MORE than 200 police officers clad in riot-gear swooped on dozens of businesses in Soho on Wednesday in an attempt to stifle the trade of stolen goods.
Scotland Yard said they targeted brothels, clubs, sex shops and a taxi company after gathering evidence from 18 months of undercover operations.
They said they had compiled evidence linking some West End businesses to drug dealing and the sale of stolen goods.
Some 31 arrests were made during the operation which was codenamed Demontere – meaning “dismantle” in Danish. The alleged offences include 20 cases of “attempting to handle stolen goods”.
More than 25 flats where sex workers can legally ply their trade were raided and issued with “closure notices” in what police said was an attempt to “close those addresses linked to serious crimes including rape and human trafficking”.
But sex workers disputed these claims last night (Thursday) and the English Collective of Prostitutes (ECP) – known as the “Girls’ Union” – said in a statement: “Some immigrant women were taken into custody on the pretext that they may be victims of trafficking, despite their protestations that they were not being forced to work.”
Nikki Adams from the ECP told the West End Extra that it was an “outrageous fabrication”, adding: “At least two of those women I know well and they’ve been in the UK for years and speak perfect English and come to all our meetings – they are so clearly not trafficked.”
She said the action could be related to an additional pot of European Union funding that had recently been made available to the Met to tackle human trafficking.
“The point is, if you are wanting an anti-trafficking strategy this is not it. If they find one woman who was trafficked this way, then they did it incidentally and not by any active policy that was going to encourage women who were being exploited and abused to come forward and get the help they need.”
She added: “The police must know that some women will end up working on the street as a result, where it is much more dangerous.”
One 25-year-old sex worker from Romania, who works at a flat in Soho, told the West End Extra: “I’m not a victim and I don’t think that’s the case for any of the girls.
If they were real victims they would come out and talk to police as soon as they come.”
She criticised the Met’s decision to allow photographers on the raid, which led to images of sex workers being circulated online.
She said: “Yes, we are sex workers, but I still have the rights to privacy that you have. It doesn’t matter what you do for a job, you have a right to privacy.”
The Met released dramatic footage of officers piling out of riot vans and smashing down doors of businesses in Soho (see video below).
The ECP said: “People fear that the evictions are aimed at making way for large-scale development, like the one proposed in Walkers Court, which most residents are against.”
Plans to redevelop Walkers Court will go before the council’s planning committee next week and have already received scores of objection letters.
Undercover officers are believed to have compiled evidence linking businesses to the sale of high-value watches and jewellery, along with mobile phones and other items stolen in street robberies.
Borough Commander Alison Newcomb said: “These operations have given us a much clearer intelligence picture and evidence of connections between criminals and crime types that were happening in Soho, from street drug dealers to links with human traffickers.”
She said: “We are using the skills and support of specialist officers from throughout the Met to ensure that suspects are found and brought to justice and the women are properly supported.”
The raids follow two earlier operations – codenamed Rense and Jolt – which targeted drug dealers in Soho and Cmmdr Newcomb said they were aiming to create “an environment where criminals who may attempt to operate here in the future are always concerned that the Met is on to them”.
Westminster Council leader Philippa Roe said they are standing “shoulder to shoulder” with the Met, adding: “Together, we’re sending the clear message that the insidious tentacles of the criminal underworld will not be allowed to spread through Soho unchecked and unchallenged.
“Tonight’s raids struck a significant blow against the criminal infrastructure. Now, however, we want to be just as clear that Westminster City Council is ready to help any vulnerable woman – themselves victims of crime, trapped in a way of life where they have little or no control. For us, their safety is paramount.”