THEY are the villains who masterminded high-end drug dealing or unleashed brutal violence to try to control the market in Southampton.

Today 22 men are behind bars serving sentences that total 112 years for their roles peddling drugs on the city streets or carrying guns and knives – and sometimes using them to injure and intimidate – as if they were tools of the trade.

But they also help reflect the diminishing picture of crime in Southampton – with police saying they are finally winning the war against Class A drug dealers in the city.

Exactly one year ago today, against the backdrop of 12 near fatal shootings and stabbings, a dedicated police operation was launched to tackle drugs gangs and violence.

In particular was the ever-growing threat from dealers in London who were choosing Southampton, with its easy motorway and train access, as the perfect place to do business.

A specialist team of detectives and constables formed the Operation Fortress team with one aim – to make the city a hostile place for those intent on committing crime.

And 12 months on, halfway through the campaign, the favourable results show they are winning.

Since May last year 37 people have been convicted for drugs or related violence – with 19 of them being sent to prison so far and many more awaiting sentence. A further 11 people have been jailed following investigations by major investigation team detectives.

More than 270 people have also been arrested by police and more than £130,000 of drugs seized from the streets.

Although the problem is unlikely to ever be completely eradicated, police say it’s sending a clear message to criminals not to bother because there is a high chance they will be caught.

Det Chief Supt Kath Barnes said: “We had 12 incidents of near fatal stabbings and shootings, each one high-end and frightening to lots of people as well as very resource-intensive to police and other emergency services.

“It was that, combined with analysis of the drug related market in Southampton which involved looking at the demographics of the city such as the crime figures, numbers of drug users and service users, that led us to believe there was a major threat in Southampton and we had to do something about it.

“We set out to tackle drug-related violent crime and that is what we are achieving. Since the launch of Op Fortress we have had only three major incidents of that nature in the city and we can see that there has been a fairly significant reduction and that Southampton is certainly a safer place for the people who live here.”

Det Chief Supt Barnes added: “It feels very different, like we have been operating in a completely different way than we have done in the past and it’s been very successful.”

It’s almost impossible to determine how many police officers have been involved in Operation Fortress since it started 12 months ago but on its larger days of action which have seen raids across the city, up to 150 officers have been involved at any one time.

They include Operation Alcatraz in September last year when six people were arrested for drugs offences, 34 were detained for searches on the street, 45 people had their vehicles stopped, nine had their cars taken from them and a large quantity of drugs were recovered.

But the strength of the crackdown goes much further than that.

Partnership work has become an essential tool in helping wipe out drug-related violence in the city, with council, health and drug services all playing a vital role.

She added: “Partnership has definitely meant something with Op Fortress and we have worked hard creating those relationships but at the same time not trying to all become the same thing. We recognise that each organisation has something different to offer but we are all focused on the same issue and collectively we are finding that we are forceful and very effective.”

But is the message getting through to those who choose Southampton to ply their trade? Police chiefs certainly think so.

Det Chief Supt Barnes added: “It has certainly dented gangs from London in a number of ways. We have made it very difficult for them to operate in Southampton and made it very clear that if they come here they will have the attention of the police.

“It’s always hard to measure what you prevent but we know we have had a disruptive effect.

“We are starting to see some of that being reflected in what is happening – these people are changing the way they operate because they are aware we are on to it and on to them.”

Among the many strings to their bow has been the repeated use of legislation under the Coroners and Justice Act which allows police to detain a suspect in custody for up to eight days. It means that anyone thought to have swallowed or be retaining packages or quantities of drugs following arrest can be kept in the cells until such a time that it passes through their systems and is recovered.

Op Fortress was launched with an initial two-year lifespan and now – at the halfway mark – discussions are already under way for its future.

Det Chief Supt Barnes said: “We are talking evolution rather than an exit strategy and will do all we can to try and win the battle.”