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£3 million per day county lines drugs business fuelling knife crime



Drugs runners are operating 2,000 “county lines” routes from big cities into smaller towns and the countryside, according to new figures obtained by Sky News.

We can also reveal that the business is worth over £3 million a day.

Sky News has obtained exclusive access to people involved in this ruthless trade, from wholesalers to drugs mules.

Our investigation demonstrates how this brutal business is contributing to the rise in knife crime across the UK.

We started out in a “trap house” in north London. This is where drugs are prepared, sold and taken.

Here, a drug wholesaler brandishing a Rambo knife boasted that the weapon was “just something I give to the kids who go out for me”.

Sky News met London drug dealers, who cross county lines to sell crack, cocaine and heroin.


Sky News meets violent London drug dealers running county lines

With money and drugs strewn across the table, his colleague explained: “There’s always problems with other dealers – so you’ve got to sort out your problem.

“You give the kids a weapon. They go up there and they do it. Once you’ve sorted out one or two problems, they tend not to come to you.”

As we interviewed them, the two dealers sold crack cocaine to a 42-year-old addict – Mark Page.

He said he spent all the money he had on drugs.

Mark Page spends all of his spare money on illegal drugs
Mark Page spends all of his spare money on illegal drugs

“Once I start I can’t stop,” he told us.

Then one of the dealers gave a detailed account of how gangs within the capital are seeking out more rural markets.

He said: “Most of our business is outside of London. Me and my buddy go somewhere and find a crackhead. I’ll give them some rock (crack cocaine) for their numbers, their friends.

“Once an area is established, I’ll get the kids to go out there for me.”

The children are paid £300 or £400 a week and age between 12 and 16.

Cocaine and heroin are among the class A substances flooding UK streets
Cocaine and heroin are among the class A substances flooding UK streets

“The younger the better,” said one dealer, adding: “They need money, mummy and daddy ain’t got no money. So they come to uncle.”

He offers an induction week for his new recruits, which he called “boot camp”.

The county line itself is a phone line, controlled by the dealer, which is sometimes given to the runner who the addicts can contact for a delivery.

The wholesaler in north London said he operates “like a pharmacy where you can get anything”.

But he had a chilling warning for anyone trying to break in to his market area.

Police have made hundreds of arrests during raids on so-called 'trap houses'
Police have made hundreds of arrests during raids on so-called ‘trap houses’

He said: “It doesn’t matter who you are. If you come and step on my toes and violate our business, you’re going to get shot, stabbed in the face.

“If you’re a little boy or a grown man. Anyone can get it. You step on my toes you’re f**ked.”

This is a classic county lines operation, which police say has now become a problem in every single police force in the country and has exploded in the last five years.

Sources have told Sky News that the police are expected to announce that the number of known county lines have increased by a third to 2,000.

It is estimated each line can make thousands of pounds daily, creating a combined industry of £3 million a day.

Sky News can reveal that in a two-week operation by the National Crime Agency (NCA), more than 500 suspects have been arrested, 78 weapons seized, and 95 drug lines destroyed.

More than 250 people involved in the running of drugs for the gangs have been safeguarded, including children.

The violent nature of those at the centre of these operations, and the extent to which they are expanding, is at least part of the explanation for the worrying increase in knife crime across the UK.

Vince O’Brien, head of drugs operations at the NCA, told Sky News: “Clearly high levels of violence are a concern. When people get drawn into criminal gangs, then the way in which those gangs resolve the disputes between them is with violence and that’s certainly part of the problem.

“One of the issues with the serious violence is violent competition between drugs gangs and stabbings, acid attacks and shootings can be part of that competition as they look to take over the market and that can be a real concern.”

The former drugs lead at the NCA, Tony Saggers, has become the leading expert in this area and now advises local police forces.

He said: “County lines has become the expansion of London, in terms of the violence and knife crime and the young people involved. If you deal drugs somewhere else you cause agitation and potential violence.

“Because you are expanding a workforce and the geography of your operation – you need more people involved. You can no longer run around a London borough with six people involved if you are covering six counties and a dozen towns.

“That’s where the children come in.”

These wider markets are further from the reach of the metropolitan dealers who are controlling them and this brings greater levels of violence in order to maintain that control.

County lines can bring in huge income for drug dealers
County lines can bring in huge income for drug dealers

Sky News spoke to a teenager who has been running a county line ever since being taken into care at the age of 14.

The girl – known as Sarah – said she sold class A drugs such as heroin and crack and that the dealers are getting more violent and using “guns, knives and acid” to keep a grip on their business.

On one occasion, Sarah was punished with a stabbing because her shipment was stolen from her.

Children’s Commissioner Anne Longfield told Sky News she was probably set up to make her feel indebted to the gang.

She said this was becoming a common tactic.

This girl has been stabbed during her time as a drugs mule
This girl has been stabbed during her time as a drugs mule

“The kids who are the collateral, these aren’t huge 17-year-olds with great physical presence and imposing characters, these are often small, vulnerable children who look quite meek, don’t have much confidence,” she said.

“But they are being exploited, frightened, and groomed, and also huge levels of physical violence held over them to do what they do. Most kids involved are scared stiff.”

Sky News travelled with a 47-year-old woman who was a drug mule to Southend. She said she was frightened to go to the police or stop doing what she was doing, but hated being part of the drug dealing network.

Upon arrival in the seaside town, Sky News spoke to several young people who said they have been approached by dealers from London asking them to get involved.

They said the town had changed for the worse as a result and no longer felt safe.

This courier transported drugs in two Topshop bags
This courier transported drugs in two Topshop bags

Kofi, 17, admitted he sometimes carried a knife.

“The town centre is such a dangerous place – I don’t feel safe,” he said.

“In a place like this, without a weapon you don’t feel safe. There have been times when I’ve felt like I’ve had to.”

The NCA’s Vince O’Brien told Sky News county lines had been a real challenge to cope with.

He said: “The response to county lines is a complicated one. It’s about the demand for drugs and it’s about the way people are moving around the country.

“The Home Office has funded a new county lines coordination centre where the NCA is working with local police forces to coordinate the national effort to respond to it, to build up an intelligence picture and to understand how we can respond most effectively.”

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