I have sought out a life of adventure. It hasn’t come naturally. I have saved, borrowed, begged, and earned enough money to sometimes fund my habit. I get asked a lot of questions, most of them start with one word; how? How do I find the time? How do I afford it? How do you end up in Algeria once a month?!
Well, the answer lies in this blog post. I have, after much careful consideration decided to write down exactly what it is i’ve been doing for 10 years. I’m coming clean.
I investigate things. More specifically, counterfeits. You might know them as knock-offs, fakes, or even bargains. I see them very differently. I see them for what they are, and what they become. What do they become? Sometimes, they become the very thing that ends a human life.
I investigate things, and sometimes, I have to think like this:
I often wondered how much danger i was putting myself in, i mean, after all, if i had a good day at the office, somewhere around the world, a criminal kingpin would be cursing as yet another one of his shipping containers was seized or disrupted on its way to flood Europe with counterfeit goods. I was sure that would piss someone off. But equally, i knew the numbers involved, I knew that these crime bosses were not just sending one or two shipments a month, they were sending hundreds. The international trade in counterfeit goods is multi-trillion dollar business. And it is just that, a business. And the kingpins act like businessmen. These guys fly first class, they eat in the finest restaurants and live in mansions we can only dream of owning. They are unscrupulous, flouting their wealth for all to see, all ill-gotten gains. But beneath the luxury exterior lies a dark, dangerous and deadly underbelly. Crime groups are headed up by the money men, but as you move down the ladder and into the thick of the action, you find the real criminals, the guys who get stuff done. This network is made up of street sellers, corrupt customs officers, shipping companies, logistics firms and even banks, all with their own role to play in the giant sticky web that is organised crime.
Counterfeiting is but one money maker for the criminals, an easy source of hard cash, a seemingly victimless crime. Who loses out when a fake handbag is sold in a North London market? Who cares that every single Nike T-shirt on sale on the beach in Turkey is a rip-off? Around the world, customers everywhere are delighted to get an i-phone charger for a few quid on e-Bay, not having to pay £9.99 for a real one. It’s hard to make the connection, hard to imagine how that innocent purchase lines the pockets of the criminals we are all so afraid of, hard to believe that one day, that money might even help to buy a gun, that eventually is used in a terrorist attack. Read the news, it’s all there. Remember the headlines on 7th January 2015? I do. On that day, two brothers Saïd and Chérif Kouachi forced their way into the offices of the French satirical weekly newspaper Charlie Hebdo in Paris. Armed with rifles and grenades, they killed 12 people and injured 11 others. The gunmen identified themselves as belonging to the Islamist terrorist group Al-Qaeda’s branch in Yemen, which took responsibility for the attack.
Homeland Security in the U.S later revealed that the brothers had been importing and selling fake Nike trainers on the streets of Paris to fund their buying of weapons. When the flat being rented by the brothers was raided by anti-terrorism police, they found illegal cigarettes, another way they were able to make fast, hard cash. And this isn’t the first time this happened, in fact it was encouraged by the terrorist groups themselves. Al-Qaeda training material seized by the Americans directly instructs would-be terrorists to trade in counterfeit goods in order to buy weapons, the risks are low, the rewards so high. Hezbollah, ISIS, ETA and even the IRA have turned to the trade in counterfeits to fund their wars against governments and the public alike.
Of course while counterfeiting fast became the preferred source of funding for the bad men, other crimes are never far away, and they are all linked. People smuggling, money laundering, drugs, extortion, kidnapping, all of the things that keep some of us awake at night. I very quickly learnt that there is no line for these criminals, no step too far. In one particular case, our team had been cooperating with the authorities in Singapore and Malaysia. We had been providing intelligence about a major crime group smuggling millions of fake cigarettes in and around Asia. Our work was done, and we took a step back from the investigation. The Police had identified the main man, a seriously big criminal, the kingpin. He owned many of the ports, and when i say owned, he had all of the officials in his pocket, or rather, was paying them out of it. The case ran for months, eventually the authorities decided to intercept some of his shipments, hit him where it really hurts. They targeted a particular container vessel that was shipping dozens of containers of counterfeit goods, all belonging to the big boss. The vessel was stopped in Malaysian waters, helicopters and police boats swooped in to apprehend the goods before they could sail on the high seas. The captain of the vessel quickly notified the crime boss, who was no doubt sitting in one of his luxury abodes somewhere in Asia. He instructed the captain to use the onboard crane to knock his shipping containers into the water, preventing the police from getting to his goods, and linking them to him. The captain duly obliged, several of the giant rectangular metal boxes were dumped into the sea, sinking instantly, their weight making them almost impossible to retrieve. It seemed a drastic move by the boss not to get caught, after all, it was unlikely he would ever face charges for dealing in counterfeit goods, this was simply the authorities was of trying to disrupt his cash flow. News soon broke that the shipping containers did not contain counterfeit goods. They were all full of women and children being smuggled into the Middle East. They all died. Life is cheap when you’re a kingpin, after all, he has a business to run.