What is county lines?
County lines involves the supply of illegal drugs from large urban areas to smaller cities, towns and provincial locations using dedicated mobile phones, known as deal lines, to take orders. Offenders frequently target children and vulnerable adults to facilitate such criminality - manipulating and coercing them into drug trafficking and distribution. Young women are sometimes specifically targeted for recruitment into exploitation in county lines because they less are likely to attract suspicion from law enforcement.
Victims coerced into county lines are often surrounded by threats and violence, be it from their exploiters or rival gangs. Women and girls can also be subject to sexual violence and blackmail, with offenders sometimes using indecent images as a means of control. As a result of this control and fear, victims are likely to avoid telling others about the reality of their situation.
Demand for drugs has continued throughout the COVID-19 pandemic, meaning children and vulnerable adults continue to be coerced into distribution models, despite school closures altering the places in which victims are identified and recruited. Social media remains a key enabler in this, with vulnerable persons identified and offered opportunities to earn money rapidly.
County lines gangs are organised criminal networks who are constantly refining their operations to avoid detection resulting in the signs of exploitation changing and becoming increasingly subtle. They may, for example:
- target victims who do not fit existing stereotypes such as young people from more affluent backgrounds and girls, who are less likely to be picked up by the police
- use platforms such as Snapchat, Instagram and TikTok to target victims
- use holiday accommodation, including airbnbs, caravans and hotels, as a base for their operations so that they are more difficult to detect.
County lines can also involve cuckooing, where dealers take over a local property, usually belonging to a vulnerable person, to use as a base for their criminal activity.
As with other forms of exploitation, people exploited in this way often don't report what is happening - sometimes due to fear or shame and sometimes because they don't see themselves as victims.
Why and how do children and young people get drawn into county lines?
It's important to understand that the criminals behind county lines are ruthless but organised gangs. They use sophisticated techniques to coerce children and shocking levels of violence to keep them compliant.
In broad terms, young people are targeted and chosen - the exploiter usually seeks out those that are marginalised and vulnerable. They will look for things like age, vulnerability, situation and characteristics that may help them go unnoticed.
They will observe their chosen victim to understand their vulnerabilities, needs and wants and then work to gain and build the young person's trust.
Coercion may involved glamorising their lifestyle while developing the young person's trust by including them and making them feel wanted and protected. Often, a gang member will befriend the young person, buying them gifts like branded clothing and trainers, mobile phones and food. They will spend a lot of time making them feel special - as much as is needed to build trust. The young person will gradually be drawn into their lifestyle, introduced to other members of the gang and trained up in what they are doing.
Hooked and trapped
The young person will begin to feel a sense of belonging - as though they are a member of the gang with a sense of identity within the group, possibly being given more responsibility and a bigger role - which can become dependence. But ultimately, their treatment at the hands of their exploiters usually starts to become unpleasant for example with threatening behaviour, blackmail, violence and sexual assaults. A common tactic involves staging a mugging. The victim will be entrusted with something of value - they will then be mugged, losing the item. The gang member will get angry, possibly violent, and insist they need to pay back the value of the item, and give them packages to deliver.
Physical and mental abuse are common along with threats of violence or death to their family members if they try to leave the gang. Despite this child victims may not even realise that they are being exploited. They may believe that the members of the gang are their friends and that they are being looked after.