Hundreds of people have been arrested as police launch a crackdown on county lines drug gangs. ITV News Social Affairs Correspondent Sarah Corker joined officers on their raids.
Experts are warning children as young as seven are being targeted to work as drugs mules in Merseyside— and some are being groomed through online gaming.
Kate Wareham, of the non-profit Catch-22, in Merseyside, told ITV News: "We recently had a referral for a child of seven years old."
Catch 22 runs a victim support project for under 25s funded by the Home Office; a rescue service helps young people found far from home, whilst specialist caseworkers support them to break the cycle of offending and escape exploitation. Ms Wareham said there were a number of factors that led to a child being targeted, and advocates trying to help them avoid exploitation were noticing a worrying trend.
"Every child online could be subject to exploitation, and we're seeing more and more child being targeted through online games for, example," she added."County lines is a business. Its a very, very high-value criminal business, and so there's a huge incentive to draw children and young people into that business."
Kate Wareham of Catch 22 says children as young as seven are being referred to the not-for-profit in Merseyside
At 13, Nequela Whittaker was selling drugs and carrying knives.
For years she was lost in a world of chaos and violence.
By 16, she was trafficking heroin from London to Scotland and running county drugs lines across the UK, often recruiting other girls as they were less likely to be stopped by police.
She witnessed friends being murdered, mass brawls as well as stabbings, shootings and robberies.
At 17, she was sentenced to four years in prison. Her time inside made her rethink her life and realise she had to change.
Ms Whittaker is now a youth worker on the same streets in south London where she was once a gang leader.
Her mission is to help vulnerable girls and young women escape a life of crime and exploitation through her work at the Global Thinking Project.
'Much of it was survival,' Ms Whittaker said
County lines is when children or vulnerable people are exploited or coerced by organised crime groups into transporting, selling, or storing illegal drugs or money. Since the government launched its County Lines Programme in 2019, police have shut down 3,588 drug lines, including 1,000 in the last year alone.
New Home Office figures show that last week police forces across the country arrested more than 1,600 people, seized 31kg of Class A drugs and more than 400 weapons.
As part of a nationwide week of coordinated action:
1,658 people were arrested
276 drug lines were identified and seized, 68% more than last Intensification Week.
Over £2 million in cash seized
404 weapons seized, including 288 bladed weapons and firearms such as handguns and shotguns.
Policing Minister Chris Philp said over the last three years around 6,000 children who may have been involved or in danger of being involved in county lines activity have been safeguarded
On a visit to Merseyside today, Crime and Policing Minister Chris Philp said: “County lines gangs run vile, exploitative criminal operations manipulating the most vulnerable to do their dirty work, and tearing families and communities apart in the process."
ITV News was been given special access to Cleveland Police’s Organised Crime Unit as specialist officers targeted gangs suspected of recruiting children to act as drug mules.
Several warrants were executed in Middlesbrough, Stockton, Hartlepool and Redcar and Cleveland, which led to more than £150,000 of cash being seized, along with weapons including machetes and claw hammers.
During a raid in Hartlepool police seized two machetes
For the ninth consecutive year, the North East has the highest rate of drug-related deaths of anywhere in England and Wales. Poverty, deprivation and cuts to addiction services have been blamed for the alarming statistics.
Chief Inspector Jon Tapper said: “Through proactive policing operations and a renewed drive on raising awareness of these issues, we are determined to bring to justice those seeking to exploit others by forcing them into a criminal lifestyle.
Police are 'a variety of techniques to try and make it as uncomfortable as possible for those involved in county lines,' Jon Tapper from Cleveland Police said
He added: “We will continue to work tirelessly to tackle county lines, but information from the public remains vital.“
Drugs charities and campaigners have warned that until the root causes of crime and addiction are tackled, county lines gangs will continue to recruit vulnerable children growing up in poverty and deprivation.
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