AWARE Campaign: County Lines
County Lines is a term that is becoming more familiar as it features on news bulletins, appears in Sunday supplements and is the subject of TV Documentaries. Now widely used, it was initially police jargon to describe the practice of criminal gangs moving drugs from urban centres for sale in burgeoning markets in provincial towns.
Whilst the importation of large quantities of drugs into the UK is controlled by highly organised, multi-national crime syndicates, street-level dealing – particularly in crack and heroin – tends to be the preserve of so-called street gangs. Street gangs are groups based usually in urban centres whose identity is forged around a specific, delineated geographical location such as a postcode area or an estate. Borrowing from long-established street gang culture from the United States, these gangs may have their own colours, hand gestures and tattoos to distinguish themselves from rivals and use graffiti to mark their patch. These gangs often have an enduring collective identity, although names can change over time to reflect a change in leadership, a splintering or a merger with another group. It’s common nowadays for gangs and gang members to have a presence on Social Media platforms and YouTube, where “Drill” music videos are posted. Drill is a sub genre of hip-hop known for its violent descriptions of gang life. Drill music videos are often professionally and expensively produced and are a platform for street gangs to assert their identity, show strength in numbers, boast of their credentials in making money and using violence, and issue challenges to rivals. Drill is part of a sub-culture that encompasses County Lines (and street-level drug dealing more generally) along with a certain style of dressing and the use of the Multi-cultural London English (MLE) dialect and slang.
County Lines is a business model borne out of practicality and the laws of supply and demand. Flooded drug markets and violent rivals in cities became a problem for street-gangs; opportunities for expansion were limited and risks were high. Enabled by technology, such as the mobile phone, gangs began to move their businesses out into provincial towns where they could assert control over drug markets with relatively little resistance from local dealers. The commodities remained crack cocaine and heroin, both of which are highly addictive and can generate a steady income from habitual users. Crack cocaine is a free-base form of the drug that is easily produced by mixing cocaine hydro chloride (the salt or powder form) with freely available household chemicals and heating. This process is usually undertaken by the street gangs themselves.
The “line” in County Lines refers to a mobile phone number and not, as is sometimes assumed, a geographical line or boundary. These lines are “branded” with their own names, for example The “Mason” line or the “Chucky” line (these are real examples). The Line has a list of users – a customer database – and sends mass marketing messages out by text message or, increasingly, WhatsApp which carries the security of end-to-end encryption. These messages contain what is available, the price by quantity and even “special offers”. The user will call/text the number which is either picked up directly by a dealer in the area or, more commonly, somebody back in the city who then relays the message to a local dealer or runner (courier).
The exploitation of children and/or vulnerable adults is integral to the County Lines business model. The first County Lines tended to use the properties of vulnerable adults, usually drug addicts or those with learning disabilities, to deal from. Usually a deal is struck whereby the property is made available for use by the gang in exchange for drugs. However, once established in the property the gang will often switch to coercive methods to retain its use. This process is known as “cuckooing”. Children from the cities of origin are trafficked to cuckooed properties with a quantity of drugs and instructions to sell them to local users. The children are made to conceal these drugs in bodily cavities (sometimes forcibly inserted and retrieved by others); a practice known as “plugging”. The children typically stay in cuckooed properties until the drugs are all sold at which point another child is sent down to replace them with a fresh supply (known as a “re-up”). The risks faced by a child in a cuckooed property are numerous; they are at risk from drug users who use in the property, hazardous conditions, injury from used syringes and violence from rival gangs who also operate in the area.
A more recent trend has been for gangs to recruit children from the places where they are setting up business as drug runners. This method has several advantages for the criminals; the children know the area and can deliver the drugs, negating the need for a cuckooed property which, once identified, can be shut down by the police with a closure order. Local children are also able to blend in more easily; they reflect the local demographic and have local accents. Perhaps most usefully, local children are less likely to be reported missing than a city child who may be away from home or care for weeks at a time, drawing unwanted attention from authorities.
Grooming children for County Lines drug exploitation is a process. Firstly, a child is targeted. Vulnerability, beyond the inherent vulnerabilities of childhood, is attractive to exploiters. These vulnerabilities can include poverty, being outside of mainstream education, poor-self-esteem, a need to feel part of something or a fascination with and attraction to the sub-culture of which street-based drug dealing is a part. For this last factor, social media is particularly fertile ground for exploiters in that a child following a gang or gang-affiliated individual on social media implies a keen interest in the street-gang lifestyle. It also provides an opportunity for children to be contacted privately through Direct Messaging functions.
The next stage involves friendship forming. An approach will be made to the child either in person or online. The child may be given drugs (typically cannabis) in initial face-to-face exchanges as a sign of “friendship”. Sometimes the groomer will have a high social media profile or be known to the child through drill music videos on YouTube. It understandably makes the child feel good to have attention from – and be associated with – somebody with elevated social status within the sub-culture and this can have an extremely powerful effect.
The “friendship” is cemented with gifts – often clothes and gadgets – that subtly and gradually put the child in debt to their groomer. At this point the exploiter seeks to isolate the child from those who would protect them and disrupt the process. With the child feeling obligated, the groomer can then begin to corrupt them firstly with “small” jobs like holding a package before moving them on to the riskier tasks such as moving drugs and money, undertaking transactions with end users or using violence against rival runners. It becomes increasingly difficult for the child to voluntarily walk away as they are drawn deeper.
There will almost always be a financial incentive for children to “work” for County Lines drug gangs. However, the child is liable for any loss of cash or drugs to the police or rivals and arrest or robbery are constant risks. Sometimes, County Lines gangs will set up one of their own runners to be robbed, leaving the child feeling indebted to the gang. This is known as debt bondage. At this point the child will feel scared and trapped.
Violence is part and parcel of County Lines drug dealing and the sub-culture in which it sits. Physical violence and sexual violence/humiliation are common punishments for perceived transgressions. Physical violence is used in the struggle for drug markets, to assert dominance over others and in retaliation for violence inflicted or debt incurred. Violence is also used to attain status within the sub-culture; “earning your stripes”. Status is all-important in this form of toxic hyper-masculinity and the minutest threat to it – for example a “look” or an insult – can result in catastrophic violence. To be involved in the world of street-based drug dealing is to be at risk of violence.
The modus operandi of County Lines gangs is constantly evolving and adapting, making it difficult for law enforcement and child protection agencies to get a foothold in tackling the problem. Unencumbered by the bureaucracy of large, complex organisations the gangs can make changes quickly. They also exploit weaknesses in cross-border communication between different Local Authorities and police forces, although progress has been made to mitigate this with the launch of the National County Lines Coordination Centre by the National Crime Agency in 2018.
The challenges of working with children affected by County Lines, and against those who exploit them, are numerous and complex. Awareness raising of the subject among the many communities touched by this problem is one way we can make it more difficult for exploiters to operate in our towns, villages and cities.
Author: Nick Young – Exploitation Prevention Manager Bracknell Forest Council