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Couriers as young as 11 sent into countryside, police warn, as analysts blame social housing policy for spreading problem.
Children as young as 11 are being used as mules to carry drugs on trains out of London by criminal gangs seeking to expand drug markets into the surrounding towns and countryside, leading officers from police forces in London and the south-east have warned.
Kevin Moore, intelligence manager for the south-east regional organisedcrime unit, said forces in the south-east had stepped up operations after noticing a rise in the number of London gang members setting up drug supply lines from the capital to surrounding towns and cities.
“We’ve been focusing on this in the south-east, but it is happening the length and breadth of the country,” he said.
“Being enterprising individuals, [drug dealers] go outside London where they perceive that law enforcement may not be as consistent – our job is to make sure they know that is not the case,” he said.
The unit had evidence that young people were being used as runners, he added. “It is not unknown to see kids in their early teens or even as young as 11 or 12 running guns and drugs for more senior gang members.
“There have been incidents were young people were found with large-ish quantities of crack, cocaine and other class A drugs.”
In response to an increase in cross-county drug dealing, south-east forces set up monthly meetings in London to share intelligence 14 months ago, said Moore.
DCI Tim Champion, of the Met police’s Trident gangs unit, said that moving drugs out of the capital into surrounding territory was an established “modus operandi”, which police were targeting.
“London gangs see the potential for drug supply out of London, to expand their markets and their business, but we are targeting them wherever they go.”
While the majority of criminals the unit dealt with were aged 16 to 24, younger teenagers were also being used to sell drugs and establish new markets.
“We see young people asked to courier class A drugs to wherever the market is,” he said.
“Often those carrying the drugs are not running the operation. In that sense it is similar to a mule situation where the risk is taken away from the elder [members] who can behave with impunity with less risk of getting caught.”
Girls were also being used, he added. “It is not just young boys, we are doing a lot of work with girls associated with gangs who are not only being asked to hold drugs and weapons but also becoming victims of sexual abuse and assaults.”
DCI John Coull, of Kent police, said while the force had not seen a noticeable rise in drug traffic in recent years, there had been a drop in the age of young people working for gangs.
“It started with males in their 20s, but it is getting younger, towards 14-15; the youngest we’ve had is around 13,” he said, adding that the county was not “flooded” with young criminals, but was regularly seeing incidents.
“They are sent down to earn their spurs, but because they can be less tactically aware they are often picked up,” he said.
The force did a mapping exercise of potentially gang-associated young people and their families, who had been rehoused to towns such as Dartford and Gravesend by London councils looking to reduce their housing stock shortage, he said.
“There was a fear that if a critical mass of people associated with the same gang moved to the same area of Kent it would be easier to set up a gang in the new area,” he said. “That has not happened yet but we are very alive to the risk.”
Drugs dealers from London were also known to recruit local drug users, using their properties to deal from in a system known as cuckooing.
He said: “There are vulnerable people – through drugs or mental health issues – and the dealers know to prey on these people.
Trains were being used by drug dealers looking for new markets because it provided “a degree of anonymity that can be attractive to travelling criminals, particularly with better use of ANPR [automatic number plate recognition] technology to track suspect vehicles on the roads,” confirmed a spokesman from the British Transport police.
Criminals could rapidly cross boundaries and police jurisdictions, but while “moving crime scenes and transient populations can make detection more difficult in some circumstances” the density of CCTV cameras on the rail network was a vital tool in tracking suspects and gathering evidence, he said.
The extent to which young people are being used in the drug supply chain is difficult to gauge as specific data is not being collected, but reports in local papers show a steady rate of incidents.
Last August a joint operation between the Met and Kent police led to 10 arrests in Gillingham, with the youngest aged 16, while a 16-year-old London boy pleaded guilty to possession of ammunition and possession with intent to supply class A drugs after being caught throwing a sports bag out of a window when the 21-year-old gang leader he was working with was arrested near the town’s station in Kent.
One Kent-based solicitor, with 20 years’ experience, said there had been a noticeable increase in children from London coming through the Kent youth courts.
“It’s very much a phenomenon of the last five years and although we’re not talking about a massive deluge of cases, it’s noticeable,” said the solicitor, who asked not to be named.
“It appears these kids are below the radar, chosen because they are usually clean. In the main they seem fairly respectable – their families sit in the back of court utterly lost for words.”
Gifford Sutherland, director of Foundation 4 Life, a Croydon-based organisation for young offenders, said the intense rivalry and competition between rival gangs in London, coupled with the Trident successes and new links being created between London and surrounding towns as families were moved into social housing outside the capital were all contributing to pushing dealers further afield.
“Three or four years ago they could operate for several years without hiccups, but now London is so perilous for them they are looking for untapped markets, with rivals that are nowhere near as dangerous as those in their backyard,” he said.
But young people getting involved in running drugs were putting themselves at great risk, he added. “Young people are a prime target for getting robbed, whether your drugs are taken by another gang or you are caught by the police – if you lose it, you owe it.”
Camila Batmanghelidjh, from the charity Kids Company, warned that the expansion of drug markets risked taking problems more commonly associated with inner-city London into the surrounding countryside.
“If there is no money in the ghetto, then dealers will go where there is money to be made – just because of the principles of business,” she said.
“They are sending young people to other towns and the leafy countryside and it is only a matter of time before the toxicity of the ghettoes spills out.”
In a bid to prevent young people entering gangs Trident had changed tactics in recent years, putting more emphasis on prevention, diversion and exiting gangs, said Champion.
“We sit down with gang members and tell them that if they want to exit we will support them, but if they don’t we will use the full force of the law,” he said.
But too little was being done to prevent the economic polarisation that created alluring conditions for drug markets, said John Pitts, an expert on gangs.
“We are arresting these young people but not tackling the conditions that leave them vulnerable – we are dealing with the symptoms and not the cause,” he said.
“The government has a troubled families programme and a gang strategy but when it comes to tackling spiralling poverty, they don’t want to know.”
With the retreat of the state, sweeping cuts to youth services and few jobs for young people, some are left people feeling the social contract they are offered is not “enticing”, said Paul Olaitan, a former head of youth services in an east London borough, who said he regularly saw children working the “country lines”.
“As local authorities and government have removed themselves from communities, what is left behind is a group of people left to fend for themselves,” he said.
“We have seen just how resilient some communities in London have been, but there will always be a stubborn cohort who need additional support, and if that is not being offered by the state then it will be offered by someone who is not at all interested in the betterment of society.”
– The Guardian