London ( The Guardian, Feb 25,2017): A vast marijuana farm discovered in a former nuclear bunker in Wiltshire was staffed by trafficked Vietnamese teenagers working in slave-like conditions, police say.
The three teenagers, the youngest of whom was initially thought to be 15, and one adult in his 30s, were found working as gardeners inside the 1980s bunker after a midnight raid on Wednesday.
DI Paul Franklin from Wiltshire police said officers recognised that the four gardeners were victims, adding: “No one would do this by choice.” He described the living and working conditions in the 20-room bunker, hidden in the countryside, as “grim for anyone, let alone a 15-year-old”.
“This was slave labour. There is no natural light, no running water supplies, water had to be brought in. This is hard, manual labour – it’s not just a walk around with a watering can. I was shocked by the scale of it,” Franklin said. “There is no fresh air, just the cloying, sweet humid smell of the plants that permeates everything.”
Detectives were trying to establish whether the four men were able to come and go freely or were locked inside RGHQ Chilmark, built in 1985 to serve as the regional government headquarters in the event of a nuclear attack. The two-storey underground site is no longer owned by the Ministry of Defence, but remains intact, with protective nuclear blast doors still in place.
It was unclear whether the workers had been held there for several months, since the cannabis plants were seedlings, or if they were working in rotation with other gardeners. There were several thousand plants, approximately 200 in each of the bunker’s 20 rooms, at various different stages of growth, and police estimated the street value of the cannabis was over £1m.
Three British men were charged on Friday afternoon with conspiracy to produce cannabis, and conspiring to hold another person in slavery or servitude. The four Vietnamese men were released from custody, and were told no further action would be taken against them. An age assessment conducted while they were in the police station provisionally put the three teenagers at about 19 years old.
There was plenty of food in a fridge in the bunker’s kitchen, police said, and a basic sleeping area in one room. “We believe they had no choice. I think they were held there in human-trafficking, slave conditions,” Franklin said. “We have never seen anything on this scale.” He said the men, who spoke no English, had been “very fearful and apprehensive” when they were arrested. Officers were trying to establish whether the men could be assigned to the national referral mechanism, the framework for identifying victims of human trafficking.
This week’s discovery is an extreme example of a phenomenon police have been aware of for the past decade: the large-scale trafficking by organised crime groups of vulnerable young people from Vietnam to the UK to work in cannabis farms. Often these farms are relatively small, located in terraced houses which have been stripped inside, fitted with complex ventilation, lighting and watering systems, and are tended by a lone gardener, who is often locked into the property, receiving food deliveries through the letterbox and gardening instructions by text message.
But police last year discovered a number of much larger operations, raiding an ex-Barclays bank in Grimsby, a disused sports centre in south Wales, and a recently emptied GP surgery in Cumbria that had all been turned into cannabis farms, tended by Vietnamese workers.