Episode 30



Vanessa Kirby goes undercover with a man who spent 14 years fighting the War on Drugs. Disguised as an addict, Neil Woods risked his life to infiltrate brutal narcotics gangs. The experience led him to question our whole approach to fighting drug use, and led him to a remarkable new strategy and life.
Read the transcript →

True Spies Episode 30: Drug Wars

NARRATOR: Welcome to True Spies. Week by week, mission by mission, you’ll hear the true stories behind the world’s greatest espionage operations. You’ll meet the people who navigate this secret world. What do they know? What are their skills? And what would you do in their position? This is True Spies Episode 30: Drug Wars.

NEIL WOODS: I thought I was going to die on several occasions. I look back now and try and count them and it seems difficult to even count how many times I came close to death.

NARRATOR: This week’s True Spy is not a spy exactly but a former policeman. But the lines between the two became blurred over the course of Neil Wood’s career. The deeper he went into his undercover role, the more he came to rely on the same tradecraft all our True Spies have in common because Neil’s day job was befriending illicit drug users and gaining the trust of some of the most violent criminals. For 14 years he infiltrated some of Britain’s most dangerous drug-dealing gangs.

NEIL WOODS: I have helped fill the prisons up with drug dealers. I’ve put people away for a cumulative total of 1,000 years and I have put some very nasty people in prison.

NARRATOR: Starting out in the early 1990s, Neil was at the forefront of police surveillance. He quickly earned a name as the most successful operative of his time and his expertise was called upon by drug squads up and down the country to tackle an ever-growing problem in the cities and towns of Britain.

NEIL WOODS: When I started working undercover in 1993 it was because there was a huge moral panic about drug use in Britain. For two decades the heroin epidemic had been gathering pace and drug-dealing associated crime was huge and a great concern to the public.

NARRATOR: But let’s meet Neil properly. He comes from a typical ‘middle-England’ family in a quiet town in Derbyshire.

NEIL WOODS: I grew up in the very middle-class town of Buxton in the Peak District. I didn’t realize just how sleepy it was until I started as a police officer in the city. Buxton was idyllic really and I had very calm and intelligent parents who taught me you can reason your way through anything. I grew up, I suppose, almost as an only child because my older brother and sister had left home when I was very young. My father was a traveling salesperson, a businessman and my mother was a care home manager and trade union rep. My father loved to debate politics and I was very politically aware from a very early age.

NARRATOR: And Neil was into books, music, girls, the usual stuff for a nineteen-year-old. Like any teenager, he had to think about what he was going to do - university? Job? Year off? At 19 do any of us know for sure what we want to do?

NEIL WOODS: When I finished sixth form I went to university by mistake. Why I ever thought I would enjoy a business studies course I have no idea. I had no more interest in business than I do now. After a few months, I realized I had made this mistake and decided I had to do something different. Now a couple of my friends had gone backpacking around Europe and were having a wonderful adventure and that appealed to me a great deal. So I was all ready to set off around Europe and make my way through fruit picking and whatever work I could manage and then I saw an advertisement in the local newspaper, The Advertiser, The Buxton Advertiser, for police officers. And it occurred to me that that might also be an adventure.

NARRATOR: Mmm... the choice. Fruit picking in Europe or join the police? Neil decided to let fate decide his future.

NEIL WOODS: And so being completely indecisive I decided to trust my fate to the flip of a coin and it came up heads which meant that I applied for the police.

NARRATOR: Of course. That’s how you decide your whole career. He applied, was accepted, and went through the training. At first Neil struggled to fit in at small-town police stations in Northern England. It wasn’t quite what he had expected. And he wasn’t very good.

NEIL WOODS: It was a great shock and I had no idea just how naive and sheltered I’d been. And so, as a nineteen-year-old, I was a terrible police officer. Some of the young recruits I joined with took to it straight away. I did not. Having been brought up to think I could reason with anybody. I soon realized that some people still just want to punch you no matter what you say. So it took me a long time to get used to confrontation, dealing with really difficult people and I almost lost my job on several occasions because for at least two years I just wasn’t any good at the job.

NARRATOR: That bad eh? But Neil stuck at it. It was during his probation in Derby that a senior officer saw potential in Neil. He took him under his wing and gradually taught him how to play to his strengths. And Neil began to find there were some parts of the job he was really good at. He found his stride in the interview room. He discovered he had a talent for getting confessions out of suspects, hardened criminals.

NEIL WOODS: The reason I was good at that is because I could always spot accurately when somebody is lying. I do have a natural ability to read body language and nuance in the way that people speak. So I could be sure when someone was lying when most of the time we wonder. We wonder doubtfully, don’t we? Whether somebody is or not? But I managed to have some certainty which served me very well.

NARRATOR: Neil began to stand out as a good officer. He was noticed by the detectives. Cops like it when they get a confession. It made him realize his career path; to become a detective. His successes in the interview rooms had got him noticed. His boss suggested he apply for a placement with the Drugs Squad. This was 1993. Britain was awash with narcotics. The fall of the Berlin Wall and the opening of the Eastern Bloc created a superhighway of drugs from Central Asia. Throw in a youth culture of dance music and raves and you end up with both public and political pressure on the police to crack down on the drugs trade. His new posting was where any young cop wanted to be.

NEIL WOODS: The Drug Squad at the time, they were the rockstars. They could swan around. They had these fancy cars, all of this fancy secretive equipment. They were the only people who got overtime. They dressed as they liked. They were cool. They were the people… They were the mysterious people and it was the squad that all of the detectives wanted to get onto.

NARRATOR: Neil couldn’t believe he’d made it onto the squad. Would he be a rockstar too? His first day did not go quite as he expected. He was put firmly in his place by the seasoned drug cops.

NEIL WOODS: It was a very frosty reception to start with because the last thing these people wanted was some rookie getting in the way. What they did was - as a result of extraordinarily long training, with the advanced driving and then the surveillance techniques which take so long to learn and pass - and they just saw me as another rookie to get under their feet. So it was quite a hostile first day to be honest.

NARRATOR: But hostile or not, Neil had to get to work. And it was exciting. He loved it.

NEIL WOODS: I took part in some surveillances with them which was very eye opening, in a convoy of six vehicles at some points reaching 130, 140-miles-an-hour to catch up with the rest of the convoy. It was all, for a young man, very exciting stuff and learning all of the new ways of speaking, the different types of commentary on the encrypted radios. It was all heady stuff.

NARRATOR: Heady stuff indeed. Here’s a flavor… ‘Alpha 3 with visual on West Green Avenue. We’ll pursue him until the next set of lights, then hand over. Can we get someone in position please? Roger that Alpha 1 in position. Ready for takeover at lights. Alpha 2 here. We’ve got the eyeball. Target indicating left. We’re going to overshoot. Backup from Alpha bike please. Alpha bike ready.’ It wasn’t long, though, before Neil got a chance to really shine in his new squad.

NEIL WOODS: One of them looked at me one day and said do you fancy having a go at buying some crack.

NARRATOR: Crack cocaine. Crack, the sound it makes when it’s heated. The most addictive form of the drug. Smoke it and it causes an intense high but it’s dangerous. It causes all manner of physical and psychological problems. And crack was making the headlines, week in, week out. It was the drug they wanted off the streets. Neil was given a £20 note and pointed in the direction of a terraced house. A hastily arranged observation post had been set up from a nearby building.

NEIL WOODS: So I walked to this door, knocked on the door and this rather scary huge-looking chap answered the door and said: ‘What do you want?’ And I said: ‘Can I have a stone please?’ And he says: ‘Who are you? You’re not a student are you? I fucking hate students.’ And bearing in mind just how ridiculous this was, I’d gone to this door without any cover story whatsoever. No one had told me this is what I had to do. So I'm thinking: ‘Okay, yeah, that's right. I'm a student.’ And this woman behind said: ‘Is he stupid? He just said he was.’ And so the guy just found this amusing and then sold me this little paper twist of crack cocaine. And as I was coming away from there, he was very pleasant. He said: ‘You take care now. You don't get yourself arrested.’ Which was nice, I thought...

NARRATOR: Don’t be fooled. Drug dealers may act nice but they are still ruthless and if Neil thought it was all going to be that easy he was wrong. But he was still too green to even imagine the violence, the murder, and the damage to people’s lives these dealers caused. For now, Neil hoped he had earned the respect of the drug squad on the first foot-job he’d been given. He went back to the squad, delighted with his success. He couldn’t have known that £20 would change his life.

NEIL WOODS: Well, I must have looked quite boyish because I held my palm open. And there's this little paper twist in the middle of a hand and I said: ‘There you go, I've got it, I've got the thing.’ And they were all laughing, and someone said: ‘Look at him, he's so relaxed. It's like he just went out and bought a newspaper.’ So it was a great reception but the thing is... that day then defined the next 14 years of my life.

NARRATOR: Again and again he was used as a foot guy. The squad, impressed, asked him to stay. Undercover operations were still very new and rarely employed but it was a cheap and easy way of getting results quickly, and that was what the politicians wanted. The newspapers at the time were whipping up a moral frenzy about the drugs epidemic and results were needed, arrests mattered. They wanted the problem fixed and fast.

NEIL WOODS: In no time at all I was doing no less than six or seven months in any city center and within a year I was traveling around the country doing this, developing a reputation for it.

NARRATOR: For each undercover operation, Neil had to build an identity as a heavy drug user. Imagine you have to become the kind of person a destitute drug addict or drug dealer might befriend. What do you wear? How do you walk? The details are important - even down to how you smell. It’s about how you appear to other people. What do you do to fit in?

NEIL WOODS: So, to start with, I dressed myself as what Northerners would call it a ‘scally’, a sort of traveling criminal type. Now, no disrespect to anybody who really loves their sportswear. But I dressed up in a matching tracksuit and Nike Air Max trainers because sportswear just happens to be the uniform of thieves. So that opened me up a few doors. I could talk about being a bit of a traveling car-thief burglar, that kind of thing. But I quickly realized that if I dressed down and mixed with the people who were really the most vulnerable it opened up many more doors for me, because the people who were using the most drugs problematically were people who were really on the fringes of society, people who were living in squats or homeless or on the edge of that kind of community.

So I found that if I looked like them, I could open more doors because they knew more people. They knew more drug dealers. And also, I also quickly learned as an undercover police officer that vulnerable people are far more easy to manipulate. So I started to dress down. I even, for one operation in Nottingham, I found that if I put my clothes in a plastic bag overnight in a warm place, the next day they would smell worse. And it was a matter of getting completely into character. So I would wear dirty clothes. I would let my hair go greasy and I would just look as messy as possible.

NARRATOR: Neil had to put aside any personal morals he had about what he was doing. He was exploiting vulnerable people, drug users, to get to the dealers but he had to ingratiate himself with the users in order to reach the gangs in charge. Forget the real Neil Woods. He had to make sure he was believable. How would you reshape your identity? Who would you be? What’s your name? What’s your cover story?

NEIL WOODS: For each operation I had a different backstory and a different name. And the reason for that is safety because people go to prison - and people can go to prison right across the country - and you don't want a name popping up more than once because people do talk about what happened to them and who sent them to prison. So I was careful in the development of my legends and, as for my name, I would just try and choose something friendly and unobtrusive. So, for example, on one operation I went by the nickname of Cookie. My full name was Paul Cookson, but I went by the nickname Cookie because everyone likes cookies, don't they?

NARRATOR: Cookie. Sounds nice? But this was far from cookies and cream and this wasn’t acting. Neil had to become his identity. If he said he knew a certain bar in a certain area, he had to go there and learn names, watch people. Who was behind the bar serving drinks? This was real. And this was dangerous. If he was caught, if they found out he was a cop - and worse, Drug Squad - well, there was no doubt things would turn violent. And more than once Neil thought he was going to die.

NEIL WOODS: The first time I realized just how dangerous this work was I think I was in Stoke, in Fenton. I'd been buying heroin off this particular dealer for several weeks in decent weights. I thought he was more than happy with me, and one day I walked to this terraced house - one of the houses he used - and like many of the houses there, there are steps up. So when the door opens, you're looking up at the person in the door. Anyway, I knocked and the door flew open with a crash and he's there. And suddenly, there's a samurai sword to my throat. And he's looking down at me, his face is blood red, and the saliva is flowing out of him as he's shouting to me: ‘You’re DS. I know you are. You’re squad. You’re squad.’

And at that moment, I thought: ‘This is how I die.’ I could see the rage on his face and feel the blade on my throat, and I just knew. But then I heard this woman laughing. And then I saw her, she poked her head around from behind him and said: ‘I thought he was gonna say he was then.’ And the two of them just started laughing. They were winding me up or maybe just wanted to try out his new sword. I don't know but joking or not it made it very clear to me that day that this work might get me killed.

NARRATOR: Meanwhile, Neil could not tell anyone what he was doing. His wife, his friends, his family, even fellow police officers had no idea of Neil’s double life and the danger he was putting himself in day after day. By day he was an undercover drug addict buying heroin and crack cocaine, hanging out in the most squalid parts of a city, walking the streets. By night?

NEIL WOODS: I would go home to my wife and then later, in the 1990s, to my two young children. Some days I would be at home and have had huge surges of adrenaline all through the week. Some weeks when I've been mingling with gangsters and buying heroin, watching people inject heroin, or whatever had happened that week. And then I just felt like I needed to stare into space or just lie back and shake a little bit but, of course, you can't do that with young children. You have to pay attention to them, so sometimes that was very difficult.

NARRATOR: Work-life balance? Hardly. Neil had to keep the two completely separate. How would you do it? When you can’t even talk about your day? How do you keep the thoughts from crashing in and act like everything is normal?

NEIL WOODS: At the time I felt like I was dealing with that well, that I could keep these two things completely separate. And I think I did, but certainly nowadays with my mental health I wonder how well I did actually manage it.

NARRATOR: As Neil became more successful in catching dealers he was asked to infiltrate more serious, more violent gangs and he was learning his tradecraft.

NEIL WOODS: A lot of the skills I developed were observational skills and behavioral skills. I had to be acutely aware of any shift in somebody's suspicion or how to spot [what] someone was really thinking behind the words that they said because if I wasn't aware of what their real thoughts were I was in some considerable danger.

NARRATOR: And the streets were dangerous. As the police became better at catching the dealers, the dealers also took their game up a notch.

NEIL WOODS: Organized crime developed in parallel. And they made it much more difficult and they made the environment for undercover cops much more hostile and dangerous, and this continued with every passing year.

NARRATOR: And he was starting to feel the pressure.

NEIL WOODS: In the early years I really enjoyed this undercover work. I enjoyed being good at it. I enjoyed developing and I enjoyed the reputation amongst my peers. It boosts the ego when you are seen as somebody who can do these dangerous things and survive and thrive. So I enjoyed that but doubts crept in and it became more and more exhausting and damaging to my health to such an extent that in 2003, during an operation in Nottinghamshire, I started suffering quite heavily from stress, and physically I was hurting from the stress.

But the real last straw in Nottingham for me was at the end of the operation because I - as I always did an operation - I befriended people and what I call it now ‘weaponizing empathy’, where I spend time with someone and learn about their childhood, learn about what makes them tick, really befriending somebody. And this particular person in Nottingham, I really wooed him. I gave him presents, like a baseball cap, and I spent a lot of time with him and he was the person who introduced me to some of the gangsters that I really needed to meet.

But of course, he was also committing crimes and as a result of the operation he was arrested and he later served three-and-a-half years in prison. But I heard two weeks after the arrest phase of the operation that he had been minute-to-minute watch when he was in the police station, suicide watch. And the reason for that, as he explained to the interviewing officers, was that he thought I was his one friend in the world, the one person he could speak to. And he explained that this betrayal was the final straw for him. There was nowhere else to go and he was suicidal.

NARRATOR: It was the final straw for Neil too.

NEIL WOODS: I did betray him. I befriended him. I knew exactly how to get under his skin and emotionally manipulate him. And the harm that I caused to that individual as a result just hit me like a ton of bricks. I had quite a bit of depression and I resigned from working undercover, deciding that it was just too emotionally damaging for me as an individual.

NARRATOR: But while Neil was trying to live a normal life again the streets of Britain were far from normal. He was asked once again to go undercover. He didn’t want to but he was told the stakes were high and he was the only one who could help. His conscience was pricked and his sense of duty kicked in. A notorious gang in the East Midlands region of England was becoming a huge problem. The gang was called the Burger Bar Boys. One of the most infamous mobs in the country. The gang used beatings, stabbings, and shootings as a method of control and intimidation. And they were ramping up the violence. They would gang-rape the wives, the girlfriends, the sisters, of anyone who dared to speak out against them ensuring total silence and loyalty.

NARRATOR: Burger Bar Boys? Odd name for a mob. Their name came from a fast-food joint they used as their unofficial headquarters. They were the main street gang in Birmingham for more than two decades and contributed to the deaths of dozens of young victims. Four gang members were sent to prison for between 27 and 35 years each for the gunning down of two British teenagers in a drive-by shooting in Birmingham that went horribly wrong. Now they were expanding into Northampton, a town 50 miles south-east of Birmingham. Neil was shown intelligence on the methods the gang used. This crew was ruthless, brutal, professional criminals. He also knew he wanted them put away.

NEIL WOODS: It was explained to me just how important this operation was. These gangsters, I was told, are far far worse even than the last ones I put in prison. These were the worst yet in the country. They were using sexual violence alongside normal gangster behaviors such as kidnappings and maimings - all to develop their reputation and maintain control of the market that they were running. It was explained to me that they had taken over the whole of the heroin and crack cocaine market from all of the local dealers in Northampton and they really had a Reign of Terror.

NARRATOR: What would you do? You want out. You’ve had enough. The emotional trauma is starting to show. You feel exhausted. But to do nothing would allow this gang to carry on with their violence and murder. Two undercover operatives had already tried to infiltrate the gang and failed. Neil had to make a choice.

NEIL WOODS: So whereas I manipulated people when I worked undercover to get what I wanted, I was being manipulated in turn because my sense of duty was being appealed to. It was my job. It was my duty. No one else can do this, and I couldn't say no to that. So I took a breath. And I can still remember my heart pounding, thinking: ‘Oh, am I really gonna go back to this?’ And I did.

NARRATOR: He took a breath and went back undercover. The first thing he had to do was find a way to get close to people who could help him find his way into the gang. By now Neil had built up his tradecraft. He knew what to do. He walked the streets and employed a tactic called ‘rattling’. He acted like he was so desperate for a fix he would approach anyone. He had to play it exactly right. Shortness of breath, hands shaking with nervous energy, eyes darting around for any scrap of opportunity. It worked. He made friends. He began to weave himself into the underbelly of the city, befriending drug addicts and establishing their trust. But the Burger Bar Boys were clever. They weren’t the ones doing the dealing and taking the risks.

NEIL WOODS: The Burger Bar Boys were not very hands-on with many customers. What they did is they used the local network of user dealers, sex workers, and other people to transport, stashed the drugs, and deliver them - and it was a big network. There were a lot of people to get to know in Northampton, but what I needed was somebody who would introduce me and reference me directly to them so that I could actually buy drugs directly off of the six main gangsters.

NARRATOR: So Neil had to get an introduction. It was the only way to get close enough to the gang and track their drug dealing and gather evidence against them. Once again, he had to manipulate someone. Who this time?

NEIL WOODS: And I picked this couple who were both problematic heroin users. They supported each other very much. She was fabulous at selling the Big Issue. She'd be there at 8 am in the best pitch outside Marks & Spencer - with her hair scraped back into a filthy ponytail - and she managed to sell to all sorts of people. And he was really good at shoplifting. I went shoplifting with him a few times which is great fun, shoplifting, if you've got the ‘Get out of jail free’ card. So I got to know them. I got to really befriend them. I pretended to give them my excess stolen property that I couldn't get rid of and I really got them to owe me. After a few weeks of knowing them, I started to complain that all I could get were these £10 bags off poxy street dealers - poxy runners, who were ripping me off - and I really needed a decent ‘connect’ to get a decent weight. And how can I get in contact with these people? And eventually, they said: ‘Okay, we’re allowed to deal with the Brummies. We'll introduce you to the Brummies.’

NARRATOR: Neil was already undercover but to meet the gang of six Burger Bar Boys he had to develop yet another identity, another layer of deception. His new ‘friend’ had it all worked out.

NEIL WOODS: And I remember that day. He made me learn an entire cover story about how long we'd known each other, the things that we'd got up together. He said: ‘Because if I tell him I’ve only known you for a few weeks, they'll never agree. We have to have known each other for years.’ So I had this peculiar situation of having already memorized and be living a cover story, for someone to try and teach me another one on top, which is confusing to say the least. But I remember him testing me - asking me questions and testing me - as we went toward their headquarters.

NARRATOR: At a club where the gang had set up in the center of Northampton, Neil had his first meeting and the gang were to live up to their violent reputation.

NEIL WOODS: He took me in there and I was instantly directed to the gents’ toilets. We were waiting in there just for a few seconds and the door burst open. A hooded figure came in. He opened up one of the cubicles, shut the door, and stood on the toilet looking over the top of the cubicle and he said: ‘What's this?’ And the door burst open again. Four more hooded figures came in and they started walking around me, circling me slowly. And then he started, from the cubicle, he started asking me questions and as he did I got head-butted on the ear. And I got pushed and then punched in the ribs. And every so often this random violence from these four circling figures would be there. And he was asking me questions and asking my friend questions and rephrasing the questions, and asking again. All the time, I'm getting punched and shoved around and I was coming to the conclusion that I wasn't getting out of there in one piece. I knew what these people did. I know that a daily maiming was served just as part of their business.

NARRATOR: Neil took the beating. And it worked. He had passed the test. They thought he was just another desperate addict wanting drugs. He came away with crack and heroin to sell. More importantly, he was given a number to call for next time. He was connected to them directly. He could now spend the next couple of months gathering evidence of conspiracy against the core of the gang. He’d been wearing a wire and a camera, meeting with them, buying drugs for months. But Neil hadn’t developed a reputation for being the best in his field for no reason. He was acutely tuned to any changes in behavior of the gang. His instincts proved right.

NEIL WOODS: But one day, I got the idea that they were off with me. There was something about their behavior which just put me on edge. So the next morning I looked at the kit and thought: ‘Do I really want to wear that camera today?’ And I decided not to. And so later on, when I met them for usual business, expecting to buy... I think, if I remember... I was expecting to buy £80 worth of heroin and £20 worth of crack. I got snatched and put into this huge car and driven to the edge of the racecourse in Northampton. And they were being very aggressive with me. They said: ‘Right, strip. You’re Five-O. You’re heat.’ And just when I was about to object to being stripped naked in the middle of the day on the edge of a park, one of them lifted up his T-shirt and showed me a semi-automatic pistol.

NARRATOR: Is your cover blown? They have guns. Think. What’s your training? How are you going to deal with this situation? Your heart is pounding.

NEIL WOODS: There is nothing within the training that prepares you for something like that. Nothing at all. I mean, really, the training is about how to record the evidence correctly. There's no way of preparing for suddenly being in danger. It's down to the skills that you've developed over time and I did have an advantage working on the cover because I found very early on that at times of adrenaline, when I'm genuinely in danger, I have the sensation of everything slowing down and feeling that I have all the time in the world to think very clearly about exactly what to do. And that's a very empowering feeling. And I understand that it's unusual and most people don't react that way in an adrenaline state but it was an advantage because I always knew the right thing to do when I was in danger very clearly. And I could calmly do it.

NARRATOR: So Neil stayed calm. It saved his life but he still hadn’t gotten anywhere close to taking the gang down. He was back to leading a double life. By day he was buying drugs, befriending some of the most vulnerable people in the city. At night, when he wasn’t so exhausted he stayed in a hotel, he went home.

NEIL WOODS: But that contrast was really difficult because this was the most exhausting job I had done. I wasn't enjoying it anymore like I did in the 1990s. I was doing this just because I had to because it was my duty to do so, and it was exhausting. So whenever I was in a place where I felt safe I just felt tired. I felt exhausted and struggled to interact with anything.

NARRATOR: Things couldn’t go on but it was an escalation of violence that finally brought the gang down. Intelligence picked up that someone had defaulted on a drug debt and his girlfriend had paid the price. Neil had received intelligence that five of the gang had taken the woman in the boot of a car to the outskirts of the city and raped her. It was time to stop them.

NEIL WOODS: In the closing days of the operation, we were building toward the strike day where everything was planned to bring them down. So I was extra busy buying increasingly larger amounts of drugs, I was doing evidence drops to my team halfway through the day so they could do a lab run and get the results back very quickly. And this built up to the strike day where I would do one last buy so that whoever I bought from would actually be caught with the banknotes which had been photocopied, and the numbers recorded in my evidence book, just for that last little bit of icing on the cake in terms of evidence.

NARRATOR: Evidence gathered. Now it was time to make some arrests.

NEIL WOODS: My last buy, I met up with one of them in this car park, bought my heroin and crack and walked away and spoke into an open mic which was a smartphone and let them know that a buy had been done. And that was the moment they moved in to strike. I walked away down a typical terraced street in Northampton hearing the screeching tires behind me as I knew that lots of unmarked covert vehicles were sweeping in to make the first arrest of dozens that day. It had taken six months. Ninety-six people were arrested including the six leaders of the gang.

NARRATOR: When they were sentenced, the ‘Burgers’ got sent to prison for between eight to 10 years each. They only got sentenced on the drug counts. That was the only evidence the police had against them. They didn’t get prosecuted for all the violence they had committed over the years but still, the gang were off the streets. It was another job well done. The streets would be safer with the Burger Bar Boys locked up. But Neil did not feel the euphoria you would expect. Yes, he was glad the operation had been a success. He had wanted to crush the Burger Bar Boys’ empire and he had done it, but for how long?

NEIL WOODS: But then I got a phone call two weeks after, when the dust had settled, from the intelligence officer who I'd worked with for those seven months. And he says: ‘Yep, we managed to interrupt the drug supply in Northampton for a full two hours.’ Seven months of work, 96 people arrested, almost getting myself killed, to interrupt the drug supply for two hours.

NARRATOR: So had it all been worth it? Worth the risk to Neil’s life, the years undercover, the strain on his family? Neil began to question everything he had ever done undercover.

NEIL WOODS: After the Burger Boys were caught and they were on their way to prison, I realized that I've been having doubts about the kind of work I did for years. And the fact that we've only interrupted the drug supply for such a short amount of time - from so much work and so much risk - I realized that this is fool's gold. This is not honest because all I had done - and all I'd ever done in my undercover work - was create an opportunity for a rival dealer. Wherever the police arrest people - or have a huge success or have a massive seizure of drugs, lots of arrests, kick some doors in whatever it is - it's not success at all because all they do is create a gap in the market. And that gap in the market is often fought over, which means that violence increases or sometimes it means that prices go down because people compete, and that means that consumptions go up because people can afford more.

NARRATOR: Over his career, Neil had put people in prison for a total of well over 1,000 years.

NEIL WOODS: I have helped fill the prisons up with drug dealers. I have put people away for a cumulative total of over 1,000 years, and I put some very nasty people in prison.

NARRATOR: He’d been undercover for 14 years but Neil didn’t walk away unharmed. The career he had risked his life for plunged him into a psychological crisis.

NEIL WOODS: I didn't realize at the time as a young man - when I had so many times working undercover where I was at risk - I didn't realize what damage [it] was causing me. At the time, I was really pleased with myself that I was one of these people, I was the kind of person that can survive those kinds of risks and thrive and still be smiling later. But years later it cost me a great deal. I [have been] diagnosed with chronic PTSD. I tried all the different tablets and the counseling and the different treatments available. And although some things have improved my condition I am still stuck with it and I have to be careful. Now, like most people's PTSD it results from a series of occasions where I almost died but I also have an aspect to my PTSD called ‘moral injury’. Now, moral injury was first identified among veterans returning from Vietnam. And it's about the sense of guilt of having done some really bad things and trying to live with that guilt. So the two things together, the near-death experiences and the profound sense of guilt, are what I have intertwined in my own special cocktail of mental health problems.

NARRATOR: After years on the streets, spending time with the vulnerable drug users, after the deterioration of his mental health, Neil began to question the seemingly futile war he was risking both his life and sanity for. What if the real enemy wasn’t who he thought?

NEIL WOODS: I realize now that there is no policing solution to drugs and, in fact, we didn't have a problem with drugs until we made them a criminal issue. All we do by policing drugs is make society far more dangerous.

NARRATOR: Neil’s experiences as an undercover cop in Britain, his first-hand knowledge of the drug market and the people who buy and use them, led him to a radical change of heart.

NEIL WOODS: We have to have an entirely different policy. Drug prohibition has been a complete disaster. The only policy answer to sort out this mess is to regulate the drug markets, take the control away from organized crime. Take their ability to corrupt away by taking the money off them. It's an illusion to think that arresting people and kicking doors in and seizing drugs at the border has any success at all. We never seize more than one percent. It doesn't matter how big it looks on TV. We have to be in control of this and this is about taking control because it's the Wild West out there right now.

NARRATOR: Neil is now part of an international organization of former serving law enforcement officers. They call for evidence-based drug policies including regulated legal markets for drugs. Yes, you heard that right. A former undercover cop infiltrating the most violent drug cartels in Britain now works to legalize the very drugs he sent people to prison for using. Has he sold out? Switched sides?

NEIL WOODS: It has been suggested to me that I have betrayed my background, I betrayed my former colleagues and turned my back on them, that I'm a turncoat. But no, actually, my mission is exactly the same as it always was. As a young man, I wanted to catch bad guys. I wanted to take away organized crime, I wanted to fight organized crime and that's what I'm doing now. I'm still fighting organized crime but I'm pursuing and advocating a method that will actually work.

NARRATOR: It’s quite a journey. From being the best undercover cop of his time to becoming an advocate for global drug policy reform but, despite everything he’s been through - the dangers, and the guilt - Neil does not regret a moment of his police career on the streets of Britain.

NEIL WOODS: I risked my life on so many occasions and I am a damaged individual as a result to this day. But I still can't regret it because those experiences now inform my advocacy and it means that I can be listened to as part of this international team of reformers. The International police movement for drug policy reform is growing rapidly across the world.

NARRATOR: I’m Vanessa Kirby. Join us next week for another encounter with True Spies. We all have valuable spy skills, and our experts are here to help you discover yours. Get an authentic assessment of your spy skills, created by a former head of training at British Intelligence, now at SPYSCAPE.com.

Guest Bio

SPYEX consultant Neil Woods spent 14 years infiltrating drug gangs as an undercover police officer in Britain. He saw the world through the lens of the violent criminals he helped put behind bars. In 2007, Woods needed to walk away for his own mental health. That’s when his superiors convinced him to do one final, undercover job infiltrating a violent gang. The case was supposed to make the streets safer. Instead it nearly killed him.

No items found.
No items found.