When Carlie Thomas arrived in a seaside town in the south of England, she wondered if she was in the wrong place. She was there to support young people affected by county lines, but the group of 22 boys she was working with, aged 12 to 17, were all close friends who did not show any obvious signs of exploitation and abuse. She called the head office at St Giles Trust in London, where she is a senior caseworker, to suggest going elsewhere.
“I wondered whether we were in the wrong spot,” she said. “But then we had some clients tell us that they’ve been robbed and that they owed money. And, not long after that, other youngsters started disclosing.”
The disclosures revealed a picture radically different to one a casual observer might expect. Instead of chaos and obvious brutality, the county lines operation in the area was a meticulously crafted affair that shared some characteristics with an ordinary commercial enterprise. Instead of taking over drug users’ homes through force and fear, out-of-area gangs were renting Airbnb properties to manufacture and sell drugs, manipulating young people to work for them, and luring them with offers of stable, potentially risk-free employment.Quick guide
What is ‘county lines’ and who are the victims?Show HideWhat does the term ‘county lines’ mean?
The name ‘county lines’ refers to the phone numbers, or lines, that criminal gangs which traffic drugs from urban to rural areas use to organise the sale of their wares. Gangs in cities such as London, Birmingham and Liverpool use children to deal mostly heroin and crack cocaine over a network of dedicated mobile phones to smaller towns and rural areas.How big is the problem?
The number of individual phone numbers identified by law enforcement officials as being used on established county lines networks is about 2,000 – nearly three times the 720 previously established.
Police estimate the phone numbers are linked to about 1,000 branded networks, with a single line capable of making £800,000 profits in a year.Who are the victims and how are they recruited?
The majority of victims groomed into working for gangs are 15- to 17-year-old boys but children as young as 11 have been safeguarded and girls have been targeted.
Many victims are recruited over social media, with offenders luring them with images of cash, designer clothing and luxury cars, but vulnerable girls and women are being targeted by men who create the impression of a romantic relationship before subjecting them to sexual exploitation.How big is the problem?
In 2015, about seven forces reported county lines behaviour. Now, 44 forces, including British Transport Police, have recorded county lines behaviour on their turf.
No one really knows how many young people across the country are being forced to take part. Children without criminal records – known as ‘clean skins’ – are preferred because they are less likely to be known to detectives. The Children’s Society says 4,000 teenagers in London alone are exploited through county lines, while the children’s commissioner estimated at least 46,000 children in England were caught up in gangs.
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A more conventional model of county lines is still prevalent – and often synonymous with thuggishness and brute force. But this seaside operation, the extent of which can be revealed in detail for the first time by the Guardian, shows how in some cases gangs are becoming more sophisticated and running their organisations like legitimate businesses. In such cases, county lines is professionalising.
“What we always associate county lines with is addicts, needles, bandos [abandoned houses], and prostitutes, but to see how well organised with and how happy the boys were with the situation was even more terrifying,” Thomas said. “Because I thought … how on earth was I meant to pull you out?”
The teenage boys would race to get to the Airbnb at 9am, when the work day began. Work was handed out on a first come, first served basis. Once everyone was given their role, the boys’ lunch order would be taken and an efficient factory line would be set up.
During lunch, the boys would be given an hour to eat their takeaway, often McDonald’s, and play video games. When the lease was over, the boys would clear up and the surfaces would be bleached. They would then move to the next Airbnb property, leaving no trace. Each boy would be given £250 for the day’s work.
It’s a world away from what the majority of children trafficked into county lines experience. One mother, who spoke to the Guardian on the condition of anonymity, said her son was first given cannabis for free, but within days he was told he owed a debt to the local gang.
“They roughed him up. When I did pick him up he had loads of bruises on him and he needed a good meal,” she said. She later found threatening messages on his phone and her son admitted he had been forced to stay in a trap house (drug house), where he had to help package and distribute drugs.
“It’s clear and obvious what’s going on in the bandos and trap houses, but when you’ve got Airbnb, they can be moving every two days and it’s impossible to pin that down,” Thomas said.
The well-organised operation posed a real challenge for social services. “It makes it more difficult to reach them. There’s no way those youngsters were disclosing anything to the police,” Thomas said.
When compared with the work they were doing before, dealing drugs round the clock in a crack house, the current operation was far less risky and the hours shorter.
“They would say: what’s the problem? In their mind, they’re not going missing, they’re not in a dangerous or dirty position. They don’t have to normalise the badness because they feel nothing bad is going on in the house. They felt they were being treated really well and felt they weren’t being exploited. But of course they were,” Thomas said.
The Airbnb operation is just one of a handful of tactics being used by gangs to focus on their profit margin, which youth workers say drive vulnerable children further underground.
In London, there has long been a correlation between a child missing for a substantial period of time and county lines activity, but that has begun to change. Evan Jones, the head of community services at St Giles Trust, said some dealers now know the exact number of days of absences from school that trigger a response from social services.
“It’s a constantly evolving business model – they are always looking at what’s picking them up and what’s alerting the authorities. We’ve had reports of kids working around the school timetable; doing drug deliveries before school, during lunchtime or after school. It’s about keeping them under the radar and not triggering the alerts that would be set off if kids went missing.”
It’s even easier to conceal the county lines activity of a young person at a pupil referral units (PRUs), Jones said. Some students have what he called “twilight hours”, where they are only expected to be at the PRU for a couple of hours a day. “We know of kids who go and deliver drugs to a seaside town and still attend their PRU.”
There are also signs that London gangs are turning to local children to distribute drugs. Jo Hudek, who evaluated a Home Office project run by St Giles and Missing People, told a meeting of the all-party parliamentary group on knife crime that of the 40 or so children supported by that particular scheme, the majority were local children. “There are still London children being trafficked down there with drugs for supply, but it really shows that this is a business model and the commodity is drugs and money, it doesn’t really matter who is selling it,” she previously told the Guardian.
In a calculated investment aimed at expanding their reach, certain gangs offer children an extra £200 when they bring a friend to work on a line. This commission-based work has led to some young people receiving bonuses for carrying out work efficiently.
It’s this “glamorous” lifestyle that is often shown on social media, which has become an increasingly important recruitment tool. Craig Pinkney, a lecturer in criminology at University College Birmingham, said: “We are in a technological era where criminals are utilising social media platforms like Snapchat and Instagram to entice, encourage and ultimately exploit young people.
“This can be any young person. They don’t have to be a young person involved with gang activity or involved with criminal behaviour. This is based on their needs, whether it’s financial, or wanting to be part of a group, or wanting some sort of status.”
We’re seeing young people who are not known to services at all being drawn inAnonymous
Pinkney has seen Instagram posts telling young people if they have accounts with three specific banks to message them their bank details to make “easy money”. They are told they will get a £10,000 cheque in their bank, a gift amount that does not have to be declared to HMRC, and they get to keep about £3,000.
He said many young people did not realise they were taking part in a form of fraud that cleans dirty money and could result in bankruptcy and prosecution.
The type of young people being recruited has also changed. A social worker who works for a council in London, and who wished to remain anonymous, said in 2016 the young people involved with county lines were troubled and vulnerable and attached to the care system, or known to the local authorities. But now, she said: “We’re seeing young people who are not known to services at all being drawn in.”
Campaigners and youth workers say gangs and criminals running county lines are reckless with young people’s lives. The 16-year-old boy who told Thomas about the Airbnb operation also admitted he had been running a small line since 13, starting with cannabis before moving on to harder drugs including crack and heroin. Before long he owed a £200 debt bondage to the gang and was working for free to repay it.
Two older gang members played “good cop, bad cop” to manipulate him. He eventually managed to get out and repay the debt, but in doing so he was isolated from his old friends and ended up joining the gang again.
Thomas said: “It’s so hard to keep up with this because it changes on a week to week basis.” The only way out of this sometimes deadly game of cat and mouse was getting young people to understand that while the lifestyle may appear more glamorous, it often ended in prison or death, she added. “There is an alternative. But young people have to believe a different life is possible.”