In the fourth instalment of IBTimes UK's investigation into London's street gangs, former members recall how criminals resort to black magic – or "Obeah" – in the belief it will make them immune from justice.
It was the middle of the night and the petrified teenager had dropped to his knees. The swagger that came from being a member of a Stonebridge street gang had evaporated into the ebony sky. There were no "youngers" around to impress now, just the neighbourhood "elder" who brought him to the graveyard he was kneeling in.
They had come to pray to the Devil in the hope Satan would keep a watchful eye over him in the likely event God refused to countenance his life of crime. Heaving heavily, the teenager eventually relented and was sick, but even with a puddle of vomit next to him, the elder encouraged him to beg Satan for protection and strength.
The scene sounds like that of a Hammer horror movie, the type that would have been devised almost 40 miles away at the studio's London headquarters. But gang members have resorted to neighbourhood "witches" and the occult in the hope that the rituals, spells and potions they conjure will fend off the Metropolitan Police's anti-gang Trident officers.
"The younger was terrified," former Brent gang member Curtis recalls of the night in the graveyard. "It could have just been mind games but it shows the extent they are willing to go to. Whether you believe it or not, it doesn't matter. They do. These are dark people who have dark things on their minds and voodoo is the extent to which they are willing to go."
Of all the subjects gang members have been willing to discuss with IBTimes UK, voodoo, or Obeah to give it it its Jamaican name, is the one they are least willing to open up about. "Why do you want to know about that? They don't like people knowing about ju-ju [obeah]," Curtis says when we first meet.
What is 'obeah'?
Obeah is the practice of harnessing supernatural forces and spirits to bring harm to the living or to combat impending harm.
These powers, wrote author Alexander Giraldo, "render someone invincible, resuscitate the dead, cure all diseases, protect a man from the consequences of his crimes and cause great harm to anyone he wished."
Such power meant men and women who commanded the powers of Obeah were treated with respect and fear in equal measure and were seen as community leaders.
The practice originated from the west African Ashanti, who later took their beliefs and practises to the Caribbean as slaves as early as the mid-17th century. In Jamaica, Obeah men "cured" illnesses, organised revolts and as a result amassed power that rivalled plantation owners.
They played a key role in slave rebellions and would create powders that supposedly possessed magical properties that would protect users from the white man's weapons.
Dispatching a pint he explains: "African gang members are big into Obeah. They believe in dark forces and it has been around since the get go. They have seen their uncles do it and then take it on the road. They have combined the spiritual with the criminal and believe that justice can't be effective if dark forces are at work. That is how they live their lives. They see it work for others and do it themselves. It is not a joke."
They [gangsters] believe that justice can't be done if dark forces are at work helping them
Each of three gang members willing to talk about Obeah have their own evidence of its effectiveness. There was the guy in North London who was shot at five times, with each bullet somehow missing him by a fraction. Another bathed in puritanical waters the night before a not-guilty verdict rang out in court. Then there was the time a drug dealer was convicted for possession of four ounces of cannabis when he had two kilos. "Isn't that just luck or a weak conviction?" offers IBTimes UK. Not a chance. "No one knew, but the guy was practising Obeah," Curtis says.
My friend said if I wrote down my wishes the witch would make them come true
The dark practices are rooted in commerce and rituals can cost thousands of pounds depending on how willing superstitious gang members are to part with their cash. Spells, for example, cost up to £5,000 ($7,600) once paraphernalia including rings and wooden chains are imported from Africa. Potions imbibed by gang members cost less (in the hundreds) and those with deep pockets have travelled to Africa for "the real deal".
"My friend's mum was a witch," an anonymous gang member says matter-of-factly. "You might not believe me but she was. She used to perform rituals. I remember when I was 12 or 13 my friend said that if I wrote down my wishes on a piece of paper the witch would make it come true. When there were three murders across the road from her, people said she was evil. But I believed in it. It seemed realistic.
"The first time I saw it was in Stonebrige back in the 90s. Police did the biggest raid ever and everyone got locked down. But there was one guy there who had the most drugs I have ever seen. He had so many drugs that when police came in they were spilling out. He had between 10lbs and 20lbs. But for some reason the police were oblivious to him while everyone else was nicked. It turned out he was the only one who had practised witchcraft and he convinced enough people it worked."