UK Gangs Target Children as Drug Mules

January 29, 2019 Updated: January 29, 2019

LONDON—Criminal gangs that sell drugs across Britain are trafficking more children—some as young as 11—to transport their wares as the illicit trade expands, police bosses said on Jan. 29.

Victims of the so-called county lines drug trade are getting younger as gangs target children via social media or across schools, foster homes, and homeless shelters, according to the National Crime Agency (NCA).

Thousands of children in Britain are estimated to be used to carry drugs from cities to rural areas—most aged between 15 and 17—and many are trapped in the growing trade by debt bondage or threats of kidnapping, violence, and rape, the NCA said.

The number of phone numbers linked to the county lines trade and identified by police has more than tripled over the past year to at least 2,000—indicating the scale of the problem, according to the NCA’s fourth annual report on the issue.

“Criminal networks use high levels of violence, exploitation, and abuse to ensure compliance from the vulnerable people they employ to do the day-to-day drug supply activity,” Nikki Holland, head of investigations at the NCA, said in a statement.

“What we will continue to do with our law enforcement partners is disrupt their activity and take away their assets,” said Holland.

Holland told a committee of lawmakers that people involved in transporting drugs were getting younger and more vulnerable.

Many young people recruited by gangs don’t see themselves as victims but are flattered by the attention and gifts they receive, so are less likely to speak to police, the NCA said.

In Britain, 2,118 children suspected of being trafficked were referred to the government in 2017, up 66 percent in 2016, and the highest annual number on record. About a third were British and many were used as drug runners, officials have said.

By Kieran Guilbert