Children as young as 11 in ‘county lines’ drug networks selling heroin and crack
UP to 10,000 children as young as 11 are being exploited by “county lines” drug networks, the National Crime Agency has warned.
Criminal gangs are targeting youngsters to run the schemes, worth nearly £1million a year, a shock report warned
County lines typically involves city gangsters branching out into smaller towns or rural areas to sell heroin and crack cocaine – often using youngsters as couriers because they are less likely to arouse suspicion.
The phenomenon is so-called because of the phone lines used by dealers.
Revealing the scale of the problem, the National Crime Agency’s investigations director Nikki Holland said: “Estimations from the report of 2,000 lines suggests that up to 10,000 children could be involved.”
She told MPs that in 2015 just seven police forces reported “being impacted on” by county lines.
But within two years all forces were affected, she said.
Analysis by the NCA – dubbed “Britain’s FBI” – suggests there are more than 2,000 individual deal line numbers in the UK – up from 720 in the last assessment.
Highlighting the temptation to youngsters despite the dangers, National Police Chiefs Council serious violence coordinator, Assistant Chief Constable Jacqui Sebire, told the Commons Home Affairs Committee: “The county lines business model in some areas is actually the only option that they have to gain wealth, to gain prestige.”
Warning of “cuckooing”, where gangs take over bank accounts and houses for drug dealing, Ms Sebire said the country was suffering a “real peak” in serious violence.
“We have seen victims suffer the most horrendous injuries and they will still not either report or cooperate with the criminal justice approach,” she said.
“They are much more scared of the county lines than they are of us.”
Analysis by the NCA found an individual line can yield annual profits in excess of £800,000.
Some are estimated to generate thousands of pounds from a single daily delivery trip.
They deploy children and vulnerable people as couriers to move drugs and cash between the new market and their urban hub.
In its fourth annual assessment on the activity, the NCA said the supply of class A drugs through county lines is a “significant, national threat”.
Deputy Assistant Commissioner Duncan Ball, the NPCC’s gangs spokesman, said: “Wherever there is a drugs market, then the gangs will look to exploit it because we know each line brings in up to £5,000 a day.
“Over the course of a year for one particular line we are looking at a significant criminal enterprise.”
Officers highlighted how offenders establish contact and build relationships with subjects before exploitation takes place.
The analysis said: “This means that children may have been approached before the age of 11 in some cases as offenders seek to build a relationship that they can later exploit.”
Gangs often target youngsters who are from poor backgrounds, have been kicked out of school or were previously in trouble with police.
But children from “seemingly stable” backgrounds or without a criminal past are also targeted, according to the assessment.
Offenders carry out recruitment both face-to-face and via social media, offering payments and material possessions victims would be unable to obtain through legal means.
“This is enhanced by offenders’ use of social media, on which images and videos of cash, designer clothing, luxury cars and other high value goods are posted, creating a misconception that involvement in crime is rewarding,” the report said.
It also flagged up an “emerging trend” around the use of app-based taxi services to transport offenders and potential exploitation victims to supply areas.
The area covered by the Metropolitan Police has the highest percentage of individual deal lines, with 15%, followed by the West Midlands Police (9%) and Merseyside Police (7%) force areas.
The agency’s report said the county lines business model thrives on the exploitation of vulnerable adults and children to move and deliver drugs.
Data from 2018 indicates an age range of 11 to 56 for potential victims.
Teenagers between 15 and 17 are believed to make up the bulk of the vulnerable people involved in county lines.
Simon Blackburn, of the Local Government Association, said: “The exploitation of children and vulnerable adults by county lines drugs gangs is a significant and growing concern for councils, who take this issue extremely seriously.
“Effective partnership working at a local level between councils, the police, health services and charities and community organisations is essential to tackle and prevent drug related crime and safeguard those exploited by criminal gangs.
“To help stop young people being exploited as drug runners, it is vital that government reverses years of funding cuts to local youth services, youth offending teams and councils’ public health budgets.”
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