Neil Woods (@wudzee0) spent 14 years as an undercover drugs operative, gaining the trust of some of the most violent, unpredictable criminals in Britain. Now he’s an active member of the international drug policy reform movement, and co-author of Good Cop, Bad War and Drug Wars.
What We Discuss with Neil Woods:
- The complex logistics of undercover law enforcement operations.
- The skills of persuasion and manipulation an undercover operative relies on to get the job done and stay alive in the process.
- Neil’s close calls and epic failures while working undercover that he somehow managed to survive.
- How the pressure placed on police departments to get results makes corruption almost inevitable — even among officers committed to doing the right thing.
- Why, after spending 14 years trying to win the war on drugs, Neil now advocates an evidence-based drug policy and related criminal justice reforms.
- And much more…
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There are only a limited number of people willing to risk prison for the potential rewards of breaking into houses and stealing their contents. So when a burglar slips up and finally gets arrested, it stands to reason that break-ins will go down in that neighborhood — one has been subtracted from the finite pool of would-be thieves. But drug crime is a different animal altogether. There’s no shortage of people willing to deal drugs because the rewards are staggeringly astronomical, and the demand never goes down. So when a drug dealer is taken off the streets, it creates a power vacuum in the market that erupts in violence and related crimes as aspiring criminals compete to take their place. And as Neil Woods discovered while working 14 years as an undercover drug-busting operative, the current methods of policing drug crime only demonize the people who need help the most and empower the very worst elements in society.
On this episode, Neil — co-author of Good Cop, Bad War and Drug Wars — joins us to share the complex logistics of undercover law enforcement, the skills (and no short amount of luck) he employed to build rapport among the most violent drug gangs in the UK and stay alive in the process, the close calls he managed to survive when these skills fell short, why the pressure placed on police departments for results in an unwinnable war on drugs makes corruption almost inevitable, and why Neil now advocates an evidence-based drug policy and related criminal justice reforms. Listen, learn, and enjoy!
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Miss our conversation with the former DEA agents who ended the reign of Colombian drug kingpin Pablo Escobar in the ’90s? Catch up with episode 453: Javier Peña and Steve Murphy | Taking Down Pablo Escobar here!
Thanks, Neil Woods!
If you enjoyed this session with Neil Woods, let him know by clicking on the link below and sending him a quick shout out at Twitter:
And if you want us to answer your questions on one of our upcoming weekly Feedback Friday episodes, drop us a line at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Resources from This Episode:
- Drug Wars: The Real Inside Story of Britain’s Drug War by Neil Woods and JS Rafaeli | Amazon
- Good Cop, Bad War: My Life Undercover inside Britain’s Biggest Drug Gang by Neil Woods and JS Rafaeli | Amazon
- Neil Woods | Website
- Neil Woods | Twitter
- JS Rafaeli | Twitter
- Law Enforcement Action Partnership | LEAP Europe
- Putting Patients First Through Research-Based Advocacy | OEV Partners
- The World’s Greatest Roleplaying Game | Dungeons & Dragons
- Like Chalk and Cheese | Cambridge Dictionary
- Freeway Rick Ross | Life in the Crack Lane | Jordan Harbinger
- The Invention of Lying | Prime Video
- Gangs in the United Kingdom | Wikipedia
- Rise of Deadly Burger Bar Boys and Johnson Crew — And Gangs Who Came After | Birmingham Live
- Brutal Ganglord Who Fell Victim to His Own Drugs | The Guardian
- United Kingdom: New Law Provides Framework for Covert Human Intelligence | Library of Congress
- The Wire | Prime Video
- Tom Wainwright | How to Run a Drug Cartel | Jordan Harbinger
- Luis Navia | 25 Years Inside the Narco Cartels | Jordan Harbinger
- Danny Gold | Breaking News from the Underworld | Jordan Harbinger
- Jail for Police Who Leaked Inquiry Details for Suits and Favours | The Guardian
- Stone Island | Wikipedia
- Ken Croke | Undercover in an Outlaw Biker Gang Part One | Jordan Harbinger
- Ken Croke | Undercover in an Outlaw Biker Gang Part Two | Jordan Harbinger
- Heroin Addiction Care and Control: The British System 1916 to 1984 | JRSM
806: Neil Woods | Undercover in the UK’s Most Vicious Drug Gangs
[00:00:00] Jordan Harbinger: Special thanks to Peloton and Starbucks for sponsoring this episode of The Jordan Harbinger Show.
[00:00:05] Coming up next on The Jordan Harbinger Show.
[00:00:08] Neil Woods: And he started feeling my clothes and it doesn't have to look for very long because I'm wearing like a denim jacket on, and my camera is actually in a little hole drilled in the metal button of a denim jacket. Now, this is 2001 and we are not talking James Bond tech here. Once he'd found that camera, there was no doubt what it was, winking up at him, you know, a little glistening sort of hole and a little gem of a camera in there.
[00:00:38] Jordan Harbinger: Welcome to the show. I'm Jordan Harbinger. On The Jordan Harbinger Show, we decode the stories, secrets, and skills of the world's most fascinating people. We have in-depth conversations with scientists and entrepreneurs, spies and psychologists, even the occasional Russian chess grandmaster, war correspondent, former jihadi, or gold smuggler. And each episode turns our guest's wisdom into practical advice that you can use to build a deeper understanding of how the world works and become a better thinker.
[00:01:04] If you're new to the show or you want to tell your friends about the show, I suggest our episode starter packs as a place to begin. These are collections of our favorite episodes organized by topics. They will help new listeners get a taste of everything that we do here on this show — topics like persuasion and influence, disinformation, cyber warfare, China, North Korea, crime and cults, and more. Just visit jordanharbinger.com/start or search for us in your Spotify app to get started.
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[00:01:43] Today on the show, Neil Woods who spent years undercover in the drug squad in the UK and now campaigns for the end of the drug war, quite the 180 there in terms of career. He spent 14 years undercover, so this guy knows what he is talking about. We'll discover how undercover operations work. We'll explore the types of skills of persuasion and manipulation used in undercover work. We'll also hear stories of close calls and epic failures while working undercover. We'll also learn about police corruption, violence, as well as the problems with drug policing and why it's doomed to fail, lots to cover.
[00:02:16] Here we go with Neil Woods.
[00:02:20] Let's start from the beginning. I've heard you say, "I wasn't a very good cop." Why do you say that?
[00:02:26] Neil Woods: I sort of stumbled into policing by accident, really, because I went to university by mistake to study business studies. And I remember thinking, why on earth am I studying this? Why did I choose to study this? So it was terribly boring. I dropped out of university and then I couldn't make my mind on what to do and decided to flip a coin. And that took me into applying for the police. But only when I got into the uniform did I realize how young I was. I was 19 and I found out I was very sheltered.
[00:02:52] So the first two years, I mean, I really struggled. You know, I struggled with confrontation. I struggled to learning this sort of hyper-macho environment. And to be fair, I really wasn't very good at it. I just, I was just very slow to learn and develop and to be confident in a situation and manage conflict and manage people. It was a real stretch for me, so I only kept going for the first two years. Just to prove to myself, I could survive that first two years. It wasn't—
[00:03:17] Jordan Harbinger: Mm-hmm.
[00:03:17] Neil Woods: It wasn't a longing for a long career, so to speak.
[00:03:20] Jordan Harbinger: You grew up kind of geeky, self-described geek. I can identify with that Dungeons and Dragons, sense of honor, reading a lot, sense of duty. Is that why you became a cop in the first place? I mean, you said you flipped a coin, but there has to be a little bit more to it than that or not.
[00:03:36] Neil Woods: I mean, it wasn't the reason why I went into the police. I didn't have a sense of duty or a sense to fight, the good fighter or anything. It was just, it seemed like an adventure. It just seemed like something would be different every day. I developed my sense of duty really after three or four years in the job. I realized I had a responsibility here. I wasn't just surviving. I actually had to try and do everything I could to do the right thing. And that sort of value system was rooted in all of the geeky literature that I read and all of the sort of stuff that I was into as a kid really.
[00:04:07] Jordan Harbinger: Did you fit in well with the cops? Because a lot of times self-described Dungeons and Dragons geeks don't always fit in with these sort of dude bro, macho cop culture or maybe it's different in the UK.
[00:04:18] Neil Woods: There was definitely an element of chalk and cheese with policing.
[00:04:22] Jordan Harbinger: What is that? That's got to be a British term.
[00:04:24] Neil Woods: I always forget when I'm speaking to Americans, I come out with all these sayings and I forget that they're very British.
[00:04:28] Jordan Harbinger: Yeah. I mean, I love it, but I don't know what it means.
[00:04:30] Neil Woods: Chalk and cheese can look quite similar.
[00:04:33] Jordan Harbinger: Oh, chalk and cheese.
[00:04:34] Neil Woods: Chalk and cheese, yeah. They can look very similar, but you know, you find out that they're very different when you bite into them. There was an element of chalk and cheese with me and police officers. I remember one saying, "Well, what football team do you support?" As in soccer—
[00:04:48] Jordan Harbinger: Yeah.
[00:04:48] Neil Woods: —for you Americans out there. And I say, "I don't follow football at all." And he looked at me dead seriously and said, "Well, what do you talk about?" There was a sort of cultural thing there. I'm not suggesting that all police officers are boring and just into football, but not many of them wanted to talk about music and fantasy fiction or science fiction, you know, those kind of things. So yeah, I was a little bit of different.
[00:05:09] Jordan Harbinger: Yeah, I can imagine. So you're not really fitting in well with the police, but maybe this makes you good at your job later on, or at least less detectable as an undercover. Tell me about the first domestic disturbance call you went on with a guy that's chasing you with a knife because this is kind of a ridiculous image in my head.
[00:05:27] Neil Woods: It was one of the first calls I went to when I was allowed out on my own without my tutor stood beside me. And I was on foot, so I was on my own on foot patrol and I got sent to this domestic dispute. And it was a guy actually that I knew because in company with my tutor, we'd arrested him for drunk driving. And I think he was on bail for that at the time. And there was this domestic dispute at this house. It was in the daytime. I knocked on the door and there was just screaming, just constant screaming. He was screaming. His wife was screaming.
[00:05:55] And I went in and he went, "It's you. I recognize you." And he reached for a Stanley knife, a short, very sharp, razor-sharp blade. It was hardly anything in the room, apart from one large sofa and a television. And to memory, I don't think there was anything else. But the sofa was in the middle of the room. And I ended up being chased around this sofa by this guy who was drunk and shouting and screaming at me, but chasing me with his knife. And, you know, we don't have guns in the UK. We don't carry them as police officers. And if they'd required me to carry one, I would have resigned. There's no way I would carry one. So I got out my little stick that they give us for protection, little truncheon, and I'm thinking, well, what am I going to do with that? So I carried on running.
[00:06:37] Anyway, he stopped at one point and he got this knife and he slashed his wrist.
[00:06:41] Jordan Harbinger: Oh wow.
[00:06:42] Neil Woods: And then he slashed his other wrist and said, "Right, you're next." And then, carried on running around after me but he was getting tired and he was drunk already. And obviously—
[00:06:52] Jordan Harbinger: He's bleeding.
[00:06:53] Neil Woods: Yeah, he was bleeding quite a lot.
[00:06:54] Jordan Harbinger: As one does when you slash both of your wrists and start running.
[00:06:57] Neil Woods: Yeah. And by this time, I'd remembered to radio for backup as well, and so eventually, some backup got there. But that was an interesting first solo domestic dispute. Yeah.
[00:07:07] Jordan Harbinger: I would imagine at that point, do you kind of think, "Okay, this is what I'm in for. There's going to be more like this," or are you thinking, "Eh, this is a one-off, I just got lucky"?
[00:07:16] Neil Woods: It was a clear indication that, you know, every day's going to be unpredictable, but there was still a lot of the unpredictability that still at its core appeal to me. I was just struggling to be good at dealing with it if that makes sense.
[00:07:27] Jordan Harbinger: You ended up on the drug squad during the early '90s, which I don't know if it was the same there, but that was the crack epidemic here in the United States. There was a moral panic about this. Tell me what's going on around this time in the UK and for the police.
[00:07:40] Neil Woods: Yeah. Well, the reason I got a drug squad attachment was because of that moral panic. And the problem we had in the UK is that we hadn't got any crack until the early '90s. So we were having all the tabloid newspapers telling lurid stories about how crack cocaine was destroying neighborhoods in America. You know, we had repeated images of Nancy Reagan telling us that one smoke of crack would get you addicted for life. And, you know, I believed all that rubbish at the time, but that was what got me a drug squad attachment because suddenly, we got crack cocaine in our inner cities, and the public was already whipped up into a frenzy of fear by the newspapers and by the media. So this created a very rapid political response. The government instructed the police to make drugs its number one priority above anything, above terrorism, above domestic violence, above anything. And injected loads of money into policing to do that. And so that's why I, after only four years in, got this attachment to the drug squad, which I thought was quite unlikely at the time, to be honest.
[00:08:39] Jordan Harbinger: Tell me about your first undercover drug buy. This is like kind of the beginning of undercover work in the UK, right? Or at least drug undercover work in the UK.
[00:08:49] Neil Woods: We had undercover work and we'd had it for decades.
[00:08:51] Jordan Harbinger: Sure.
[00:08:51] Neil Woods: But only the high-end undercover work, you know, the verging on spy-type undercover work. But the idea of doing undercover work at a low level, street level, this was entirely new. I know it had happened for a long time in the states, but we hadn't done it.
[00:09:05] So I remember I was only two weeks into my attachment and one of them said, one of the drug squads said, "Do you want to have a go up buying some crack?" I thought, okay. And he gave me a 20-pound note. They quickly set up an observation point, and I was pointed to this terraced door. And so I went to knock on this door and this huge guy opened and looked at me and said, "Who are you? You're not a student, are you? f*cking hate students." And then, at that moment, it occurred to me, I actually didn't have a cover story. I had no idea who I was, but I thought, well, that will do, "Yeah, I'm a student." And, of course, then I was questioned. "Well, are you stupid? I've just told you I hate the students." But he found it funny and he quite quickly agreed to sell me a rock of crack cocaine. Gave him £20. And as I was turning and walking away, he said, "You take care now, don't get yourself arrested," which I thought was quite sweet of him, really.
[00:09:55] And so I walked back to the drug squad and said, "Yeah, I've got it. I've got my little stone." And that day defined, well, the rest of my life, really. It's taken me on that long, convoluted journey, which has brought me here to speak to you. But I think the important thing to note from that day, was that actually, it was really easy. I just knocked on someone's door. He didn't know there was going to be a cop stood on his doorstep at all. So it was easy. But of course, my presence in that marketplace changed things for everybody because he went to prison and suddenly everybody knew there was a new tactic on town.
[00:10:29] Jordan Harbinger: Yeah. It reminds me of that movie with Ricky Gervais, The Invention of Lying. Have you seen that movie?
[00:10:35] Neil Woods: Yeah. Very clever script, very good.
[00:10:37] Jordan Harbinger: It is. It's really just, you don't say this about movies very often these days. It's a very unique storyline, right? I mean, the idea behind it, for those who don't know, Ricky Gervais, he just lies and nobody expects it because there's no such thing as lying in whatever universe he's in. I can't remember the exact reason that this is the case for him. So he's easily able to manipulate people into doing what he wants. And he says, "Oh, yeah, after you die, you go to heaven." And people are like, "Wow. You know what happens after you die?" So he is going on a world tour. All these talk shows among other things where he's the man who knows what happens after you die. And nobody expects that he's just making things up.
[00:11:13] And the reason that this is a parallel for me is, nobody's expecting you to be a cop. There's no like, "Hey, you're not a cop, are you?" There's no suspicion because no one, no police officer during this time is going and trying to buy drugs from drug dealers and then arresting them. It's not a thing. So you are playing on easy mode for the next bit.
[00:11:33] Neil Woods: Yeah.
[00:11:33] Jordan Harbinger: I would assume.
[00:11:35] Neil Woods: That's very well put actually. I'm going to steal that—
[00:11:38] Jordan Harbinger: Do it.
[00:11:38] Neil Woods: —if you don't mind. I'm on easy mode. That's a very good, a good way of putting it. But of course, it developed through the levels, so to speak, very quickly because the drug squads have their eyes lit up. This was a way of coping with the pressure of needing results from above. You know, this was suddenly a way of getting lots of results. So in no time at all, I was working weeks and weeks at a time, and then in no time at all, it was no less than six or seven months I was doing at a time and I was being loaned out to all of the other drug squads all over England, and it escalated very quickly. It felt like I was struggling to keep up with those level progressions if that's the way to put it.
[00:12:18] Jordan Harbinger: When you bust someone, don't you have to reveal your identity at some point? Like either when they get arrested, they figure it out, but also is it not a trial where it's like, "Yes, I bought crack from him and I'm a police officer," and they're like, "Oh," doesn't that compromise your ability to go undercover again?
[00:12:34] Neil Woods: Well, I mean, maybe I pushed my luck maybe because I did it with a space of 14 years.
[00:12:38] Jordan Harbinger: Yeah.
[00:12:39] Neil Woods: You know, I was traveling some distance in between each operation and I would have a completely different legend. And when I gave evidence in Crown Court, I was always behind a screen so no one could see me.
[00:12:51] Jordan Harbinger: Okay.
[00:12:51] Neil Woods: I would continue to use the pseudonym, the same pseudonym. In fact, I remember when I gave evidence in the Crown Court in Leicester, in the city of Leicester, there was a credible threat to my life. So I was having a full surveillance team, following me away from the Crown Court to make sure I wasn't being followed. And I was being smuggled in at strange times and in disguises and things like that. But, you know, no photographs of me got out and I was successfully moving around from place to place. And obviously, the personality I was portraying in each place was different enough. So I stayed safe.
[00:13:24] Jordan Harbinger: Ah, see we don't have that here. You have a right, a constitutional right, essentially to confront your accuser. And so you have to show up and be like, "I'm the one who saw him," and they had, you know, you have to look them in the eye. There's no screen. Maybe there's certain circumstances for minors and things like that, but you're pretty much burned when it comes to this in court here in the United States for different reasons, that probably have persisted for a good reason.
[00:13:50] How do these undercover operations work? I assume you got to have amassed of some evidence. Do you arrest everyone in one go when you're trying to go up the chain? I assume you didn't just stick with low-level dealers, right? You're trying to pull the whole weed out.
[00:14:01] Neil Woods: The job would end when you've got a reasonable chance when you can be sure that you've caught everyone you're going to catch, and then everyone's arrested in one go. Just to give you an idea of how it's set up. So I would be loaned out by a specialist covert policing unit called the East Midlands Special Operations Unit, and I would be loaned out to a particular constabulary, but they would have to set everything up ready for me. So I would have to have a team around me. This is the way how it got developed, anyway. I would have to have a techy guy, an intel officer, statement person, senior investigating officer, all of these team around me would have to be set up and they would have to be removed completely from normal policing. So they'd be in a separate location, completely cocooned, not allowed to speak to any other of the police at all during the operation.
[00:14:46] And they would all be sat down the day before I got there, and they would be given a briefing. They would be given what's called a lawful order, and they will be told, "You cannot ask the undercover operative his real name. You cannot ask him where he is from. Don't ask him any personal details, and if you do, you will be disciplined." And they had to sign the receipt of this lawful order. So everything was cocooned completely. And of course, the reason for that is to protect against corruption, to protect my life, but I think it's really worth pointing, in fact, it's incredibly important to point out that those kind of safeguards do not exist for anything else only drugs investigations, which just think is an important observation.
[00:15:28] Jordan Harbinger: Yeah. Because of corruption.
[00:15:29] Neil Woods: Because of corruption.
[00:15:30] Jordan Harbinger: By doing that, they're acknowledging we can't really trust our own cops because if we could, we wouldn't need this system, this silo system.
[00:15:38] Neil Woods: Exactly. That's a nationally adopted model that has to happen for those kind of operations. So that system in of itself is proof of the level of endemic corruption within policing as a result of our current drug policy, but do you want me to tell you about one of the operations?
[00:15:56] Jordan Harbinger: Yeah. I've got a bunch of questions about a lot of the operations. I'm curious about how the operations work and you know, what the largest bust is in terms of arrests. If you're pulling out the whole weed, how big is that weed?
[00:16:07] Neil Woods: Well, I suppose the biggest operation I did at the end of the operation. After seven months, there were 96 people that I'd gathered evidence against.
[00:16:15] Jordan Harbinger: Oh, wow.
[00:16:16] Neil Woods: Six of them were the main targets. And the main targets were a very infamous gang called the Burger Bar Boys, which is a very British name for an organized crime group, you know?
[00:16:25] Jordan Harbinger: It really is. If you run into a gang named the Burger Bar Boys, it would be from like an '80s music video or something, and then here they are in the UK killing people probably.
[00:16:36] Neil Woods: Yeah. I mean, the six main targets in that gang, one of them was implicated in seven different murders. He was the person who provided the machine guns for the double murder of two young women. But the intelligence before this was horrific. They were using routine sexual violence, gang rape—
[00:16:51] Jordan Harbinger: Oh man.
[00:16:51] Neil Woods: —kidnappings, maimings, all of these kind of things. So they were as brutal as people as I've ever met. I built my legend with these particular people very, very carefully—
[00:16:59] Jordan Harbinger: Mm-hmm.
[00:17:00] Neil Woods: —and in a very considered way. And in order to do that, I went into the town where they were operating and I look for the most vulnerable people to manipulate, the most vulnerable, problematic drug users. And the reason I look for the most vulnerable is because the most vulnerable or the easier to manipulate.
[00:17:16] Jordan Harbinger: Sure.
[00:17:17] Neil Woods: And if that sounds ruthless, well, of course, it's ruthless. That's the nature of the work and that's what the work became. But the most vulnerable people tend to have the best connections. And I can make them do what I want really. I can make them jump through hoops and get them to introduce me directly to these various dangerous individuals. But that operation took seven months. As I said, there was 96 people that we had evidence against, the six main gangsters, plus 90 of their support staff, you know, the sex workers. They were using runners. People are stashing. But that one was unusual because, after those seven months, I knew I'd caught everybody. There was no one else to meet. There was no rumors of anybody. There was no nicknames, no names to the people I needed to still meet. I'd got everyone's phone number. All of the phone data was all linked up. Everything was corroborated. It was like evidently tied up almost with a perfect bow.
[00:18:08] And so I thought this is going to be spectacularly impacted. So for the arrest phase of it, when I'd finished, so what happened is once I did my last day, then they go into the arrest phase and I completely step away. And there'd be sort of evidential packages created for each target. But there was hundreds of police involved, hundreds. All of the surrounding police forces were brought in to help. But after the dust settled for that, I spoke to the intel officer, just afterwards. And he said to me, "We managed to interrupt the drug supply in the town of Northampton for a full two hours." So after seven months of work, and you know, I was convinced I was going to die on multiple occasions in that operation.
[00:18:48] In fact, at one point, they stripped me at gunpoint. Well, I say point, I mean, he left it tucked into his trousers, but he showed me the gun to make sure I knew he meant it.
[00:18:56] Jordan Harbinger: Yeah.
[00:18:56] Neil Woods: I thought I was going to die then. I was stripped at gunpoint. I was assaulted every single day of that operation I thought I was in immediate danger of violence every single day. All of the resources that went into me and the other cops for the sake of interrupting the drug supply for two hours. I mean, it's astounding really. That is the reality of drugs policing at every level that cops are really, really good at catching drug dealers. They're especially good at it in the UK. They're especially good at it in the USA, but that's a significant part of the problem. Because all you do is you create an opportunity for somebody else. I don't know that it's the Burger Bar Boys, infamous rivals, the Johnson Crew, another very British name I suppose.
[00:19:43] Jordan Harbinger: Yeah.
[00:19:43] Neil Woods: I don't know if it's the Johnson Crew that took up that opportunity that was created for them. But you sort of picture the scene, can't you? The rival gang sat around. One of them comes into the room and says, "Put the call in, boys. We're going to make a fortune. Guess what the cops have done for us?"
[00:19:58] Jordan Harbinger: Mm-hmm.
[00:19:58] Neil Woods: "They've locked up the Burger Bar boys. Yay." And no one goes without their drugs from any police activity in the drug market. No one. And the police might be really good at catching drug dealers, but the size of the market stays the same, which means all the police are doing is they're changing the shape of that market, constantly changing the shape of that market. It's never an improvement.
[00:20:19] Jordan Harbinger: Man, I just want to comment on a few things here. 96 people in an organization, one, that's a huge bus, but two, that's a big organization. Managing 96 people would be a nightmare when they're all criminals sort of by definition. It would be even more difficult, I think, to manage an organization of that size. And, yeah, you're right. The rival gang probably rolls in and says, "All the competition's gone for at least a few months. Roll out all of our runners on all the corners, recruit some new folks, call everybody you know, and we're just going to take over that network." And of course, the word is going to spread like wildfire among the users because people are going to go, "Did you hear our dealer got busted? Don't worry, the Johnson Crew is on it. Just go to the same place where you bought yesterday and there's going to be a different guy there with a different colored hat and you're off to the races. It strikes you as how professional these organizations are. And the cops might be great at their job but it doesn't make a difference because we're not really attacking the proper part of the problem.
[00:21:13] I'd love to go back to manipulation for a second here. What made you so good at weaponizing your empathy, so to speak?
[00:21:22] Neil Woods: I suppose that comes back to one of your earlier questions about whether being a geek actually helped me with undercover work. Because I wasn't a very good uniform cop, but I did take to undercover work like duck to water. I really did, but in order to learn and adapt, because I was given no training. You see that I wasn't trained to do it. I was literally just making it up as I went along. And I helped to design the national training four years after I'd been doing the work. So there was no training. So for me, it was about learning about the people around me and listening to them and actually trying to understand what they were feeling, what their motivations were. And you know, that's empathy, isn't it?
[00:21:59] Jordan Harbinger: Mm-hmm.
[00:21:59] Neil Woods: It's trying, trying to stand in their shoes. And I went into that work with a very prejudiced view, a very stigmatized view of people who use drugs problematically. I looked down on them. I really did. I saw people who were using heroin problematically as someone who were just stupid enough to have tried it in the first place and just didn't have the willpower to get out of it and tough. That was just awful judgment. But when I realized, I spent a lot of time trying to understand people and every single person who is using drugs, problematically, I mean, every single one of them I spoke to, was trying to deal with some emotional pain. And almost all of them, it was from some kind of child of trauma.
[00:22:38] You know, I spoke to one young woman who went by the name of Uma and she said, "Well, I can stop taking heroin. Every few weeks, I do. I come off it so it gets cheaper so I can bring my tolerance down for it for a couple of weeks." She said, "But the trouble is, after two weeks off heroin, I start to feel suicidal again because I can remember how it felt the touch of my uncle's fingernails when he used to sexually abuse me as a little girl." And so for her, using heroin was a very rational decision, actually very rational. And so it is for a great number of people, and in feeling that sort of gut-wrenching understanding of their pain, and being able to very quickly see that pain in the faces of other people and seeing so many traits in common, I felt immersed in understanding them all.
[00:23:26] But that's the twisted thing really, and that's why I sort of refer to it as weaponizing empathy, because empathy, traditionally, that kind of level of understanding and appreciation for other people's struggles is usually it's used for good. You know, if you're going out of your way to learn about people, normally there's a positive outcome or there's something positive you can do about it. But I was doing the opposite, I was doing it so that I could manipulate them and get them to do what I want, which, you know, with every passing year that actually became emotionally really difficult for me. So I was quashing my own feelings in this regard and this growing sense of guilt that these people are hurting. I'm doing nothing to help them. I'm doing everything to hurt them, actually.
[00:24:06] Jordan Harbinger: Right. You're taking away their source of medication, you're possibly putting them in prison. You're pretending to be their friend. I mean, it's kind of awful if you think about it, and I'm sure that you have
[00:24:16] Neil Woods: Well, it is, but because I believed in the work.
[00:24:20] Jordan Harbinger: Right.
[00:24:20] Neil Woods: I believed in the end result, I believed in catching the gangster at the end of the operation, like I was constantly justifying it to myself. So I would push down my doubts. One particular person, I'll tell you about, I got to know, and this was for an operation in the city of Nottingham. And this guy was really useful to me because he was on bail for dealing heroin, and he was connected to the periphery of a cartel I was trying to investigate, called the Bestwood Cartel, headed by this very infamous British gangster called Colin Gunn. And this guy, Cami, I spent loads of time with him. I'd learned that his particular emotional pain was the abuse that he got from his father. I'll never forget him saying this. He says, "Oh, yeah, my dad used to beat me, but only when I deserved it."
[00:25:03] Jordan Harbinger: Oh, man.
[00:25:03] Neil Woods: You know those kind of phrases really, really stuck with me. So I got to know Cami, but things about Cami is, he was really good company. He had this really brilliant observational wit. We could sit together in the street and watch someone go by and he would just find some piece of comedy in characters, you know, just characters walking by. And that was an appealing trait and he was good fun, and I enjoyed his company. I went shoplifting with him, stealing from shops. That was great fun actually.
[00:25:30] Jordan Harbinger: Yeah, I bet, especially because you know you're not actually going to get in trouble for it. So it's kind of a thrill that's in a way quite harmless at that point.
[00:25:37] Neil Woods: Yeah, I mean, we take it in turns to be looked out, anyway, I won't go into that too much more. But the point is, at the end of that operation, again, it was a seven-month operation. He did introduce me to a sort of lieutenant into one of the main gangsters. But at the end of that operation, he was also arrested. He was committing offenses on bail, which I'd recorded evidence of. So he ended up getting three and a half years in prison. But when he was in the police station, he ended up being on minute-to-minute watch, suicide watch. And the reason that he was suicidal, as he told the interviewing officers, was because he thought I was his one friend in the world.
[00:26:15] Oh, man.
[00:26:16] He never had anyone he could properly talk to about how he was feeling and he thought finally he'd found someone who was a friend and who he could get on with. And for him that my betrayal was just the last straw in an extremely difficult life. And so it tipped him over and he became suicidal. I heard about that again from the intel guy who was just filling me in with what had happened. Not quite sure why he told me that, but when he told me my world just started spinning. You know, I felt literally nauseous and churning butterflies and I just felt horrific. Straight away, I thought, well, I can't do this anymore. I cannot do undercover work anymore. It's just too emotionally difficult.
[00:26:58] But I got myself manipulated back into it. I got talked into it to going back to do the operation for the Burger Bar Boys because the problem is by that point, I'd become quite a sort of troubleshooter. So if there had already been two undercover operatives trying to get close to the Burger Bar boys, and they hadn't managed it, so I was persuaded to go into that because that had become my role to do the difficult, difficult operations.
[00:27:24] Jordan Harbinger: It seems like you started to realize when you're policing, when you're working with these vulnerable people, do you think it's fair to say that one of the worst things to happen to these people was not necessarily the drugs of the drug addiction? Of course, those were terrible, but it seems like meeting you is actually up there alongside those tragedies.
[00:27:40] Neil Woods: Yeah, that's well put as well. Meeting me really was the worst thing that could possibly happen to these people. The second worst thing was to be exploited by and manipulated by the gangsters.
[00:27:51] Jordan Harbinger: Yeah.
[00:27:52] Neil Woods: But meeting me as the cop, they're looking at time inside. Not only are they looking at time inside, but some of them, some of the people over time have been desperate not to get a prison sentence that's too short. Because if they don't get a long prison sentence, then they're terrified that they're going to be accused of being in a police informant and they're not even going to come out of jail in one piece.
[00:28:13] I remember actually Cami, the chap I was talking about, he actually got arrested after I'd been manipulating him for about three or four weeks. And he was becoming really useful to me. But he got arrested and I'm thinking, "Oh no, he's on bail. He's going to get remanded in custody. He's not going to get bail, he's not going to come out. I'm going to have to start working on someone else. This is going to set my job back." And then, I saw him later on that day. He came out into the street. I thought, wow, how on earth did he get bail? But I was stood talking to three of his other mates, and they're all whispering, like, "How did he get bail? How did he get bail?" And he came up and he said, "I can't believe what's happened today." He says, "I can't f*cking believe it." He says, "I was in there, I was in the cell, and the two bloody drug squad came in and they started offering me a deal, didn't they? They said, you need to start informing for us." And I said, "No way, man." And then, they said, "You can either start telling us things or we'll let people on the street know that you did."
[00:29:05] Jordan Harbinger: Oh man.
[00:29:06] Neil Woods: So I said, "So what did you do? And he says, "Well, I told them to stick it with their ass." He said, "There's no way I'm going to start grasping for them because I don't know, do I? One of them might be working with the same people I work for."
[00:29:16] Jordan Harbinger: I want to go back. You mentioned your skillset. You were a problem solver. I've heard you mentioned that organized crime, you know, exploits people from dealers to users, you are learning about how these people were exploited. Did that give you more skills to pretend to be exploited in the same way and thus blend in? Does that question make sense? It's a little convoluted.
[00:29:35] Neil Woods: No, that makes sense. It did because I had to play a role.
[00:29:39] Although I have to emphasize, I'm not an actor. Undercover work is not acting. I definitely wouldn't have the skills for acting. I had to play a different version of myself. But sometimes that version of myself would be the submissive, exploited character. That would mean that I would allow myself to be exploited, to have a weight laid on. When they say, "Here you go, there's a quarter ounce. You can go and sell that. You pay me when you sold it." There was sometimes that was the kind of relationship you had to have with the regional managers, so to speak. You know, they're just a slightly step up from the street level.
[00:30:13] Jordan Harbinger: Mm-hmm.
[00:30:13] Neil Woods: That's where the opportunities could come from sometimes. Yeah, that's right.
[00:30:16] Jordan Harbinger: What are the crimes that are the most fun to commit? Was it shoplifting, was it, or was there something else that was better?
[00:30:21] Neil Woods: Well, I mean, I've broken into a car. I've done shoplifting, but that's the only kind of things that I actually did.
[00:30:26] Jordan Harbinger: Okay.
[00:30:26] Neil Woods: At that point, there was a sort of very common sense approach that I knew that anything I did might get questioned in a preliminary hearing. The concern would be whether the evidence would be admissible as a result of what I'd done or not done. So I had to just think through a pragmatic and common sense lens. But as for stealing, if I've got the intention of eventually returning the goods or the value of the goods, it's not stealing anyway because my intent isn't there, so it's not theft. So I was quite comfortable, really, I didn't really have those kind of strictures or agreements beforehand. The only agreements really that we had, and I used to get read this by instructions from the senior investigating officer before deployments was a list of things that I must not do. And the number one of those was I must not act as an adjunct provocateur, that is to cause somebody to commit a crime that they wouldn't have already have committed or to commit a more serious crime than they would've done. That was the absolute, you must never do that.
[00:31:22] Jordan Harbinger: We call that entrapment. I don't know if you—
[00:31:23] Neil Woods: Yeah, that's entrapment and you must never ever do that.
[00:31:25] Jordan Harbinger: Yeah, that makes sense. And by the way, if you are thinking of shoplifting and then using the rationale, "oh, I intended to give the goods back later," uh, you better be a cop if you're going to go with that line of reasoning, because I don't think that it works very well for the rest of us.
[00:31:37] Neil Woods: No, no, I don't, I don't think it would. But there's actually a very sinister thing happen in the UK just last year and we have a new act of parliament called the Covert Human Intelligence Sources Act. And it actually gives a blanket immunity to all state operatives to commit crimes, blanket immunity, and that includes police informants, which is really sinister, really undemocratic, and that's just happened.
[00:32:01] Jordan Harbinger: Explain that a little bit.
[00:32:02] Neil Woods: Well, it's an active parliament, which means that undercover cops are allowed in advance to be forgiven for any crime that they commit whilst being deployed.
[00:32:12] Jordan Harbinger: Not any crime.
[00:32:13] Neil Woods: It's all in there, including agent provocateur. They even wrote in that now an undercover operative is allowed to be agent provocateur as well. Honestly, it's blanket immunity for crime.
[00:32:22] Jordan Harbinger: That's a terrible idea.
[00:32:24] Neil Woods: It's extraordinary. Yeah, it is. It is. It's extraordinary, but we have extremists in the charge in the UK at the moment.
[00:32:30] Jordan Harbinger: That is such a bad idea. Like there's a million reasons why that's a bad idea, but the most obvious ones are you can now essentially pressure people into committing crimes that otherwise would not commit crimes, which is the entire reason that is prohibited and you're going to end up with police getting vulnerable people like you described and/or minor, you know, young people, whatever, for whatever reason, to do things that they would never do, and they're going to end up in prison as a result. I can't believe that this passed. This is so dumb. I'm shocked to hear that.
[00:33:01] Neil Woods: It is extraordinary.
[00:33:02] Jordan Harbinger: Really it is.
[00:33:03] Neil Woods: Many of us activists tried our best to get it stopped. I gave briefings to parliamentarians in the House of Lords, lots of meetings and briefings to try and explain that this was a really bad idea. You know, I explained that from my point of view. That, at the peak of my most manipulative undercover career when I was most driven and most believing in the cause, I quite likely would've stepped much further over the lines than I did with this legislation in place. And there's certainly plenty of undercover cops, less, less ethical than me. So, yeah, it's a terrible idea. It's a horrendous idea, but it's law now.
[00:33:41] Jordan Harbinger: You are listening to The Jordan Harbinger Show with our guest Neil Woods. We'll be right back.
[00:33:46] This episode is sponsored in part by Angi's list. Angi's list is now Angi, that's A-N-G-I. They've made it easier than ever to get all your home projects done right. My 80-year-old dad stubbornly refused to hire people to do the yard work, which is driving me nuts. He was getting sunburned every weekend, spending hours, mowing the lawn, made absolutely no sense. I'm all about leaving these types of projects to professionals because you know, econ 101 hiring professionals ensures the project's going to be done correctly, safely, efficiently, little less sunburn, potentially saves more time and money in the long run. Thankfully, he finally came around when I presented the numbers. We hired a professional once. We haven't gone back since. If you're in need of a plumber, electrician, HVAC, cleaning, home renovation, or more, get your next project done with the help of a pro from Angi. Angi has over 20 years of home service experience and they've combined it with new tools to simplify the whole process. Just bring them your project online or with the Angi app, answer a few questions and Angi can handle the rest from start to finish. Or help you see ratings and reviews, compare quotes from local pros and connect instantly, which means you can cross things off your to-do list in just a few taps because whether it's routine maintenance or a dream remodel, Angi makes it easy. Download the free Angi mobile app today or visit angi.com. That's A-N-G-I.com.
[00:35:00] This episode is also sponsored by ZipRecruiter. It's been a challenging time for a lot of small businesses to compete against large companies for hiring top talent, especially when larger companies can pony up absurdly generous salaries. But job seekers want more, everything from remote working conditions to an easier application process to a better snapshot of what your company culture is like. Book thrown at your head, anyone? If you want to break through the clutter and attract the most qualified candidates for your business, try ZipRecruiter for free at ziprecruiter.com/jordan. Use ZipRecruiter's powerful matching technology to find qualified candidates and send them a personal invite. They're actually more likely to apply. Know that from personal experience. ZipRecruiter also offers attention-grabbing labels that speak to job flexibility like work remote training provided and more. ZipRecruiter also makes it easy for candidates to apply to your job. Instead of filling out a lengthy application, they can apply with just one click. Get your job noticed by the best and brightest candidates with ZipRecruiter. Four out of five employers who post on ZipRecruiter get a quality candidate within the first day. See for yourself. Go to this exclusive web address to try ZipRecruiter for free and support the show ziprecruiter.com/jordan. Again, that's ziprecruiter.com/J-O-R-D-A-N. ZipRecruiter, the smartest way to hire.
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[00:36:47] Now back to Neil Woods.
[00:36:50] When you were doing undercover. Did you ever have to try the drugs? Because it always seems to me like a dealer would want you to do the drugs with them or in front of them at some point. I mean, you can only make excuses for so long, right?
[00:37:01] Neil Woods: Well, not very often thankfully. Thankfully, I never had to try heroin. That would've been terrifying.
[00:37:06] Jordan Harbinger: Yeah.
[00:37:06] Neil Woods: I never had to try crack that wouldn't have particularly worried me.
[00:37:09] Jordan Harbinger: You wouldn't have been as worried about crack?
[00:37:11] Neil Woods: No, not really. I tried cannabis a few times.
[00:37:14] Jordan Harbinger: Okay.
[00:37:14] Neil Woods: But, you know, it's just cannabis, isn't it? You know, so what?
[00:37:16] Jordan Harbinger: I live in California. That's outside the scope of what we're even talking about in my opinion.
[00:37:21] Neil Woods: But there's two instances where I did, particularly notable instances, when I used drugs on an operation. And the first one was doing it for about four years. I went into this free party. You know a free party, which is like a rave party?
[00:37:35] Jordan Harbinger: Okay.
[00:37:35] Neil Woods: But it's free. And it was this huge empty premises. And I was sent in by the drug squad because they said there were these big hitters coming, these big gangster dealers. And quite quickly, it was clear that there was no big hitter criminals there. There was just a room full of hippie ravers. Soon as I went in, someone came up to us and says, "Hey, do you need some E's? I said, "Yeah," and he just gave us two E's. I said, "How much?" She says, "Oh, no, man. No, you can have them. Everything's free in here, man."
[00:38:01] Jordan Harbinger: Yeah, have a good time.
[00:38:02] Neil Woods: Yeah. So my colleague and I, she said, "There's no way I'm gathering evidence against them. Just no way. I'm just not doing it." I'm thinking, "You know what? You're right. Let's not." "So what should we do?" "Well, let's just enjoy it. And then, just describe anyone, you know? Make it up later." I say, "All right, then." And she says, "In fact, let's get stoned." I thought, what now? So yeah, so we scored some skunk and some resin, and she made very skillfully, made us a sort of double blunt.
[00:38:33] Jordan Harbinger: This is your police colleague?
[00:38:34] Neil Woods: Yeah. So we spent the next sort of three hours dancing to some fantastic techno. I mean, really marvelous, marvelous underground techno. It was fun, it was brilliant. And then went back to the squad and with the debrief. I thought, well, this is my undercover career gone. That's it, finished. We just looked completely out of it, well, that's what I thought. But you know, they didn't bat an eyelid. They didn't say anything. So my career survived, but we had a great, fun. Another time when I took drugs undercover, it wasn't quite as fun. And the reason for this is, and this is a really quite heavy job because I was going into this pub, which is sort of a meeting point between three major cities where organized crime went into this village pub to meet. And there were some really vicious characters in there who were doing massive organized car thefts, antique burglaries, drug dealing, huge operation. And I made a terrible mistake. And that was that I made myself out to be a connoisseur of amphetamines.
[00:39:31] Jordan Harbinger: Mmm.
[00:39:32] Neil Woods: Which I'm not at all but it just seemed to be something I could talk about. I could talk about benzedrine, I could talk about refined methamphetamine or whatever. And anyway, the main target of this operation came up to me one day and he says, "Hey you, I've got a present for you." And he held up this little see-through Sealy bag, and it had this rather toxic-looking pink goo in it. And you opened the bag and it smelled like the urine from a glue-sniffing cat.
[00:40:00] Jordan Harbinger: Oh gosh.
[00:40:00] Neil Woods: And the trouble is I must have had a moment of reticence flash across my face that he picked up on. You know, this is a high-level dude.
[00:40:09] Jordan Harbinger: Yeah.
[00:40:09] Neil Woods: And I saw a moment of suspicion flicker across his face before he composed himself. And so I thought, huh, we've got a bit of suspicion here. I'm going to have to throw water on the suspicion, and in order to do that, I'm going to have to suddenly show a lot of enthusiasm. So I stuck my finger in this bag and got some of it, stuck it in my mouth. It's nasty.
[00:40:29] Jordan Harbinger: Oh.
[00:40:29] And he said, "You're going to need more than that with your tolerance.
[00:40:33] Right. With your tolerance. Yeah, exactly. Oh gosh.
[00:40:35] Neil Woods: Oh my God. So I had another big scoop and put it in and swallowed it. And in no time at all, my stomach was starting to feel quite hot. I was starting to sweat and my heart was starting to go, anyway, I made my excuses and I got out and I got to the team. I told them what had happened, and they were all panicking and, "Oh, do we need to get you to a doctor?" And I thought, well, no, I know enough about the stuff that I'm not going to overdose. You know, you need to take an enormous amount of amphetamine really to kill yourself that way but it wasn't comfortable at all. I mean, this was anxiety-inducing. I had to be driven home. And I remember on the way home, I was thinking, I've got eight cans of beer in my fridge and I can't wait to get that down. I'm thinking that's definitely going to take the edge off.
[00:41:17] Jordan Harbinger: Yeah.
[00:41:17] Neil Woods: And I remember being sat at home, finishing the eighth can and feeling no different at all. Still like jaw clenching, like fist clenching, climbing the wall. I didn't sleep at all for two nights and not much the third night.
[00:41:30] Jordan Harbinger: Oh wow.
[00:41:31] Neil Woods: That's how strong it was. Amphetamine at the time in the UK was on average five percent pure. This was 40 percent pure.
[00:41:38] Jordan Harbinger: Oh my gosh.
[00:41:39] Neil Woods: And I'd had a lot. Mind you, mind you, my house has never been so tidy.
[00:41:44] Jordan Harbinger: I was going to say, man, probably, your closet had the clothing sorted by color and everything. There's like, how did you get the grout so shiny. I used a toothbrush and a toothpick, my man. Oh my God.
[00:41:56] Neil Woods: Yeah. It was like that. I found myself polishing empty wine bottles. Like why? Why would I do that?
[00:42:01] Jordan Harbinger: Yeah. I want to touch back on corruption because you mentioned that the drug squad, you had those, what do you call it? Confidentiality kind of isolation rules. It seems clearly there's corruption's just impossible to prevent, especially when it comes to drugs because there's just too much money in it. Is that right?
[00:42:17] Neil Woods: I would even go further actually and say that drug money corruption is impossible to prevent. It's impossible to fight against. If the drug markets were legally controlled, the finances were legitimate rather than illicit, then organized crime, corruption would virtually not exist because there is not enough money in the value of other criminality to corrupt our police and criminal justice systems like that. There just isn't. But it's not just the value in the market which causes the corruption, it's actually the mechanism of policing.
[00:42:47] Jordan Harbinger: You mentioned policing increases corruption is that because, let me just take a stab at this, if you bust, let's say the Burger Bar Boys, they might go away, but then the Johnson Crew gets more business, so what? They're more profitable. They have more money to invest in protection, corruption. Is that one of the reasons why this just increases as you police the issue?
[00:43:07] Neil Woods: Yeah, exactly. So once you are one step away from the street and upwards in the pyramid of the drug market system, then what policing more often than not does is it creates monopolies or cooperatives. If anyone's watched The Wire, that is a perfect example of what, how it actually happens. You get cooperatives, it's a good defense against policing. You take out competition, the person who's most likely to take up that gap in the market is a rival gang. So they increase their market share, they have more disposable income, and if organized crime have more disposable income, it will always be invested in corruption, always. And this pans out at every level all over the world. And there's some very famous examples.
[00:43:45] So for example, in Mexico there used to be 20 cartels, and now there are three cartels. And those cartels have a gross domestic product or GDP, bigger than most West African countries. Those West African countries, many of them are now narco-states because transnational organized crime has completely taken them over. I'm talking about Guinea, Guinea-Bissau, Senegal. They've completely taken over because it's much more cost-effective to take over an entire government than it is individual customs offices. And West Africa has become an important hub for the distribution of cocaine. That is only possible because the mechanism of policing thins out the competition. It makes organized crime more efficient.
[00:44:28] I'll put it this way, drugs prohibition is the mother of crime and drugs policing refines the effectiveness in a sort of Darwinian way of organized crime.
[00:44:40] Jordan Harbinger: That is, well, an extremely important point and also really, really highlights the hopelessness, not that we needed more of highlighting of hopelessness, right? But that really highlights the hopelessness of policing the way that we currently police.
[00:44:54] Neil Woods: That really brings into focus. The point are made about the fact that where the cops are really good at catching drug dealers, that is really the problem. because the better the police are at it, the more that that superheated and speeds up the process. So, if you had more military, more weapons, more police, more doors kicked in, you are just speeding up that process. You are just super heating it. So, not only are you creating monopolies, but of course, you're also creating violence because if you disrupt the market, you get more violence as well.
[00:45:22] Jordan Harbinger: Tell me a little bit about the corruption that you saw with the police.
[00:45:25] Neil Woods: I'll give you two examples. One is I was doing an operation and I've told you how cocooned and separate it has to be. One day, I almost accidentally bought cocaine off one of the main targets, in Leeds and Bradford. Leeds and Bradford is a big conurbation, it's one of the biggest population areas in the UK. Just accidentally, right direct to the top, bought some cocaine off one of the big guys in this big BMW 4x4 thing. And so the intel officer was so excited. He says, "Oh good, we could do so much with this. Let's get an ops point put out where we know he's hanging out. Let's get some corroborating evidence." And I'm saying, "No, hang on. No. I got my cover officer to explain," and put my foot down on my behalf, like he was like my agent in the workings of it. I say, "No, don't do that. Promise me you're not going to do that." He says, "Oh, okay, okay." I say, "Look, we're a cell here. We're a cell, we're a cell for a reason."
[00:46:16] This was on the Friday. The Monday morning, he was very sheepish. He says, "Yeah, I know you said don't do that. But I couldn't help just resist like calling a mate on a proactive unit saying it might be worth you setting an observations point out." Anyway, this observation van was put outside this guy's house, well, near this guy's house, and after these cops had been in this observation van for a few hours, balaclava men rushed to it, tied it with rope, poured petrol all over it and set fire to it.
[00:46:48] Jordan Harbinger: They set fire to the van with the police inside a few hours after it was there?
[00:46:52] Neil Woods: Yeah.
[00:46:53] Jordan Harbinger: Oh my God. Wow.
[00:46:55] Neil Woods: Yeah.
[00:46:56] Jordan Harbinger: Did they survive?
[00:46:57] Neil Woods: They did survive. They managed to get out. None of them were injured, but obviously, the message was quite clear and funnily enough, that main player disappeared. He changed his number instantly. He changed his car and obviously the phone number that I'd so worked hard to get and the contact that all just dead, all died. He broke the code, he went outside the bubble. You know, this is going to happen. But there was another one, you know, the operation for Nottingham, the one with Cami the day after Cami had introduced me to one of the lieutenants who interrogated me with a knife pressed into my groin, which is really quite off-putting, to say the least.
[00:47:33] Jordan Harbinger: Yeah.
[00:47:33] Neil Woods: So I'd been interrogated by him and I include that just to show you just how, where my mind was at, because this was in the evening, but I managed to buy crack off him. And then the next morning I had an early briefing and two of my backup team had gone off sick. So I was introduced to two new cops and this is four and a half months into an operation, which is unsettling as it was.
[00:47:51] Jordan Harbinger: Yeah.
[00:47:52] Neil Woods: I don't want to be meeting new people. I met the first one, shook his hand, had no problem with him. The second one shook his hand and almost literally the hairs just went up in the back of my neck. You know, when you'd been working undercover for that many weeks, four and a half months by this stage, your senses are really fine-tuned. They're turned up to near-paranoia level and you're very, very sensitive to nuance in body language. And this guy was just wrong, really wrong, didn't even speak to him again. I went straight to the boss running it and say, "Look, boss, there's no way I can trust this guy. I don't want them in the operation. I'm not going out on the streets. In fact, I'm ending it now if he's going to be part of it." And he was great. He says, "Yeah, no problem. We'll just run short-handed. They don't know anything about the job, they've not been in the briefing. All they've been told is to turn up this morning and they might be here for a few months. That's it."
[00:48:44] So they were excluded. Now, I just put this out of my mind. I was reassured. I knew that he wasn't going to be there. I just got on with my job. But a year later, Nottinghamshire constabulary in a very brilliant job, not my job, an additional operation. They managed to catch this infamous gangster that I was trying to get close to, called Colin Gunn, and they caught hold of the Bestwood Cartel. At that point, they found out that the police officer that I'd take an exception to was an employee of the gangster of Colin Gunn.
[00:49:13] Jordan Harbinger: Oh wow.
[00:49:14] Neil Woods: He was part of the Bestwood cartel. Now, he wasn't corrupted while he was in the police. He was paid to join the police, and he'd been in the police for seven years by the time I met him, you can look him up, he was called DC Charlie Fletcher. When the judge sentenced him, he said, "I'm sentenced to you to a year for every year that you were in the police." So he got seven years in prison, but he was being paid £2000 a month on top of his police wages plus bonuses when he provided good information about what was going on.
[00:49:45] Now, I'd come across corruption and the hints of corruption and things that really looks like corruption so many times that I shouldn't have been surprised. But, you know, being that close to me, it's still shocking and unsettling. But in a debrief with the senior cops from MSU, one of them said to me, "Well, Woodsy, look, we know this happens. Of course, this happens. With this much money involved, how can it not happen?" So it was clear to me then, as a senior leader of the that Covert Police Group, it was perfectly aware and accepting of that level of corruption as an inevitability from drugs organized crime.
[00:50:23] And now I'm part of LEAP, the Law Enforcement Action Partnership and the wider worldwide movement. I speak to police all over the world and I spoke to senior police and it's accepted everywhere. It's understood that this level of corruption is inevitable as a result of the drug policy regime that we have. But the trouble is, this might be understood widely by senior police within covert policing, in the covert policing world around the world, but this is something the public needs to understand because if the public was better informed about that reality, I believe that we would have policy change quicker.
[00:50:57] Jordan Harbinger: I would imagine through your career, there's been a few times where you've other close calls, right? I mean, I would imagine you have bought accidentally, however, that happens, bought cocaine from the one guy and they tried to light the van, the surveillance van on fire. That could have been you, but have you ever gotten, I mean you have to wear a wire and a camera at certain points, you ever had a close call with that? Because that's something you see often in Hollywood films as somebody having a wire in and talking their way out of it or taking it off in the bathroom before because they have a feeling. Anything like that in your history?
[00:51:30] Neil Woods: Yeah, unfortunately. I mean, yeah, I did have my wire found. It was in Leicester, the city of Leicester, and it was right near the end of an operation. But I bought off a fairly big-hitting gangster, fairly early on in the operation, but he'd stepped away from the streets. He wasn't normally hands-on, but because it was near the beginning, I hadn't had any corroborative footage because you don't wear a camera early, you wear it when you feel pretty confident that people have got to know you, they're not suspicious of you. So we need to get corroborative footage. And I kept phoning him up, trying to get to buy some product off him, but he would only send a runner. He wouldn't come out himself.
[00:52:04] So I thought, well I know he is into his clothes, so I got hold of some counterfeit clothing, some counterfeit Stone Island jackets. And so he was interested in that and he brought a couple of his gangster mates that had not met before and they turned up and we met in this secluded car park. Now, when I say secluded, but it was actually really near the city center of Leicester. But it was sort of like what we call the inner ring road. So it's like a dual carriageway, like highway, like a McDonald's nearby and a big car park. And there was no one else in this car park. We were right at one end of it and he started looking at the jackets and his mates trying them on and he says, "Oh, you're just selling me these or do you want something?" And I said, "Well, if you carry white, I love 20 of it." And he says, "All right." And he got this massive block of crack out, like huge. And he's peeling back the cellophane. It's like bigger than a VHS box. Don't know if you're old enough to remember VHS. I'm not sure.
[00:52:57] Jordan Harbinger: I am. Yeah.
[00:52:58] Neil Woods: It was huge anyway.
[00:52:58] Jordan Harbinger: Like a book. It's like a book, kids, but sort of—
[00:53:01] Neil Woods: It's like a book. Yeah. It's like a book
[00:53:02] Jordan Harbinger: —thicker, maybe a little smaller another way dimensions. Google it.
[00:53:05] Neil Woods: Yeah.
[00:53:06] Jordan Harbinger: TikTok it.
[00:53:07] Neil Woods: So he sat in the back in the car and he is trying to cut this little sliver, pathetic little piece of it off this massive block. But while he is doing that his mate suddenly looking at me and he is looking at me really strangely. And he says, "How long have you known him?" I say, "I've known him months, I've known you months after, mate." And then, he suddenly pushed me against this fence. It's like steel, triangular, pointy, sharp fence, big, you know, like a security fence. Push me back against there. And he started feeling my clothes. And it doesn't have to look for very long because I'm wearing like a denim jacket on and my camera is actually in a little hole, drilled in the metal button of a denim jacket. Now, this is 2001 and we are not talking James Bond tech here. Once he'd found that camera, there was no doubt what it was, winking up at him, you know, a little glistening sort of hole and a little gem of a camera in there. And he says, "Man, he's f*cking heat, man." And at that point, one of the advantages I quickly realized that I had working undercover is that at the times when I thought I was going to die or I was in serious danger, my surge of adrenaline, which was inevitable, generally gave me a real serene feeling. It made time slow down.
[00:54:19] Jordan Harbinger: Hmm.
[00:54:19] Neil Woods: Which had the sort of beneficial effect of making me feel like I had all the time in the world to think. And this was an advantage on numerous occasions because I could think, okay, what have I got to do here? What I've got to do is to stop him convincing him of what he's found. He trusts me. So if I can prevent that communication, interrupt it long enough to get away, I might survive. So I launched into a torrent of abuse. I didn't give him any space to tell his mate. I just said, "What the f*ck are you doing picking up my f*cking clothes? What the f*ck are you? Who the f*ck are you? And anyway, it's not even my f*cking jacket. I borrowed the jacket this morning. It was like hanging off the back of the chair. So what do I f*cking know about this f*cking jacket anyway. And what you do in picking up my clothes anyway? And I went on and on in this constant stream of abuse without giving him any gaps at all to allow him to explain what he found. It had the secondary effect of him really, this not being what he expected.
[00:55:17] He was completely stunned by this onslaught. And you could see from the look on his face, he was actually starting to even doubt himself. Like, "No. Surely not. Cop is not going to do that." I mean, he's actually—
[00:55:29] Jordan Harbinger: Mm-hmm.
[00:55:30] Neil Woods: —threatening me. I'm like six-four and built like a brick sh*t out. And he's the saliva's hitting me as he's swearing at me. No, a cop wouldn't be that stupid, would they? And I took the jacket as well, and I'm folding up this jacket slowly as I can to make it look like I had all the time in the world. And I was putting knit back in the cellophane all the time, shouting this abuse. And I start walking as slowly as I can thinking, well, if I run, it's like running away from a pack of wolves. They're going to follow you.
[00:55:57] Jordan Harbinger: Right.
[00:55:57] Neil Woods: So I just kept slowly shouting and walking really slowly. I got halfway across the carpark thinking, wow, I'm increasing my odds of survival here.
[00:56:06] Jordan Harbinger: Yeah.
[00:56:07] Neil Woods: And then, I hear running behind me, these footsteps, and I thought, all right, okay. I wonder if I just spin round and I get a punch in hard enough to the first one, and then I start running. Maybe I'll get away. So I'm ready to hit him. And I come out and it's the guy that trusts me. There's a guy I've known for months. He says, "Oh, don't mind my mate. He's a dickhead." And I say, "Yeah, he is a dickhead. Yeah. And he's been picking at my clothes and I don't know what he's f*cking on about." So he says, "Anyway, don't you want this thing?" And I'm thinking, "No, you want to sell me crack now?"
[00:56:36] Jordan Harbinger: Oh.
[00:56:36] Neil Woods: So I got my 20 quid out in my pocket and I gave him the 20 quid and he gave me the stone. And at this point, his mate still stood at the car screaming at him. He's saying, "Mate, he's f*cking five-O. I'm telling you. He is heat, man." And he's like, just dismissing him and putting the 20 quid in his pocket. And I start walking again. And then, he goes back and then they're shouting and arguing. Now, they're arguing and I'm still walking. And then, I hear the car engine go and the wheels screech. I thought, okay, I don't need to walk slowly anymore and I should start sprinting. But by this point, I've got almost to the exit of the car park and I'm up to the highway, the dual carriageway and onto the pavement, the sidewalk. So I turn left and I start running on the sidewalk and the car came out of the side of the entrance and start driving up the sidewalk behind me.
[00:57:23] Jordan Harbinger: So now, you know they're after you if they're driving on the sidewalk?
[00:57:25] Neil Woods: Yeah, there's no doubt at all. So he is driving it up after me, but quite near to it, there's a roundabout, a junction, and where the junction is, where the sidewalk meets the road, there's a steel railing, there's a railing to separate to protect the sidewalk. I just got to that point where there was no room for the car to go further forward and it screeched to a halt and I sort of glanced behind me and I think the car must have been no further away than two meters. That's how close I was to being run down by them. So I carried on running a bit, then I got to a crossing on the other side of the roundabout and I saw the car go round and round the roundabout. Again, just looking at me, it's going slowly, but by this point I thought, well, they can't get me now unless they get out the car and start sprinting. So I went back to a walk and I still sort of acted out, you know, like, I don't know what you're on about. Like, looking at my clothes and staring at it, like, what's he on about, you know?
[00:58:16] But from there, it was actually easy for me to get to the pedestrian area, which was in the very center of the city where no cars could go. And from that point, I managed to get away and get back to the safe location. When I got back to safe location, I did the debrief. I told the intel guy the description of the other gangsters, the number plate of the car, the make and model, and he went away. A couple of minutes, he came back, he was laughing. I say, "What are you laughing at?" He said, "Well, I don't know why they didn't just shoot you." Because we've got loads of intelligence, they've got a gun in that car. We all laughed, we pissed ourselves laughing at that. It seemed like the funniest thing in the world that they could have just shot me instead of trying to run me over. But, you know, that's where humor becomes the cushion—
[00:58:59] Jordan Harbinger: Yeah.
[00:59:00] Neil Woods: —after those moments.
[00:59:01] Jordan Harbinger: Geez, do you think they thought maybe I shouldn't shoot a cop? But then again, they were trying to run you over with a car. So I don't know. I don't know if the logic stands.
[00:59:09] Neil Woods: I remember when we did finally have some training to work undercover. We heard what we call the level one undercover people, the people who do high-end stuff.
[00:59:17] Jordan Harbinger: Mm-hmm.
[00:59:17] Neil Woods: And they were teaching us all about the stated cases, all of the legality and all of the technical stuff that we needed to know. And one of them who I eventually got really friendly with said to me, "I think you're all f*cking nuts here. There is no way you would get me doing the job that you're doing. There's just no way I would do it. Because of what? I've got backup, I've got backed-up legends for a year before I do my work."
[00:59:38] Jordan Harbinger: Mm-hmm.
[00:59:39] Neil Woods: "And all of the people I'm dealing with, they're all that civilized. They're not stupid enough to murder us if they find us. But the nuts that you are dealing with on the streets, they'll kill you because they're either stupid or reckless."
[00:59:49] Jordan Harbinger: Mm-hmm.
[00:59:49] Neil Woods: And that's the point that at that level where you've got that Darwinian thing going on, which has been created by drugs policing, it's the most ruthless and violent that survive. And we are literally teaching our young men how to be more ruthless and violent. And so this makes it perpetually more dangerous for everyone on the streets. And that's not just, a point that's worth pointing out that yet it became more dangerous for me, but actually it was my presence on those streets, which made it more dangerous for everyone else.
[01:00:22] Jordan Harbinger: This is The Jordan Harbinger Show with our guest Neil Woods. We'll be right back.
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[01:03:17] This episode is also sponsored in part by Starbucks. Life moves fast. Starbucks' ready-to-drink coffee delivers an uplifting boost that helps you tune into the moments that matter wherever you are. It's Starbucks coffee, conveniently packaged for life on the go, which we now are as the pandemic winds down or whatever it's doing. As a dad of two, my hands are literally full. I'm always on the go. Ain't nobody got time to whip up fancy coffee beverages to start the day. I got diapers to change. I got little teeth to brush. I got tiny butts to wipe. Anybody with kids knows how chaotic mornings are. That's why I love that I can grab a bottled frappuccino chilled coffee drink and have my favorite Starbucks coffee ready to go. Lubricate those vocal cords, these sweet, sweet vocal cords right before my podcast interview, like the one you're listening to right now with Neil Woods. We love the range of Starbucks ready-to-drink coffee. There's a plethora of options depending on what mood you happen to be in. My go-to is the classic chilled cafe latte, but if I'm feeling a little sweet tooth, I've reached for that frappuccino. I'm going to do the long you from here on out, chilled coffee drink. And if I need an extra boost to conquer the day I go for the nitro cold brew. But you got to play nice with that stuff. That stuff will take you for a ride if you're not ready for it. We stock our drink fridge with Starbucks ready-to-drink coffee so it's within arms reach. Also a perfect treat whenever we have guests over. Starbucks coffee ready for right now, shop the full lineup online or in-store wherever you buy groceries.
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[01:04:58] Now for the rest of my conversation with Neil Woods.
[01:05:03] I think I heard you say that violence is like an insurance policy because if you get arrested, you're going to write on the person who you are least scared of. Not the guy who's going to peel your skin off with a hot knife, but the guy who's maybe just going to like slap you around or threaten you and doesn't have a reputation for being a complete psychopath.
[01:05:20] Neil Woods: Yeah, exactly that. Exactly. Now the intelligence war is the most important war part of the war for policing. The police informants are the most important tool in this thing, but the use of police informants that obviously organized crime, know that the police use them. That's what's created this situation. So yeah, you build up the reputation. So you are not the first person that gets grasped up. You actually take time to torture people to create that reputation. There's a famous gangster in the UK, one of the people he suspected as being an informant. He got witnesses. He caught him. He made him drink petrol, he taunted him, locked him in the boot of the car, and then set fire the car.
[01:05:57] Jordan Harbinger: Mm-hmm.
[01:05:57] Neil Woods: No one's grasping that man up.
[01:05:59] Jordan Harbinger: No.
[01:05:59] Neil Woods: But that currency of fear has been created by the police use of informants. We need to be seeing it in those terms. We need to be framing it in those terms and stop treating what the police do as a success. Because look at the carnage in the wake of these arrests. Look at the carnage in the wake of those drug seizures.
[01:06:17] Jordan Harbinger: When you're on these operations, do you have any sort of panic button for when you get in a tough situation? It doesn't sound like it because you would've used it with the guy who you were selling Stone Island jackets, which by the way, I Googled. They look really nice. Do you have any way to get back up or is it just they're far away from you and so it doesn't help?
[01:06:35] Neil Woods: Theoretically, in the rules, we were meant to have backup and backup where they could get to you, but the trouble is, at the beginning of any operation, I would make it very clear to my backup. I don't ever want to see you, I don't want you anywhere near me. In fact, I don't even want you at all. No disrespect and I don't want you. Because to me, my biggest risk was my backup doing something which was out of my control. So I didn't want them nearby. But you know, for some operations, I had an open mic. My phone was set with some technical equipment so that it also became an open microphone so that I could call the backup.
[01:07:07] I remember for the pub job that I ended up having to take amphetamine. The signal for that was I would find an ashtray, you could still smoke in pubs, there I would find an ashtray and chuck it through the nearest window or through the front window because there was an observation point on the front of that. So there was sometimes signals, but for the most part, I was on my own. And despite having got myself into more near-death experiences than I would care to start listing, I still felt safer with the backup being far away, to be honest.
[01:07:35] Jordan Harbinger: I bet, yeah. Especially if they're going to do stuff like, well, you mentioned the corruption and the guy who had to call his friend and set up the observation point and all that. I mean, it's just at that point it's like you don't even really want the risk. They just add risk to the operation more than they add safety from the sound of it.
[01:07:51] Neil Woods: Yeah, absolutely. I preferred to work on my own and I just didn't want anything, anything that was out of my control I didn't want anything to do with, although I did work with some brilliant other operatives. The best were always women, but I much preferred to work on my own just because not having to think about someone else is a bonus. Thinking on your feet is a second-to-second thing to do. You know, you don't want to start second-guessing someone else's behavior.
[01:08:16] Jordan Harbinger: Speaking of violence, tell me about the guy, the samurai sword guy. This is such a ridiculous story.
[01:08:22] Neil Woods: Yeah, this is, again, this is quite early on. This was within my first four years, and it was in the city of Stoke-on-Trent, which is a Midland town, very deprived post-industrial, lots of two up, two down sort of working-class type houses. And I'd been buying heroin off this guy and weights of heroin, you know, decent weights of heroin for a few weeks. And I remember calling on him one day and the intel guy said, yeah, he's been wondering between his addresses, he had four different addresses he was operating. He's been wandering between addresses with a samurai sword. And I thought, wow, that's fine. I'm going to knock on his door. He's used to me.
[01:08:58] Anyway, I knocked on the door and to set the scene, there's this two up, two down, very working-class old sort of old fashioned English house. There were two-stone steps up. So when he opened the door, he was taller than me. He was further up. I was looking up at him. As soon as the door opened, he put the samurai sword to my throat and he's screaming at me. I mean, his face was blood red. He says, "You are f*cking drug squad. You're f*cking drug squad. You're a heat. I know you are, man. I know you are. I've got you." And he steps closer to me and the swords closer and I could feel it. Honestly, I thought this was it. I'm going to die. It wasn't just the sword, it was the expression on his face, the body language, the saliva flying out at me.
[01:09:39] And then, this woman sort of popped her head out behind him and just saw her head and she started laughing. She says, "Huh? I thought he was going to say he was then. Thought he was going to admit it," and she was pissing herself laughing. Then, he started laughing and yeah, he was just joking. Or maybe he just wanted to try out his new sword or something. But then, you know, was he joking or was it just his routines about developing his reputation and intimidating his regular customers, reminding who's the boss. Then, I had ended up having a sort of argument with him as well because I said, "Well, have you got half a tea? I just want a reasonable little weight of heroin." He said, "No, I haven't got anything like that." And I had to argue with him about the deals I wanted and I ended up walking away with four 10-pound deals, which had been hard work to get. And I started putting them in this cigarette packet.
[01:10:27] And as I look up, there's this guy in front of me and he is got a knife pressing into my, well not actually touching me, but it's pointing towards my stomach. He's trying to rob me for the heroin I've just bought. So I thought, oh God, talk about frying pan and fire.
[01:10:40] Jordan Harbinger: In front of the house where you bought the heroin?
[01:10:41] Neil Woods: About the length of four cars. So really close.
[01:10:45] Jordan Harbinger: God.
[01:10:46] Neil Woods: Really close to it. And I just looked up and I thought, no, there's no way. And, after what I'd just gone through for this heroin, there's just no way you having it. I sort of started running backwards as fast as I could, as I was still putting it in the cigarette packet and grabbing it. He was, obviously, he was struggling a bit. He wasn't very well, he was an unhealthy, problematic heroin user, and thankfully I could run faster than him, but as I started running away from him, he says, "No, no, no, mate, just hang on a minute. Come here a minute." I'm thinking, what? No. No, I won't. So I ended up sort of running an, a bit reminiscent of the sofa actually from earlier on in my career. Sort a little bit of go to and fro him through the side of a car. But then again, I just sprinted and he couldn't keep up with me.
[01:11:32] Jordan Harbinger: This is so ridiculous, man. At what point with the samurai sword up to your neck or a knife at your belly getting robbed of the heroin you just bought, are you thinking, well, this was a sh*tty choice of careers?
[01:11:43] Neil Woods: Yeah. I mean, to be honest though, at that point, at that point in my career, I probably had been doing it for three years. I thought it was just a real buzz. I got back to the debrief, to the safe location and yeah, I could have died, but I was buzzing and at that point, also, I was loving developing in the role. I was loving getting better at it. I was loving that sort of personal sense of development where you're improving really rapidly. And that's a very heady thing to experience for whatever you're trying to develop. And also I was developing this reputation of someone who could deal with that kind of thing calmly. And as a young man, that really boosted my ego. It was sort of boosting my sense of self and I was enjoying that. It was a heady experience and it was before I was having the true doubts. It was obviously a long, long time before I would realize how much damage that was doing to my mental health. I had no idea at all.
[01:12:40] Jordan Harbinger: The idea that being undercover is stressful, maybe the stress is different, right? It seems like it's already a very lonely experience and it's even more lonely because the police you worked with could only know your cover identity. You can't even bond with or fraternize with the police you're working with because they don't even know who you really are. Were you able to balance a family life and relationship with — do you have kids or anything or are we sticking with cats for now?
[01:13:03] Neil Woods: No, no. I've got three cats now, but yeah, I've got two kids and at the time, after 1997, I had kids, so in the early 2000s when I was doing long-term work, I would arrange my cover story to give myself time and do my best to get home every Sunday and take my kids swimming on a Sunday morning, which was a peculiar shift of pace.
[01:13:24] Jordan Harbinger: I bet.
[01:13:24] Neil Woods: Especially when I was doing jobs like the Nottinghamshire or the one with the Burger Bar Boys. It was an amazing sense of stress relief. But did I balance it adequately? I don't know. The trouble is I also had an abusive relationship. My wife was abusive, so as peculiar as it sounds at some low points, it was an escape to get away and stop, you know, gone by crack from gangsters. So it was an odd, an odd time, but I did do my absolute best to see my kids and I would spend a lot of time reading them stories at bedtime. It's just that when I was doing very long deployments if that same book would last, like quite a long time that I would be reading them if that makes sense.
[01:13:59] Jordan Harbinger: Yeah, it does. Right, so you're reading four pages per night, but you only get one night a week. It takes two months to read a book. You forget the beginning by the time you get to the end.
[01:14:08] Neil Woods: I did have long breaks in between a lot of the long operations. So, so that helped with the balance, I think.
[01:14:14] Jordan Harbinger: Ken Croke, episode 673. He was undercover with a biker gang, an outlaw biker gang, and he was talking about the stresses of having this stuff bleed into your home life. And he was married to another federal agent, so it wasn't even the lack of understanding, it was just the fact that he would come back after being at a meth binge party where he didn't do the drugs. But I mean, you come back stinky after riding a motorcycle across country with a bunch of thugs and you then, you're just a disgusting kind of guy who's been around disgusting people, and you have to compartmentalize all that and be a dad to two, hopefully, normal kids and go to the zoo or whatever. He was talking about the difficulty of balancing that, the almost impossibility of balancing that.
[01:14:54] I know we're running a little bit low on time. I would love to talk a little bit about the effects that this has had on you. You mentioned mental health problems from the work. What does that entail? Did you feel it coming on at the time? Is that hindsight?
[01:15:08] Neil Woods: I mean, I didn't feel it on coming on at the time, and now I realize that all of those near-death experiences, you know, at gunpoint and the samurai sword to my throat, they've had an impact. But the biggest thing for me is all this profound sense of guilt. The harm that I've caused to other people because I made a conscious decision to keep doing it, even though I had doubts. So I'm diagnosed with complex PTSD and one of the complexities is that I've had moral injury. That's a facet of my problems. But no, it didn't start really, but I didn't have a problem until about 2010.
[01:15:39] My world started collapsing. I didn't understand why I was feeling the way I was confused, brain fog, hypervigilance. It just went really downhill, you know, a real, a real crisis. I've been up and down since I escaped my marriage, which helped. But I went downhill. I've had all of the counseling, tried all of the different medications. None of that's really helped, but I'm in a fairly stable, comfortable place at the moment. And part of that is because I manage my time well. And part of that is in my activism. You know, I'm active and I'm doing something positive to try and deal with the harms that I've caused. That is really useful for me to do.
[01:16:19] But sometimes though I overdo it and work too hard and I can have a really low local collapse. I've had suicidal ideation, but 2018 and all sorts of nasty spirals to go down some days and some weeks can be an incredible struggle. And you know, when you have those attacks of hypervigilance and a sudden attack, it's bizarre because the fear that I feel from my mental health damage is much more extreme than the fear I felt during the events that caused them, slight, like tigers just jumped out and about to eat me kind of fear. You know, I didn't feel that level of fear when I was with the Burger Bar Boys, so it's much worse from the mental health. But again, I must apologize to you because I've put you off because in December just gone, I wasn't capable of stringing two sentences together because I was in a very, very low place indeed, to be honest.
[01:17:12] Jordan Harbinger: It's been worth the wait, I'll tell you that. And I'm glad that you are out of that funk as at least for the time being. I mean, no apology necessary. Do you always feel like you're in danger or are you able to relax at some points? I mean, you mentioned not feeling that kind of fear when you're with the Burger Bar Boys, but surely there's some fear. For me, I'm not sure I would ever be able to relax. Maybe relaxing is what gets you injured or killed in the first place.
[01:17:36] Neil Woods: At the start of the time when I did the Burger Bar Boys operation, I'd already experienced several instances of obvious corruption, including the one that I told you about. I didn't trust anything around me and I was going into this operation because I thought it was the right thing to do to catch these gangsters, but I didn't trust anything. And so I had my own way of sticking two fingers up or sticking the middle finger up at the universe. And that operation, I used my real name as a pseudonym. I went by the pseudonym of Woody, which was ver almost my real name. And I did that just as a f*ck you to the universe. That's an idea of my mindset at the time because I thought, I can't trust anyone around me. You know, it's clear just how dangerous this operation is and I'm in more danger from the corruption that is endemic than I am from the gangsters on the street. So that was my way of, it was my bravado, sort of forcing my way to do it. But for that operation. Whereas earlier in my career, I would be able to relax and feel relaxed in everyone's company and manage the risks and not feeling fear all the time.
[01:18:37] For the Burger Bar Boys operation, I felt in fear on almost every day. So it was exhausting really because, yeah, I was, I felt fear and I was pushing through that all the time, you know? And I had many instances during that operation to reinforce that fear and remind me that, yeah, I'm risking a lot here.
[01:18:54] Jordan Harbinger: What was the breaking point for you where you decided that maybe you were the enemy after all, and not the hero in the story?
[01:19:02] Neil Woods: Oh, well, I mean, there were so many of them. There's so many of them. And the trouble is they built up incrementally.
[01:19:06] Jordan Harbinger: Mm-hmm.
[01:19:07] Neil Woods: When I forced myself to face up to all of my doubts, it came like a tide. I'd been pushing them down, and every vulnerable person that needed help that I'd manipulated, every time that I'd carried on going, despite my own doubts, just hit me like a ton of a bricks. But I suppose the instance really was in the town of Brighton, where Brighton had the highest drug death per capita in the country. There was huge numbers of drug deaths from heroin and the drug dealing gangs there, which were from Liverpool and London and Birmingham. And they were in competition. They were using the homeless, the street homeless population as proxy dealers. But the word on the street spots that some of the people were dying were actually being murdered. They were being given a dodgy dose to kill them because these gangs were saying, "Look, you are the nominated person. You're the only person that comes to deal with me, and you deal to everyone else. You are the only person. If I can even see anyone at all, when ideal to you, I'm going to kill you." And there were so many instances of people who were the nominated dealers ended up dead, and everyone on the streets was convinced that there was being casual murders happening.
[01:20:13] And you know, when I raised this concern and I told them again and again, this is what people were talking about, and then another person had met was found dead. The attitude of the cops that I was working for was, "Yeah, well, it's just another junkie, isn't it? Or maybe shoplifting will go down today." And it was quite clear to me, I'm not saying this about all of the police I worked with because there were many cops I worked with who were very kind and very professional, but the attitude amongst those particular cops was horrendous. It was a bullying atmosphere. They tried to bully and intimidate me. And whereas incomplete and stark contrast, many of the people that I was getting to know on the streets were fascinating, thoughtful, kind people who just needed some real help. And that contrast was astonishing. It was dramatic.
[01:21:07] That was the last straw for me, really. The insensitivity, the apparent deaths, the refusal to even consider the possibility that it might be criminal acts causing these deaths, just the sheer inhumanity really. And I knew then that I had to do something about it. I had to try and do something about this, somehow. I mean, it was a few years before I found LEAP. You know, I realized before I found that there was an international organization of people just like me. But at that point, I knew I had to do something, something.
[01:21:37] Jordan Harbinger: The effect of prohibition was to create new drug users. Can you speak to that a little bit? Because it doesn't really make sense when you first look at it until it's explained, right? It seems like prohibition puts things underground. Okay. Maybe things are harder to get, maybe they become more expensive. But how does it lead to more people using the drugs, especially in the UK?
[01:21:56] Neil Woods: Okay, so in our history in the UK we had a system of drug policy, which was the opposing view, the opposing worldview to the American version. It was called the British System, capital B, capital S. And the British system held its own for a long time. But the American system was that you should treat addiction as a moral failing and criminalize those people who were addicted. The British System was, if you developed a problem with drugs, you went to a doctor and you got some help. Fairly simple, but opposing views. And the British System was entrenched and it worked. Then the Second World War happened and America became the true superpower because America bankrolled the UK's war effort. We only paid that war debt off in 2015. But that meant that US policy became dominant in every regard, and that includes drug policy. And it's the reason that every country in the world now is the same drug laws because it's dictated by US policy.
[01:22:47] So the British System died in with the single conventions in 1961, but the British System, it's lasted a few more years and it lasted until the end of the 1960s where the doctors were shut down. Everything was criminalized. We had the misuse of drugs act. If we talk about just heroin, at the point that the British System ended, there was only 1046 heroin consumers in the UK and the number was falling. Doctors were shut down. The market was a hundred to organized crime, and in less than 15 years, we had 300,000 heroin consumers. We caught up with everywhere else that we hadn't had the problem before. The US had hundreds of thousands in the 1920s, whereas we measured ours in the hundreds in the 1920s, in the '30s and the '40s and the '50s. We went suddenly caught up with the USA and we had all of the organized crime in the crime wave that came with it, all the associated problems.
[01:23:40] Now, the reason for that is if a doctor is controlling the supply of heroin, there is no incentive to find new customers. There is no financial incentive at all. There is only the incentive to take care of the health of the customer sat in front of you and to see what else that person might need. As soon as the market's under to organized crime, then there's a massive business incentive to find new customers. Now, there's no shortage of people out there in emotional pain, and for those people with emotional pain, heroin can be quite a useful thing. But the greatest tool that organized crime will use is they will exploit what we call user dealers. Someone who has developed a habit, and they'll be encouraged to develop a habit, big enough to suddenly need more money. So then, they might commit crime and they'll be exploited that way. Or they'll be encouraged to find five new customers. "Look, if you can find five new customers that'll pay for your habit. And I increase my market. Yeah." And that's what happens. That's the business model.
[01:24:38] Jordan Harbinger: It's like multi-level marketing. It's ridiculous.
[01:24:40] Neil Woods: Yeah, exactly. But it's facilitated by the fact that people in emotional pain will find it addictive. And I must emphasize 25 percent of people who use heroin have got a problem with it. That means 75 percent of people haven't.
[01:24:52] Jordan Harbinger: Does that mean they're like casual users? Is that what that means?
[01:24:55] Neil Woods: Yeah, it's obviously much higher than other drugs. For all the other drugs, it's about 10 percent. For most drug use, 90 percent of people who use drugs don't have any problematic relationship with it at all. The 10 percent that do, it's a sliding scale. Some people need more intervention than others. It's the same for alcohol. So the idea of criminalizing all those people, I mean, you know, it makes a nonsense of the need to criminalize and the criminalizing doesn't help anyway. So the UK history as regards the end of the British System is a very clear piece of evidence of the disaster, the catastrophe of drug prohibition. It just creates incentive for more problematic use.
[01:25:31] Jordan Harbinger: Neil, this was incredible and well worth the wait. Thank you for being so open and vulnerable, man. You're a hell of a storyteller to boot and I really want to thank you for taking the time. I really appreciate it. I know the listeners appreciate it. Just really, really fascinating and I hope to meet you in person one day. I think this is really just a knockout episode.
[01:25:51] Neil Woods: Well, thank you very much for inviting me on. It's been lovely to meet you over this computer screen. Apologies again for messing you around with the scheduling, but great, we got to chat eventually and it's genuinely been really nice meeting you.
[01:26:05] Jordan Harbinger: You are about to hear a preview of The Jordan Harbinger Show with former DEA agents that brought down Colombian drug kingpin, Pablo Escobar. If you've watched the TV show, Narcos, these are the real-life Steve Murphy and Javier Peña.
[01:26:17] Javier Peña: The whole war of Pablo Escobar is based on the extradition. Colombia wanted to extradite him, and that's when he started at the war. Colombia backed down on the extradition. So for me, personally, I always thought Pablo would never be taken alive.
[01:26:34] Steve Murphy: Here's a guy that's responsible for, we estimate 10, 15, maybe 20,000 murders.
[01:26:39] Javier Peña: Bombing of a commercial airline, killing of a presidential candidate, the putting a bomb at the newspaper editor because they wrote a bad story on him. It's outrageous. Innocent people getting killed every day, you know, car bombs 10 to 15 on a daily basis. That was his war on Colombia. And it was just all innocent people being at the wrong place at the wrong time.
[01:27:05] Steve Murphy: They made it clear to us, this is all about killing Pablo Escobar.
[01:27:09] Javier Peña: And the real heroes in the search of Pablo Escobar were the Colombia National Police. They're the ones who took down Escobar.
[01:27:16] Steve Murphy: Absolutely. People are still out there that think Pablo Escobar is some kind of hero, but they have no idea what they're talking about when they're talking about, you know, he's a hero. Oh, he did this for his community. He didn't do anything. He killed people. What he was in reality was a manipulator. He was a master manipulator.
[01:27:34] Javier Peña: Yep.
[01:27:34] Steve Murphy: We understand that we as a world cannot arrest our way out of the drug problem. You know, we cannot put enough people in jail to stop it because there's so many evil people out there waiting to take advantage of you and us. They'll do anything to make money and take advantage of others.
[01:27:48] Jordan Harbinger: To hear what it was like to chase the slippery drug kingpin responsible for thousands of deaths, check out episode 453 of The Jordan Harbinger Show.
[01:27:58] Whoa, such a good episode. Such a good conversation. Now, this all makes sense to me, right? When you catch a burglar, break-ins go down because there's only so many people willing to break into somebody's house and commit that kind of crime. But when you arrest a drug dealer, crime just goes way up because you've created a power vacuum in the market, and people are going to fight over that power in the market, that market share. There's a virtually unlimited number of people who are willing to engage in drug dealing because it's so lucrative. You don't have to be some kind of criminal thug gang member, you can just be somebody who sees a market gap and is willing to break the law to do it.
[01:28:32] The police corruption bit was especially startling. Neil told me that police have pressure to plant evidence and find things because if they raid a place and they don't find anything, it's on them. Now, that sounds kind of unfair, but Neil did spend 14 years in the police force, so I sort of take this as a very credible thing for him to say. I will never personally forget working for a landlord in Detroit, working with cops to bus drug dealers who are in the building. We would enter the building. We would enter the unit with the landlord, and the cops would raid the place and they would split up the take, whether there was cash, guns, drugs, whatever it was, they would throw some into evidence and they would make everybody take their share if it was weed or other drugs. Because if everybody had to take some, we were all guilty of taking some. So that was kind of how they made sure that nobody snitched. I personally tossed it out the window on the way home. I had no use for that stuff, especially back then and I'm not putting something in my body that I seized with the police from a random apartment in Detroit but this was up there. I mean, the amount of corruption I witnessed just personally from the Detroit police in the '90s was quite staggering and I can believe that it happens in many other locations, especially big cities.
[01:29:40] Also, Neil was quite clear offline. The war on drugs separates the community and the police because people use drugs. It's a normal human thing, not that everybody does it, but a whole hell of a lot of non-criminal or non otherwise criminal people do it alienates the police from the community and murder-solve rates go way down. It's kind of a longer process how this happens. But let's just say Mexico right now, they solve less than one percent of murders. The United States, it's like 65 percent, which sounds like a lot until you think about before Nixon's war on drugs, it was 85 percent and that murder-solve rate is dropping despite DNA and super advanced forensics. Cameras everywhere, phones everywhere. So that says a lot. That means the actual drop in investigative capability could be, well, is significantly higher. I mean, think about it. It's a drop despite all these tools by 20 percent. That's really, really incredible. A lot of that has to do with the fact that the community and the police are now separate entities and it, this is a sort of multifaceted problem, but we see new problems cropping up with our police in our communities every single day if you're paying any attention to the news or social media or, I don't know, anything going on around.
[01:30:50] Neil also blames the way we police for the fact that kids are now selling drugs in the UK. Again, this is UK-specific stuff. Crime adapts to policing. Kids aren't in circles with junky drug informants most of the time. You can pay kids less. They're not as suspicious if they're out hanging out in the street and there's an endless supply of them, they don't know any better. The sentences they get are lower. They can understand consequences as well. There's a lot of kids out there selling drugs in the US and in the UK right now. And Neil says that is in part due to the way we police. He's not blaming the actual cops. He's saying it the policies we have for drugs policing are what make that a sad reality.
[01:31:33] Big thank you to Neil Woods. All things Neil Woods will be in the show notes at jordanharbinger.com. Reminder to go check out our ChatGPT bot at jordanharbinger.com/ai. You can find anything from any episode we've ever done on the show. Pretty cool. Transcripts are in the show notes. Videos up on YouTube. Advertisers, deals, discount codes, all ways to support the show are going to be at jordanharbinger.com/deals. I know I say it all the time, but I'll say it once more. Please consider supporting those who support the show. I'm at @JordanHarbinger on both Twitter and Instagram. You can also connect with me on LinkedIn.
[01:32:05] And I'm teaching you how to connect with great people, or bad people, whatever you choose, really, and manage relationships using system, software, and tiny habits over at our Six-Minute Networking course. That course is free. It's over at jordanharbinger.com/course. I'm teaching you how to dig the well before you get thirsty. Build relationships before you need them. I've taught this to military, government, corporate, places I can't even talk about. I know you think I'm awesome at networking already, well, you're still going to learn something because the spy agencies I've taught to certainly didn't have a problem learning something from this. And if you're really bad at it and you think, "Ugh, I don't want to go to mixers. I hate stuff like that," don't worry. This is all online. I designed it for introverts to do from their phone. So no panic, no YMCA mixers with stale cookies and Kool-Aid. And most of the guests on the show subscribe and contribute to the course. So come join us, you'll be in smart company.
[01:32:53] This show is created in association with PodcastOne. My team is Jen Harbinger, Jase Sanderson, Robert Fogerty, Millie Ocampo, Ian Baird, and Gabriel Mizrahi. Remember, we rise by lifting others. The fee for this show is you share it with friends when you find something useful or interesting. If you know maybe a cop or maybe somebody is interested in public policy or just the drug war that would benefit from hearing this, please share this episode with them. The greatest compliment you can give us is to share the show with those you care about. In the meantime, do your best to apply what you hear on the show, so you can live what you listen, and we'll see you next time.
[01:33:29] Special thanks to Peloton for sponsoring this episode of The Jordan Harbinger Show.
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