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Bootleggers back off after gang's arrest

Dubai Police say dismantling a violent organisation accused of selling alcohol to labourers has discouraged its rivals in the illegal trade.

DUBAI // The arrest of a gang that allegedly operated one of Dubai's biggest labour camp bootlegging operations may have made other illicit alcohol sellers think twice about their operations, police say.

The gang of 13 men, described by police as the "strongest", appeared in a Dubai court on Monday. They were charged with two counts of murder, kidnapping and hiding bodies. Five of the men are also charged with sexual assault and 10 with consumption of alcohol. The gang is believed to have operated in Jebel Ali and allegedly used weapons such as swords and knives to threaten others. They are also accused of waging war with other gangs to gain control of territory.

"This was the strongest gang and after their arrest, increased security and police presence chased away all the alcohol bootleggers from the area," said a CID officer in Dubai who did not want to be named. Such gangs are often comprised of labourers who operate within their own community, said the officer. "But after the crackdown, these gangs have no longer formed and police regularly do spot checks to ensure the illegal trade is not continued," he said.

Dubai authorities have been combating the illicit alcohol trade in labour accommodations through inspections and raids on bootleggers. The police, immigration, and municipal authorities, as well as private security companies conduct regular inspections, especially in areas such as Al Quoz, Jebel Ali and Sonapur, where there is lots of labour accommodation. The Municipality said that nearly 500 bottles of whisky and beer were seized in 2009 from labour accommodations in those areas.

"This kind of illegal alcohol is seized from lots of places in Dubai, but is more common in areas housing labourers and bachelors," said Obaid Ibrahim, the municipality's head of market management. The department is responsible for destroying the illegal stashes. Last month, 998 bottles of illicit alcohol seized by municipal inspectors were destroyed in a garbage dump in Al Qusais. The inspectors also destroyed nearly 55,000 pirated DVD films and 1,700 pornographic films, most of which were recovered from the same areas.

When asked if bootlegging is resulting in fights among labourers and gangs, Mr Ibrahim said: "We all know what happens there. This is a common problem." At least 30 people were hurt in clashes between more than 500 Indian and Pakistani workers in March 2008 that was sparked by a row over illegal alcohol in the Jebel Ali industrial area. Other emirates are also looking at ways to prevent illegal alcohol from getting in to labour accommodation.

Charles Mallice, the director of operations and training with a security company that operates in labour camps in Abu Dhabi, said they had recently observed increased sophistication in gangs selling alcohol. "It is organised crime because of the number of people involved. We can tell by the number of bottles that come in at once." He said attempts had been made to smuggle in a thousand bottles at a time.

Bags and vehicles are checked when they are going in and out of the camps, and Mr Mallice's guards check to make sure that bottles cannot be smuggled in through the gaps between the fences and the ground. But, he said, most deals occurred outside the area. Usually, bootleggers set up "bar areas" in the desert or outside labour camps, digging holes in the sand, lining them with plastic and covering them up. The bottles are dug up when customers are ready to buy.

pmenon@thenational.ae sbhattacharya@thenational.ae

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