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How London youngsters are recruited to deal drugs in Norfolk

PUBLISHED: 09:35 10 January 2019 | UPDATED: 11:45 11 January 2019

Police during an Operation Gravity drugs raid on Aylsham Road, Norwich. Picture: DENISE BRADLEY

Police during an Operation Gravity drugs raid on Aylsham Road, Norwich. Picture: DENISE BRADLEY

Archant

There has been a spate of violence linked to London drug gangs in Norwich. But how do the gangs recruit young boys from the capital to deal in Norfolk?

A machete found during a police drugs raid in Norwich on flats. Photo: Geraldine ScottA machete found during a police drugs raid in Norwich on flats. Photo: Geraldine Scott

Goodman Square, 5pm, Thursday January 3.

These flats are the latest neighbourhood in Norwich on which police have swooped after a stabbing linked to London drug dealing.

Two teenagers from London were arrested for the attack and for intending to supply Class A drugs.

Norwich’s courts meanwhile have been packed with London youths caught up in an undercover police operation called Granary.

A man was stabbed in Goodman Square on Thursday January 3 2019. Picture: Dominic GilbertA man was stabbed in Goodman Square on Thursday January 3 2019. Picture: Dominic Gilbert

The cases have exposed how young drug-runners are sent from London to Norfolk as part of a network called ‘county lines’.

The lines use a dedicated phone number to bombard addicts with text messages. In Norfolk gangs are thought to be making up to £40million a year through 30 different lines.

Despite police efforts to arrest them and move the problem on through high-profile operations, more and more youngsters are always available and ready to be recruited.

Many of those sent to deal in Norfolk are vulnerable children, with the youngest caught just 13 years old.

Some of the teenage dealers have been in the care system or are groomed in London estates.

In Hackney, for example, 27 people have been convicted over county lines dealing since 2017.

The youngsters – referred to by the gangs as ‘Bics’ because of how disposable they are – can be ‘rented’ or ‘bought’ for up to £5,000 to work on a line.

A single county line phone, meanwhile, can be worth up to £20,000 a week.

An example of text messages dealers bombard addicts with. Image: SubmittedAn example of text messages dealers bombard addicts with. Image: Submitted

The young dealers may only earn £100 a day, but those caught by police can be saddled with thousands of pounds of debt.

According to the National Crime Agency, most children recruited as couriers on county lines are boys aged 15 to 17. An NCA report found children who try to walk away can be tortured or have families threatened.

But according to a London charity, arresting young runners does not tackle the problem.

Islington charity The Pilion Trust runs a shelter for young people who have been in county lines gangs.

Ex-gang member Gwenton Sloley said the running of drugs out of London to places like Norfolk needed to be seen as part of a larger business enterprise. Photo: Steve Poston (for Archant)Ex-gang member Gwenton Sloley said the running of drugs out of London to places like Norfolk needed to be seen as part of a larger business enterprise. Photo: Steve Poston (for Archant)

Chief executive Savvas Panas said the majority of the young men could not go home for fear of reprisal.

He said they were groomed “quietly” by groups over a long period of time, often in apparently innocuous public spaces.

“They target loners and autistics and children from troubled backgrounds,” he said.

“They’ll be alone, sitting in a park, playing ball, and someone comes along and says, ‘do you want to kick a ball around with me?’ Just like that, throwing a ball or going to the shop and having chicken and chips.

Savvas Panas from charity The Pilion Trust said vulnerable youngsters were being groomed by gangs to run county lines. Photo: Isabel Infantes (for Archant)Savvas Panas from charity The Pilion Trust said vulnerable youngsters were being groomed by gangs to run county lines. Photo: Isabel Infantes (for Archant)

“You are groomed and befriended, you go to the movies, and then you have to do tasks.”

Mr Panas said police needed to focus on the outfits benefiting from the dealing instead of the children.

A source who worked with the Met Police tracking a London group dealing in county lines said: “It’s impossible to measure how far up they go.

“When we got closer (in one case) it was one family and there was a large Russian drug ring behind it. But all you see are the little boys.”

An example of text messages dealers bombard addicts with. Image: SubmittedAn example of text messages dealers bombard addicts with. Image: Submitted

A former gang member from Dalston said county lines needed to be seen as part of a larger business enterprise.

Gwenton Sloley said a single operation may be split across five phones, worth £20,000 each because of the contacts of addicts they are loaded with, which can be rented to local outfits.

“Instead of looking at the activities of individuals, focus on the phone,” he said.

Dedicated ‘phone builders’ are deployed to build up contacts of addicts in a target area, giving out the number and free drug tasters, he said.

Mr Sloley added: “The young people are disposable and there will be 30 lining up to go on a line.”

An ex-heroin addict, meanwhile, said: “You can see some of the runners should be in school. Some of them say ‘I’m older than you think’. It’s quite amazing and depressing.”

The Metropolitan Police’s Trident Gang Crime Command, which was launched in 2012, is now trying to target the wider networks that profit from county lines.

A Met Police spokeswoman said: “County lines is a national challenge and police forces and partner agencies are working collaboratively to support those who are vulnerable.

“Each case is different but we work to identify trafficked children and prioritise safeguarding, while prosecuting those responsible for organising the drug supply.”

Crucially, organisers are being tackled with legislation from both the Drugs Act and the Modern Slavery Act.

Norfolk Chief Constable 
Simon Bailey said: “We are regularly going down to London, carrying out warrants, and making arrests.

“There is a consistent dialogue and a constant flow of intelligence between us and the Met, and we are acutely aware of young people being exploited and forced into what is modern-day slavery.”

•Youngest dealer just 13

Figures from Norfolk and Suffolk police show children as young as 13 have been charged with supplying heroin.

Since 2016, 43 children aged 16 or under have been charged with drug offences.

That includes supplying or intending to supply heroin, crack, MDMA and cannabis.

In total 2,167 people were charged with drug offences in that time.

Norfolk chief constable Simon Bailey said: “When we come across cases of that nature we deal with it sympathetically.

“What you will start to see is more and more people who are higher up in these lines being prosecuted for slavery offences.

“More and more work will be done to assist those people who are, without a doubt, subject to exploitation.”

•‘Problem is bigger than drugs’

The Kerridge Court estate is in a quiet area between Hackney and Islington.

But at one stage county lines gangs were believed to be using a set of ground floor flats as a drop-off point for drugs being ferried by young couriers out of the capital.

One resident said: “About six weeks ago the police came and four guys jumped out the kitchen window.”

Another resident of 30 years said that within the last week, boys had been seen running through the estate with butchers’ knives.

They said: “The problem is bigger than drugs; it’s gangs from outside of the area and the people living here are the victims.

“They need to look at people’s parenting and look at provisions on the estate, because there’s nothing attractive around here for children.

“Some of these children aren’t being fed lunch. They need to worry about that; these are the children vulnerable to being groomed.”

•‘I was in a county line drug deal’

A young mother caught up in county lines said children who had been in care were particularly vulnerable.

Yara Molabaksh, now 18, had a troubled upbringing in Hoxton and London Fields and grew up around drug use.

She was arrested in Swansea in July 2016 along with her older then-boyfriend Kristian Holme-Slater and Shaheur Rahman, a dealer who had fled Essex to sell in Wales.

Miss Molabaksh said she had no idea she was to be part of a drug-dealing spree until after agreeing to go on a “trip” out of London that spring.

But over the following months the trio sold heroin and crack cocaine up and down the country.

Miss Molabaksh said she was in charge of answering their Nokia phone and holding the cash and drugs, which were sold for around £20 a bag.

She received an 18-month community order.

“It’s kids in care and foster homes who have been moved over the years that get involved in this,” she said. “Even if it’s hard, it’s never the last option.”

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