DRUG gangs are exploiting children as young as 11 to run more than 2,000 ‘county lines’ networks, some worth up to £800,000 a year each, a report warns.
The number of operations has shot up from 720 in 2017 and now rakes in an estimated half a billion pounds a year in total, the National Crime Agency said.
In the last week alone, 400 children were rescued from the clutches of the gangs, which use them to ferry drugs from their main bases to other areas.
Duncan Ball, a Met Police deputy assistant commissioner, said 600 arrests were made with 140 weapons — guns, knives and knuckle-dusters — seized.
He said: ‘One girl was kidnapped and effectively locked up to serve drug dealers. Sexual exploitation is part of the county lines system. One of the biggest challenges is getting people to realise they are a victim. Some don’t see themselves as exploited because they are rewarded.’
More than 10,000 children could be caught up in the racket because the drug gangs — who infiltrate new areas by dealing from rented flats or Airbnb properties — use up to 12 for each ‘line’.
The problem is no longer confined to city crimelords expanding to smaller outlying towns, with half of Britain’s police forces now reporting that dealers in their area have branched out.
NCA director Nikki Holland said the ringleaders had also been extending their operations, with one London-based route extending to Scotland.
Thames Valley Police separately announced that 43 children had been rescued during an operation to crack down on county line gangs.
Officers visited 115 addresses over concerns of ‘cuckooing’ — when dealers take over the homes of vulnerable adults.