Investigators have arrested the alleged leaders of an Albanian gang thought to have smuggled hundreds of illegal immigrants into the UK.
The main target, in jeans and a T-shirt, was detained as he sat enjoying a beer with three friends outside a smart tapas restaurant near Croydon town centre in south London.
Two National Crime Agency officers swooped and pinned the 40-year-old man against his chair before handcuffing him and putting him in a police van.
A man was arrested in Purley as part of an investigation into a people smuggling ring. Pic: NCA
The restaurant was ordered to shut – and the shadowy figures of a search team could later be glimpsed through the blinds looking for cash and other evidence of money laundering.
A second suspect, 36, had the front door smashed open at his cream-painted, semi-detached house set back from the main Brighton Road in nearby Purley.
His gravel drive was suddenly filled with NCA and Metropolitan Police vehicles, including a forensics van.
Soon after their arrival a woman turned up with a small child in a pushchair. There was a look of thunder on her face.
“I live here,” she told officers. “What’s going on?”
It’s not clear how much they told her, but they ushered her and the child inside the house before the suspect was taken away in handcuffs.
A 26-year-old woman was later arrested at the same address.
Curious locals gathered at the gate, one giving a running commentary over video for what sounded like a neighbourhood website.
Four other men, aged between 26 and 44, were arrested in more raids in south London, Surrey and Oxfordshire.
The suspects are thought to have hired vans and lorries to smuggle hundreds of illegal immigrants – mainly Albanians – from France through the Channel Tunnel into the UK.
They allegedly ran a bespoke service, charging migrants up to £25,000 each, with links in France, Germany, the Netherlands and Poland.
Last year, border guards in France intercepted six vehicles, arrested drivers, removed dozens of migrants and began identifying the ringleaders.
NCA branch commander Richard Harrison said: “We believe the arrests will have significantly disrupted an organised criminal network responsible for smuggling potentially hundreds of people into the UK illegally.
“The network claimed to provide a top-of-the-range service and charged accordingly, using complicit drivers to transport migrants in hired vehicles.
“This activity represented a significant threat to both the safety of the migrants involved and the security of UK border controls.”
Between July and December 2020 six people smuggling attempts were stopped by Border Force officers. Pic: NCA
The NCA said it had identified bank accounts, some holding hundreds of thousands of pounds, which are thought to be controlled by the gang.
The agency’s deputy director, Andrea Wilson, said: “This operation shows that people smugglers are right at the top of the NCA’s target list.
“It is a form of criminality that sees people exploited for profit by criminals who have no regard for human life.
“Those involved in organised immigration crime should know that our officers are working day and night with partners in the UK and abroad to find them, disrupt and dismantle their business models and bring them to justice.
“I also have a message today for drivers, commercial or otherwise, who would consider assisting these organised criminal networks by transporting migrants on their behalf.
“Do not do it. The penalties for those who are caught are severe and life changing. It is simply not worth the risk.”
Seven suspects are being questioned on suspicion of offences including people smuggling and money laundering.