More than 4,000 arrested in war on ‘county lines’ drug gangs in two years, with one in 10 suspects ‘child slaves’ and some as young as 12
- Exclusive: Extent of county lines drugs going from large cities to suburban areas
- More than 4,000 suspects arrested in past two years taking drugs to rural towns
- Around one in ten of those dealers arrested were children – some as young as 12
- £3.6million national county lines centre opened on Friday to target street gangs
More than 4,000 suspects have been arrested in the past two years by police battling an explosion in ‘county lines’ drug gangs, figures have revealed.
Around one in ten were children, some as young as 12, who were caught ferrying drugs from the large cities to suburban and rural areas.
A Mail investigation can reveal for the first time the scale of the police response to combat the drug networks blighting Britain, which have multiplied six-fold in the last three years.
It came after Home Secretary Sajid Javid pledged a ‘fightback’ in yesterday’s Daily Mail against the criminals who ‘ruin lives and damage society’.
Statistics from individual forces show how the tentacles of the evil trade have spread into every corner in Britain, reaching even to countryside beauty spots such as the Cotswolds, Cheshire and the Lake District.
Official figures provided by 26 forces show that 4,108 suspects were arrested between 2017 and 2018.
An ‘Express Delivery’ pre-arranged trade takes place in a park in Norwich between a man on a Vespa moped with the number plate removed and another ‘customer’
Not all forces were able to provide a breakdown of the suspect’s age. But in six forces alone, there were 417 children held in county lines operations between 2014 and 2018.
It is the first time that the number of arrests nationally have been collated.
The gangs’ operations are known as county lines after the highly lucrative telephone lines used to organise the illegal trade.
Norfolk Police mounted the UK’s largest county lines operation, netting 714 suspects since December 2016, including 126 children.
Essex Police has also made a similar number of arrests, capturing 668 suspected drug dealers. They seized heroin, crack cocaine and cannabis with a street value of £684,530.
Even the smaller forces such as Wiltshire Police have mounted large scale operations, with 370 people arrested including 18 children. It has resulted in more than 100 convictions in the past two years.
Some of the towns plagued by county lines include iconic market towns and cathedral cities such as Chester, Gloucester, Yeovil and Banbury.
A close up of the drugs bag as part of a deal in broad daylight on the edge of a busy city park
This week two drug dealers who were caught at Kendal railway station in the Lake District with 77 bundles of crack cocaine and heroin were each jailed for 40 months.
Many police operations were prompted by outbreaks of serious violence including murders.
Yesterday Labour MP Anne Coffey, who chairs the All Party Parliamentary Group on Missing Children and Adults, said: ‘No town is safe any more.
‘This used to be a problem in cities but now it’s being exported to every town and they are going to carry on expanding because it is such a profitable business model.’
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Yesterday Deputy Assistant Commissioner Duncan Ball, who leads on county lines for the National Police Chiefs Council, said it was impossible to know how many children and adults were involved in drugs gangs and believes the true number of arrests was likely to be much larger.
The National Crime Agency estimate that there are over 1,000 county lines in operation – a 40 per cent rise in just one year – making an estimated £1.8billion annual profit.
A £3.6million national county lines Coordination Centre opened yesterday which will let police forces around the country share information and target gangs operating over a wide area. ‘In terms of exact numbers it is difficult to judge that nationally because it is an extensive issue and the operations of the lines themselves can be very complex,’ Mr Ball said.
‘We know there are 1,000 lines but I would still work on the basis that there are lines that we are still unaware of.’
In broad daylight, the ‘deal’ is made
Young and brazen, he parks his scooter just yards from a children’s playground to make his latest delivery in the middle of the afternoon.
In a spot notorious for drug dealers, the helmeted figure furtively glances around before rummaging in a bag and handing a woman a small package in a plastic bag in exchange for a crumpled bank note.
The suspected ‘deal’ was over in less than a minute before the young man roared off on the white scooter, which had no licence plate.
This shocking photograph, taken as part of a Mail investigation into drug dealing in Norfolk, demonstrates how shameless gangs are operating in broad daylight.
Just an hour before this image was captured, neighbourhood police officers held a street surgery outside the parade of shops 100 yards away to reassure local people and hear concerns.
Over two days, the same teenager, whose identity has been obscured for legal reasons, was seen on his scooter doing a number of deliveries around a park in Norwich, including one drop-off on a street in front of a father walking his son home from primary school. Yesterday a frustrated local resident said: ‘There are drug deals going on all the time. It happens everywhere.’
Last night the image was passed to Norfolk Police for investigation. The force has launched the UK’s biggest crackdown on county lines drug gangs, making 714 arrests, including 126 children.
Earlier this week, the Mail highlighted the force’s extraordinary efforts to disrupt drugs networks, with one single undercover officer who infiltrated drugs gangs securing 72 convictions.
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