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.
Taking cocaine will not cure people struck down with the coronavirus, French government warns public
Authorities in France have been forced to inform the public that taking cocaine will not cure people infected with the coronavirus.
Taking to Twitter on Sunday, the French Ministry for Solidarity and Health told its followers that cocaine is not only ineffective when it comes to fighting the coronavirus, but is also a highly addictive drug that can cause serious harm to users’ health.
The government department was seeking to counter fake news circulating on social media that taking the drug could cure or prevent the virus, including doctored news stories that appeared to confirm the drug’s effectiveness at fighting the disease.
The ministry’s Twitter post included a link to a government information page that provided further guidance on disinformation circulating about the coronavirus outbreak.
As well as encouraging those worried about the coronavirus to start taking cocaine, online trolls have also suggested that bleach can also help fight the disease.
In a post on Twitter that has attracted many thousands of engagements, @Jordan_Sather_ told his followers: “Would you look at that. Not only is chlorine dioxide (aka ‘MMS’) an effective cancer cell killer, it can wipe out coronavirus too.
“No wonder YouTube has been censoring basically every single video where I discuss it over the last year.”
In August of 2019, the US Food and Drug Administration issued a warning about that dangers of consuming bleach, noting: “Drinking any… chlorine dioxide products can cause nausea, vomiting, diarrhoea, and symptoms of severe dehydration.”
As well as warning about cocaine’s inability to fight the coronavirus, the French government has also told members of the public that spraying bleach or alcohol on their bodies will not neutralise viruses they have already been infected with.
Elsewhere, US Vodka maker Tito’s Homemade was last week forced to urge people not to make DIY hand sanitiser out of its products.
Responding to one of its customers who said they had done just that, the company said on Twitter: “Per the CDC [Centres for Disease Control and Prevention], hand sanitizer needs to contain at least 60% alcohol. Tito’s Handmade Vodka is 40% alcohol, and therefore does not meet the current recommendation of the CDC. Please see attached for more information.”
For its part, the World Health Organisation, which today officially categorised the coronavirus as a pandemic, has published a webpage dispelling misinformation about the disease, noting that the virus cannot be killed of avoided by taking a hot bath or using hand dryers.
Californian border officers catch Mexican man with enough fentanyl to kill 1.2 million people
Customs workers in California have arrested a Mexican man after finding enough fentanyl stashed in his vehicle to kill 1.2 million people.
Officers from US Customs and Border Protection (CBP) pulled the man over during a traffic stop while he was travelling in a Toyota Camry close to the city of Escondido.
During a search of the man’s vehicle, a sniffer dog indicated that the car contained illicit drugs.
After investigating further, CBP agents discovered several secret compartments that had been created in both the front and rear seats of the vehicle.
These were found to be concealing 18 foil-wrapped packages that tests later confirmed to contain nearly 19kgs of cocaine and just over 2.4kgs of fentanyl.
In total, the drugs found in the man’s vehicle had an estimated street value of almost $560,000.
The 49-year-old Mexican was handed over to officers from the US Drug Enforcement Administration, while the vehicle was seized by US Border Patrol.
Last week, CBP said agents working in Arizona close to the US border with Mexico had detained two 15-year-old US nationals who were alleged to have been attempting to smuggle fentanyl through a checkpoint while travelling as passengers in a van.
The occupants of the vehicle were referred for searches after a sniffer dog alerted its handlers to the fact that drugs might be present.
On further inspection, officers found the two teenagers had a combined total of more than 1kg of fentanyl taped to their legs, roughly equal to 540,000 lethal doses.
The two juveniles were held by police on drug smuggling charges, while the fentanyl they were carrying and the vehicle they were travelling in were seized.
As little as two milligrams of fentanyl can prove fatal for humans if absorbed through the skin, inhaled or swallowed.
In April of last year, an internal memo obtained by military news site Task & Purpose revealed that the US Department of Homeland Security (DHS) was considering reclassifying fentanyl as “a weapon of mass destruction”.
The DHS said in its memo that the toxicity of the drug made it a suitable candidate to be categorised as a non-conventional chemical weapon, adding: “Fentanyl’s high toxicity and increasing availability are attractive to threat actors seeking non-conventional materials for a chemical weapons attack.”
DHS Assistant Secretary for Countering Weapons of Mass Destruction James McDonnell wrote: “In July 2018, the FBI Weapons of Mass Destruction Directorate assessed that… fentanyl is very likely a viable option for a chemical weapon attack by extremists or criminals.”
European crackdown on illicit pharmaceutical traffickers breaks up 12 organised crime networks
A Europe-wide operation targeting illicit pharmaceutical traffickers has resulted in the dismantling of 12 organised crime networks and 165 arrests.
Supported by Europol, the third iteration of Operation MISMED involved customs, law enforcement and health and regulatory authorities in France, Finland, Bosnia and Herzegovina, Ukraine, Britain and the US, among other countries.
In total, the third Operation MISMED saw investigators seize almost 36 million units of medicine, including pseudoephedrine, anti-cancer drugs, antihistamines, anxiolytics, erectile dysfunction tablets, hormone and metabolic regulators, narcotics, painkillers, antioestrogens, antivirals, hypnotics and doping substances.
The initiative, which took place between July and October last year, saw assets worth almost €1.5 million ($1.66 million) recovered, and some €7.9 million confiscated from the criminal organisations targeted in the operation.
In a statement outlining the success of the effort, Europol outlined a range of worrying new trends in the trafficking of illicit pharmaceuticals across Europe, including a growing market for oncologic medicines stolen from hospitals.
The agency also said that Asia remains the main source of illicit medicines and doping products that are sold in Europe.
“Medicines are diverted from the legal supply chain by wholesalers and resold to criminal groups,” Europol said.
“Medicines are illegally obtained with forged or stolen medical prescriptions, with or without the help of doctors and pharmacists, and then resold to criminal groups or individuals directly.”
Over the course of the three years it has been running, Operation MISMED has resulted in 123 million units of illegal medicines and doping substances worth €500 million being taken off the streets, the arrest of 600 suspects, and the breakup of 49 organised crime groups.
The first iteration of the initiative, which took place back in 2017, resulted in the seizure of 75 million units of medicine and doping substances with a combined estimated street value of over €230 million.
The operation also led to the launch of 205 separate investigations and the identification of 277 suspects, of whom 111 were arrested.
Operation MISMED 2, which as carried out between April and October in 2018, saw the seizure of smuggled medicines estimated to be worth more than €165 million, as well as the arrest of 435 people suspected of being involved in the illicit trafficking of misused medicines.
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