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

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county lines

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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Malaysia Airlines cabin crew member jailed for smuggling 2.5kgs of high-purity heroin into Australia

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Malaysia Airlines cabin crew member jailed

A flight attendant who worked for Malaysia Airlines has been jailed for more than five years after being caught attempting to smuggle packages of heroin into Australia.

In what a judge described as a “clumsily executed” operation, Fariq Aqbal Omar boarded a flight from Kuala Lumpur to Melbourne in May last year while carrying 2.5kgs of high-purity heroin.

The drugs were estimated to have a street value of more than A$3 million ($2.2 million).

After the flight on which he was travelling landed in Melbourne, large bulges visible underneath Omar’s clothing attracted the attention of customs officers.

Observing the 34-year-old Malaysian national using security cameras, border guards watched him visit a bathroom after alighting from his flight.

While using the facilities, he decanted the 10 blocks of pure heroin that had been stuffed inside his trouser pockets and underneath his vest into a suitcase, before exiting the airport terminal and boarding a transfer bus with other cabin crew members.

All of the flight attendants were then asked to return to the terminal building with their luggage to be searched, at which point Omar attempted to remove the drugs from his suitcase and return them to his pockets.

When investigators found the packages, Omar told them he believed they contained illegal tobacco, but later pleaded guilty to importing a commercial quantity of a border-controlled drug, claiming he was paid just A$500 to smuggle the heroin into Australia by a former colleague and another man.

Jailing Omar for five years and six months, Judge Wendy Wilmoth said it was incomprehensible that he had been persuaded to participate in the poorly thought-through smuggling attempt for such a small sum of money.

“Your actions have resulted in a very significant fall for you,” Australian broadcaster ABC News quotes Wilmoth as saying.

“This is something you should have considered before the importation.”

Omar will be eligible for parole after serving three years behind bars.

His lawyer, Thomas Mathew, told the New Straits Times: “Due to his limited involvement in the syndicate and minimum knowledge of its operations, our client’s role was at the very lowest of the range of the offences of this kind.

“Given his impeccable previous character, lack of prior offences in any country and the increased hardship that his imprisonment would involve due to the hardship his family are going through, the defence has sought the lowest sentence possible in the circumstances.”

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US war on drugs has helped trafficking cartels expand in Central America, study finds

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trafficking cartels expand in Central America

America’s decades-long war on drugs has helped narcotics cartels spread across Central America, according to a new study from researchers at the University of Alabama (UA).

US efforts to prevent drug traffickers from smuggling illegal substances into America, which are said to cost the country’s government some $5 billion every year, have prompted the cartels to change their tactics, causing them to expand across a greater geographic area and alter their transit routes, report lead author Dr Nicholas Magliocca found.

A model developed by Magliocca showed that the war on drugs has been costly and ineffective over recent decades, and has resulted in the amount of land used by trafficking networks in Central America increasing from around two million square miles in 1996, to seven million square miles in 2017.

Researchers working on the report found that current US drug policy is making cocaine trafficking more widespread and harder to eradicate, and will continue in its current form to encourage cartels to move into new areas, making it easier for them to move their product north.

Commenting on his findings, Magliocca, UA Assistant Professor of Geography, said: “This work demonstrates that supply-side counterdrug strategies alone are, at best, ineffective and, at worst, intensifying the trafficking problem.

“These networks have demonstrated their ability to adapt to interdiction efforts, identifying and exploiting new trafficking routes in response.”

Magliocca added that the more land trafficking networks control, the harder it becomes for law enforcement agencies to monitor their activity.

“The adaptive responses of narco-traffickers within the transit zone, particularly spatial adjustments, must be understood if we are to move beyond reactive counterdrug interdiction strategies,” he said.

The report notes that while US funding for the war on drugs will rise again this year, wholesale cocaine prices have dropped significantly since the 1980s, while cocaine-related overdose deaths are increasing.

Magliocca recommends that policymakers seek a better understanding of the ineffectiveness of the war on drugs, and the root causes of narcotics trafficking dynamics.

In September, a report from the UN Office on Drugs and Crime (UNODC) revealed that cocaine production hit a record high in Colombia in 2017, despite the striking of a peace deal between the country’s government and rebel group Farc the previous year.

The amount of land used for coca cultivation in the country reached 171,000 hectares in 2017, the highest amount observed since records began, according to UNODC’s Coca Cultivation Survey Report for Colombia.

This represented was 17% rise on the previous year, with the study finding that the regions of Nariño and Tumaco remained the worst-affected areas in the country for coca cultivation.

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China bows to US pressure and adds all fentanyl-related substances to controlled drugs list

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Chinese authorities have announced plans to expand the number of fentanyl-like synthetic opioids they class as controlled substances.

After coming under pressure from the US government to crack down on the illicit drug factories that are thought to be the source of many of the substances fuelling America’s spiralling opioid crisis, a coalition of Chinese law enforcement agencies made the announcement yesterday during a Beijing press conference.

US President Donald Trump has repeatedly criticised the Chinese government for doing too little to stem the flow of fentanyl and other new psychoactive substances to America, where overdose deaths linked to synthetic opioids have been rocketing over recent years.

Announcing the move, which will see all fentanyl-related substances added to the Chinese government’s controlled substances list on 1 May, Liu Yuejin, deputy head of China’s National Narcotics Control Commission, blamed “US culture” for the growing abuse of opioids in America.

The US Drug Enforcement Agency described the move as a significant development, saying in a statement that it would prevent Chinese drug producers from getting around the law by slightly altering fentanyl compounds after new derivatives of the drug are banned.

Reuters quotes the DEA as saying: “We look forward to our continued collaboration with China to reduce the amount of this deadly poison coming into our country.”

Responding to the announcement, US President Donald Trump tweeted: “This could be a game changer on what is considered to be the worst and most dangerous, addictive and deadly substance of them all.”

At the beginning of December last year, China told the US that it would take greater steps to control the production, sale and export of fentanyl after Washington agreed to delay the implementation of tariffs on Chinese imports.

In a statement issued after US President Donald Trump and Chinese leader Xi Jinping met at the G20 Summit in Buenos Aires, the White House said: “President Xi, in a wonderful humanitarian gesture, has agreed to designate fentanyl as a controlled substance, meaning that people selling fentanyl to the United States will be subject to China’s maximum penalty under the law.”

According to figures published last month by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), US overdose deaths linked to fentanyl are rising fastest among African Americans.

As the nation’s opioid crisis continues, drug overdoses are now more likely to cause the death of US citizens than car accidents, firearms violence or AIDS, none of which are now singularly responsible for as high a number of deaths per year as drugs.

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