Nearly 600 suspected members of county lines drugs gangs have been arrested across the UK in the past week, the National Crime Agency has said.
Police forces led by the National County Lines Coordination Centre also seized cocaine worth £176,780; £312,649 in cash; and 46 weapons.
The NCA estimates there are about 2,000 city-based gangs exploiting young people to sell drugs in smaller towns.
It says tackling the gangs is a “national law enforcement priority”.
In the operation between 13 and 20 May:
- 500 men and 86 women were arrested in raids in Norfolk, Suffolk, Cheshire, Bedfordshire and other areas
- 519 vulnerable adults and 364 children in need of support were helped
- 30 people were identified as potential victims of slavery or human trafficking
- Four guns were seized, as well as swords, machetes, an axe, knives, samurai swords, and a crossbow
- Drugs including cocaine with a street value of £176,780, crack worth £36,550 and £17,950 of heroin were recovered
County line drugs gangs – linked by a network of mobile phone lines and often coercing children and vulnerable adults – travel out of their usual urban territory and into rural areas to sell drugs.
Most come out of London, Birmingham and Merseyside, said NCA County Lines lead Nikki Holland.
‘Children used as shields’
Some raids were on so-called cuckooed houses, which is a home taken over by drugs gangs from a drug user or vulnerable person.
Ms Holland likened gangs’ exploitation of children to grooming for sex, saying these children often did not see themselves as victims because they enjoyed the attention and the gifts of drugs.
Gangs then used coercion, intimidation and violence to control the children, to keep them involved in running the drugs and to act as a “shield” from arrest and violence by rival gangs, she added.
Ms Holland appealed to parents and the public to trust their instincts and look out for children travelling long distances with older people or children going missing and having new and older friends.
The NCA said it did not have details yet of the ages of the 364 children who were picked up in the raids.
But they could be dealt with in a number of ways, it said, including being returned home if missing, referred to local services, referred to the National Referral Mechanism – which identifies victims of human trafficking or placed under a protection order.
This is the third week that police forces across the UK have co-ordinated raids.
The latest police operation “demonstrated the power of a whole-system response to a complex problem that we’re seeing in every area of the UK”, said Ms Holland.
Ms Holland called on professionals working with people at risk of being involved in county line operations to assist, saying: “It’s the nurses, teachers, social workers, GPs, and anyone who works with young or vulnerable people, that can really help to make a difference.”
Nathaniel Peat, founder of the Safety Box, an organisation which delivers programmes to young people to reduce violence, notes that many young people who serve prison sentences for drugs are exposed to more violence in prison.
“They can become even more vulnerable in prison, they’re often under pressure to beat people up or will be beat up themselves. They go in for drugs and come out violent, and that’s when the knife crime rises.”
‘Life of glamour becomes a nightmare’
Last week three drug dealers from London and Kent who used vulnerable teenagers to traffic crack cocaine and heroin to Portsmouth were jailed in a “landmark case”.
They are believed to have been the first to have been charged with modern slavery offences.
Other recent cases before the courts include two brothers from Birmingham who ran a network supplying heroin and crack cocaine in Hereford, while a police operation on 1 May resulted in 24 arrests and raids in Newcastle, Stevenage, Norwich, Glasgow and London.
Iryna Pona, policy manager at the Children’s Society, said the charity had heard “shocking stories of children being groomed with money and drugs before the life of glamour they have been promised quickly descends into a nightmare”.
She said while it was good to see police are stepping up their fight against the gangs “too many children exploited through county lines are still… failing to get help from an independent advocate to ensure they are supported as victims”.