Children as young as 12 are being ruthlessly groomed and exploited by organised gangs who are using stun guns and acid to control the drugs market, an official report has found.
Violence, incidents of kidnap and use of weapons are becoming common place in the organised crime groups operating in England and Wales, the National Crime Agency (NCA) said.
It follows an investigation by ITV News, which discovered that current government practice - including the inability of public services to work together - “might be making it easier for criminal gangs to exploit vulnerable people".
The NCA has identified an emerging trend in the behaviour of drugs gangs, who operate in a distribution model knows as "county lines".
It typically involves urban gangs travelling to locations such as a county or coastal town to sell heroin and crack cocaine.
More than 70% of police forces in England and Wales reported "established" county lines activity, the NCA said.
The report found gangs:
- Groom children to deliver drugs to customers, using intimidation techniques including violence and debt bondage;
- Typically exploit children 15 to 16-years-old, but ages range from 12 to 18;
- Make an average of £2,000 a day from selling drugs;
- Base themselves at a property, often belonging to a vulnerable person;
- Use tactics such as rotating gang members to evade detection;
- Enforce local dominance using Tasers and acid as weapons;
- Target adults suffering from mental health issues.
Eighty per cent of police forces in England and Wales reported the exploitation of children, with 71% reporting established county lines activity within their area.
Other findings include the dominance of London gangs, which were reported in 85% of areas.
More than a third of areas reported the presence of Somali gangs from London.
Others gangs were reported to have travelled from Liverpool, Manchester, Birmingham, Reading and Essex. However, with the exception of Liverpool, these were in the minority.
Protecting vulnerable adults and children
The NCA said one positive finding is that 90% of police forces are actively working with local partners to safeguard vulnerable adults and children.
It added that the most successful safeguarding outcomes have involved multiple agencies, including police, housing authorities, town councils, public health bodies, charities and the media.
Tony Saggers, the NCA’s Head of Drugs Threat and Intelligence, and co-author of the report, said: