The Youngest Traffickers: How Drug Cartels Exploit Children

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Photo by Bahar Yassin via Flickr

A 15-year-old child boards a train alone at a major transit hub in England and approaches a ticket collector to ask directions. The child is alone and appears lost, but has a wad of cash which they flash to buy food.

When approached by a transit police officer at the request of staff, the child is nervous and confused. A search reveals a few hundred pounds sterling in cash, 50 wraps of cocaine, and a knife and mobile phone. The child is arrested and taken into custody.

A check reveals that the child is a reported missing person from a town or city hundreds of miles away.

This is a commonplace and often daily event in Britain, as organized crime gangs, operating across city and county boundaries, proliferate drugs distribution by using vulnerable children and young people to courier their product.

The age profile of their targets is usually between 13 and 17 years of age.

It is a phenomenon that has been taxing police and law enforcement agencies in the UK and has been given the encapsulating term of “County Lines” criminality.

The best definition to describe it has been published by the National Working Group charity:

County Lines“…is a national term used by police and law enforcement to commonly describe the approach taken by gangs and criminal networks originating from urban areas, who travel to locations such as county or coastal towns to sell Class A (illegal and highly addictive) drugs. These gangs typically use children, young people and vulnerable adults to deliver drugs to customers and this often results in these people being subjected to deception, intimidation, violence, financial exploitation and grooming.

The county lines business model is linked by a marketed mobile phone line through which users will order for specific drugs to be supplied. County lines scenarios may involve “cuckooing” which involves the criminals taking over the home of a vulnerable young person and using their property as a base to store drugs, firearms and run their criminal activities.”

Because of the insidious and invasive nature of the exploitation, it has rightly become a national priority for policing and social services, and for charities working to protect children from harm.

All police forces in England, Wales and Scotland have their own strategies in their local jurisdictions, but as the criminality regularly crosses police force boundaries a coordinated national response has been developed to tackle the problem.

The National Crime Agency leads on this by helping to enhance the law enforcement response. They have established a multi-agency county lines coordination center which has brought together officers from the NCA, and police, “to develop the national intelligence picture, prioritize action against the most serious offenders, and engage with partners across government, including in the health, welfare and education spheres, to tackle the wider issues.”

The outcome has been the development of a significant co-operating model with public sector and third-sector services, national government and policing. An example of this in action is how the British Transport Police are tackling the issues.

The British Transport Police, the national police force for the UK rail system, has witnessed the rise in the use of the national rail infrastructure as a major means for carrying out County Lines drugs distribution.

In September 2019 they secured a £1 million ($1.4 million USD) Home Office grant and set up a national Task Force dedicated to tackling the problem, and partnered with a major UK charity, The Children’s Society, to devise new interventions and ways of working. This funding has been increased to £3.3 ($4.68 million USD) for the current financial year.

Avoiding Prosecution of the Victims

It was recognized early that the children being forcibly exploited for drugs couriering are victims of the criminals, and it is not always in the best interests of justice to prosecute them.

They are almost always frightened and intimidated, and their exploitation is based on fear of violence, sexual violence, and other threats to themselves or family members. Once in custody, the safeguarding of the child becomes the priority of the charity and social services, whilst the task force officers conduct the investigations to arrest the organized crime group members.

The children will be taken into the care of social services and rehabilitated through fostering or returned to families under supervision. For those that are complicit in the crimes charges will be considered, but the thrust is not to criminalize young people if it can be avoided.

Modern slavery legislation is being used to secure charges as the children and young persons are being used as forced labor. This is proving an effective tactic in fighting the use of child couriers.

The Children’s Society with staff embedded into the British Transit Police (BTP) task force, work to provide training to all front line operational police officers in safeguarding priorities, and training to railways staff and police officers in behavioral detection skills.

They have also launched a national media campaign #look closer to raise public awareness about the exploitation of children and young people and the behaviors to look out for from them at rail and other transport hubs. Since the campaign began the charity has reached over 6 million people through its social media and advertising. It is paying off.

So far the results have been impressive. In the 18 months since the work began, BTP Officers have made 1,279 arrests, 685 drug seizures and recovered half a million pounds in cash. Importantly and decisively, 70 vulnerable children and young persons have been referred for monitoring nationally through the national referral mechanism.(NRM) This the framework through which potential victims of trafficking in the UK are identified, so that they can be supported and protected, and deviated away from the influence of the gangs.

Task Force lead Detective Superintendent Gareth Williams, in an interview for The Crime Report, said:

Since the start of our Taskforce, we have built a strong picture of how County Lines gangs are using the railway. We know where they are operating and the young age groups they target. We’ve used the Home Office funding to bring in experts in child exploitation from the Children’s Society, and we have expanded the team to make sure we can reach across England, Wales and Scotland, putting pressure on gangs wherever they operate.

We are also in step with the wider railway industry, training their frontline staff to identify the signs of County Lines and child exploitation. They are our eyes and ears and we use their reports to identify where we should target next. Our Taskforce plays a vital role in understanding this issue.”

The UK experience of the County Lines phenomenon is not replicated in Europe.

In its latest Drugs Market Report in 2019 (published biennially), the European Union declares that “the connections between drugs and trafficking in human beings are yet to be fully understood, but it is clear that some exist, although they may be quite limited and opportunistic in nature.”

The report makes no reference at all to the UK problem, and in countries like Canada and the U.S. the exploitation of children and the vulnerable for drugs distribution has not been researched or reported upon.

A Lesson for the U.S.?

The U.S. in particular might do well to look at this UK collaborative model as a benchmark for other types of criminality. For example the issue of attacks by homeless and mentally ill people on the staff and riders in the NYC transit system is a continuing problem, and a properly supported and coordinated multi agency approach between NYPD, MTA, mental health and welfare services might be the way to go.

As for the UK, the County Lines coordinating model is clearly a work in progress.

Using modern slavery legislation to secure charges against the gangs for their exploitation of children and young people requires a great deal of evidence gathering. Prosecutors are more likely to prefer lesser charges for drugs supply as it is easier and quicker to secure convictions but with less jail time attached.

Gareth Bryon

Gareth Bryon

Both the courts and the prosecutors are having to catch up. It is of no benefit to policing or the safeguarding of children if the criminals when caught are given lenient sentences and quickly return to operating as before.

It should be expected that, as work progresses nationally and the profile of these crimes against children rise, that the risk of long custodial sentences from modern slavery legislation will outweigh the perceived rewards to criminals from using them.

Let’s hope so.

Gareth Bryon, a former Detective Chief Superintendent, served as a senior officer in the South Wales Police and the British Transport Police, where he led major crime investigations and forensic science services for 30 years.

One thought on “The Youngest Traffickers: How Drug Cartels Exploit Children

  1. Garrett, going further upstream of the problem and resulting in a permanent elimination of any job opportunity – would be to advocate for the legalization of all drugs…nobody is smuggling alcohol from town to town in the UK, correct?

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