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Gruesome reality of life as a county lines mule: Heroin hidden in Kinder eggs, GBP2,000 a week for the ‘top boys’ – but children stabbed or beaten for the smallest mistakes

One 16-year-old in Norwich was dound with 45 wraps of heroin back in March

So-called ‘county lines’ networks are run by drug dealers selling to rural towns

The name comes from the dedicated mobile phone lines used to ship drugs


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During early March this year, the wave of cold air from the Continent dubbed the Beast from the East was at its most punishing. The streets of Norwich were all but deserted, residents seeking refuge indoors. But one local teenager was hard at work, braving the blizzard battering the cathedral city.

Failure to complete his mission could result in more than a frozen face and hands. ‘I’ve seen young kids stabbed with knives,’ he says. ‘I’ve seen people have blades shoved through their body.

I’ve seen people put into a coma for the smallest mistake.’

The 16-year-old – let’s call him Michael – was selling heroin to addicts equally desperate to engage in a street trade despite the appalling weather.

That night, however, one of his ‘customers’ was an undercover policeman, part of a crackdown on drug dealing in Norfolk.

When Michael was searched, 45 wraps of heroin were found, 15 of them hidden inside a Kinder Surprise chocolate egg.

On one 16-year-old dealer, 45 wraps of heroin were found, 15 of them hidden inside a Kinder Surprise chocolate egg

Michael was at the sharp end of the ‘county lines’ criminal networks – exposed in recent weeks by the Mail – which reach out from London, Liverpool and other big cities to shift class A drugs into provincial Britain; market towns and coastal resorts, places once unfamiliar with organised crime.

The name comes from the dedicated mobile phone lines used to order and ship drugs. And the conduits for this expanding trade? Children – predominantly boys, predominantly from troubled backgrounds, enticed into a life of crime with promises of money, kudos and a sense of belonging often lacking in their home lives.

‘It just takes one person to come up to you and promise you money, nice clothes and a better lifestyle,’ says Michael. ‘They can persuade you so easily.’

This minor cog in Britain’s darkest growth industry, whose real identity cannot be revealed for legal reasons, grew up in the Norfolk fishing port of Great Yarmouth and was first exposed to drugs aged seven.

He became a dealer at 15 while living with foster parents in Norwich and admits it was he who initiated contact with a gang after hearing there was good money to be made.

‘The dealers will target someone young and vulnerable, wave around a little bit of money and they are caught in it,’ he explains. ‘They will find you wherever you are – at your school, in the streets or even outside your front door.

I would go up to people who I knew would provide me with the goods to sell. What amazed me was how quick and easy it was to get involved.’

In a normal week he made GBP500. A good one and he could pull in GBP2,000.

But there was another incentive to keep on dealing – the threat of extreme violence.

Michael says: ‘When you do good you have the money and you are looked after and cared for and you are a “top boy”.

‘But when you do bad, that’s when the trouble starts. I saw some terrible things, and at many points there were situations that could have turned bad for me.

‘I’ve seen people who have been locked in a room for giving away secret information, then beaten up by four or five guys.’

And he says no matter how many arrests police made, young people were lining up to replace those taken off the streets.

‘County lines’ criminal networks – exposed in recent weeks by the Mail – reach out from London, Liverpool and other big cities to shift class A drugs into provincial Britain

The county lines gangs are certainly adept at choosing their prey, targeting children from broken homes, some living with foster parents or in care.

Pupil Referral Units (PRUs), which deal with disruptive children excluded from mainstream education are, according to a new report for the Home Office, a particularly fertile recruiting ground.

Gang members have been known to watch at the units’ gates, preying on children who appear vulnerable – such as those whose parents work long hours and are not around to pick them up. These units, to which some 16,000 children have been referred, are being used by some schools to offload pupils who cause chaos in classrooms and lower exam results.

‘Exclusion from school does appear to be a highly significant trigger point for the escalation of county lines involvement for children who might be on the fringes of such activity,’ says the Home Office report.

Researchers quote a social worker describing a ‘twilight timetable’ in PRUs under which pupils attend school for just one hour starting at 4pm – ‘so, of course, they can get up to all sorts of stuff all day and no one would know’.

The consequences can be tragic for some youngsters.

This month, a drug dealer who used three children from Birmingham to sell crack cocaine and heroin to addicts in Lincoln was jailed for 14 years after admitting charges of modern slavery.

Zakaria Mohammed, of Birmingham, trafficked three children to sell drugs

In a landmark case, Zakaria Mohammed admitted using two boys aged 15 and a 14-year-old girl to deal on his behalf from a flat in Lincoln that was also occupied by two heroin users.

Mohammed, 21, transported the children, drugs and proceeds between Birmingham and the city, operating remotely; taking calls from customers and directing the teenagers to them.

Police said while Mohammed netted GBP500 per day his young dealers benefited little, enduring life in a filthy, freezing flat surrounded by used syringes.

Michael explains: ‘Dealers will look for someone vulnerable, wave around a little bit of money and they are caught.’

Cash, a new pair of trainers, even fizzy drinks – children often used to little in the way of treats are groomed for their future role by such gifts. But youngsters from more fortunate backgrounds have fallen into the trap too, he says. One of the gangs’ most powerful tools is cannabis.

The Children’s Society believes eight out of ten young runners involved in county lines are hooked on the drug.

The charity’s Rhiannon Sawyer said: ‘Cannabis being used to groom children is common. I’d say about 80 per cent of young people will be smoking weed. Maybe not all of them daily, but they will have been given weed from a very young age like 12 or 13.

‘It might be, “Do you want to come and chill with me and my mate?

We are just going to have a few drinks, a few spliffs, come and chill with us”.

‘Then the target child is given weed for free and eventually told, “I have given you all this for free, now you owe us. Do you mind taking this to that person for me?” That’s how it starts.’

In a recent case, a boy in Kent, who had no history of being in trouble with the police, went missing for several weeks to carry out drugs runs after being ensnared by a gang over a GBP5 cannabis debt.

Police said while Mohammed netted GBP500 per day his young dealers benefited little, enduring life in a filthy, freezing flat surrounded by used syringes and cash (pictured)

Detective Inspector Neil Watford, of Kent Police, describes how the child was quickly sucked in: ‘He was subjected to violence, threats and intimidation and eventually we located him sitting on 150 wraps of class A drugs.’

Many gangs pay children with cannabis instead of cash, and an addicted runner is, for a time, a more dependable runner. In addition, the drug helps dull the pain of a 24-hour existence overshadowed by the threat of violence – be it from gang masters, rival gangs or customers.

Retribution can be swift if a young runner has his or her consignment confiscated by the police, is suspected of working for the police, or a rival gang, or known to be trying to quit the drugs trade.

Miss Sawyer, London area manager for the Children’s Society, says: ‘Children have told us how they have witnessed adults having sex in front of them, and how adults try to have sex with them when they are in the trap house.

‘There have been instances of an adult suffering a psychotic episode and stabbing the child.

‘There are lots of instances of children from London being stabbed outside London.

Sometimes they will be wounded in a superficial way to scare them, sometimes in a very damaging way, in the groin or face.’

Child drugs mules have been raped, burned and had their fingernails pulled out. The charity has helped girls as young as 12 who have been forced to carry up to 30 drug wraps in their body.

‘If you think what they are doing out there – continuous drug drops for up to 24 hours day often out in the cold in disgusting places – getting stoned on weed is a way to make it less bleak,’ says Miss Sawyer.

A decade ago, a drug user might call a dealer and wait on a street corner until the dealer was ready to deliver. Today, a drug user’s number might be known by a dozen competing gangs.

Young drugs runners are given sales targets, and woe betide the one who fails to achieve his or her quota.

‘If they have an amount of heroin or crack cocaine, they will be told “shift this all tomorrow”,’ explains Miss Sawyer. ‘It might be one importer supplying ten to 20 organised groups, each of them sending out ten to 20 children.

‘There could be up to 40 children in a county line but each of them will be made to believe there might be only one or two and that they are special, whereas actually they are just disposable.’

An upsurge in knife violence, particularly in the capital, can be attributed in part to turf wars between drugs gangs and their young foot soldiers, some of whom have resorted to wearing stab-proof vests. There has also been a substantial rise in convictions of teenagers for drugs offences.

A study for the Home Office carried out by the St Giles Trust charity which consulted victims, parents, social workers and police, found that 90 per cent of exploited youngsters were male, two-thirds were white, and half aged 13 to 15.

All were drug users, mostly cannabis but also ecstasy and cocaine, while 60 per cent had issues with alcohol. All were absent from mainstream education, all had at some time disappeared from home and all had been subject to violence.

The mother of a 14-year-old boy arrested 200 miles from home explained: ‘He went missing for five days. When he came back, there was nothing in his eyes. We found out he’d made friends with boys from another school.

‘They made it look very glamorous and they knew he wasn’t doing well at school.

They groomed him and made him believe that his family couldn’t afford anything, so it was all about the money.’

Another 14-year-old explained: ‘I ran away from home. I was angry with everybody. I used to sleep on kitchen floors and older boys would come in and kick me in the head to wake me up.

‘By the age of 13, I started a gang.

I’m nearly 15 now, I hardly ever go to school and my mum always shouts at me so it’s best to stay out.

‘She used to search through my room and find knives, weed, cocaine, condoms and she once found a gun. Obviously, she was mad.’

But not all recruits come from disadvantaged families. County lines gangs have become adept at matching runners with the ethnic and social character of their destinations, so that they blend in and remain under the radar.

One police officer in the East of England told the researchers: ‘We used to have black lads coming over from London, but they recruit more locals now because they’re not so noticeable.’

While statistics on those involved in county lines are hard to come by, case loads suggest children involved in London gangs are predominantly from the ethnic minorities, while those based in the provinces are mostly white.

Michael describes his life on the street as like a ‘ticking timebomb’ – a matter of day-to-day survival.

His career ended on that freezing day in March this year when he became one of 126 children held on suspicion of dealing drugs in the Norwich area. His remorse earned him a lenient two-year youth rehabilitation order.

‘I was one of the luckier ones because I got caught and arrested in the earlier stages,’ he says. ‘If I was still there now I don’t know where I would be. I could be dead.’ Now 17, he is living in a different part of Norfolk, which has helped him distance himself from his old life – though he still receives invitations to re-join the drug-trafficking business.

He has some advice for youngsters tempted by offers of cash, trainers and bogus friendship: ‘Don’t do it.

Keep at school, live your life and go to college or university. It may seem like a long and difficult way to get money, but at least your life is in your hands.’

He warns that operations like those taking place across the country may be only a minor setback for county lines in the long run – the army of child dealers on Britain’s streets is being constantly replenished.

‘The more people try to stop it, the more it is going to grow,’ he warns. ‘The more police investigate and arrest people higher up, the more positions open up lower down. And who is going to fill those?

The young people, the children.

‘Dealing drugs is just like gambling: you win GBP5, then GBP50 and then GBP100, and you just can’t stop.

You bet GBP100 and you bet more and more.

But eventually you lose.’

Reference: 737598

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