Evidence has emerged of multiple ‘county lines’ operating in North Yorkshire and Humberside, where vulnerable young people, drug users and sex workers are being exploited and coerced into running Class A drugs, cash or weapons.
Others targeted by the gangs have their homes taken over to act as the local base for branded mobile phone lines which allow customers to place orders for heroin and crack cocaine.
North Yorkshire’s Police and Crime Commissioner, Julia Mulligan, said: “Places like Scarborough have always had an issue with drugs coming in from Merseyside for example, but I think the situation is getting worse and I think we’re seeing criminal groups targeting North Yorkshire from further afield.
“It’s bringing more violence with it. We’ve had a number of incidents that have involved people coming from outside trying to deal on the patch or turf of local dealers and there are consequences. It’s not just in central York or somewhere like that. It’s affecting a lot of communities in North Yorkshire at the moment.”
The arrival of organised criminals from urban areas often results in increased violence.
Humberside Police has linked ‘county lines’ activity to the use of knives, kidnappings and serious physical assaults on its patch, including a suspected punishment attack on a man who had both legs broken and his hand cut off with a machete.
Detective Chief Inspector Matthew Peach, of Humberside Police, said: “Every day we are reacting to intelligence provided by the community and seizing drugs, often before the criminals are having the opportunity to deal it.
“If members of the public tell us about it, wherever in the region that is, we will act quickly and robustly.”
There are now thought to be more than 1,000 ‘county lines’ operating across the country, with towns such as Scarborough, Bridlington and Harrogate targeted.
In its latest report on the issue, the National Crime Agency said: “County lines groups continue to pose a significant threat to vulnerable people and explore a range of opportunities to identify potential new victims. Victims are exposed to varying levels of exploitation including physical, mental and sexual harm, with some over protracted periods.”
It highlights how some individuals are trafficked into remote markets to work, while others are kept prisoner in their homes.
Links are also being drawn to modern slavery, the sexual and criminal exploitation of children, and young people going missing.
Stockport MP Ann Coffey, the chairwoman of the All-Party Parliamentary Group on Runaway and Missing Children and Adults, said: “It’s a bit like child sexual exploitation (CSE). You first have to get an awareness so you can see what you can see.
“With CSE, often that wasn’t recognised. I think it’s the same with this exploitation of young people to carry drugs.
“It’s focused on the criminal activity of young people and not necessarily focusing on them as victims of exploitation, so the people organising it escape scot-free.”