County lines: Cambridge’s battle against violent drug feuds
The scale of the ‘county lines’ trade used by gangs to sell drugs in Cambridge is becoming clear – and it is growing.
It is fuelling a rise in violent attacks between dealers and putting vulnerable young people at risk of exploitation.
Police are committed to tackling the problem, but admit it may never be completely wiped out.
“It’s definitely something that’s increased,” Sergeant Paul Street told the Cambridge Independent. “County lines have become a real problem in the past five years or so.
“My team mainly deals with county lines and we’re picking up dealers every day and making it very difficult for them, but we’re realistic.
“You’re never going to solve drug dealing. We’ve accepted that. Our aim is to make it as toxic a place for the dealers to be in and we are constantly keeping the dealers on the back foot. At the moment, drug dealers will stab drug dealers.
“The problem that we have is there are so many drug lines competing in that market that it is saturated and therefore we have drug lines stabbing and attacking other drug lines.
“Although normal members of the public are safe, we don’t want anyone getting caught in the crossfire where there is gang warfare going on.
“It is a real priority to us and we’re going to do all we can to lock up as many drug dealers as we can.”
County lines involves gangs in cities such as London, Birmingham and Manchester using children as young as 13 to deal mostly heroin and crack cocaine over a network of dedicated mobile phones in rural cities and towns.
Cambridge is a hotspot area for these county lines, where there are an estimated 15 to 20 in operation. The reason for this, police say, is that the generous nature of the city draws drug addicts to the city where they can benefit from begging. Crucially, these people are not homeless.
The term ‘county line’ traditionally referred to drugs transported using the rail networks. Over time, and in an effort to avoid police, gangs switched to using ‘flashy’ hire cars like Mercedes and BMWs before changing to using family cars.
Now they establish a base which is usually the home of one of the new drug user customers.
They pay them in drugs so they can take over their home and use it – this is known as cuckooing.
“The drug addict has got a ready list of contacts on their phone of other drug addicts, and the dealers will pay that drug addict with free drugs to stay in their house,” Sgt Street continued.
“They might get three to five rocks of crack cocaine or heroin a day, which would be worth £30 to £50 (£10 a rock), so it’s costing the dealer £30 or £50. They’ll stay in the drug addict’s accommodation and they’ll either sell directly from the house, so users will come to them.
“A wrap of crack cocaine or heroin is about the size of a piece of sweetcorn and people are paying £10 for that.
“Or they will just use it as a base and they will go out and deal the drugs themselves.
“On occasion, we are seeing them sending out the drug user to sell the drugs for them.”
Drugs gangs often use youngsters from outside an area to deal drugs, but the county lines trade also poses risks to young people living in and around Cambridge.
Police recently held a talk on child criminal exploitation for families of Cambridge Academic Partnership to provide information and guidance on the possible indicators that a young person may be at risk and how parents, schools and the community can work together to protect young people.
“The danger for young people, and the message that we’re trying to get across, is that it can seem a very attractive way of making quick cash, however it’s a very easy way of earning yourself three or four years in jail,” said Sgt Street.
He added: “We are very keen to stop young people getting involved in county line drug dealing. Ultimately we want to make sure that people are safe.”
Earlier this year, police admitted in a report to Cambridgeshire County Council that it has been “extremely difficult” to target offenders.
According to the report, families have been left “powerless” when it comes to protecting their children.
“I don’t think there are people that grow up in life and think that they want to be a drug dealer,” said Sgt Street.“It is young people that are forced or coerced into selling drugs or being involved in drug dealing because they think it’s a way of making easy money, or they want to be part of a group and feel safe, or because they want some status in their community.
“But, the message I would give is drug dealing is not cool.
“I genuinely believe that the better this message is communicated to people, then the safer our young people are going to be.”
The majority of victims groomed into working for gangs are 15 to 17-year-old boys but children as young as 11 have been targeted.
Gangs coerce children by selling a lifestyle of expensive cars, quick money and ‘free’ cannabis.
They keep children in their service by enforcing drug debts – frequently inflated or made up.
“What we’re seeing with young people is they’ll be coerced into it with cannabis. Drug dealers may offer them cannabis and then all of a sudden, they rack up a debt and they now owe the line,” Sgt Street said.
He added: “They are then told that in order to repay the debt, you’ll be selling drugs for us.
“We’ve also seen horror stories of drug dealers giving young people parcels of drugs to sell and then they will arrange for the youngster to be robbed – probably by someone in the same gang – and once they’ve been robbed, they are told they now owe the line twice as much.
“The debt is never achievable. There is never a point where the young person’s debt is settled because there is always a way of forcing more debt on them.
“Once they’re in, they’re in.”
Cambridgeshire Constabulary is working with partner agencies to tackle county lines, including the city council and housing associations.