Criminal gangs have been dressing young drug mules as nurses and Deliveroo workers to deliver cocaine, heroin and illegally acquired prescription drugs during lockdown, according to a senior officer in charge of tackling county lines dealing at one of the UK’s biggest police forces.
Supt Andy O’Connor of Merseyside police said Liverpool drug lords forced to return home during lockdown were operating a “click and collect” service for couriers disguised as key workers to travel in and out of the region with drugs.
He said the looming recession coupled with high unemployment could make it easier for criminal groups to recruit vulnerable people and their families as lockdown is eased.
In an interview with the Guardian to publicise Merseyside police’s Eyes Open education campaign about the tell-tale signs of criminal exploitation, O’Connor said lockdown had made it much harder to move drugs and money around the country.
He said: “The majority of our crime groups had to come back into force, to come back to the Liverpool and Merseyside area. What you still had in the importing forces was the demand for class A drugs. In a way, what we saw was a ‘click and collect’ service for drugs.
“What we had, anecdotally, was people leaving the area to deliver drugs. People were dressed as key workers, we’ve got evidence to show there were people stop-checked purporting to be nurses or Deliveroo drivers. Crime groups are clever and ingenious. They still want to deliver their commodity, there’s still a significant amount of money to make.
County lines dealers have traditionally put couriers on coaches and trains to deliver drugs and money to smaller towns and cities, but with public transport usage reduced during lockdown, the gangs had to change tack, said O’Connor. Some young people were caught by British Transport Police on trains but others were transported by car, sometimes driven by their relatives.
O’Connor said: “If you are a clever crime group you force a woman to drive a car. Put yourself in the shoes of a crime group leader of a drug gang, use vulnerable women to move your drugs and cash. They don’t look like your stereotypical drug dealer wearing dark clothing, North Face coats, hoods up, baseball caps on. That sticks out like a sore thumb. If you force the mothers, the sisters, the grandmothers to do the drug dealing on their behalf, where there’s debts to be paid off, it’s an easy way to move drugs around the country.”
Young and vulnerable people from Merseyside had been picked up during lockdown as far away as Aberdeen in Scotland and on England’s south coast, he said. Activity increased as lockdown progressed. O’Connor’s force safeguarded two young people in relation to county lines in April, 27 in May and 38 in June. Seventy-four people were arrested during operations over the three months.
Curtailed imports pushed the price of cocaine up from £30,000-£35,000 to £45,000-£50,000 a kilo, he said. Rather than increasing the price at street level, dealers cut the drugs or switched to selling prescription drugs acquired illegally.
“We have seen a significant reduction in the quality and purity,” O’Connor said. “In certain locations outside of Merseyside we know because of lockdown they have been unable to get hold of class A and class B drugs, so some users have been resorting to prescription drugs.”
There are 97 active county lines operating from Merseyside, police figures show. After London, Merseyside’s drug gangs are the second biggest exploiters of young people, grooming children as young as 10, according to the Merseyside Violence Reduction Partnership.
It has launched a public information campaign warning people of the signs of criminal exploitation, how children are groomed by older dealers who buy them targeted gifts of clothes, food and bikes, making them feel indebted and part of the gang or “family”.
O’Connor said: “The people need to realise these people are grooming people the same way sex offenders are. They worm their way into people’s lives. ‘I’ll do you a favour,’ that sort of thing. Vulnerable people are being threatened with significant harm, either to themselves or family members. They will threaten to sexually assault family members.”
Once groomed, the children are sent away to other parts of the UK to sell their drugs, often hundreds of miles from home.
The likely recession could put more people at risk of county lines gangs, said O’Connor. “That’s why what we are doing with Eyes Open isn’t just trying to arrest the drug dealers, it’s helping the people who are being threatened, who are being forced to do this, to put these preventative measures in place.
“We want to give people different pathways and opportunities to help themselves.”