Twenty-one people have been sentenced for their involvement in a conspiracy which has seen cannabis worth in excess of £6million taken off the streets of South Wales and beyond.
An investigation into a cannabis factory found in the Cynon Valley led officers from South Wales Police’s Force Intelligence and Organised Crime Unit (FIOCU) to a string of others across South Wales, Gwent and Dyfed Powys force areas.
The gang were all arrested as part of Operation Violet Panama, which saw FIOCU – in conjunction with Gwent and Dyfed Powys Police forces, the National Crime Agency, and the UK Border Agency – execute warrants at 19 addresses in November 2017.
In addition to the 15 cannabis factories uncovered during the November raids, the investigation led to the detection of more than 30 further factories and storage facilities across Wales and as far afield as Coventry, all linked to the gang.
Officers have seized 2.5 tonnes of cannabis with a street value of around £6m, as well as some £23,000 in cash and other assets.
Hearings at Merthyr Tydfil Crown Court – in which 19 of the 23 defendants pleaded guilty to conspiracy to produce a Class B drug, two others were found guilty by a jury and two others were acquitted – heard the “industrial-scale” operation is expected to have netted the leaders of the gang somewhere in the region of £25million, with much of the proceeds having been sent back and invested in their native Vietnam.
Such was the complexity of the network, with the majority of the gang having entered the country illegally and holding false documents, fake identities, and some claiming to be children, investigating officers were forced to give each defendant an alias – all brands of breakfast cereals – in order to correctly identify them and the role they each played in the conspiracy.
Further adding to the complicated investigation, one of the defendants – Khanh Van Pham, 26 – claimed to be 14-years-old and officers had to spend months working to prove this was not the case.
He pleaded guilty on July 29 this year – months after the majority of the gang were sentenced and convicted – to two separate counts of cannabis production, and perverting the course of justice.
During the initial court proceedings, Merthyr Crown Court heard the gang’s kingpin, Bang Xuan Luong, 42, oversaw the operation from his luxury home in Aberdare, where pots of £50 notes were found when officers raided his address.
His co-accused, Tuan Anh Pham, was responsible for the renting and upkeep of properties used to set up the cannabis factories, as well as forging documentation in order to do so.
Ngocbao Vu and Dung Phu Vu were responsible for setting up the factories and transporting workers to them. Ngocbao Vu oversaw operations in the east of the country, with Dung Phu Vu responsible for the west.
Vu Thi Thu Thuy, 42, ensured the factories were kept fully stocked with food and bedding for the ‘farmers’ lower down the chain.
Following today’s hearing, in which the final gang members were sentenced, Detective Chief Inspector Dean Taylor said: “The convictions conclude a protracted and complex investigation in to what was an extremely organised and lucrative operation.
“The gang were making significant amounts of money from the operation, as was evident from the luxurious lifestyles the majority were living and the fact that they were able to walk away from established factories containing thousands of pounds worth of drugs and equipment when they thought the police were on their tails.
“The arrest and conviction of this organised crime group demonstrate that South Wales Police will continue to pursue those who traffic drugs into our communities.
“I cannot praise enough the officers involved in this case. They worked determinedly to gather enough evidence to bring a significant number of people to justice.
“In particular, the work that was done to prove that Khanh Van Pham was, in fact, an adult, as we suspected from the outset, was sterling. Officers went to great lengths to prove his age in order to prevent him from abusing a system that is in place to safeguard genuine victims and those at risk of modern slavery offences.
“His conviction and sentence should send out a strong message to others in his position that South Wales Police will do everything in its power to bring those abusing the system to justice.
“The success of the investigation relied heavily on our officers working alongside the local community to target such criminality, and I would appeal to anyone who has any suspicions about illegal drug activity in their area to report their concerns via 101 or Crimestoppers, anonymously, on 0800 555 111.”