,513kg of cocaine from Mexico inside  containers. Police sources say it is highly possible the haul had a Liverpool connection” (emphasis mine).

So, a flood of cocaine through Liverpool Docks for which there is not a sniff of direct evidence other than a shipment in Valencia which might have a connection. Or might not.

Never mind. In the time-honoured tradition of this sort of junk journalism, the Observer’s not keen to let us go without a rip-snortin’ finishing flourish:

In the meantime, the one certainty is that the cycle of killing will continue. The Mexicans are coming.

I for one will not be holding on to my sombrero.

Note: The original print version of this story, which unfortunately I no longer have a copy of, hedged its bets with the headline, relating it directly to the alleged Liverpool docks connection and giving the whole thing a question mark. Skills to the sub concerned, who had obviously spotted the reverse ferret and tried to do the best he or she could with it. It is not obvious that the web editor who wrote the headline for the online version even bothered to read the story, since it is so obviously incorrect.
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