What are county lines gangs? Children as young as 12 being exploited for drug trafficking

Children as young as 12 are being targeted by county lines gangs to sell drugs in Kent, police have said.

Criminals are recruiting young people from areas including London to deal heroin and crack cocaine in the county, according to the BBC.

Kent Police said it has almost halved the number of active county line gangs. Officers said that the numbers operating in the county had reduced from 82 in 2020 to 42 in March this year.

Earlier this month, experts warned that children as young as seven are being targeted to work as drugs mules in Merseyside. Some children are reportedly being groomed through online gaming.

Kate Wareham, of the non-profit Catch-22, in Merseyside, told ITV News: “We recently had a referral for a child of seven years old.”

So what do “county lines” mean and why are they so dangerous?

What is the meaning of the term ‘county lines’ gangs?

The National Crime Agency says the name county lines refers to moving illegal substances across police and local authority lines, frequently using minors or other vulnerable individuals who have been forced into it by gangs.

The “county line” is the mobile phone line used to take orders for illegal drugs.

Why are county lines such a risk?

County line gangs have contributed to the proliferation of firearms and drugs in urban areas. Fatal stabbings have increased due to such gangs, contributing to the highest levels since records began.

Certain children, young people, and adults are vulnerable and more at risk of being drawn into county lines. These include looked-after children (children in care); children not known to services (lockdown led to an increase of children being taken out of school); missing children; vulnerable adults; and others who may be threatened with violence or exploited through their addiction to drugs.

How common is drug trafficking in the UK?

According to official statistics from 2022, approximately one in 11 adults aged 16 to 59 years and approximately one in five adults aged 16-24 reported using illegal drugs in the year ending June 2022; there was no change compared with the year ending March 2020.

Many forms of illegal drugs originate overseas and are trafficked into the UK via various routes, including:

  • Container shipping

  • Yachts and small boats

  • Light aircraft

  • Vehicle traffic from continental Europe

  • Airline passengers

  • The post and fast parcels

The National Crime Agency says profits are high at all stages of drug trafficking, but particularly for those who can access the drugs in their source country. Criminals from the Balkans dominate the cannabis and cocaine market, but British traffickers remain a significant threat.

What is being done to stop risks?

The Government has a 10-year plan to combat illegal drugs, which includes:

1. Restricting upstream flow — preventing drugs from reaching the country.

2. Securing the border — a ring of steel to stop drugs entering the UK.

3. Targeting the ‘middle market’ — breaking the ability of gangs to supply drugs wholesale to neighbourhood dealers.

4. Going after the money — disrupting drug-gang operations and seizing their cash.

5. Rolling up county lines — bringing perpetrators to justice, safeguarding and supporting victims, and reducing violence and homicide.

6. Tackling the retail market — so that the police are better able to target local drug gangs and street dealing.

7. Restricting the supply of drugs into prisons — technology and skills to improve security and detection

The strategy has received almost £900 million of additional funding for the next three years. It is hoping to deliver 54,500 more treatment places, prevent nearly 1,000 deaths, and close more than 2,000 extra county lines.