01 April 2006

New 'British FBI' will have more than 100 officers based abroad

Rosie Cowan, crime correspondent
Saturday April 1, 2006
The Guardian

Up to 140 British crime fighters will be based abroad working for Britain's new equivalent of the FBI - the Serious and Organised Crime Agency (Soca) - which officially opens it doors on Monday morning.

The unprecedented scale of international collaboration is part of a drive to globalise the fight against organised crime, intercepting people traffickers and drug smugglers in the countries they pass through to reach Britain, the new chief of Soca, Sir Stephen Lander told the Guardian.

Some of Soca's staff overseas will be carrying out intelligence duties, others will work with local authorities in places like Afghanistan and Colombia, where heroin and cocaine production are rife. Others will be embedded in foreign law enforcement agencies, which will reciprocate with officers in the UK.

"We think we will have the second largest law enforcement overseas network in the world, second only to the US DEA [Drug Enforcement Agency]," the former M15 chief explained.

Many of the 140 being sent overseas will go to the US, where some are already with the DEA, others to eastern Europe, from where traffickers procure thousands of women each year to work in the sex trade around the world.

"We're doing a lot of work with the Balkans and eastern Europe as regards trafficked women and labourers and we want to work with the transit countries to see what we can do to stop them being moved through," said Bill Hughes, Soca's director, who previously headed the National Crime Squad. "Globalisation, the internet and cheap travel have made it so much easier to conduct the business of crime at one remove. We can't operate in isolation, we have to build up alliances in other countries."

The international strategy epitomises the new holistic approach to crime fighting by Soca, which will merge the National Crime Squad, National Criminal Intelligence Service, parts of Customs and Immigration, civilian computer and financial experts, and police officers seconded from forces throughout the UK. Crime cartels cost the UK £40bn a year. Soca will be able to use a range of methods, including asset stripping and other regulatory tools, as well as targeting crooked officers and lawyers.

"You can slice this any number of ways," said Sir Stephen. "Who are the kingpins and main profiteers? How do they do business? Do they rely on corrupt police officers or solicitors? We've constructed an organisation that allows us to cross-target a range of things and we've been doing a lot to ensure Soca is more than a sum of its parts."

Organised crime, he said, was all about making profit and combating it required a cool, corporate-minded approach. "It's about making the UK as unattractive a business proposition as possible for criminals, disrupting their activities, putting them out of business and reducing market opportunities."

"In the past, we tended to think the case ended when the cell door slammed shut," said Mr Hughes. "Of course it doesn't, it's about bringing down the whole structure. There will be people who will go to prison for a long time, but for others out there there may be a quicker way to put them out of business. In some cases, a stroke of the regulatory pen could avoid a criminal taskforce chasing its tail forever."

While Soca's work will be boosted by some new criminal justice measures, such as US-type informer plea bargains, Sir Stephen insisted: "We haven't got a load of new powers, we're simply an extra layer pulling together existing resources and levering others.

"We will consult as to how leads will be pursued, who is best placed to pursue them and in what type of operation, and if appropriate, hand cases over to other agencies." Mr Hughes quoted US president Harry Truman: "It is amazing what you can accomplish if you do not care who gets the credit."

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