Warning over rising number of girls groomed by ‘county lines’ drug gangs
Islington gangs are involved in lucrative drug trade run in places as far away as Aberdeen
07 July, 2017 — By Koos Couvée
Warning: Councillor Joe Caluori
A GROWING number of teenage girls are being groomed into the lucrative drug trade run by Islington gangs in places as far away as Aberdeen, a leading councillor has warned.
The practice, known in police circles as “running county lines”, involves gangs selling drugs, usually crack cocaine and heroin, in towns outside London using a single telephone number people can ring to make orders.
A new report drawn up for Islington Council’s policy and performance scrutiny commit- tee raises concern that the number of girls – some as young as 13 – involved in this drug trade is growing, and that they are at risk of being sexually exploited by gang members.
“It’s a big worry,” said Councillor Joe Caluori, the council’s children and young people chief. “In Islington, like a lot of inner London, our main child sexual exploitation risk is peer to peer. The girls who get drawn into those gangs are in a really perilous position.”
According to the National Crime Agency, a county drugs line is often guarded closely and masterminded from London, well away from the location where drugs are sold. A delivery system involving locally-based runners is then coordinated from London.
In other cases, where a group is perhaps more loosely organised, criminals engage in what is known as “cuckooing” – setting up shop in the house of a drug addict or vulnerable person by intimidating them and giving them drugs.
This is where girls are being used as “trap queens”, for instance by being forced to befriend vulnerable addicts and run the drug operation from their homes.
Other local authorities and charities working to help youngsters get away from gangs have seen evidence of an increase in the number of girls involved, Cllr Caluori said.
“Part of the reason for that is the gangs increasingly use girls to make the young people look like normal couples so they’re less likely to be stopped by police,” he added. “It’s getting harder to use just young men because the police are more aware of it. But while the ‘muling’ [transporting drugs] is a big part of it, there’s a role in the supply line [for girls] as well.”
He added: “Being involved in the gang is risky for a young woman, and the main risk is being sexually exploited. They’re usually adolescent girls who are sucked into a peer network, sometimes by older boyfriends who groom them.”
Last year, police told the Tribune that around 75 young people in the borough were known to be involved in county lines drug dealing. The latest report says the number is unknown.
Of the Islington gangs, Easy Cash, also known as EC1, which is active in Finsbury, Clerkenwell and parts of Camden, is most prolifically involved.
The Tribune understands that the Town Hall is working with Essex County Council, as a number of Islington gangs operate there. But recently a youngster from Islington was arrested in Aberdeen, where he was believed to be selling cocaine and heroin to oil rig workers.
Cllr Caluori added: “It’s astonishing for [young people] to be hundreds of miles away in Aberdeen. It shows the level of organisation and planning by older gang members.
“South Wales is seeing a real growth as well. So many urban gangs are dealing there because it’s an underdeveloped market and there’s huge demand for drugs.”
Cllr Caluori has taken a lead in London by raising the issue with the Home Office. He wrote to Home Secretary Amber Rudd in February, with the support of 18 London boroughs, calling for the government to do more to tackle county lines drug dealing.
In a new youth crime action plan launched this week, the Town Hall aims to pilot a “risk tool” to track young people involved in county lines, and to give information to taxi and hire car companies about this form of exploitation.
But Cllr Caluori added: “We still have a problem in that central government is not dealing with it as a child sexual exploitation issue – they’ve not understood the gravity of it.
“We have a real battle to get ministers to focus on what they need to do. Cross-border issues are really impossible for one local authority to tackle. But at political level there’s still not a drive to have a strategy to tackle this.”
Stuart Ryan, detective superintendent for investigations, based at Islington Police Station, said: “As the local children services, partners and police response to child sexual exploitation has improved, the broader links to gang activity and county lines and the frequency of persons under 18 being used are becoming easier to identify.
“The majority of our under-18s [at risk of sexual exploitation] are female and we are seeing a growing number of them involved in county line drug dealing.
“The persons we believe are at risk are flagged by children [and] adult services and police so we can have clear intervention plans to reduce the risk they are under.”