FOUR men have been jailed following a two-year probe into modern slavery and a £2m drugs supply operation which exploited vulnerable people by forcing them to “garden” and guard cannabis factories.

Two men from Canvey, one from Clacton and another from London, are behind bars following a series of raids in 2019/2020, including one in Rayleigh and another in Wickford.

Echo: Gang: Jacobs, Hicks, Calder and HallGang: Jacobs, Hicks, Calder and Hall

In total, more than 2,000 cannabis plants were seized with an estimated value of more than £2 million.

Police also “safeguarded” five Vietnamese nationals who had been forced to harvest and guard the plants and were found living in appalling conditions.

Echo: Appalling conditions - people were exploited to tend the cannabis operationsAppalling conditions - people were exploited to tend the cannabis operations

Two years after the operation began, five men were sentenced at Basildon Crown Court after pleading guilty to conspiracy to produce cannabis.

Four men were jailed for a combined total of 15 years and six months.

They are:

• James Jacobs, 39, of Stevens Close, Canvey, who was sentenced to five years imprisonment;

• Danny Hicks, 41, of St John’s Road, Clacton, sentenced to three years and eight months imprisonment;

• Gary Calder, 43, of Whernside Avenue, Canvey, sentenced to three years and six months imprisonment;

• David Hall, 37, of Caspian Walk, London, sentenced to three years and four months imprisonment.

A fifth man, Terrence Green, 34, of St John’s Road, Clacton, received a suspended sentence of two years and six months and was ordered to complete 100 unpaid hours of work.

Specialist teams of Essex Police officers carried out raids across Essex and London between November 2019 and July 2020, including:

• Rawreth Industrial Estate, Rayleigh, on 29 November 2019, where officers found 8 industrial units containing 1015 cannabis plants in total;

• Bromfords Farm, Wickford, on 1 May 2020, where officers found 361 cannabis plants in a house;

• London Recycling factory, Barking, on 15 July 2020, where officers found 850 cannabis plants;

• Melbourne Road, Clacton, on 15 July 2020, where officers found 26 cannabis plants spread across three bedrooms in a house.

The Essex Police lead officer for the case, who does not wish to be named, said:“I’m extremely proud of all of the teams who have been involved in the investigation, whose hard work and dedication has helped sentence five men for their crimes and prevented a substantial quantity of cannabis from entering the illegal market.

“Not only did the men capitalise on the growing and selling of illegal drugs, they threatened and exploited five vulnerable people into doing their bidding.

“Not one ounce of care was shown for their welfare and had they not been safeguarded, they would have been worked into the ground.

“People trapped in modern slavery have their freedoms taken from them and often have to endure terrible working and living conditions.

“Although we often associate modern slavery with international enterprises, the sad truth is that there are victims across Essex who need our support and perpetrators that need to be brought to justice.

“If you think someone is being exploited, please report it to us or ring the modern slavery helpline on 0800 012 1700.”