‘We are coming for you’
SPECIAL REPORT Police vow to break county lines drug networks
PC Omar Patel has seen some shocking things in the battle against the drugs problem known as county lines.
He tells of a boy aged around 16 who was taken to the dentist for gold teeth so he could have a gangster image.
The phenomenon involves drug gangs from big cities sending people as young as 13 to run crack cocaine and heroin networks in counties.
The Gloucestershire police response – Operation Tarak – was launched in November 2016 and has seen more than 70 people jailed.
Leading the police crackdown are Detective Chief Inspector Neil Smith and PC Patel, who have given an extraordinary insight into local drug operations.
They revealed dealers have operated outside Mcdonald’s in Cheltenham High Street and researched police tactics by reading our website .
They say Cheltenham has been hit worse than Gloucester. PC Patel said: “Gloucester has its established network of drug dealers. There would be more problems for them there. Cheltenham is easy.”
Mr Smith noted an increased effort from dealers to avoid trouble. “We used to have people coming down with knives, machetes and baseball bats,” he said. “That has dropped off. They want an easy life.
“You get some who have seen one too many gangster movies, but generally they have evolved.
“Bruises and marks on drug users have previously led to police attention being drawn and they know this so it’s happening less.”
That means episodes like the child getting gold teeth are becoming rarer.
London drug lord Marvin Tohou buying one of his young Cheltenham runners a school blazer is one example of gangs trying to be less conspicuous.
Tohou was jailed for four years after admitting a conspiracy to supply Class A drugs.
Although Cheltenham is the worst affected, the officers said every part of the county has been targeted to an extent except the Cotswolds.
PC Patel said: “Gangs from Birmingham use the M5 corridor to transport the dealers into the county. London lines use the M4, the A419. Often there is a crossover of Wiltshire lines – after going to Swindon they move onto here.
“They use everything – National Express coaches, taxis. Recently they have been using trains less than before.
“We believe they may be looking elsewhere in the county more than previously, because they know in Cheltenham we will be all over them.”
Some of the children sucked into the lines are from a middle-class background, but most have a troubled history.
The youngest county lines dealer they are aware of was just 13.
Mr Smith said: “The controllers will target young people who should be at school but are hanging about in fast food restaurants and shopping arcades.”
The promise of riches is often too tempting a draw to turn down. PC Patel revealed police have been aware of some lines across the country bringing in £20-40,000 a week.
“In Cheltenham, I have seen one that was making £9,000 in profit a week, run by a 16-18 year old from London,” he said. “He was getting £600 a week.
“He had been thrown out by his parents and he had nowhere to go before he was recruited.”
Mr Smith added: “For a young lad it’s an enormous amount of money. If I was 16 and getting that sort of money I would think I was the Godfather.
“It is a cowardly way of running their business. The individuals at the top can really abuse these teenagers.”
The officers confirmed police will look to bring modern day slavery and human trafficking charges.
“We haven’t had any of those convictions yet in Gloucestershire with regards to county lines, but it’s a possibility with one ongoing investigation,” Mr Smith said. He added that it is easy for the drug runners to identify customers.
“They target the same people over and over again,” he said. “We will disrupt a London line and a couple of weeks on there will be a line from Birmingham targeting the same people.
“The dealers will stand outside Mcdonald’s in Cheltenham. They will start a conversation in a bus shelter. They will offer a few free samples. “In any urban area in the country, within half an hour of walking around you can identify someone who is a possible drug user.”
The lines often take over vulnerable users’ homes.
PC Patel revealed some drug lords have read crime stories on our website Gloucestershire Live to research police methods of tackling county lines.
He joked: “The message is ‘feel free to keep looking at Gloucestershire Live.’ We are coming for you regardless.
“Some dealers think it is harder for us to get to them if they have more people involved in each line.
“Recently there has been one person taking orders and another making deliveries. But it doesn’t stop us.”
He urged people to look out for any suspicious behaviour.
“A lot of important information has come from the community,” he said. “You should be thinking ‘Why are 25 people coming into a flat in one day?.’
“Reports of suspicious behaviour are not a waste of time.” firstname.lastname@example.org
PC Omar Patel and Detective Chief Inspector Neil Smith. Inset, drugs seized by Gloucestershire police