How genteel cathedral city fell into grip of drug lords who are using children as their mules and ‘bagging’ (shooting in the buttocks) those who disobey them
The teenager who emerged from a park in Norwich in the early hours was in a pitiful state. ‘I’m dying,’ cried the youngster, who was bleeding heavily. ‘Someone help me, please.’
Moments earlier, families living opposite the popular wooded area, off West End Street, had been woken by the sound of gunfire and a car speeding away.
‘I was too scared to go out and help him,’ admitted a woman who saw the scene unfold from her bedroom window. ‘I’m a single mum with three children.’
The shooting a few weeks ago, police revealed, was the first time anyone in Norfolk had ever been injured from a firearm being discharged ‘in these circumstances’, an indication of just how safe Norwich used to be.
The brutal attack confirmed what detectives, councillors and residents knew perfectly well already: that the kind of violence and criminal activity normally associated with cities such as London, Manchester and Liverpool had spread to once sedate, law-abiding Norwich, almost on the edge of the Norfolk Broads.
Few details have emerged about the recent incident. The victim was 19 and came from London. He had been blasted in the back, it was reported (or rather, shot in the buttocks, according to our own inquiries).
Is this detail significant? Perhaps, because it may be a chilling clue to who was responsible.
Shooting someone in the buttocks (or slashing the buttocks with a knife) is a tactic employed by ‘county lines’ drugs gangs to humiliate and ‘mark’ rivals or punish disloyalty.
The perpetrators have a nickname for it: ‘bagging’ — a sickening reference to the fact that those wounded in this sadistic way sometimes need to be fitted with a colostomy bag.
Incongruously, Norfolk, perhaps more than any other area of the country, is engaged in a continuing war with these county lines gangs.The ruthless individuals who control the networks don’t live locally but are based in larger cities: many are at the other end of the M11, which links East Anglia to London.
Vulnerable teenagers, often in the care system, are used as ‘mules’ to transport heroin and cocaine, by train or car, to Norwich and surrounding towns and villages — in other words, from a saturated urban drugs ‘marketplace’ to an untapped rural one where there are vast profits to be made.
At the heart of the operation are mobile phone numbers, so-called county lines, which are circulated locally. Drugs are ordered in the same way you would ring for a pizza, and cut-price deals ensure there is no shortage of customers.
The new criminal phenomenon is having a devastating impact across Britain but especially in Norwich, which has an affluent professional class but also a burgeoning underclass.
It is the desperate and dispossessed who are mainly recruited to make drug deliveries, for money they could never hope to earn legitimately — or, in the case of young teenagers, sometimes for nothing more than a new pair of trainers.
Police admit that trying to tackle the threat is like cutting a head off the mythical serpent Hydra. As soon as one county line is closed down, another springs up.
In the past month alone, 25 county-line dealers have been jailed at Norwich Crown Court — no one believes they are the main players — and since 2016 more than 700 people suspected of county-lines involvement have been arrested in Norfolk, which is famed for its unspoilt lakes, beaches and wildlife.
The writer Virginia Woolf called it ‘one of the most beautiful of counties’.
The effect is corrosive. Parks have become meeting places for dealers and addicts, needles have been discarded in children’s sandpits, youngsters are approached on the way home from school by gang figures in vehicles with blacked-out windows who are eager to recruit them, and violence and intimidation have spread.
Almost every part of the city (population 213,000) has been affected by county lines.
The shooting took place north of the city centre, near the award-winning Fat Cat pub, which is popular with real-ale aficionados. It is near the ‘golden triangle’ where Norwich’s most handsome period properties, some worth more than £600,000, are found.
Sitting in the kitchen of one such elegant Georgian townhouse is a woman who runs a successful business from home. She does not wish to give her name, but she is part of a WhatsApp online messaging group called ‘Drugwatch’, formed with her neighbours to share intelligence about drug-dealing in the area.
‘Cars park up, young men on bicycles pull up alongside, then disappear,’ she said.
On her smartphone is a telling WhatsApp log for a few days in the summer when ‘activity’ was at its height.
The log begins at 09.47: ‘Dealer in silver sports [car] sitting waiting on Ampthill Street.’ 11.43: ‘Police arresting the dealer I saw this morning collect the drugs.’ 18.52: ‘Chap outside Oxford St waiting for someone. Kept checking phone. Looked dodgy.’
The scale of drug-dealing has declined because of the police response and the vigilance of residents. But the woman who started the WhatsApp group, a marketing executive, has had enough.
‘She lives near the lane [off Ampthill Street] where most of the drug-dealing is concentrated,’ said the businesswoman. ‘She has sold her home. It has been really upsetting for her.’
A knife was recently dumped in a garden in Ampthill Street, one of the most desirable addresses in the ‘golden triangle’.
The owner said he has given a statement to police and may be called to give evidence in a forthcoming trial.
In May, a man ran into the pharmacy in a parade of shops opposite Jenny Lind Park, just around the corner from Ampthill Street.
He wanted help for his friend, who had taken drugs in the park toilets and passed out.
‘We went to see what we could do,’ said Maziar Moaddabi, who runs the pharmacy. An ambulance was called and the man’s friend recovered. The police gave Mr Moadabbi a special telephone number, not generally available to the public, as a precaution.
‘They will arrive very quickly if I need them,’ he said.
The parade has become a well-known drug-dealing haunt. Claire Warnes, a sales assistant at a convenience store, is confronted with the reality of the drugs trade almost every day.
‘That’s where they ring up for the drugs,’ she said, pointing to a phone box outside. ‘You can hear them ordering the stuff.’
Then there are the teenagers used as runners to deliver the drugs, which are handed over to them from cars.
‘Sometimes I feel unsafe when lots of them come into the shop,’ said Miss Warnes. ‘They think they’re invisible.’ Many of them, she says, have been caught stealing on CCTV.
The transformation of Norwich is reflected in another set of figures. Of the 135 people who died as a result of drug misuse in Norfolk between 2015 and 2017, 45 were from Norwich, data from the Office for National Statistics shows.
The only other towns in the UK with a higher rate were Swansea, Port Talbot and Hartlepool.
Nowhere is the dark side of Norwich more obvious than in Chapelfield Gardens in the city centre, just yards from the Theatre Royal and upmarket shops and restaurants.
The gardens date from the 1880’s and there is still a Victorian bandstand in the middle of them.
Did the park have a drugs problem, we asked a middle-aged resident who lives in a house overlooking the gardens.
‘Oh my God, yes,’ she replied. ‘This year has been the worst ever.’ She has even seen drug deals taking place on the bandstand. ‘It’s blatant,’ she said.
The kiosk, serving tea and refreshments, is where dealers often congregate. They are easy to spot, she says. They are young, some no more than 14 or 15, and all on pushbikes.
‘They talk like gangsters,’ said the resident. ‘They’re all in the latest gear and fancy trainers. They have manbags stuffed with cash and show off by pulling out wads of cash when they pay.’
These youngsters are victims themselves. Many come from care homes and were sucked in by county-lines gangs, police told us.
One such teenager has just come before Norwich Crown Court. He was running his own county line called ‘Carlos’. And police have identified other county lines, each making around £5,000 a week, with names such as ‘Ninja’, ‘Rico’ and ‘Chris’.
This particular youngster, who was 17 and in foster care, was ‘heavily involved in dealing Class A drugs’, the court heard. He was jailed for two years and eight months after being caught by an undercover officer who first encountered him in Chapelfield Gardens in March.
On Wednesday last week, three boys were sitting on the back of a bench about 100 yards from the café, smoking cannabis. ‘They’re CID,’ they could be heard saying as we approached.
When they established that we weren’t police and got talking, it emerged that two of them were from children’s homes. They insisted they were not dealers. But they had no family to speak of.
Sadly, it is frighteningly easy to see why youngsters like this choose a ‘career’ in county lines.
Almost everyone we spoke to said Chapelfield Gardens was a haven not just for dealers but for addicts, who openly take crack cocaine and inject heroin.
Horrified residents said that discarded needles are sometimes left with the points sticking up, as if deliberately planted in the ground to cause injury. They have been found in Chapelfield Gardens, at the bottom of a nearby children’s slide and in a sandpit at the top of Silver Road.
In Norfolk, offences involving violence against the person rose from 8,294 in 2013 to 18,002 in 2017. This, police say, has been fuelled by increased drug activity resulting in ‘turf wars’ between rivals.
In Chapelfield Gardens, one man had his teeth knocked out by county-lines thugs for peddling cannabis.
‘People are scared,’ said Jane Watkin, a beauty therapist who chairs the newly former Russell Street Community Area Residents Association. ‘People have been beaten up in the street with baseball bats and drug dealers are being arrested outside our front doors.’
Back near West End Street, the mother who heard the shooting recalls that the victim stumbled against her front door before staggering off down the road. ‘The door was wide open when I went downstairs,’ she said. ‘His weight must have forced it off the lock.’
Her 17-year-old daughter has something to relate too. One night a few months ago, she said, she was walking home with friends when a car pulled up alongside them. The driver asked if they knew where he could get weed [cannabis].
He also mentioned cocaine.
‘No,’ they replied. He then asked the two boys in her group if they could ‘do him a favour’ and suggested they go for a drive and ‘have a chat about how they could help him out’. They politely turned down the request and he drove off.
‘It was quite clear what he wanted them to do,’ the woman’s daughter said.
No child is safe in drug gang Britain: Children’s commissioner warns 50.000 youngsters may be peddling drugs on our streets
An epidemic of drug gangs is responsible for a child protection crisis which is as serious a threat as terrorism, the Children’s Commissioner warned last night.
Anne Longfield also said the true number of children being enslaved as drug runners in towns across the country could be as high as 50,000.
Her stark assessment came just hours after a Mail investigation lifted the lid on the scale of the ‘county lines’ drug menace. In Norfolk, police have made more than 700 arrests and held 126 children on suspicion of dealing drugs.
Yesterday Ms Longfield warned that no child was safe as she likened the crisis to the scandal of the child-sex grooming gangs operating in towns such as Rotherham.
She added: ‘That issue was made a national priority, in fact it was made a national threat alongside terrorism and national security and I think this is just the same. It needs to put on the same basis because it can be tackled, children can be protected and this can be prevented.
But at the moment there is no one with a clear responsibility to do that.’
Yesterday, as one former minister said a generation of youngsters was being ‘abandoned’, it emerged that:
*The Home Office has issued new guidance on county lines revealing that white British children aged 15 to 16 are most at risk of exploitation.
*The guidance also states: ‘County lines exploitation can affect any child or young person, male or female under the age of 18 years’.
*Downing Street said the gangs amounted to ‘vile exploitation’ of children
*The chair of children’s services in Norfolk said all parents needed to be on their guard – no matter what their background
Yesterday’s Mail told how police in Norfolk have fought a two year battle against the county lines gangs.
These drug lords – often based in major cities – use a network of children to sell their heroin and crack cocaine on the streets of provincial English and Welsh towns and cities.
The ‘lines’ refers to highly lucrative telephone lines used to contact the dealers. The Mail revealed how in Norfolk alone children were being taken from the care system in London, Leicestershire, Essex and Teesside and sent to Norfolk to sell the drugs.
Yesterday, in a major intervention, Mrs Longfield made a reference to the series of child grooming scandals that have blighted many towns and cities over the last two decades.
She told the Mail: ‘Just as child sexual exploitation was a child protection crisis that was once being overlooked, the grooming of children by gangs in county lines is a child protection crisis that needs attention at a national level to prevent children getting involved, to protect them and help them re-enter mainstream school and society.
‘At every level nationally and locally there needs to be a much greater focus on building the intelligence about identifying the children at risk.’
Mrs Longfield said she was now talking to middle class parents of children performing well at school who had been lured into drug networks after being recruited in school, after school clubs, football fields, and playgrounds.
‘I think this is an issue that’s much bigger than urban areas, it’s much bigger than children in care. It is something that should be a concern to every area of the country, she said.
‘I speak to the parents of children who are doing well in school but they fall in with the wrong crowd and there is also the children that will have problems going on at home.
‘They will be the ones walking home alone who won’t have others around them and they are the easy picks. The parents don’t know where to go and it’s as if no one is there to help them and they literally feel like they are on their own and no one cares.’
The National Crime Agency estimates that there are more than 1,000 county lines selling class A drugs in Britain, who have now invaded every police force area.
According to charities working to protect the young drug pushers, as many as 30 or 50 children might be involved in a single county line.
‘I think we are talking tens of thousands of children who are involved in it rather than hundreds’, Mrs Longfield said. She said the gangs had also recently changed their tactics and were increasingly recruiting local youngsters,
‘With 1,000 lines, you are then looking at 30,000-50,000 children involved which is obviously chilling. If we go back even a year ago we would have looked for county lines activity in urban areas and in some of the seaside towns.
‘But now what we have got is every police force, including places like Cumbria and Northumberland, reporting county lines activity and I think a lot of this change has been very fast.
‘One thing that seems to have changed over recent months is that where there were children from the ‘export’ urban areas being sent outside those areas to sell the drugs, now they will recruit local kids to sell themselves locally.
‘The idea is clearly you can get in more places at once, but also that those kids are going to know their local area, they will fit in the profile of the population.
That means that in every area of the country now you have got kids- particularly vulnerable kids- who are at risk of being recruited into county lines in some form.
‘It’s not just something you can sit back and think well that happens in Manchester or Birmingham or London, it literally now is something which sadly is part of the furniture of every police force in the country and that’s a change.
‘The aggressive model of this business development is astounding – any child could be at risk of coming into contact with county lines now.’
Evidence from parents, education experts and charities suggests that those aged between 10 and 12 are now the ‘typical recruitment ground’ for drug runners who can earn £500 a week.
Staff at one pupil referral unit in the North West estimated that half of their children were in a gang and some 30 per cent were estimated to be drug couriers.
In one instance a boy under the age of 16 was entrapped by a London drugs group who forced him to handle a gun that had been used in a murder so his fingerprints were left on the weapon.
The Commissioner added: ‘The methods that the gangs use to tie them in are vicious and extremely dangerous.
‘Very often part of the process will be that the gang will arrange for that child on their first run to be robbed by someone in the gang and that child will come back and probably get beaten up and told now you owe us for the price of the drugs and the phone.
‘If they break that debt bond and try to break away they are threaten with extreme violence, not just to them but also to their parents and their siblings.
‘The gang will say no one is bothering about you now, no one cares, you will never get a job because you have already committed crimes and you owe us money so this is the only route for you.
‘Of course we are talking about children as young as 12, 13, 14 here who will be absolutely scared to death about the situation they suddenly find themselves in.’
She said that many of the child slaves were not aggressive gangsters, but shy teenagers with low self-esteem.
‘The gang members that I often see are the children that are completely lacking in self-confidence, often quite meek, not physically imposing at all, very shy and very lacking in self-worth.
‘Boys in the main, who could not make eye contact with you and kept their hoods up. The notion is that gang members are all aggressive and imposing. But the main group of children that are being targeted here they will be children that are very vulnerable, visibly vulnerable.
‘There are gang members that are being sent out to find them. They are looking for kids they might pick on at school or at the school gates- they have their eye out.’
Yesterday the chair of children’s services in Norfolk County Council – where teenagers as young as 12 have been arrested for drug dealing – revealed the council has launched a new £250,000 dedicated taskforce to protect children from county lines gangs
Councillor Penny Carpenter said: ‘All parents need to be alive to this and identify the signs themselves in children.
‘We are all working extremely hard but I think the parents have a role to play in this about understanding a child, knowing where that child is, about excessive phone use and perhaps them going missing, or if they are using drug language or for some apparent reason you haven’t given them the money but they are walking in with a new pair of trainers or new jacket.
Parents need to be aware about their own child.
‘You can see what is going on in our towns and cities, the death and destruction caused by these activities and I think sometimes we all get blinded by it, we don’t take it on board because I hate to say it but it’s almost the norm. It can happen to any child. It could happen to your child.’
Norfolk MP and former health minister Norman Lamb said: ‘We need to confront this failure of the education system in excluding children, which leads directly to the criminal justice system.
They are abandoning their responsibility in pursuit of results.
We need a change of culture because the awful truth is it’s not just criminal gangs that are abandoning these children, but the state too.
We’re letting a whole generation of children down.’
Last night Downing Street said ministers were determined to tackle the ‘vile exploitation’ of children by drugs gangs.
Asked about the government’s response to the growing problem, her official spokesman said: ‘The strategy includes a range of measures to tackle these county lines gangs, including £3.6 million for establishing a new county lines co-ordination centre.
The intention is to help police forces work together to clamp down on what is vile exploitation.’
Mrs Longfield said: ‘Parents who have children that they are trying desperately hard to protect feel like everyone turns their back on them and no one has responsibility.
‘That’s something that has to change very swiftly.’
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