The disturbing truth about County Lines
County lines is a form of criminal exploitation where urban gangs persuade, coerce or force children and young people to store drugs and money and/or transport them to suburban areas, market towns and coastal towns. 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.
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.
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.
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.