How London youngsters are groomed to deal drugs in Suffolk and Essex
PUBLISHED: 08:54 25 April 2019
Drug dealers as young as 13 have been caught in Suffolk. Many are recruited from estates in London. But how does it work?
The Kerridge Court estate is in a quiet area between Hackney and Islington in London.
But at one stage gangs were believed to be using a set of ground floor flats as a drop-off point for drugs being ferried by young couriers out of the capital. “The police came and four guys jumped out the kitchen window,” one resident remembers.
Another recalled how boys had been seen running through the estate with butchers' knives.
“The problem is bigger than drugs,” they said. “They need to look at people's parenting and look at provisions on the estate, because there's nothing attractive around here for children. Some of these children aren't being fed lunch. They need to worry about that; these are the children vulnerable to being groomed.”
These problems are no longer being felt in London alone. Gangs been expanding their operations in recent years, flooding Suffolk and Essex with Class A drugs.
Known as 'county lines', the effects of this criminal menace has become widespread.
Last month, officers from Essex, Suffolk and Norfolk police forces arrested 37 people and seized hundreds of wraps of crack and heroin. Suffolk Police and Crime Commissioner Tim Passmore described county lines as the “biggest threat facing Suffolk”.
The gangs will often recruit children to move drugs, usually on trains or coaches, which they then sell to local users. According to The Children's Commissioner, an estimated 4,000 teenagers in London alone are being exploited through county lines.
More than 40 children aged 16 or under were been arrested on drug dealing charges in Suffolk from 2016 to 2018. And some of the teenage dealers have been in the care system or are groomed in London estates.
In Hackney, for example, 27 people have been convicted over county lines dealing since 2017.
The youngsters – referred to by the gangs as 'Bics' because of how disposable they are – can be 'rented' or 'bought' for up to £5,000 to work on a line. A single county line phone, meanwhile, can be worth up to £20,000 a week.
The young dealers may only earn £100 a day, but those caught by police can be saddled with thousands of pounds of debt.
According to the NCA, most children recruited as county lines couriers are boys aged 15 to 17. An NCA report found children who try to walk away can be tortured or have families threatened.
And according to a London charity, arresting young runners does not tackle the problem.
The Pilion Trust runs a shelter for young people who have been in county lines gangs. Chief executive Savvas Panas said most could not go home for fear of reprisal. He said they were groomed “quietly” by groups over a long period of time, often in apparently innocuous public spaces. “They target loners and autistics and children from troubled backgrounds,” he said. “They'll be alone, sitting in a park, playing ball, and someone comes along and says, 'do you want to kick a ball around with me?' Just like that, throwing a ball or going to the shop.”
Mr Panas said police should focus on gangs benefiting from dealing instead of the children.
A source who worked with the Met Police tracking county lines dealers said: “It's impossible to measure how far up they go. When we got closer (in one case) it was one family and there was a large Russian drug ring behind it. But all you see are the little boys.”
A former gang member from Dalston said county lines needed to be seen as part of a larger business enterprise. Gwenton Sloley said a single operation may be split across five phones, worth £20,000 each because of the contacts of addicts they contain, which can be rented to local outfits. “Instead of looking at the activities of individuals, focus on the phone,” he said.
Dedicated 'phone builders' are deployed to build up contacts of addicts in an area, giving out the number and free drug tasters.
“The young people are disposable and there will be 30 lining up to go on a line,” Mr Sloley added.
An ex-heroin addict said: “You can see some of the runners should be in school. Some of them say 'I'm older than you think'. It's quite amazing and depressing.”
The Met Police's Trident Gang Crime Command is trying to target networks profiting from county lines. A Met spokesman said: “County lines is a national challenge and police forces are working collaboratively to support those who are vulnerable. Each case is different but we work to identify trafficked children and prioritise safeguarding, while prosecuting those responsible for organising the drug supply.”
Youngest dealer just 13
Figures from Suffolk Constabulary show children as young as 13 have been charged with supplying heroin.
Since 2016, 43 children aged 16 or under have been charged with drug offences.
That includes supplying or intending to supply heroin, crack, MDMA and cannabis.
In total 1,455 people were charged with drug offences in Suffolk in that time.
But Suffolk police claim the tide is turning.
Earlier this year the numbr of county lines running into Suffolk was reported to have more than halved.
“The constabulary's track record has been extraordinary,” said PCC Tim Passmore. “County lines have dropped from 40 to 20 and our message to the evil, barbaric leaders of these cartels is that they will be hounded out by rigorous enforcement. They are the scum of the earth.”
'I was in a county line drug deal'
A young mother caught up in county lines said children who had been in care were particularly vulnerable.
Yara Molabaksh, now 18, had a troubled upbringing in Hoxton and London Fields and grew up around drug use.
She was arrested in Swansea in July 2016 along with her older then-boyfriend Kristian Holme-Slater and Shaheur Rahman, a dealer who had fled Essex to sell in Wales.
Miss Molabaksh said she had no idea she was to be part of a drug-dealing spree until after agreeing to go on a “trip” out of London that spring.
But over the following months the trio sold heroin and crack cocaine up and down the country.
Miss Molabaksh said she was in charge of answering their Nokia phone and holding the cash and drugs, which were sold for around £20 a bag.
She received an 18-month community order.
“It's kids in care and foster homes who have been moved over the years that get involved in this,” she said. “Even if it's hard, it's never the last option.”
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