Gangsters suspected of providing genuine passports to criminal fugitives have been arrested in a wave of raids across the UK.
The targets are believed to have exploited a loophole in the passport application system to help some of Britain’s most wanted runaways stay undetected around the world.
One of the gang’s customers was said to be Jamie Acourt, an original suspect in the Stephen Lawrence murder, who later fled drug charges and went on the run in Spain.
Acourt was extradited and jailed in 2018 after police discovered he was living in Barcelona under an alias and had a genuine passport in that name, but with his own photograph.
Other fugitives thought to have used the gang’s passport services are jailed gun runner Richard Burdett – who was arrested in Amsterdam – and alleged cocaine trafficker Michael Moogan who was held in Dubai, extradited and is now awaiting trial.
It is thought the gang made millions of pounds by identifying lookalikes, often vulnerable individuals, and persuading them with cash to let them apply for passports in their name but with the photographs of the fugitives substituted.
In south London, we watched an arrest by the National Crime Agency of a 66-year-old man who investigators described as a passport broker, the middleman between the gangsters who supply the documents and the fugitives who need them.
Startled neighbours peeked out from behind their curtains as more than a dozen investigators smashed their way into the target’s first-floor flat in a Victorian terrace in Sydenham. One officer carried an angle grinder as though expecting a difficult entry.
Chris Farrimond, the NCA’s deputy director of investigations, said: “If a criminal steals a passport or buys a stolen one, they’ve always got the concern that it has been reported and every time they go through a passport check or gate they’re taking a risk. This reduces the risk considerably because it’s a genuine item. It should get them through, no problem.”
Some 24 suspects were arrested in raids in London, Kent, Essex and Merseyside on suspicion of a variety of crimes including making and receiving false passports, counter-signing false passports and perverting the course of justice. The suspects were aged between 34 and 73.
In recent years suspects thought to have used the gang’s passports have been arrested in Europe, Thailand, Australia and Brazil.
Other suspected customers include members of Irish and Scottish organised crime groups.
The NCA monitored the gang’s activities with help from HM Passport Office and the Dutch national police.
Security minister Damian Hinds said: “This is a fantastic result and will do significant damage to the serious organised crime groups who want to inflict misery on our shores and around the world. The close working between the NCA and Her Majesty’s Passport Office has been at the heart of this hugely successful operation.
“The government is working to make the UK border one of the most effective and secure in the world, which will also support our ambition of dismantling ruthless organised crime groups.”
The Home Office added: “The passport application process is rigorous, and we continue to develop our anti-fraud measures to keep ahead of the criminals who attempt to get a UK passport fraudulently.
“Our efforts to combat passport fraud do not stop at the point that a passport is issued, and we work closely with law enforcement agencies to take action against any person identified as having obtained a passport by fraudulent means.”