£7bn child drug mules

Gangs groom more than 10,000 kids to be run­ners Chil­dren as young as 11 lured into evil net­work

Sunday Mirror (Northern Ireland) - - News - EX­CLU­SIVE BY RACHAEL BLETCHLY Chief Fea­tures Writer rachael.bletchly@trin­i­tymir­ror.com COM­MENT: PAGE 14

MORE than 10,000 chil­dren could be work­ing as drug mules af­ter be­ing groomed, ex­ploited and traf­ficked round the UK by vi­o­lent crim­i­nal gangs.

Young­sters as young as 11 are be­ing en­snared by so-called “County Lines” barons in cities such as Lon­don, Liver­pool and Manch­ester for an il­licit in­dus­try worth up to £7bil­lion a year.

A re­formed drug boss said the scale of the cri­sis was be­ing hugely un­der­es­ti­mated and warned: “Bri­tain needs to wake up to this. A gen­er­a­tion of kids are at risk.”

The chil­dren are lured in by prom­ises of easy cash and told they are “go­ing coun­try” – sent far across coun­cil bound­aries to sell drugs in sleepy ru­ral ar­eas and coastal towns.

They in­fil­trate the homes of ad­dicts and vul­ner­a­ble adults, a pro­cess known as “cuck­oo­ing”, from where they mar­ket their wares.

Any who fail to per­form by bring­ing in enough busi­ness face sav­age beat­ings and be­ing threat­ened with guns.

Mean­while their bosses back in the cities run thou­sands of ded­i­cated phone lines for pun­ters in far-flung coun­ties to ring in or­ders.

Pre­vi­ously peace­ful ar­eas such as Som­er­set, De­von and Nor­folk are see­ing huge rises in knife and gun crime as ri­val gangs from out­side move in and fight for trade.


Now ex­perts from char­i­ties, politi­cians and par­ents are united in de­mand­ing a na­tional task force to tackle the prob­lem.

The ex-drug boss said: “County Lines op­er­ate in ev­ery sin­gle part of the UK – it is a mas­sive in­dus­try.

“Po­lice and au­thor­i­ties seem blind to the real scale of the prob­lem and the bil­lions crim­i­nals make by us­ing kids as slaves.”

Na­tional Crime Agency sta­tis­tics re­veal 80 per cent of po­lice forces are deal­ing with County Lines drug gangs, which have been op­er­at­ing un­der the radar for at least a decade.

In Mersey­side alone, 83 or­gan­ised gangs are said to be deal­ing drugs across county bor­ders with run­ners in North Wales and Cheshire.

And while cops es­ti­mate there are 1,000 phone lines cur­rently op­er­at­ing, the for­mer gang boss told us there are ac­tu­ally five times that num­ber. Each one can rake in £4,000 a day, a to­tal of al­most £1.5mil­lion a year.

Our source added: “Peo­ple will say it only hap­pens to ‘prob­lem chil­dren’ from bro­ken homes in de­prived ar­eas who’ve al­ready gone off the rails. But it’s hap­pen­ing to nice mid­dle-class kids too.

“Gangs prey on any in­se­cu­rity – alien­at­ing kids from par­ents and brain­wash­ing them that this is their new fam­ily.

“And on so­cial me­dia they see pic­tures of kids their own age with Rolex watches and de­signer clothes, sit­ting in baths full of £50 notes – the easy money they can make. But it ain’t easy. Be­cause once you’re in, you’re trapped. If kids aren’t sell­ing or lose any of the drugs they face a beat­ing.

“So they blame some­one else and take ret­ri­bu­tion with blades or guns.”

Our source told how boys and girls from all so­cial back­grounds are re­cruited with of­fers of easy money and tribal loy­alty.

They are then made to “go coun­try”, which is also re­ferred to as be­ing sent “in the woods” or “OT”, mean­ing out there. Each is sup­plied with “G-bags” of “food” – £1,000 pack­ages of crack co­caine and heroin. They are taught “plug­ging”, the tech­nique of hid­ing drugs in body cav­i­ties.

Once at their des­ti­na­tion they set up bases with known users, ei­ther by of­fer­ing them free drugs or ter­ror­is­ing them with weapons. The mules then di­vide their stashes into smaller wraps to sell on for dou­ble the price as di­rected on un­trace­able “burner phones” by the Mr Bigs in the cities.

A court heard re­cently that one County Lines dealer took 60,000 calls in six months on one mo­bile. The gangs have be­come so brazen they even post fliers through users’ let­ter­boxes ad­ver­tis­ing two-for-one deals and tar­get­ing new cus­tomers out­side job cen­tres or bet­ting shops.

Our source showed us one of the mo­bile num­bers he used to op­er­ate – picked be­cause it was easy to re­mem­ber with re­peated dig­its. He said: “I was mak­ing £4,000 a day and pay­ing the kids work­ing for me £400 a

They see pics of kids their own age with Rolexes, sat in bath­tubs full of £50 notes EX-DRUG BOSS ON HOW CHIL­DREN ARE LURED IN

week. They are known as ‘clean skins’ be­cause they have no po­lice record and rarely at­tract at­ten­tion.

“Once they’d sold all their ‘food’ I’d send a new group up to re­place them or I’d give a girl a pack to plug, drive her to the bus sta­tion and see her off.

“Peo­ple are run­ning three or four lines at a time and there are at least 5,000 go­ing now. Some will tell you that it’s our un­just, un­equal so­ci­ety that grooms and ex­ploits kids – but that is b ******* . They only care about the money.”

Cam­paign­ers want to raise aware­ness of the scan­dal, which has also been high­lighted in a BBC doc­u­men­tary, so mules can be re­ferred for help like vic­tims of child sex­ual ex­ploita­tion are. Some po­lice forces have now set up ded­i­cated units but this is so frag­men­tary that a mul­ti­a­gency na­tional re­sponse is re­quired.

This week the Gov­ern­ment awarded £280,000 to projects help­ing chil­dren and vul­ner­a­ble adults es­cape vi­o­lent gangs while Home Sec­re­tary Am­ber Rudd has in­tro­duced laws to shut down County Lines phone num­bers. But Stock­port MP Ann Cof­fey, who chairs the All-Party Group for Run­away and Miss­ing Chil­dren, said this was just “a drop in the ocean”.

She said: “We need a na­tional strat­egy where com­mu­ni­ties, chil­dren’s ser­vices, schools, par­ents and agen­cies work closer to­gether with the po­lice to raise aware­ness of this gross ex­ploita­tion which is ru­in­ing chil­dren’s lives.

“Th­ese crim­i­nal cow­ards hide be­hind chil­dren and get them to do their dirty work for them.

“Crim­i­nal child ex­ploita­tion is the new groom­ing scan­dal and is ex­actly the same as child sex­ual ex­ploita­tion in places like Rother­ham and Rochdale.”

DO­ING A LINE Mo­biles are key to gangs’ trade BIG BUSI­NESS Dealer pre­pares drugs for sale

COUNTY THREAT How teens deal ‘food’ for drug barons Num­ber of drug phone lines gangs are thought to be run­ning in the UK How much gang lead­ers pay young­sters a week to deal their drugs

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