The thousands of British children being exploited by drug gangs are increasingly exposed to a world of extreme violence, with police and prosecutors struggling to get a grip on the “county lines” phenomenon.
Inner-city gangs, driven by a desire to expand their networks into coastal and rural areas while avoiding detection, are preying upon children as young as 12 and sending them hundreds of miles away from home to sell Class A drugs.
In an alarming sign that the issue - first reported by ITV News in 2016 - is spiralling out of control, police have reported a surge in violence linked to the gangs.
New evidence, gathered by the Labour MP Ann Coffey, reveals a worrying increase in murders, rapes, stabbings, kidnappings and torture tactics as gangs use brutality to enforce their power over the young people they control.
As government and law enforcement debate how best to respond, we speak to the former gang leader who recruited young drug mules, the mother grieving for her living son, the teenager who has had their childhood stolen and the officers on the frontline of the county lines crisis.
- How it works
County lines is not as universally known a term as it perhaps should be, given the scale and severity of the nationwide issue.
It involves gangs using young people to move drugs and money from saturated markets in inner-city hubs to coastal towns and small villages.
The trade - named after the telephone lines introduced in new areas to sell drugs at street level - is aimed at muscling into new territories to maximise profit while reducing personal risk for the traffickers.
They use children because they are cheap, easier to intimate, less likely to attract attention and - chillingly in their eyes - easily replaceable.
Employing grooming methods reminiscent of those used by rapists and child abusers in Rotherham and Rochdale, traffickers target vulnerable youngsters who are in care, excluded from mainstream education and already known to social services.
They manipulate them with promises of cash, lavish gifts, drugs, friendships and sometimes the promise of creating a better life for their families, and if all that fails - they resort to intimidation and threats of violence against them and their loved ones.
Once under their control, the “younger” will carry Class A drugs to the new territory. He or she will be given a mobile phone and put up in the home of a local addict who has been “cuckooed” by the gang, either with the use of violence or the promise of free drugs.
From the new found “trap house”, they are on call 24 hours a day to hand over drugs to customers.
The key terms
County lines: The telephone lines used by gangs to control drug markets around the country
Going country: Transporting drugs from inner-city hubs to new coastal and rural markets
Cuckooing: Taking over an addict’s home to use as a base for dealing drugs
Trap houses: Bases used to deal drugs 24 hours a day
- A drug mule's story
Andre’s story is becoming all too familiar for many of Britain’s most vulnerable teenagers.
Andre - not his real name - was 16 when well-known gang members targeted him as part of their latest recruitment drive.
“They came to the house and there were about six of us playing PlayStation. They said, 'Someone has to go country…we have to make our money'. No-one volunteered and one of the main older guys started to beat up one of my friends.
“When he went to hit him again, I said I'll just go.”
That panicked agreement sparked a chain of events that the teenager is clearly still reeling from.
After telling his mother that he was staying at a friend’s house, a “terrified” Andre was placed in a car, driven out of London and ordered to stay in the home of a drug addict.
Once there, he was given a phone and told to wait for a call. Only when the phone rung was he allowed to leave the crack den - where the addict would frequently take hard drugs in front of him - to deliver cocaine and heroin to clients.
“I was scared, they were older than me and I knew their reputation so I knew I couldn't do anything about it,” he says, describing his fear of the gangmasters. “So I stayed for another two weeks without a bath and not leaving that place apart from selling the drugs.”
Andre, who has now managed to escape the gang, is under no illusions about the ruthless nature of the trade.
“At the end of the day it's people's money and violence goes hand in hand with it. They don't care about the young people's lives - they see them as easily replaceable.
“I’ve heard cases where young guys have lost money or been robbed, and if they don't get it back they owe them their life. If they can't pay it back or refuse to pay it back then their life is in danger.”
In a warning to young people tempted by county lines, he said: “They didn't care what happened to me. False loyalty exists and a lot of young people think they are looking out at them but really if you get arrested or killed, they'll just get someone else.
“Those lies: we'll help you look after mummy, feed you, buy you trainers but they'll drop you at the drop of the hat. It's like modern day slavery - 100%.”
- A mother’s agony
The pain and frustration of watching your academically and sportingly gifted son descend into a criminal underworld is too painful at times for Gina, not her real name, to recall.
“He was around 13. The transition from a normal child into a...I don't know how you can describe it...it's like he didn't belong to me. He became a completely different person.”
In hindsight, a reluctance to attend his once-loved athletics training triggered alarm bells. His behaviour then rapidly changed. He started misbehaving, arriving home late from school and then disappearing for weeks at a time.
Gina recalls waking up one night to overhear her son on the phone. He’d begun selling drugs from the front door of her home.
“I was beginning to understand the intensity with what he was involved in.”
Despite trying everything to help him, Gina says failure was inevitable when battling a system she believes still wrongly views teenagers like her son as perpetrators instead of victims.
“He's been injured, nearly fatally stabbed, in young offenders, adult prison….there was no prevention or [him] being seen as a victim - I was completely on my own.”
In a matter of months, she has gone from worrying about whether he would do well at school to fearing a call telling her that her son is dead.
“I don't see a positive outcome. I basically fear [for his life] every day.”
She says the issue is an “epidemic” in her area with dozens of teenagers becoming victims of what campaigners argue is an underreported form of modern slavery.
“Words can’t describe - literally they [the gangs] have taken him away from me. I’d ask them why? Why have you chosen to do this? Taking these young innocent lives?”
- The gang leader's techniques
Matthew Norford was lured into a life of crime by his older brother and his friends aged just 13, before rising to become one of the most feared gangsters in Manchester.
Now reformed and dedicated to helping young people avoid a life of crime, Norford has given an honest and vivid account of how he would manipulate young children to help expand his drug network.
"I groomed and I taught my gang members how to groom other kids," he told ITV News.
"You look at the young kid who has no trainers, no parents, who's always on the street, not good at school, wants to be accepted and is just happy to be around you."
Norford left gang life following the violent death of his brother, vowing to turn his life around.
"I had sleepless nights of all the kids lives I've ruined and people I've hurt.
"Those kids could have been basketball players, footballers, doctors, instead of gang members, drug dealers and the worst of society."
- Escalating violence
As police and government begin to recognise the scale of the problem, it is becoming more widespread and more dangerous.
Of the 45 police forces across the UK, 32 of them - more than 70% - reported significant increases in violent crime linked to county lines.
The disturbing examples included:
- An increase in the use of knives, bats, hammers and boiling water
- A 16-year-old was sent to Cheltenham to deal drugs in a local school uniform
- A Liverpool man's hand was severed by a machete and both his legs broken in a punishment attack
One force said: "Extreme violence, humiliation and torture are common place, with dealers deliberately creating a culture of fear, intimidation and human misery in order to control their victims is commonplace."
- The response
Police and prosecutors are attempting a new approach to stop children being systematically groomed and sent to the frontline of the drugs trade.
They are starting to use human trafficking and modern slavery legislation to charge drug lords in the hope that the tougher sentences - as well as the stigma of being prosecuted as a child trafficker- will act as a deterrent.
Speaking as a raid was carried out on a suspected "trap house", Nick Davison, from Norfolk Police, said the county lines business model was entirely based on "exploiting people".
"They are being exploited. It is a very complex issue that all agencies have to grapple with, not just the police. We have individuals being groomed by these drug dealers. They are being identified as having vulnerabilities, exploited as a consequence and they fund themselves hooked into that lifestyle."
As for the exploited children, police, prosecutors and social workers have been urged to heed the lessons from Rotherham and Rochdale.
“We must not make the same mistakes again of blaming children,” said Ann Coffey, who commissioned the research and is a prominent campaigner on the issue.
“Children and young people caught up in this brutal world are victims of criminal exploitation - not criminals.”
- By Allegra Stratton, Imogen Barrer and Jamie Roberton