The ruthless Mr Big behind a £5 million plot to flood the streets of Brighton and Hove with cocaine has been jailed for 24 years.

Lorenzo Sirignano, 51, was the mastermind behind the biggest drugs ring to be smashed in Sussex.

He put up the money to pay for high purity cocaine to be smuggled from Brazil and Ghana in 2006 and 2007.

Sirignano headed a 17-strong gang involved in smuggling, storing, distributing and supplying the Class A drug.

He is believed to have personally made at least £2 million before he was arrested in February last year.

Detectives believe he made even more from cocaine smuggled into the country undetected.

Sirignano targeted vulnerable people to do his dirty work for him and threatened them with violence if they did not follow orders.

Undercover police bugged his cars and listened in as he drove around Brighton and Hove with other members of his drugs gang.

In one chilling conversation he is overheard threatening to shoot or petrol bomb Robert Paige after they fell out and Paige quit the gang in fear.

Sirignano and nine members of the drugs ring have so far been sentenced to a total of 100 years behind bars.

Seven others will be sentenced at Hove Crown Court today.

Judge Paul Tain told Sirignano: "The picture of you is one of a powerful Mr Big of the drugs world with links in Ghana, Brazil, London and locally.

"You were well versed in countersurveillance methods and the manipulation of others.

"You distanced yourself from the offences by getting others to take the risks and to do your dirty work.

"You were the organiser and controller behind these conspiracies and it is obvious that you were prepared to use the threat of serious violence to achieve your criminal objectives."

Sirignano lived in a large detached house in Ferndale Road, Burgess Hill, and ran a property management business.

But his drugs empire was based at a tatty semi-detached house in Carlisle Road, Hove, where police found cocaine and amphetamines hidden in garages and in a van. Sirignano used drug addicts, tenants or employees to do his drugs work for him.

They included 64-year-old grandmother Patricia Edwards, from Lewes, who was caught trying to smuggle 3kg of cocaine from Brazil for Sirignano.

She had no previous convictions but was desperate for money and allowed Sirignano to persuade her to become a drugs mule, making three trips to Brazil. Edwards is now serving four years in a jail in Sao Paulo for attempting to smuggle cocaine.

Detectives smashed the drugs ring when they arrested Sirignano and his lackeys as they waited at Heathrow for 10kg of cocaine worth £1.3 million to arrive from Ghana on February 19 last year.

Undercover officers had spent months following Sirignano and listening in to his conversations as part of Operation Nash.

Anthony Glass, QC, prosecuting, said Sirignano's bugged conversations showed he was a professional drugs dealer. Detectives eavesdropped as he told one dealer: "I got me bloke from Ghana. We are trying to send someone over and collect 15 keys (kilograms), some shiny block."

Drugs mules Gary Waterman, 41, of Bengairn Avenue, Brighton, and Dean Swaysland, 28, of Southall Avenue, Brighton, were arrested as they got off the flight from Ghana at Heathrow.

Their minder Michael Mensa-Bonsu, 42, of Ashley Court, Hove, was also arrested as he disembarked behind them.

Waterman was jailed yesterday for seven and a half years and Swaysland for eight and a half years.

Mensa-Bonsu, who has previous convictions for smuggling drugs in France and Switzerland, was jailed for 16 years.

Crack cocaine addict Karen Colvin, 48, of Tilgate Close, Brighton, and drugs mule Adrian Hughes, 23, of Carlisle Road, Hove, were arrested as they waited with Sirignano in his car at Heathrow.

Colvin was one of Sirignano's tenants and was married to Darren Waterman who is already in prison for smuggling cocaine from France.

Waterman, 43, of Albert Road, Brighton, will be sentenced today for transferring more than £46,000 to Brazil for Sirignano.

Colvin recruited his brother Gary Waterman to make the drugs run to Ghana with Swaysland and was at Heathrow to identify him to Sirignano.

Colvin also transferred more than £58,000 of Sirignano's money to Brazil, Ghana and Canada to pay for cocaine.

She was jailed for 12 years.

She got her son Marlon Colvin, 20, snared in the investigation by getting him to use his passport to transfer just under £2,000 to Ghana for her.

A jury found him not guilty of money laundering last week after he said he was just doing a favour for his mother and had no idea the cash was to be used to buy cocaine.

Robert Paige, 51, of Sackville Road, Hove, was was jailed for ten years for conspiracy to smuggle drugs and conspiracy to supply cocaine.

Michael Back, 49, of Carlisle Road, Hove, was given ten years for conspiracy to supply the Class A drug.

Adrian Hughes, 23, who shared a flat with Back in Carlisle Road, was one of the vulnerable people targeted and groomed by Sirignano.

He was jailed for two years for conspiracy to smuggle cocaine and conspiracy to supply cocaine.

Sami Zarifa, 47, of Sussex Heights, Brighton, and Denis Mema, 22, of Montpelier Road, Hove, were given five years each for conspiracy to supply cocaine.

All the defendants had pleaded guilty to their roles in the cocaine conspiracy.

Sussex Police welcomed the stiff sentences.

Det Chief Supt Kevin Moore, head of Sussex CID, said: "Operation Nash was the highest profile case in recent years. It highlights perfectly the importance of policing an area at the very top of the tree when it comes to serious and organised crime."

Det Insp Jez Graves, who led Operation Nash, said: "The sentences should act as a deterrent for others who plan to become involved in trafficking drugs into our communities."