IT is 8am on a spring morning in a quiet Bristol suburb when armed police smash through a front door with a battering ram in search of a suspected drug lord.
But as they start to sweep the home for illegal substances, the operation is paused when they spot two babies, aged one and two, amid the chaos.
Bristol has become the ‘cocaine capital’ of Europe
After making sure the little ones are safe, sniffer dogs find two packages of crack cocaine and heroin, worth thousands of pounds.
For Avon and Somerset Police, this dawn raid in Hartcliffe — one of the most deprived areas in England — is a success.
A man in his fifties is arrested for possession with intent to supply. He is later released under investigation.
The raid, which The Sun was invited to witness first-hand, was one of several across Bristol and the South West last month as part of Operation Scorpion, a new crackdown on the city’s most dangerous drug dealers.
Dealers beating up vulnerable users
In the course of a week, it led to 194 drug-offence arrests.
More than £400,000 of suspected narcotics and more than £130,000 in cash was seized, along with an array of weapons including Tasers, knives and machetes.
Around 55 properties were raided and 400 major drug lines disrupted.
It is vital and life-saving work.
Drug deaths have risen to a record high in Bristol, with the most recent government statistics showing there were 147 drug-poisoning deaths between 2018 and 2020, the highest since local records began in 2001.
Just two years ago the city — which has 41 areas in the most deprived ten per cent in England — was dubbed the “cocaine capital of Europe”.
And as Britain emerges from the pandemic, the dangerous drug scene across the South West shows no signs of slowing down.
In Bristol the drug market is estimated to be worth around £108million a year.
Joshua Torrance, a criminology teacher at the University of Bristol and an expert in drug policy, says: “Cocaine is increasingly popular. We’ve seen a drop in bulk price due to Albanian gangs.
“There is also ease of availability. It’s certain that if you order delivery of a gram of coke and a pizza, the coke will come first.”
Some dealers have been reportedly selling crack for as little as £5 a “rock”.
It is easy to see the devastation drugs are causing in Bristol, a city where 28 per cent of schoolkids are classed as disadvantaged and 638 were in care at the end of March last year.
A stone’s throw away from the city’s shopping centre, Cabot Circus, two homeless men are fighting over a bag of crack cocaine.
Locals tell how drug-related violence is now worse since the pandemic eased and how it is “normal” to witness sex work, exchanges of crack and heroin, and dealers beating up vulnerable users if they don’t pay.
Peter Collins, a drug expert at Avon and Somerset Police, explains: “The pandemic had an effect on drugs within Bristol, South Gloucestershire and Somerset with uncertainty around supply routes into the UK.
This saw a drop in purity of heroin and crack cocaine, which was a risk to the life of people who use heroin.”
Inspector Chris Green, who is leading Operation Scorpion in Bristol, says there are 5,000 problematic drug users in the city living with different levels of addiction.
Police are combining operations with all five forces across the South West to tackle gangs moving across so-called “county lines”, where dealers in cities establish networks to get drugs to towns and rural areas, often using young and vulnerable people as couriers.
At a briefing at Southmead police station, officers have had intelligence that an “exchange” is going on at an address in a residential street in the suburb.
Police believe there are two users at the property and a dealer who has moved in to exploit them. Known as “cuckooing”, this is where gangs take over the homes of addicts, who get drugs in return.
The Sun’s Georgette Culley was given access to Operation Scorpion in BristolCredit: Olivia West
I follow cops who kick in the door. There is an overpowering, unpleasant smell inside the house as I enter.
Dirty clothes and rubbish are strewn over the floor.
If you order a gram of coke and a pizza, the coke will come first
Seized from the address are several phones, drug paraphernalia and suspected Class A substances.
Three people are arrested — a 38-year-old woman and two men aged 42 and 44 — on suspicion of being involved in the supply of class A drugs. They have since been released under investigation.
Few people knows the dangers of Bristol’s scene better than Shanon Hathway, who was addicted to crack, heroin and alcohol for 20 years.
The 37-year-old, clean for six years, said: “Every day I’d wake up in need of a fix and spend the rest of the day trying to find the cash to pay for drugs.
“I’d sleep with men for cash for drugs.”
For 20 years I was in and out of prison after turning to petty theft to fund my habit.”
Shanon — who lives with daughter Lexi, four, and husband Keith, 46, also a former user — works as a criminal justice recovery worker at Bristol’s Nelson Trust, a charity that helps people whose lives have been ruined by addiction.
She says: “Drug users need help, not to be punished.”
Bristol police have in recent years encouraged users into recovery, rather than locking them up.
“They are victims in this too,” explains Inspector Green. “We are after the gang leaders at the top of the chain who cause all this misery.”
Six officers assaulted every day in city
Matt Shepherd*, a recovering drug user and dealer from nearby Weston-super-Mare, Somerset, was groomed into gangs as a child.
“I was brought up around substance addiction and my family were drug dealers,” he explains.
The 40-year-old has been in recovery for six months and now volunteers for With You, a charity that helps people battling drug, alcohol or mental health issues.
He explains: “I started smoking cannabis and heroin when I was 12 and was injecting heroin by 16. By 17, I was addicted to crack.
“I was groomed by older drug dealers and got into gangs when I was 13.”
Between the ages of 15 and 27 Matt was in and out of jail.
After his final prison stint he was put on methadone, which was his first introduction to recovery. Matt is now married with kids and has helped hundreds of drug users.
Drugs in Bristol
- Dealers selling crack for £5 a rock
- 5,000 ‘problematic users’ and death at record high
- Violence in streets in troubled city
As part of Operation Scorpion, police also made more than 320 visits to vulnerable people’s addresses and conducted nearly 50 educational trips to schools, youth clubs and colleges to talk about grooming into drug gangs.
Drug crackdowns like the one we witnessed in Bristol take months to plan and it is dangerous work.
Last year there were almost 37,000 assaults on police officers in England and Wales, including British Transport Police.
In Bristol alone, around six officers are assaulted a day.
“Fortunately, no officers have been injured today carrying out their duties,” says Inspector Green.
By 4pm, my shift is coming to an end. It has been an illuminating and exhausting day but one that gives me — one of Bristol’s 465,900 residents — hope that the menace of drugs is finally being tackled.
But in the cocaine capital, the fightback still has a long way to go.
*Name has been changed
Police seized a large dog from a suspected crack denCredit: Olivia West
Around 55 properties were raided and 400 major drug lines disruptedCredit: Olivia West
Locals say drug-related violence in Bristol is now worse since the pandemicCredit: Olivia West