Violent county lines drug gangs are recruiting Stevenage primary school children

PUBLISHED: 07:01 06 December 2018 | UPDATED: 09:58 06 December 2018

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Violent drug gangs have taken hold in Stevenage, with police officers raiding homes, making arrests and seizing thousands of pounds worth of illegal drugs every week in a bid to tackle the growing problem.

A Comet source, who we are not identifying, says children as young as 10 are being recruited into county lines drug gangs by other children already enlisted.

She said: “They are now targeting 10 and 11 year olds in Stevenage. Children only a year or two older than that are recruiting at the school gates. Children don’t see a stranger as someone their own age.”

County lines is drug dealing which involves criminal networks from urban areas expanding into smaller towns and rural areas.

It often involves the exploitation of children, as gangs use young people and those with mental health or addiction problems to transport drugs and money.

These gangs often take over the homes of vulnerable adults by force or coercion in a practice referred to as ‘cuckooing’.

Our source said: “There are secondary schools across Herts which have county lines gang members – it’s true of Stevenage.

“There have been young kids who have been targeted as being vulnerable and cuckooed.

“They are walked home from school, the door is shut and the house is locked down. Nobody comes out of that house for three days. In that time, drugs arrive and are sent out. If you tell anyone, you are dead.”

Our source says she spoke to a 16-year-old boy who has seen ‘disobedient’ child drug mules have their fingernails ripped out, been slashed in the stomach with a machete and put into a coma for making a simple mistake.

She said: “We are talking of extreme violence. It’s gang warfare on an industrial scale and they have no empathy for life. If you don’t comply, they will take you out.”

Our source says county lines gang members cruise round Stevenage Leisure Park in cars with blacked out windows, looking for children to recruit.

She said: “They are cherry-picking children to be drug mules, targeting children who are primary school-aged.

“It’s everywhere and people need to understand that. You are an elbow’s nudge away from seeing it.”

According to Herts police, there are 266 known persons with gang affiliations in Hertfordshire, and since 2015 there has been a significant increase in the number of children involved in county lines incidents classed as ‘high harm’ – both as victims and offenders.

Chief Inspector for Stevenage, Alicia Shaw, said: “Stevenage has seen an increase in reports of drug and knife-related crime and tackling these issues is a priority.

“We know drug crime is a big concern within our communities. Every week we are executing warrants at addresses in Stevenage, making arrests and seizing thousands of pounds worth of class A and B drugs.

“Earlier this year we ran an operation at Stevenage Railway Station using a knife arch to detect people – in particular county lines offenders – who may be entering the town carrying weapons, and we regularly carry out knife sweeps in areas linked to drug dealing.

“We have also been working with schools to educate children about the dangers of getting involved with drugs and gangs, and carrying knives. We have rolled out our mini police scheme which includes educating younger children about drugs, and Operation Edge will see secondary schools in Stevenage making an anti-drug video.

“This is just a snapshot – our work is extensive, as we are committed to ridding Stevenage of drug crime.”

Detective Sergeant Jon Leak said: “Operation Mantis is a dedicated team of detectives set up by Hertfordshire Constabulary with the aim of identifying, disrupting, arresting and safeguarding those involved in the activities of county lines gangs.

“We are working hard to tackle this issue and are aware of the tactics these criminals use to recruit vulnerable adults and children.

“There has been a significant amount of enforcement action – such as warrants and arrests – in Stevenage, which have led to the seizure of suspected drugs and cash.

“Essential in our fight against county lines is that the public report information about suspected drug dealing and associated criminality. This intelligence is key to us and I urge anyone with information to contact us via 101 or at herts.police.uk/report.

“To provide information anonymously, call Crimestoppers on 0800 555 111 or visit crimestoppers-uk.org.”

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