Bringing Light to the Darkness of Human Trafficking (Trafficking in Persons)

  • The 'county line' gang problem was highlighted recently by a huge investigation
  • Youngsters are known to their masters as 'Bics' because they are disposable
  • There were 126 children arrested in Norfolk from December 2016 to June 2018

Hundreds of children are being enslaved by drugs gangs, the Daily Mail reveals today.

Criminals recruit them from children’s homes and outside city schools to flood suburban and rural areas with heroin and crack cocaine.

The youngsters are known to their masters as ‘Bics’ because they are seen as disposable as the pens.

‘It’s essentially modern slavery,’ said one senior detective.

The ‘county line’ gang problem has been highlighted by a major investigation that led to 714 arrests in Norfolk. Officers detained 126 children, some as young as 12.

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A major investigation recently highlighted the scale of the problem as 714 arrests were carried out across Norfolk

They had been sent from as far away as Leicestershire, Teesside and London to sell drugs.

More than 1,000 county line gangs are believed to be operating in Britain – a six-fold increase in just three years. They make an estimated £1.8billion profit between them each year.

In 2015, only seven police forces reported an issue with county lines, but now the problem extends to all 43 forces, according to the National Crime Agency.

The name comes from the mobile phone lines city-based gang leaders use to communicate with their young pushers in the shires. Our investigation can reveal:

A six-month undercover operation by a single police officer resulted in 72 prosecutions of county lines gang members;

The youngest to be prosecuted was just 14;

Officers have gone to every school in Norfolk to warn pupils of the dangers of joining drug gangs.

Prosecutors said tackling county lines gangs was like cutting off the head of the Hydra because new dealers replace those who are arrested;

Prosecution of children for drugs offences varies across the country as forces take different approaches, with some being treated as victims and others as gang members.

Figures obtained under the Freedom of Information Act show that Norfolk, Devon and Dorset saw the biggest rise in arrests of minors for drug dealing in the UK.

Of the 126 children arrested in Norfolk between December 2016 and June this year, two-thirds were found to have come from outside the county, with 55 coming from London and another 26 from Essex, Hertfordshire, Suffolk, Surrey, Middlesex, Leicestershire and Teesside.

Most of the children were treated as victims of exploitation and referred back to children’s services in their home county for help or reunited with parents or foster carers they had run away from.

But 49 teenagers judged to be seriously involved in county lines were charged with drug offences and one with attempted murder.

Detective Sergeant Craig Bidwell, intelligence co-ordinator for Norfolk Police’s latest county lines initiative, Operation Gravity, described the phenomenon as child slavery.

‘Ultimately they are still exploited children,’ he said. ‘It is essentially modern slavery.’

Some of the young drug couriers had been moved by local authorities in London to Norfolk to protect them from gangs in their area, only for them to join new ones in Norwich.

Others recruited by dealers in London were offered £100 a day to sell drugs in the provinces.

Many of those trafficked are forced to have bundles forcibly stashed inside their bodies – known as ‘plugging’.

Living what one judge described as a ‘wretched existence’, one 16-year-old boy from Norfolk recently prosecuted was caught selling drugs stashed in a Kinder egg in the middle of a snowstorm.

In contrast, the county line gang leaders often found in London are coining in huge profits, with each line making up to £5,000 a day which adds up to £1.8 million a year.

In Norfolk it is estimated that county lines gangs are making upwards of £40 million a year.

The NCA and other police forces are now engaged in trying to track down some of those at the top of the chain.

But often they hide behind a maze of foot soldiers and are located hundreds of miles away from where the drugs are sold.

Vince O’Brien, the NCA’s head of drugs operations, told the Mail the number of children involved are in the ‘hundreds’.

He said: ‘In our last report, we had almost all forces saying county lines activity was in their force area. We would now say that is in all forces.

‘Three years ago I think we had seven forces saying there was county lines activity in their area.

‘Now there are lines which might be operating from a city in the Midlands up to Scotland or down to the South Coast. It’s a national problem.’

He added: ‘We have seen children involved in county lines who come from a range of backgrounds...

‘It might well be that looked after children are vulnerable for particular reasons, but there have also been instances in terms of county lines investigations where children who would come from what people might perceive to be more stable or more affluent backgrounds might equally be vulnerable to be drawn into county lines offending.

‘That’s why initiatives like they are doing in Norfolk to go out to all schools is really positive as there isn’t a mould of a child who could be groomed for county lines.’

Carlene Firmin, an academic at the University of Bedfordshire, has said the county lines problem has exposed shortcomings in UK child protection practices.

She said: ‘We’re challenged by criminal exploitation because it is a kind of child abuse for which the child protection system wasn’t designed.’


Brutal lives of youngsters turned into drug dealers


The teenager from Norfolk set up his own phone line nicknamed ‘Carlos’ and became what was described as a ‘self-employed drug dealer’.

He was caught after meeting an undercover officer known as ‘Tommo’ in a local park on March 6 and telling him he was ‘doing his own thing’.

When he was jailed last month for two years and eight months after admitting running his own county line, prosecutor Chris Youell described him as a ‘competent drug dealer’.

He told Norwich Crown Court that Tommo had known the teenager for two months and he was considered to be ‘heavily involved in dealing Class A drugs on the streets of Norwich’.

In January he had previously been arrested by a uniformed officer who had been looking for him as a missing person.

The schoolboy was found to have several phones and a number of drug wraps, but was released under investigation.

Mr Youell said: ‘Having been caught red-handed that doesn’t seem to have stopped him from carrying on to make his living as a drug dealer. He knew the police were looking at him but he carried on.’

When the youth, said to have a previous history of criminal behaviour, was caught in March he admitted being involved in two county line drug networks in Norwich, including the one he set up himself.

Nicholas Stewart, mitigating, said of the teenager, who cannot be named due to his age and now lives with a foster carer: ‘He is moving away from his previous history of criminal behaviour and starting to recognise the consequences of his offending.’


A boy of 16 sold wraps of heroin in Norwich stashed in a Kinder egg.

The schoolboy, who was one of the youngest drug dealers to be charged under Norfolk Police’s Operation Granary, was caught selling drugs in the middle of a snowstorm.

Prosecutor Chris Youell told Norwich Crown Court he was involved in dealing to ‘Tommo’ between February 27 and March 6, even selling heroin on ‘the worst day of the Beast from the East’.

‘Everything in Norwich had ground to a halt apart from, it would appear, activities such as this,’ he said.

‘No doubt there were many customers desperate for drugs. He was very much part of a very active group dealing to other customers.

‘Tommo observed him on one occasion with 30 wraps in a plastic bag and a further 15 in a Kinder egg.’

Damien Moore, mitigating for the teenager, who admitted the offences, said it was his ‘first experience in the criminal justice system’.

He said: ‘He was taken outside Great Yarmouth and placed into care in a home in Norwich.

‘He says it was somewhere he felt unsafe. Until he came to Norwich he was unknown to the police, and it is very clear whatever influences he was subjected to, this was entirely out of character for him.

‘His remorse and willingness to change will stand him in good stead.’

Last month the 16-year-old was given a two-year youth rehabilitation order with two years of supervision.


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