Police Smash Huge Drugs Centre In Raid On Rasta Temple

The UK’s biggest Rastafarian temple was turned into a major drug dealing centre where hundreds of people went to buy cannabis and crack cocaine every day, detectives said yesterday.

They spoke after leading a raid on the squat in south London which involved more than 100 armed officers using stun grenades. Inside, police said they found drugs and live ammunition.

Officers claim that people involved in “serious criminality” were in a struggle with Rastafarian elders to take control of the temple, four shabby Victorian townhouses in St Agnes Place, Kennington. Chief Superintendent Martin Bridger said he had “never seen that level of drug dealing” in his 30 years’ experience.

“We have had 600 people per day going to these premises on a regular basis believed to be for … buying drugs. Of the people that were stopped by police 80% had drugs with them.” Mr Bridger said that 200 people had been arrested in the eight weeks before yesterday’s operation, after which another 24 were taken into custody.

“I’ve never seen such activity or the sheer volume of people visiting these premises,” he said. “There were people inside these premises who were controlling these activities. There were 32 rooms and these were split according to what drugs you were selling. You went to one room, you got cannabis, you went to another room, you got crack. Some of these people were people of particular violence and there was intelligence that they had the protection of firearms.”

He added: “There were clearly worshippers who have been using it for genuine worship but we also have this criminal element who over the past few years had muscled their way in and begun to use it for criminal purposes. I want to know who was putting the drugs into these premises and where the profit has gone.”

Members of the Rasta community told the Guardian that people in their 60s and 70s and disabled people were among those in custody. The allegations of drug dealing and firearms offences have surprised and angered regular worshippers. Many congregated on parkland opposite the temple to voice disbelief and hostility over the police activity.

Derick Clarke, who has been visiting the temple for more than 20 years, said: “We don’t know anything about class A drugs or firearms. It’s a problem within the Kennington community. It’s not as if we’re harbouring criminals, we’re victims of it too. Rastafarianism is a religion on the fringe and that’s part of the problem. We don’t have a defence mechanism and this leaves us open to attack.”

Yesterday’s raid is the latest incident involving the temple. In 2005 Lambeth council got an eviction order to remove 150 people from 21 properties in St Agnes Place. In 2003 about 180 officers raided the temple, seizing 3kg of cannabis and making 37 arrests, and in 1999 a Jamaican man was shot dead as he hid behind the front door from gangsters. Mr Clarke claimed the four terraced houses were worth at least £1m each. He said: “The council has been after these houses for years. They’re looking for an excuse to close us down and move us on.”

Shango Baku, editor of Rastafari Speaks, said: “For us, marijuana is a sacred herb. We provide an alternative lifestyle and that is seen as a threat. Rastafari is about love and peace. Class A drugs and guns? That’s not the Rasta way.”

A spokesman for Scotland Yard said: “We do not know if this is Britain’s biggest drugs raid, but it is a significant operation. People have travelled from across the south-east to buy drugs from the premises raided. Customers are of all ages and ethnic groups.” The search is expected to last until tomorrow.