Almost 600 suspected members of county lines drugs gangs have been arrested in a week.
Between May 13 and 20 police forces across the UK carried out a crackdown co-ordinated by the National County Lines Coordination Centre, seizing £312,649 in cash and 46 weapons.
County lines is the grooming and exploitation of children and vulnerable people by organised crime groups who send them the length and breadth of the UK to carry drugs and money, often from cities out into more rural areas.
What is county lines? ITV News National Editor Allegra Stratton explains what the illegal practice is in our podcast, Air Time. County lines is now a well known problem being tackled by police, but back in 2016, county lines was a little known phrase that hadn't hit the headlines - until an ITV News report by Allegra revealed it to a national audience.
In the week long operation:
500 men and 86 women were arrested
519 vulnerable adults and 364 children were safeguarded
30 people were referred as potential victims of slavery or human trafficking
46 weapons were seized, including four guns, swords, machetes, an axe, knives, samurai swords, and a crossbow
drugs including cocaine worth £176,780, crack worth £36,550 and heroin worth £17,950 were seized
National Crime Agency (NCA) County Lines lead Nikki Holland said: “Tackling county lines and the misery it causes is a national law enforcement priority and these results demonstrate the power of a whole-system response to a complex problem that we’re seeing in every area of the UK.
“We know that criminal networks use high levels of violence, exploitation and abuse to ensure compliance from the vulnerable people they employ to do the day-to-day drug supply activity...
“We are making progress in our fight against County Lines but we need the help of professionals working with people at risk of being involved in or exploited by County Lines.
“It’s the nurses, teachers, social workers, GPs, and anyone who works with young or vulnerable people, that can really help to make a difference.”
Signs that a young person may have fallen prey to a county lines gang are suddenly having new unaffordable belongings; going missing a lot; having friendships with older people or having unexplained injuries.
The NCA estimates there are around 2,000 county lines gangs in the UK, and every police force in England and Wales is affected by their activity.
The number of cases of modern slavery involving UK minors went from 676 in 2017 to 1,421 in 2018.
Iryna Pona, policy manager at The Children’s Society, said: “It is good to see police are stepping up their fight against the horrors of county lines trafficking with enforcement operations like these.
“But everyone, including professionals, needs to know how to spot the signs that something is wrong and accept that these young people are not troublemakers, but vulnerable children who are being groomed and need help.”