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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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DEA launches crackdown on Mexican ‘super methamphetamine’ distribution hubs in major cities across US

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DEA launches crackdown on Mexican ‘super methamphetamine’ distribution hubs

The US Drug Enforcement Agency (DEA) has announced a new operation that will see investigators look to eliminate methamphetamine “transportation hubs” across America and block the distribution of the deadly drug.

Operation Crystal Shield will see the DEA target hubs to which large shipments of methamphetamine are trafficked before being broken up and sold onto dealers across the United States.

The agency said it has identified the locations of eight of these hubs, noting that it will concentrate its efforts on major smuggling operations based in Atlanta, Dallas, El Paso, Houston, Los Angeles, New Orleans, Phoenix and the St Louis Division.

These locations are said to have accounted for 75% of all methamphetamine seizures made in the US last year.

The DEA noted that almost all methamphetamine currently sold in the US comes through major ports of entry along its southern border having been made in industrial-scale labs in Mexico.

Much of the methamphetamine produced in these labs is almost 100% pure and is a far cry from old-fashioned so-called “shake-and-bake” version of the drug that used to be widely made in domestic US labs.

The huge volumes of Mexican “super meth” flooding into the US has resulted in the price of the drug falling dramatically over recent years.

Once smuggled into the US, increasingly in liquid form to avoid the attention of law enforcement agents, large shipments of the drug are transported across the country by tractor trailers and personal vehicles to the transfer hubs the DEA is targeting.

In a statement announcing the new crackdown, DEA Acting Administrator Uttam Dhillon said: “Methamphetamine is by far the most prevalent illegal drug being sold on the streets of our community, and therefore warrants a focused plan of attack.

“Meth trafficking makes up more than 60% of the federal drug cases we prosecute in the Western District of Missouri.

“Operation Crystal Shield provides a strategy to stanch the flow of methamphetamine being smuggled into our state by the Mexican cartels.

“If we can reduce the supply of methamphetamine, we can reduce the violence and other criminal activity associated with drug trafficking.”

Earlier this month, authorities San Francisco announced the opening of a new “drug sobering centre” primarily aimed at methamphetamine users suffering from the side effects of taking the substance.

In January, a study published by JAMA Network Open revealed that use of methamphetamine is rocketing across the US, with the number urine samples testing positive for the drug rising from about 1.4% in 2013 to around 8.4% last year.

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Illinois court jails female dark web fentanyl dealer known as ‘Drug Llama’ for 13 years

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‘Drug Llama’ dark web fentanyl dealer

A female dark web trader known as “the Drug Llama” has been jailed for 13 years by an Illinois court after pleading guilty to selling fentanyl on the now-defunct Dream Market illicit marketplace and money laundering.

Melissa Scanlan, 32, was charged with a series of offences, including distributing fentanyl, misbranding drugs, international money laundering, and causing death by selling fentanyl.

Scanlan’s co-accused Brandon Arias, 34, was jailed for nine years in October for his role in the conspiracy.

Prosecutors said the pair sold as many 1,000 fentanyl and acetyl fentanyl pills every week on the dark web over the two years their conspiracy lasted, and raked in over $100,000 that they split equally.

After setting up a profile on the Dream Market platform using the name “the Drug Llama”, the pair distributed the synthetic opioid tablets to customers across the US between October 2016 to August 2018.

As well as drug distribution, Scanlan’s was said by prosecutors of taken part in an international money laundering conspiracy with Mexican cartel members, and to have sold fentanyl tablets to a woman who later died.

Speaking after Scanlan was sentenced, US Attorney Steven Weinhoeft commented: “Criminals like Melissa Scanlan who recklessly flood our communities with opioids may think they can evade detection in the shadowy corners and back alleys of the internet.

“But they will find no quarter there. Where they go, we will follow. With the collaboration of outstanding investigators at our partner agencies, we will use every tool and method available to find these people and prosecute them to the fullest extent of the law.”

Weinhoeft went on to say that the case underlined the need for Congress to permanently criminalise fentanyl analogues.

At the end of January, the US House of Representatives passed a bill to extend for 15 months a temporary ban of fentanyl derivatives.

Without the bill, the outlawing of fentanyl analogues implemented by the Drug Enforcement Agency (DEA) back in 2018 would have expired this month, which would have resulted in a range of deadly synthetic opioids suddenly becoming legal and completely unregulated.

The US Justice Department had hoped to win a permanent ban on these types of substances from Congress, and was looking to secure a change in the law that would permanently list all fentanyl analogues in the same legal category as heroin and cocaine.

At the beginning of last month, a study published in the JAMA Network Open journal revealed that use of fentanyl and methamphetamine were soaring across the US.

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Catalonian police smash gang that hid 1.5 tonnes of cocaine in A4 paper boxes

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Catalonian police smash gang that trafficked drugs into Spain

Police in Spain’s Catalonia have taken part in an operation that resulted in the arrest of 14 members of a suspected drug trafficking gang after the discovery of nearly 1.5 tonnes of cocaine that had been hidden in boxes of A4 paper.

A Europol-backed investigation into the gang, which resulted in 10 of its members being jailed, was launched back in December 2018 when 1 413kgs of cocaine was found at a business premises outside Barcelona.

The drugs, which had been hidden in the boxes before being shipped into Spain from Brazil, were first discovered when one of the firm’s employees accidentally dropped one of the packages.

After arresting two people in connection with the find, police were able to identify 10 members of a criminal organisation that was involved in the trafficking of large quantities of cocaine from Brazil to Spain.

The network behind the conspiracy was also found to have been running a sophisticated money laundering operation, which they used to conceal the profits made from the drugs importation business.

Members of the gang are said to have set up several different front companies, making investments in real estate businesses and fashion stores in Barcelona.

They also employed mules to make multiple intermittent small deposits at local bank branches.

The operation that led to the disruption of the gang culminated at the beginning of this month with an operation in which Catalan investigators and officers from Policía Nacional carried out 13 raids on residential and business properties.

In one raid on a property on the Balearic Island of Mahon, law enforcement agents found quantities of cash in several currencies, mobile phones, four simulated weapons, three cars, and two marijuana plantations.

“Two Europol experts were deployed for on-the-spot support to extract data from the mobile phones of two of the detainees. A member of Spain’s Europol National Unit also assisted during the action day,” Europol said in a statement.

Last week, researchers at the UK’s University of Surrey revealed that they had developed an experimental fingerprint test that could be used to see if an individual had either taken or handled cocaine.

Dr Melanie Bailey from the University of Surrey said: “We think this research is really significant as our laboratory test using high resolution mass spectrometry can tell the difference between a person who has touched a drug and someone who has actually consumed it – just by taking their fingerprints.”

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