How do you peddle drugs in a pandemic? Use the kids of course!

Victoria, Worrall

During the Coronavirus lockdown period in the Spring of 2020 media reporting suggested that there was a new hope for teenagers who are, or are at risk of, being involved in county lines - the need to stay at home would somehow force the reduction of gang activity. However, recent reports have suggested that this is much more complex than first thought, with over 3000 people, from London alone, having being identified as having being exploited, to distribute drugs across the country during the lockdown period.

County Lines, Gangs and Grooming Tactics

County Lines is the term used to define organised criminal gang (OCG) networks who are involved in the importing, exporting and distributing of illicit drugs throughout the country, from urban to sub-urban areas. The term ‘line’ arguably derives from the incumbent use of dedicated mobile phones used to connect customers to suppliers and vice versa.

Synonymous, with County Lines is the gang’s exploitation of vulnerable children to help aid with distribution of drugs and cash across various parts of the UK. Common grooming tactics include, but are not limited to, the promise of status, clothing, financial attractiveness, as well as other tangible rewards. Children who have heightened vulnerabilities, such as being in care, absence from education as well as those living in areas of high austerity, are targeted as, arguably, they are easier to control and coerce. Using criminal exploitation of vulnerable children is a tactic used in order to maximise profits for the gangs involved, as well as remaining under the radar of law enforcement. 

The All Party-Parliamentary Group refer to County Lines as being a ‘national issue’ and there is a key focus on children being exploited. The National Crime Agency reported that in 2019 there were over 3000 ‘deal-lines’ with an approximate 800-1100 lines being active each month, these figures were a 50% increase on the statistics from 2018. As there is a continuous demand for the drugs that County Lines supply, it is a very effective business model with an estimated worth of approximately £500 million.

The Lockdown Recruitment Drive

Where, prior to lockdown, organised crime gangs (OCGs) and County Line distribution could camouflage themselves in the running of everyday life, the restrictions placed, due to lockdown, allowed successful distribution, to become much more difficult. However, the National Youth Agency report, Hidden in Plain Sight (HIPS), highlighted that during lockdown the recruitment of children in to OCG activity was still ongoing, amplified by emerging issues, arising from the lockdown period, which has led to an increase in vulnerabilities of children.

Children exhibiting vulnerabilities such as poverty, lack of interaction with peers, lack of interaction with school and family breakdowns has further exposed children to gang associated activities and exploitation. Youth workers reported that this has led to a ‘gang recruitment drive’ with children being exploited in their local area, and this is continuing to increase.

With an increase of nearly 500% of online advertisements for drugs, with click and collect services being offered, the drug trade was still very much running during lockdown. According to the Crest Advisory, by recruiting children locally, this allowed the OCGs to ‘game the system’ as the young person who they exploit can leave their home on their daily exercise time, deliver drugs, and then return, disguising themselves as key workers so as not to be recognised. 

With children spending more time at home, and more time online this creates an ideal opportunity for recruitment. The use of social media and gaming platforms have been tantamount in aiding the recruitment of children, with gang members using the likes of Snapchat to send clips of children in designer clothes and holding cash, in order to entice new recruits. Where some families have found themselves to be in financial hardship due to furlough and job losses and with reliance on food packages, instant cash for package deliveries, to a teenager, may be too much of a good opportunity to miss.  

Absence Of Protective Factors

For those children who are already seen as suggestible to exploitation, the safety of school and other professional services has also decreased during lockdown, again making it very easy for OCGs to target them for their own gain. Even though schools have been open to vulnerable children, the HIPS report found that less than 5% of vulnerable children attended school at the start of lockdown, only increasing slightly post-Easter. With other services either closed completely, or access being extremely limited, this poses a major challenge when competing with OCGs, especially for children who are now off the radar. Due to the lockdown recruitment drive, there is now the potential of even more vulnerable children involved in the distribution of drugs as well as being at risk of the violent repercussions that can also occur. 

Public Health Crisis

The role that the pandemic has played with regards to the exploitation of children and County Lines, is a public health crisis that needs to be recognised. We need to be clear that many children who are now finding themselves as ‘drug runners’ are not gangland criminals, but victims of child criminal exploitation based upon very unforgiving circumstances. Not only is there the potential for victim-based violence to increase on exploited children, but there is also the worry that more children will be reported as missing, adding to the ever-growing problems generated by County Lines. It is at this time that organisations must work together for the benefit of those children involved, and not criminalise them due to their own child criminal exploitation.

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