Drug gangs from major cities are exploiting Lancashire's vulnerable and elderly
Criminal gangs based in Britain's largest cities are turning their attention to quieter towns and rural areas - many miles from their own doorsteps - to peddle their deadly wares.
And Lancashire police are increasing concern about the ‘county lines’ dealers coming into Lancashire’s rural areas and coastal towns, as gangs in Manchester, Liverpool, London, and West Yorkshire look to expand their operation.
Drug syndicates are identifying rural or smaller urban markets to flood with drugs.
And often it is young or vulnerable people who are groomed or forced into working for them as drugs couriers, transporting and storing drugs and cash between the new ‘market’ and their urban base.
Campaigners say they may have been recruited using intimidation, violence, debt bondage, or grooming.
The young drugs runners are often deployed to market and coastal towns many miles away from their home by senior gang members.
Some have been as young as 10, but one report suggests the majority of children recruited by county lines networks are boys aged 15 to 17.
Lancashire Constabulary says young people may become trapped through experimental drug use or mixing with the wrong crowd.
Now the force is joining other agencies and asking communities to look out for their vulnerable neighbours whose homes may be being used as drugs dens.
On Monday it will join the North West Regional Organised Crime Unit (Titan) and other forces in launching an awareness campaign to publicise the issue.
Det Insp Simon Upton, of the force intelligence bureau, says: “Whilst it’s not a new trend, what we are seeing is more young people involved.
“The feeling is they are targeting teenagers now more than before.
“Lancashire is leading the way in trying to understand who is coming into our force area, and linking in with the National Crime Agency.
“We are looking at identifying trends and patterns and trying to identify people who have been targeted through a vulnerability."
He said the force had seen a higher percentage of county lines operating in Blackpool and some in Morecambe.
He described the targeting of some vulnerable people as “opportunistic” in that they may be people already caught up in drugs use.
He added: “Some of these people build up some kind of debt that allows the upper echelons of a gang to target them.”
As well as youngsters, gangs also exploit vulnerable adults such as drugs users, alcoholics, or those with mental health problems or learning difficulties.
In April the force identified a vulnerable young woman who had been couriering items between London and Cumbria via Lancashire.
Two men were later arrested in the Preston area.
One neighbourhood officer in Preston has witnessed drug users exploit elderly men in the county.
He says: “There have been incidents where vulnerable elderly men have been befriended by habitual drug users.
“They believe they have a companion or girlfriend but these predatory women befriend them intending to exploit them for money or their property.
“The issue can be difficult to tackle because often the person does not realise they are being manipulated.
“They are happy for it to continue because they think they are getting something out of it whether it be by drugs or by companionship.
“Before they know it other users or criminals are visiting their home.”
The National Crime Agency (NCA) estimates there are more than 720 county lines across England and Wales. Gary Murray, regional manager for Crimestoppers North West, said transient populations in resorts like Morecambe and Blackpool had made it easier for drugs gangs in those areas.
He says: “County lines is a massive issue, there’s not one force that’s not seeing signs of it.
“Nationally it’s the biggest threat because gangs from major cities have developed this business model, a bit like Tesco, expanding into areas where they don’t have a presence.
“They can’t expand their market in their existing areas any further, so they begin to look elsewhere.
“But they are not only bringing drugs, they are also bringing linked violence to rural or coastal areas. These areas are seeing an influx of drugs and other tactics they’ve never seen before, such as the exploitation and abuse of young or vulnerable people.
“Any area is vulnerable if the criminals can create the demand by moving into that area and bringing drugs that aren’t normally easily available. An area that doesn’t have a drugs issue is a prime target for the gangs to move in and create a network.
“The Mr Bigs behind it are very divorced from what’s going on on the ground. It can affect all communities - those exploited could be middle class kids who are being offered the latest phone or trainers.
“The couriers can travel in on trains and buses while other people rent cars.
“The message to the public is that they’re exploiting people who are vulnerable in society to make criminal profits and don’t care what damage they do to them, or their families.”
The aim of the campaign is to to help residents spot suspicious signs and encourage them to report any concerns in confidence through CrimeStoppers on 0800 555111.