A new, sinister form of drug dealing, which exploits young and vulnerable people, is emerging in Gwent. NICHOLAS THOMAS finds out more

DRUG dealing is nothing new, and like most cities in the UK, Newport has its fair share of problems connected to drugs – be they networks of criminals supplying crack cocaine and heroin across South Wales, addicts leaving used needles in public places, or the emergence of powerful opiates like fentanyl on the city’s streets.

But the police and other crime-fighting agencies are especially concerned about a growing type of drug dealing through which criminals take advantage of modern technology to boost their sales and exploit young people and vulnerable adults, either luring them into a life of crime with money and promises or threatening them with violence.

This emerging type of drug dealing is, rather vaguely, called ‘county lines’ crime, which describes how established drug dealers based in big cities extend their networks across the country, staying connected using mobile phones.

Most of these dealers live in large cities like London and Liverpool, where they have already set up lucrative distribution networks. They then try to tap into the drug trade in smaller, less competitive areas like Newport.

This can lead to an increase in violent crime as these new drug dealers compete with existing local gangs for control of the drug market.

One of the people leading the fight against the growth of this type of drug dealing says county lines crime can offer high-ranking dealers a lower-risk way of doing business.

Ella Rabaiotti is Wales’ regional manager for Crimestoppers – the anti-crime agency which allows people to report criminal behaviour anonymously.

Crimestoppers is spearheading a new campaign to educate people about county lines crime, including tips for parents and guardians about how to spot potential warning signs their children may be caught up in this type of crime.

The agency is working with Gwent Police to protect, not punish, the vulnerable adults and children being exploited by criminals in this way.

Ms Rabaiotti said county lines crime was “a hot topic” for the police at the moment.

“It’s not just about drug dealing, it’s the fact dealers are recruiting young people and using them to carry or move drugs.

“They’re doing this because it may be a lower-risk option than the dealers carrying the drugs themselves.

“The gangs and the people profiting from this crime don’t live in Gwent, but they send young people and others to set up dealing here.”

Drugs gangs favour a carrot-and-stick approach to recruiting young people as small-time dealers and drugs mules.

For some, a life of crime – and the cash, power and life of luxury it can be seen to bring – is a glamorous prospect.

Dealers groom new recruits, showering them with gifts and money and enticing them into a life of crime with promises of a successful life.

For others, the approach is far more brutal. Threats or acts of violence discourage recruits with cold feet from leaving the gang or perhaps turning to the police.

Both methods involve the exploitation of young people by hardened criminals.

“A lot of this falls under the definition of modern day slavery, and children who are disaffected or isolated are more vulnerable”, Ms Rabaiotti said.

As part of its awareness campaign, Crimestoppers has published a list of potential warning signs that a young person may be a victim of county lines criminals.

These include access to more than one phone, unexplained bus or train tickets, school truancy or going missing, and unexplained gifts or cash.

County lines dealers also prey on vulnerable adults – especially drug users – and sometimes take over their homes and set up a base from which to sell their drugs.

Sometimes, a victim’s silence can be bought using bribes of drugs to feed their habits, but violence can also be used, with some victims essentially imprisoned in their own homes.

For this reason, Crimestoppers also says potential victims may display signs of assault or malnutrition.

County lines criminals go beyond drug dealing offences – they also use violence, extortion, grooming and modern-day slavery to control their recruits.

Earlier this year, two county lines gang members were jailed for human trafficking offences at Swansea Crown Court.

Mahad Yusuf, 21, was sentenced to ten years in prison and Fesal Mahamud, 20, for nine years after they trafficked a vulnerable 19-year-old woman and forced her to transport drugs from London to Swansea.

They contacted her through social media with the promise of work, but instead beat her and forced her to sell heroin.

The case was the first offence of its type to be prosecuted under modern slavery legislation.

Gwent Police recently invited a former gang member to share advice with officers about spotting, and preventing, county lines crime.

Junior Smart, from London, founded a charity, the SOS Project, which helps vulnerable young people involved in, and at risk of getting involved in, the criminal justice system.

Speaking at the Gwent Police event on June 23, Mr Smart told officers how county lines crime could affect young people from all backgrounds.

He encouraged parents to be aware of their children’s activity, keeping an eye out for any suspicious behaviour such as going missing.

“Any young person is at risk of getting involved”, Mr Smart said at the time.

“It’s not just from one demographic or deprived communities, we are seeing middle class kids get involved.

“Every young kid is at risk of potentially carrying a knife to feel safe.”

Ms Rabaiotti praised the work of activists like Mr Smart who are helping people to understand the vulnerable situations young people can find themselves in.

She also highlighted the work of the St Giles Trust, a charity through which young people who have been involved with gangs or have had run-ins with the police can be mentored by others who have overcome similar obstacles.

The charity has links to prisons across England and Wales, including HMP Prescoed near Usk, and its regional office is in Cardiff.

"Police and charities have all got a part to play in fighting this", Ms Rabaiotti said.

The new Crimestoppers campaign is not aimed at punishing the young and vulnerable people caught up in county lines crime, instead seeing them as the prey of more hardened criminals.

For more information about their county lines campaign, or to report any county lines activity, you can contact Crimestoppers anonymously on 0800 555 111 or via their website, www.crimestoppers-uk.org