News ID: 238153
Published: 0842 GMT January 30, 2019

Huge scale of UK’s £500m drug industry revealed

Huge scale of UK’s £500m drug industry revealed

The scale of the UK’s ‘county lines’ trade, in which criminal networks exploit thousands of children and vulnerable adults to funnel hard drugs from cities to towns and rural areas, is greater than British crime-fighting chiefs previously thought, with a fresh assessment revealing a £500-million industry linked to murder and sexual exploitation.

County lines involves gangs in cities such as London, Birmingham and Liverpool using children as young as 11 to deal mostly heroin and crack cocaine over a network of dedicated mobile phones, reported.

The number of individual phone numbers identified by law enforcement officials as being used on established county lines networks is now 2,000 — nearly three times the 720 previously established, the National Crime Agency (NCA) said.

In its annual assessment of the county lines trade, the NCA said the phone numbers were linked to about 1,000 branded networks, with a single line capable of making £800,000 profits in a year.

County lines offenders have been caught using mass marketing text messages to advertise drugs with promotions such as two-for-one deals and free samples, the report revealed.

The majority of victims groomed into working for gangs are 15- to 17-year-old boys but children as young as 11 have been safeguarded and girls have been targeted.

Many victims are recruited over social media, with offenders luring them by showing off images of cash, designer clothing and luxury cars.

Vulnerable drug users are at continuing risk of serious violence, including loss of life, with a number of murders identified as having county lines links.

Nikki Holland, the director of investigations and county lines lead at the NCA, told journalists at the agency’s headquarters in southwest London that profits from the county lines trade nationwide were estimated at about £500 million.

Releasing the 2018 assessment, Holland said, “Tackling county lines is a national law enforcement priority. We know that criminal networks use high levels of violence, exploitation and abuse to ensure compliance from the vulnerable people they employ to do the day-to-day drug supply activity.

“Every organized crime group trafficking drugs is a business which relies on cash flow. County lines is no different. What we will continue to do with our law enforcement partners is disrupt their activity and take away their assets.

“We also need to ensure that those exploited are safeguarded and understand the consequences of their involvement. This is not something law enforcement can tackle alone — the need to work together to disrupt this activity and safeguard vulnerable victims must be the priority for everyone.”

Holland said the increase in the phone numbers identified did not reflect a worsening of the problem, rather an increasing awareness among law enforcement of the scale.

The greatest number of county lines originate from the Metropolitan police area at about 15 percent, followed by the West Midlands police area at nine percent and Merseyside at seven percent.

About 21 percent of cases involve vulnerable adults trafficked or exploited into the county lines trade and 17 percent of cases involve ‘cuckooing’ — when gangs set up dealing bases by taking over the homes of addicted or otherwise vulnerable people, including people with disabilities.

Gang masters target children with impoverished backgrounds, who have experienced family breakdown or intervention by social services or exclusion from school, the report said.

The offenders also target drug addicts who allow the use of their property but often end up building up debt with the network, which they have to pay back through further offending. Adult victims often live with mental health conditions including depression and anxiety.

Many victims are recruited in ‘importing’ towns — locations which are receiving drugs from major cities to sell on, the assessment said.

There has been an increase in the use of short-term lets and guesthouses, including using the accommodation website Airbnb, the NCA revealed.

Rail network hubs such as Birmingham New Street, Clapham Junction, Manchester Piccadilly, St. Pancras International and Waterloo have been identified as key points of access by the NCA but other less obvious hubs are likely to be frequently used.

The assessment comes at the end of a week of enforcement action across the country, which saw 600 arrests connected to county lines.

More than 400 vulnerable adults and 600 children were referred to safeguarding following the coordinated activity, which included the execution of warrants at addresses, visits to vulnerable people including those at risk of cuckooing, and officer engagement with private hire companies.

There were 40 referrals to the National Referral Mechanism (NRM), which assesses individuals as potential victims of human trafficking or modern slavery.

More than 140 weapons were seized, including 12 firearms, swords, machetes, axes and knives, and cash totaling more than £200,000. Significant amounts of drugs were also seized.

The Met’s deputy assistant commissioner, Duncan Ball, the National Police Chiefs’ Council (NPCC) lead for county lines, said, “Last week’s targeted work on county lines gangs shows how police forces across the UK are working together to dismantle these networks and protect the young and vulnerable people who are exploited by them.”

Meanwhile, two drug dealers were found guilty on Tuesday of murdering a man who had ordered drugs on a deal line branded ‘RJ’.

Juned Ahmed, 18, and Ashraf Hussan, 20, stabbed Peter Anderson, 46, multiple times at just after 4:00 p.m. on 25 July last year in Cambridge.

It is not known whether the attack was a result of mistaken identity in relation to a robbery on Ahmed the day before, or “simply because they didn’t like the way he looked”, but Anderson was left seriously injured.



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