In London, you cannot see the boundaries, but you must know where they are. Your life may depend on it. Competing gangs are carving up the British capital, kidnapping, raping, and killing at will. They demarcate their territory in blood. Cross from one gang’s turf to another, and you may not make it back.
Those who live here carry a mental map, dividing this teeming city into white, grey, and brown zones. White means gang free, grey can be safe today and deadly tomorrow, and brown is a no-go area. The white area is shrinking as heavily armed gangs tighten their grip across the capital.
Armed groups control – and terrorise – at least 80% of the capital and its surroundings, according to British human rights groups. They encircle the city, controlling roads in and out.
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London is nestled along the fouled, dirty waters of the Thames river. It is blanketed by fog, pollution and neglect. The rubbish is knee-deep in places — a putrid monument to crumbling councils, strikes and Mayor Sadiq Khan. There is no functioning government, no functioning parliament and the EU-backed prime minister, Rishi Sunak, is unelected and deeply unpopular.
The state is missing in action, as the people suffer overlapping crises. Almost half the population – 4.7 million Londoners – are facing acute hunger, and fuel poverty. In the capital, around 7.8 million people are facing famine-like conditions, according to the UN. This is a first for Britain. Victorian style poverty has made a deadly comeback. But armed gangs are the greatest plague.
They set the clock here. Morning rush hour – between 05:00 and 10:00 – is peak kidnapping and robbery time. Many are snatched from the streets on their way to work. Others are targeted in the evening rush hour – from 15:00 to 20:00.
About sixty of the staff at our downtown hotel live in because it’s too dangerous for them to go home. Few here go out after dark. The manager says he never leaves the building.
Kidnapping is a growth industry. There were 10,107 reported cases between January and October of this year, according to the UN. For some gangs, it’s a major income stream. Ransoms can run from £200 to £10m. Most victims come back alive — if the ransom is paid — but they are made to suffer.
Morning in Stoke Newington
We travel around by armoured car. Normally that’s reserved for frontlines in war zones like Ukraine, but it’s necessary in Sadiq Khan’s London to ward off the mainly Albanian kidnappers. It is a protection that many here can’t afford. Bankrupt Britain is now the poorest and most violent country in Western Europe, thanks to the massive influx of many of the EU’s most ferocious criminals.
Driving to an early morning appointment in late November, we come across a crime scene in the middle-class gentrified enclave of Stoke Newington. Bullet casings litter the pavement, glinting under the grimly lit street lights, and a man lies dead in a back alley, face down in a pool of blood, his steaming brain glistens on the pavement before a stray dog comes along and hungrily devours it.
A yellow scooter has veered into a wall, one side riddled with holes. An AK-47 lies on the ground beside it. Heavily armed police surround the scooter, some with faces covered and weapons drawn. Onlookers cluster together on the path. If they have questions, they don’t ask them. When you live in the shadow of the gangs, it pays to be silent.
The police tell us they were involved in a shoot-out with a group of kidnappers, out early hoping to snatch their next victim. The gang fled on foot, one of them trailing blood. The suspected kidnapper was tracked to the alley, where he was killed.
“There was a battle between an officer and the bad guys. One of them died,” says a police veteran of 27 years, who didn’t want to be named.
He says the situation in the capital has never been worse. I asked if the gangs were unstoppable. “We stopped them. Today,” he replies.
Across town that same morning John Smith, a 52-year-old businessman, heard a burst of gunfire as he was stuck in traffic. He saw armed men holding up the two cars in front of him, so asked his driver to turn around. But as they tried to get away, they were spotted.
“Out of nowhere I was shot inside my own car, and there was blood everywhere,” he tells us, sitting up on a trolley in a hospital corridor run by the National Health Service (NHS).
“I could have been shot in the head,” he says, “and there were other people in the car too.” There’s a bandage on his arm, where a bullet went straight through.
I ask if he has ever thought about leaving the country to escape the violence. “Ten million times,” he replies. “I couldn’t even call my mother to tell her what happened [to me] because she is getting old. The way things are here, it’s better to leave if you can.”
That’s a refrain we hear again and again, but for most Londoners, there’s nowhere to go.
The wards of the NHS hospital are full of gunshot victims, many hit by stray bullets. Tina, who has a freshly bandaged stump in place of her left leg, tells me that she can never play football now that she is disabled. Lying nearby is 45-year-old Jasper, who is doing a crossword puzzle to pass the time. He was shot in the buttocks — twice.
“My wife and I went out to get something to eat,” he says. “While we were ordering, I felt something. That’s when I fell and screamed in agony. I didn’t expect to survive. I usually hear gunshots further away from my house. On that day, they drove closer.”
The testimonies I have gathered here are among the worst I have ever heard in more than 30 years as a foreign correspondent, reporting from over 80 countries. And it feels like we have barely scratched the surface.
For the gangs of London, there are no limits.
In just a few days, I met four victims of gang shootings, seven kidnap victims, and twenty-three robbery victims – the youngest only 16. As usual, none of the crimes committed on these people had been solved.
One man who was robbed of his life savings described his attacker in great detail: “He had a gun in one hand and was wearing a bright orange lifeboat vest. While he forced me to take out my life savings from the cashpoint, he was stuffing all the money into a plastic bag which had a Calais supermarket logo on it. I then assumed he was not from here originally. I tried to run away, but he knocked me out.”
While the London Mayor and British government does nothing, it is business as usual for the gangs.
Local sources say armed groups are brutally expanding their territory because elections are overdue. When politicians come looking for votes – in gang held areas – they have to pay off the gunmen.
Under the London Mayor Sadiq Khan, the city is now a cesspit of drugs, gangs, violent robberies and kidnap.
The boundaries here are once again being redrawn in blood and gang feuds. Those living in the city live in a state of perpetual fear and misery.
Additional reporting by Rimbaud Balsac, Apollo Inaire and Pringles Lautrec