Lancashire Constabulary are continuing to crack down on so called ‘County Lines’ drugs gangs operating across the region.
And as well as mounting operations such as the current Op Moth in West Division we need the public’s help to recognise the signs and to report any suspicions to the police.
‘County lines’ is where criminal gangs from cities across the country use a dedicated mobile phone line to co-ordinate illegal drug dealing with customers in towns many miles away. Gangs often use young or vulnerable people to work as drugs runners, transporting and storing drugs and cash.
Drugs runners are often young or vulnerable people who have been recruited using intimidation, deception, violence, debt bondage, or grooming. During the grooming process the victims are likely to commit criminal offences. Drugs runners are often deployed to market and coastal towns many miles away from their home by senior gang members who tend to stay at their urban base looking after the drugs line and co-ordinating activity.
Young recruits are usually teenagers but can be as young as 10 and vulnerable adults include drugs users, alcoholics, or those with mental health problems or learning difficulties. They travel on their own on the rail network and risk their health by carrying drugs internally. Gang members often use intimidation, violence, and weapons, including knives, corrosives, and firearms, making it difficult for their victims to get out of the situation.
Often the young people and vulnerable adults that are exploited have similar circumstances or backgrounds and can include:
- Drug addicts, drugs debts, drug experimentation (in younger children)
- Alcoholics or under-age drinking
- Mental health problems or learning difficulties
- In a relationship or friendship with a gang member
- Come from deprived backgrounds or dysfunctional families
- Young people who often go missing from school or home
- Children who are looked after or are receive support from social services
Victims can be anyone in your community. Here is how children and young people tend to become involved in county lines activity:
- Young people may become trapped through experimental drug use or mixing with the wrong crowd and a drug debt builds up.
- Once in debt to a dealer they will be encouraged to sell drugs to pay off the debt.
- The gang will ensure the debt is never fully paid off and the victim can quickly become trapped in a cycle where their only option is to commit further crime.
- The more crime they commit the less likely they are to tell someone what is happening or seek help.
- They will be sent to travel to other parts of the country where they are not known to the police or social services and can essentially fly under the radar.
- During this time away from home they are highly at risk of coming to further harm at the hands of people they are dealing to or rival local drug dealers.
The signs a child or young person could be a victim of county lines exploitation are:
- Going missing from home or absent from school without explanation
- Mixing with new friends their parents don’t know
- Experimental drug use, often cannabis
- Having more than one mobile phone
- Appearing nervous, scared, evasive, and/or secretive
- Suffering injuries they can’t explain
- Having tickets for train or coach travel.
Vulnerable adults are at risk too:
- Older people may become exploited to also traffic drugs, weapons, and cash.
- Adults with mental or physical disabilities, adults with addictions, or adults who are particularly elderly may experience ‘cuckooing’, where a gang takes over their home and uses it as a based to hide drugs, deal from, or use as a place of rest.
- Other victims include the relatives of the exploited person who ‘lose’ their loved one to a criminal gang, and the communities where the drug dealing and associated violence is exported to.
In adults, signs of ‘cuckooing’ can include:
- A loved one or neighbour not being seen for some time
- Unknown visitors and vehicles to their house at unusual times
- Exchanges of cash or packages outside their home
- Open drug use in the street
- Damage and degradation of the appearance of their home
- A change in their personality or behaviours e.g. used to say ‘hi’, now appears nervous, worried, and/or intimidated.
County lines criminality is a problem throughout the country and has been around for many years. There are now instances coming into Lancashire, particularly from Manchester, Liverpool, London, and West Yorkshire. The nature of county lines activity means it crosses police boundaries and Lancashire Constabulary along with other forces throughout the North West and the country are working collaboratively to disrupt these organised crime networks.
Detective Inspector Simon Upton, of Lancashire Constabulary, said:
“County lines victims can be anyone in your community. Criminal gangs will exploit vulnerability in all of its forms to aid their activities. We can only combat this if members of the public understand what criminal exploitation is, how to spot the signs, and what to do if they think a person they know is being exploited.
“Intelligence from our communities is key to the police taking out the gangs responsible for this exportation of crime and exploitation of the vulnerable. So, I would encourage anyone who has concerns about young or otherwise vulnerable people being targeted in this way to come forward and speak to us, either directly or anonymously through Crimestoppers.”
Clive Grunshaw, Lancashire's Police and Crime Commissioner said:
"Stopping criminal gangs who use young and vulnerable people, involving them in criminality which crosses into the county from elsewhere is a problem which we continue to see, with officers working harder than ever before to stop them blighting our communities.
"Working in partnership with organisations across Lancashire and the wider North West area is absolutely crucial due to the nature of the way these criminal gangs operate. Information from the public and partner agencies is often key to bringing those involved to justice.
"I know that the hard work and determination of our officers to keep the public safe means that no stone is left unturned in stopping serious and organised crime, a key part of my police and crime plan. It will not be tolerated here in Lancashire and we will strive to keep these gangs off our streets."