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Drug Trafficking

County lines: The UK urban drug gangs forcing children to deal in small towns

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Keen to branch out from their saturated urban markets in a bid to boost profits, UK inner-city drug dealers are increasingly targeting provincial towns and smaller metropolitan areas around the country, flooding them with illegal substances as they attempt to steal business from local rivals. British police have dubbed the practice “county lines”, named after the mobile phones the gangs set up to take orders from drug users in the new markets they target. More often than not, established gang members recruit young and vulnerable individuals to sell drugs on their behalf in the towns they are looking to take over, forcing their victims to carry narcotics and large amounts of cash between their urban base and the sometimes remote rural locations in which they are looking to establish new business.

Campaigners have compared the practice to child sexual exploitation and modern slavery, noting that children as young as 12 are routinely made to travel from urban centres such as London, Manchester and Birmingham to sell drugs including heroin and crack cocaine in locations as far away as Devon in the south west of England and Aberdeen in the north of Scotland. It has been reported that many face violence if they fail to move enough product or are robbed of their supply by rivals or customers. The UK government has taken steps to address the problem, committing £300,000 ($412,636) to fund a pilot project designed to help victims last October, and issuing a range of promotional material intended to help raise awareness of the problem last month.

Despite the phenomenon receiving a higher public profile over the course of the past few years, featuring more regularly in television documentaries and in the press, evidence suggests the number of county lines operations active in the UK is rising. A recent study from the National Crime Agency (NCA), the British equivalent of the FBI, noted that 88% of UK police forces reported county lines activity in their areas last year, an increase from 71% in 2016. The NCA report also said 77% of UK police forces last year reported incidents of “cuckooing”, a practice which involves county lines gangs taking over accommodation belonging to vulnerable people and using their home to sell drugs. Cuckooing victims are typically offered free drugs in exchange for allowing their property to be used in this way. As well as drug users, the gangs also target other vulnerable groups, including sex workers, people with physical or mental health problems or the elderly.

Describing how law enforcement officers are targeting cuckooing drug dealers in November last year, Detective Constable Kirsty Welsh, from Police Scotland’s Divisional Intelligence Office, said: “We know from gathering intelligence that one way drug dealers do this is by exploiting persons in the community who are an easy target such as those with substance abuse problems. They will look to take over their homes, in the same way the cuckoo bird takes over another bird’s nest, to assist with their illegal operation be it for storing or dealing drugs… There are a number of potential signs of cuckooing which include the householder having new associates and increased visitors throughout the day and night, an increased number of vehicles outside the property including taxis or hire cars and bags of clothing or bedding around their property or other signs that people may be staying at the address.”

The rise of county lines drug operations around the UK has coincided with a spike in drug-related gang violence, as dealers in out-of-town areas look to protect their patches from newcomers with force. Speaking with the London Times last month, former NCA official Tony Saggers said young county lines drug runners attempting to steal business in seaside and rural towns are driving up the use of acid, firearms and knives across the country, as they fight with rivals over the control of existing markets. Saggers said the increase in county lines activity around the UK has seen gang-related violence that would typically only be found in large urban areas spreading out to commuter towns and rural areas. He noted that young county lines dealers travelling to new areas often stand out due to their race, allowing existing suppliers to quickly identify them. “If you turn up in certain towns as a black drug dealer, that’s an additional factor, because the majority of the other drug dealers are white they stand out,” Saggers said.

It is thought that thousands of vulnerable young people across the UK have been targeted by drug dealers looking to establish county lines operations away from their main urban markets, and while it seems that police are slowly beginning to wake up to the extent of the problem, too little is being done to protect the victims of this increasingly prevalent criminal practice. All too often the children who are forced into county lines dealing are treated as criminals when they are inevitably arrested, while the more senior gang members pulling the strings are able to avoid justice. As well making a greater effort to disrupt the organised crime gangs behind county lines drug dealing operations, police need to recognise the young people they exploit as what they are – victims.

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Boy aged 16 arrested on US border with remote-control car and methamphetamine worth $100,000

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US border control officers have arrested a 16-year-old boy on suspicion of using a remote-control car to smuggle methamphetamine estimated to the worth more than $100,000 across the US/Mexico border.

Customs investigators allegedly saw the boy close to the border carrying two duffel bags and called in additional agents to help apprehend him.

One officer noticed the boy attempting to hide himself in a bush close to the secondary border wall, where he was found to be in possession of a remote-control car.

While questioning the boy, who identified himself as US citizen, officers discovered that the two bags he was carrying contained 50 packages of methamphetamine.

In total, the drugs he was in possession of weighed more than 25kgs and had an estimated street value of $106,096.

Customs agents arrested the boy and took him to a nearby station to face drug smuggling charges.

In a statement on the US Customs and Border Control (CBP) website, San Diego Sector Chief Patrol Agent Douglas Harrison said: “I am extremely proud of the agents’ heightened vigilance and hard work in stopping this unusual smuggling scheme.”

Last August, CBP officers arrested 25-year-old man carrying nearly 7kgs of methamphetamine after agents spotted a remote-controlled drone flying over the US/Mexico border.

Drones are now routinely used by criminals to sneak contraband across borders and into restricted sites such as prisons.

Last month, a man from the US state of Georgia was handed a four-year jail term after he was caught attempting to fly a drug-laden drone into Jimmy Autry State Prison.

Eric Lee Brown, 35, admitted one count of operating an aircraft eligible for registration knowing that it was not registered, and pleaded guilty as part of a plea deal to attempting to use the drone to drop a large bag of cannabis into the jail.

Speaking after Brown was sentenced, US Attorney Charlie Peeler said: “Smugglers using drones, or other means, to move illegal contraband and drugs into our prisons will face prosecution and penalties in the Middle District of Georgia.”

In April 2018, it was reported that customs officers in China had smashed a criminal gang that used drones to smuggle iPhones estimated to be worth $79.8 million from Hong Kong to the south-eastern city of Shenzhen.

In what was thought to have been the first recorded example of cross-border smuggling facilitated by drone in China, investigators detained 29 people on both sides of the border and seized two drones and thousands of Apple devices.

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London drug dealers jailed after frustrated residents forced police to take action with street art

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More than 20 drug dealers have been sentenced after frustrated residents in two London boroughs forced police to take action against them.

People living in Tower Hamlets and Hackney felt they had no option but to take matters into their own hands after police failed to prevent “brazen drug dealing” in the vicinity of their homes, which they claim resulted in needles and blood being left in residential buildings by addicts.

Teaming up with a group of artists calling themselves the Columbia Road Cartel in September last year, the angry residents launched a campaign that involved fake “drug dealer only” signposts and parking bays signs being put up in areas where dealing was rife.

The signs, which were designed to look as though they were legitimate, carried warnings such as “give way to oncoming drug dealers” and “crack pick-up point”.

Speaking with the BBC, Penny Creed, vice-chair of the Columbia Road Tenants’ and Residents’ Association, said last year: “Eight to 10 users congregate on a street waiting for dealers to come past and buy from their car windows.

“Cars and mopeds are mounting kerbs and driving very erratically.

“One local resident’s stepson was knocked over by a drug dealer.

“Users are also accessing some of the residential blocks to use in stairwells, where they often leave needles or even blood.”

Now, the England and Wales Crown Prosecution Service (CPS) has announced that 23 drug dealers from the area have been prosecuted as a result of the campaign.

Over the last week, those involved in the fourth and final prosecution of drug dealers from the area were sentenced at Snaresbrook Crown Court.

Julian Haynes, 33, was jailed for four years after he pleaded guilty to conspiracy to supply class A drugs, while Brendan Vickers, 26, was handed a three-year sentence after admitting conspiracy to supply class A drugs and two counts of possessing a controlled class A drug with intent.

Jonathan Shepherd, from the CPS, said: “Dealing drugs such as heroin can have devastating consequences for vulnerable people and local communities.

“These defendants showed little consideration for those around them – often openly dealing drugs in the day in front of young children and encouraging aggressive drug users to loiter in the area.

“The different phone lines represented a coordinated effort between various drugs operations to work together to deal dangerous drugs, in effect blighting the local community to such an extent that they felt they had to take action.”

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Woman carrying cannabis bricks in bogus baby belly arrested by Argentine police

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Law enforcement officers in Argentina have arrested a woman close to the South American country’s border with Chile for attempting to smuggle cannabis concealed inside a fake baby bump.

The woman was searched after police discovered that her travelling companion was in possession of a smaller quantity of cannabis while the pair were on a long-distance coach journey from the city of Mendoza to Caleta Olivia in province of Santa Cruz.

After stopping the pair at a police checkpoint in Valle de Uco close to Mendoza, police found that the woman had hidden 15 packages of cannabis in her bogus baby bump.

The man with whom she was travelling was discovered to be in possession of two packages of the drug in his hand luggage.

Police stopped the pair while conducting routine checks on passengers using the coach route.

In total, the woman and the man were found to be carrying in excess of 4.5kgs of cannabis.

The improvised fake pregnancy bump was held together with a starch-based paste and secured to the woman’s stomach to make it appear as though she was with child.

Posting a picture of the fake baby belly on Twitter, Argentine security minister Patricia Bullrich told her followers: “She made a belly with glue, and hid 15 packages of marijuana inside it while pretending to be pregnant and attempted to move it from Mendoza to Santa Cruz .

“Police arrested the false pregnant woman and her accomplice, preventing her from trafficking the drugs she was carrying.”

In a statement, Argentine police said: “While carrying out control checks, officers stopped a group travelling from Mendoza to Caleta Olivia.

“During the inspection, police observed that a passenger was carrying a black bag that contained two brick-like packages.

“Continuing with their inspection, officers came across a young woman who had a lump in her belly, pretending to be pregnant.

“The two passengers were asked to get off the bus and were later arrested.”

In September 2013, the BBC reported that police in Colombia had arrested a Canadian woman when she attempted to board a flight to Toronto while wearing a fake baby belly that was filled with cocaine.

Police said the woman was searched after she became agitated when asked by a customs officer how far along she was with her pregnancy.

She was found be carrying two sealed bags that contained 2kgs of cocaine.

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