22 February, 2019

GLEAMING Range Rovers, BMWs and Audis line the gated driveways of flashy mansions in a tree-lined boulevard.

Yet this is not Beverly Hills but a remote, impoverished township of Tandarei in south-eastern Romania that has become the heart of the global child trafficking trade.

More than 300 of these villas have been built, paid for by the hundreds of children sent to beg and steal on the streets of Britain.

These children, some just toddlers, are ruthlessly exploited by Fagin-like gangs run by Roma gypsies.

Through a miserable life of petty crime, each child can earn £100,000 in 12 months, as part of a £24million a year child smuggling ring, while their identities and fake child documents are used to swindle millions in benefits from the UK tax payer.

In 2010, there was hope these children’s ordeal was at an end when a major joint operation involving 300 officers from Scotland Yard, Romania and Europol saw 26 ring leaders arrested.

The gang members, who according to reports, had nicknames such as ‘Millionaire’, ‘The Executioner’, ‘Gypsy King’ and ‘The General’, were detained and had their assets seized, including six houses and 13 ‘high value cars’ and for a while, it looked like their brutal underworld was to end.

However, last week, the case against them was quietly dropped amid whispers of corruption and intimidation – and 181 trafficked children are still missing.

Bernie Gravett, a now retired British Superintendent who led Operation Golf, told Sun Online he is “gutted” by the move, saying his team had “solid evidence.”

So how did these kingpins walk free?

For more than a decade, hundreds, if not thousands, of children have been trafficked from Tandarei to the UK.

Since Romania joined the EU in 2007, borders opened up between the former Communist nation and western Europe,

Once here, they would work in teams, often in central London, to target tourists, making hundreds of pounds a day, yet never keeping a penny. If arrested, their young age means there is little police can do.

Constantly monitored by a gang member, they are moved around to avoid detection and given multiple fake identities, while being housed in the most appalling conditions – grotty, over-crowded rooms where they sleep on the floor and food is scarce.

They never go to school and if they resist, they are beaten.

Police also believe the gang deliberately mutilated some of the children sent to beg and steal to increase their earning potential as disabled children are more likely to evoke pity.

For the girls, worse is yet to come as when they reach puberty, they will be forced into prostitution, made to have sex with more than 10 clients a day in prison-like brothels.

These children are modern-day slaves, often sold by their impoverished parents for up to £20,000, along with the false promise of them having a better life in Britain.

According to police, the children are told their families will be at risk if they try to escape, while their relatives are warned their children will be harmed if complaints are made to the authorities.

And nowhere are the profits of these crimes – of money being stolen from Britain through the horror of child exploitation – more visible than on the streets of Tandarei.

For most of the 12,000 residents of Tandarei, which lies 100 miles from the capital Bucharest, life is a daily grind of poverty and drudgery.

In sharp contrast to the million-pound mansions on their doorstep – dubbed the Tandarei palaces – their homes are ramshackle huts without running water and transport is a horse-drawn cart along pot-holed roads.

Yet it was this growing wealth which first raised suspicions and led to the joint operation between British, Romanian and European police forces which led to 2010 arrests and the discovery of 181 trafficked Roma children during raids in Ilford, Essex, with a possible further 1,000 victims.

Operation Golf was one of the biggest ever crackdowns on human trafficking, which resulted in 120 criminals being jailed in Britain – 87 from the Tandarei network alone.

Some of those convicted in Britain include mother and father Speranta, 41, and Gheorghe, 44, Mihai, Romas with links to Tandarei, who lived in Slough and took their seven children, aged between two and 16, begging and stealing across south-east England.

They pleaded guilty in July 2010 to child cruelty, benefit and tax fraud and money laundering and were sentenced to two-and-a-half years. Reading Crown Court heard they had swindled £35,000 in benefits.

When police raided their home, they found the children, infested with head lice and in urgent need of medical treatment, sleeping on the floor and the fridge empty.

One of the youngest had scars from where they had been burned by cigarettes. None were in school.

During dawn raids on 34 fortified properties in Tandarei, officers found a shocking cache of weapons, including AK47s, powerful hunting rifles, knives, pistols and ammunition, along with gold bullion and enormous bundles of cash containing hundreds of thousands of pounds.

There were also hundreds of fake British passports, birth certificates and forged Home Office documents for children, which allowed them to fly their victims to Britain with impunity.

In the face of such damning evidence, it is surprising to say the least that the case against them has been dropped, their assets returned – meaning for the poor children of Tandarei, it is business as usual.

Retired British Superintendent Bernie Gravett says: “They are proper gangsters. These are not just a few people making a few bob, this is an international organised crime ring – one of the largest.

“We recovered hundreds of thousands of British pounds, euros, dollars, Romanian lei, 10.5 kilograms of gold, AK47s, and all of these guys had huge houses, BMWs and Audis.”

Bernie’s role in bringing the case to court was pivotal and resulted in a groundbreaking change in the law after he presented a case to the European Parliament in 2011, which meant children could be classed as being trafficked to beg and steal.

Before this, trafficking only applied to sexual exploitation, forced labour and organ harvesting.

Today, all his hard work is hanging by a thread and with the evidence pointing towards corruption.

“These guys have millions and we knew at the outset this was a risk,” he says.

For eight years, the criminal case has dragged on. It was postponed during an astonishing 52 different hearings.

Over the years, the first prosecutor was changed at the request of the UK over complaints of lack of co-operation and the second prosecutor chose not to use any of the evidence collected in Britain which showed children found in squalid conditions, their fake passports, bruised faces and countless testimonies of their exploitation.

And in a telling sign of how things would turn out, prosecutors downgraded the legal status of the children from ‘victims’ to ‘witnesses’.

In the final hearing at Harghita Court on February 12, the judge, at the request of the prosecutor, changed the charges from trafficking in human beings and transnational organised crime to money laundering.

This meant the defendants, who have been on bail other than the first 10 months following their arrest, were all immediately acquitted because of the statute of limitation for this lesser charge.

One of the defendants, leader Constantin Radu, who is in his 60s and is nicknamed ‘Titi the Burglar’, is estimated to have amassed millions through his criminal enterprise.

Incidentally, his son Adrian Radu and daughter-in-law, Claudia, were jailed in England in 2011 for 12 months and six months respectively in a benefits fraud case that cost the UK taxpayer £800,000.

Romania’s Judicial Inspectorate says it will investigate how this happened, but for now, not one person in Tandarei has faced justice in the Romanian courts.

Meanwhile, many of the 181 child victims are missing.

There is mounting anger over what has happened, with a spokesman for the NSPCC saying: “Trafficking is a form of child abuse and these desperately vulnerable children need our help, and perpetrators tracked down and brought to justice.

“No child should be subjected to ruthless treatment from such gangs which are organised and do not care about the safety of vulnerable children. It is a vile trade and children need to be protected from these predators.”

And this week, 25 international and Romanian NGOs and human rights groups signed a letter calling for the case to be reopened “to make Romania responsible for its specific obligations under the international conventions against organised crime and human trafficking that it is part of.”

The letter, sent to around a dozen organisations including the UN, the Vatican, Parliament and the Council of Europe, is headlined: “Call to action…Organised criminals let off in Romania! Organised crime wins as the Romanian Justice System lets off a network of human traffickers the UK and Romanian police were funded to entrap.”

It continues: “The UK authorities estimated that for each exploited child the network’s profit was £160,000 per year. Victims identified in UK were exploited for at least two years, with the youngest being only a few months old.

“Based on these facts and many other similar cases that are not effectively handled by the Romanian authorities.”

Human trafficking expert Silvia Tabusca, from the European Centre for Legal Education and Research, helped organise the letter with Bernie because of her “shock and disappointment” with the way the case has been handled.

“The network is still working, everyone knows it,” she says.

“Many of the victims are missing now, we couldn’t identify any of them.

“We have a huge amount of evidence from the UK. We have videos, testimonials, we have a lot that was not used by the prosecutor and the court.”

She explains how many of the child victims were sent back to Romania with no protection, which meant they changed the statements given to British Police as they no longer felt in a safe position to tell the truth.

She adds: “When the victims were repatriated in Romania they had no protection at all, so they were placed back in their families and when the victims were heard again by the prosecutor, they changed their testimonials.

“Back in Romania, many of the trafficked children reversed their UK statements, and claimed they were well looked after rather than victims of abuse. Evidence from the UK of empty fridges and poor living conditions suggested neglect.

“I’ve never understood why the prosecutor took into consideration the second testimonial of the victims when the British police had a specific procedure to ensure the testimonials taken in the UK can be used in the courts in Romania.”

Tragically for the town’s children, the exploitation continues, with Germany being the new favoured destination for trafficked minors, although Britain remains a hot-spot.

Meanwhile, Romania is classed as the main country of origin for all trafficked people, according to Europol.

Back in Tandarei, town hall inspector Constantin Vladila, says the Roma gypsy gangsters have become very rich thanks to the money they receive from their crimes.

“With the money they receive abroad they build these villas,” he says. “They show off their Gucci shoes and gold necklaces.”

Yet not only are they rich, these are hardened, weaponised and ruthless criminals who are not afraid to use violence to exert their iron grip on the town, which is permeated by a culture of fear.

The gangs have people watching, called “lookers” on street corners, making sure everyone keeps in line and during one of the raids on the villas, police found a chair bolted to the floor with ankle and wrist straps, which chillingly shows the fate of anyone who doesn’t.

As one Tandarei political insider, who was afraid to be named for fear of his reprisals, says: “The gangs even speak proudly about what they’re doing abroad. Here they have the law in their hands.”

On the snow-covered streets of Tandarei, locals keep their heads down and refuse to speak or tell their names when approached. Nor will they answer questions as to what is happening to the town’s children.

But with the threat of violence looming almost as large as the monstrous mansions paid for by the proceeds of such evil, it is little wonder why.