The nationwide expansion of drug gangs

Drug gangs are expanding their operations from large city centres such as London, Birmingham and Manchester into smaller towns and rural areas. To do so they are using a new business model referred to as ‘county lines’ – dedicated mobile phone drug deal lines which local drug dealers in smaller towns can use to order drugs from the suppliers in the city centres. According to a recent report by the National Crime Agency, there are over 1000 established county line networks which are each capable of making profits of £800, 000 a year.

These lines are so profitable that gangs increasingly resort to violence to protect them, so this county line model of drug gang expansion probably goes a long way to explain the 50% increase in knife crime since 2015. In fact, a spike in knife crime in a small town or city is believed to be an indicator that a new drug line has been opened up.

How county lines work

Drug gangs in larger cities establish branded mobile phone lines using ‘burner phones’ which are disposable and anonymous, and these are then used to send out group messages to the local dealers around the country offering what drugs are for sale, which is mainly heroine and crack cocaine. Frequently there are special offers such as two for the price of one deals. The drugs are delivered by runners who also collect payment from the local dealers.

Children and drug lines

School-aged children, typically aged 15-17, but as young as 11, are usually used to deliver the drugs and collect payment. The charity Safer London estimates that 4000 children from London are involved. Sometimes these children might stay away in a drug-hub for an extended period, which is known as ‘going country’ or ‘going OT’ (out there).

county lines.png

The children recruited are usually vulnerable, having been excluded from school or from broken families, and many are drug users themselves. They are roped into the gangs by the lure of financial reward, or some might be debt bondage because of their drug habits. Once in, they are exposed to a violent lifestyle and effectively take all the risks for the upstream dealers.

NB – from a legal perspective, the use of children as drug mules now counts as child trafficking, so anyone caught being involved in this is likely to get a very lengthy spell in jail.

Cuckooing

A particularly insidious aspect of these drug networks is a process known as cuckooing…. Where a new local recruit’s house in a rural or coastal taken over by a drug dealer from one of the main centres and that house is turned into a local dealing hub, used to store and possibly manufacture drugs, and sell drugs.

One way this can escalate is that the local dealer is allowed to get into debt, and then has their house taken over as a means to repay this.

Such victims will often be drug addicts with mental health issues and are also likely to be in poverty.

Countering the problem of drug gangs and drug lines 

This is an enormous problem, and its growing fast: 75% of police forces believed new lines had been opened up in 2017 and it’s estimated that the 1000 lines in existence are worth £500 million a year. With that kind of coverage and that amount of money involved, tackling this isn’t going to be easy!

A new National County Lines Coordination Unit has recently been established so the 43 police forces in England and Wales can easily share information, and the police are using anti trafficking and anti-slavery laws to punish the dealers.

In a week of raids in January police arrested 600 people and referred 600 children and 400 adults to safeguarding authorities. More than £200 000 in cash and 140 weapons were also seized.

drug gangs.png

Relevance to A-level sociology

This is obviously highly relevant to the crime and deviance specification. Probably the most obvious links are to right and left realism, and to my mind it’s a great example that proves the limitations of the right realist approach – the nature of this crime is that it’s hidden, and so right realist crime control techniques will probably be ineffective in controlling it.

It seems to offer support for left realism – relative deprivation and marginalisation are the root causes, and maybe addressing these are the only way we’re going to see a reduction in drug related crime in the future?

Sources

NCA 2018 report on drug gangs

NCA county lines report 2017

The Week, 9th Feb 2019

 

 

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Sociological Research on Gangs

In the aftermath of England’s ‘summer of violent disorder’ in 2011, the British Prime Minister David Cameron was unequivocal in apportioning blame: ‘At the heart of all the violence sits the issue of the street gangs. Territorial, hierarchical and incredibly violent, they are mostly composed of young boys, mainly from dysfunctional homes’.

A few days later, Cameron declared ‘concerted, all-out war on gangs and gang culture. . . a major criminal disease that has infected streets and estates across our country’

Unfortunately for David Cameron the image he is painting of gangs is largely nonsense, at least according to to this recent Thinking Allowed Podcast which looks at a recent piece of research on a gang in Glasgow, the main aim of which was simply to explore what gang membership actually meant to the gang members (rather than doing what David Cameron did which is spouting nonsense based on media stereotypes).

glasgow gangs

The research is by Alistair Fraser – ‘Urban Legends: Gang Identity in the Post-Industrial City (first chapter for free). He’s based at Glasgow University and spent 4 years embedded with a gang known as the Langview Young Team – working as a social worker and and outreach worker, spending time hanging out with various gang members (mostly losing at table tennis apparently) and living as part of the local community for 18 months.

He researched one gang – The Langview Young Team (YTM) – a shifting cast of 14-16 year white males who had all grown up in a small territorial area without travelling outside much.For context on Glasgow gangs this article by a local paper is worth a quick read.

Some of his main findings were:

  1. The idea that the gang is like a club which you’re either in or out of and which affects every aspect of members’ lives wasn’t true – rather the gang was a fluid and shifting source of identity for members.
  2. Membership wasn’t fixed or static or stable – its membership was diffuse and shifting. It was not a coherent group, and it was actually quite hard to tell who was a member because there were no initiation rituals.
  3. The gang was something which many people grew up with but grew out of.
  4. The gang was contingent and situational – it was based mainly on a sense of place, linked to structural exclusion and physical immobility linked to living in a post-industrial area in decline (lack of other opportunities).
  5. Violence existed, but less than you might expect.
  6. Status was mostly gained through constant battles of one one-upmanship, often linked to games of football and other games.

Identity in the gang was rooted in two things – in physical locality and also to a sense of local history – membership passed down from older to younger members – young people basically inherited gang membership by virtue of living their whole lives in one area.

Changes in the community meant that there was declining space available for young people to gather this (and possibly the rise of mobile technology) related in young people retreating from the street, which means that there is possibly a decline in gang-identity.

Finally, it’s worth pointing out that Fraser argues that that the typical media-representation of gangs as tight-knit groups who demand a kind of ‘master-status’ commitment from members is misleading. He suggests that there are a such a wide-variety of gangs that we shouldn’t lump them all in the same category – we really need new concepts to describe the variety of different types of gang that are out there (and maybe something a little more up to date than Cloward and Ohlin’s ‘three types of subculture.)

Very finally, something else which was discussed was the relevance of the self-fulfilling prophecy – if officials label a diffuse gang of people as a gang, the leaders emerge claiming to be leaders of it!

Brief Evaluation/ Uses

A very useful piece of research that can be used to slate the relevance of consensus subcultural theory – clearly things have moved on!

Very useful example of a piece of Interpretivist ethnography (what does membership mean to the members?)

Of course it is only gang – so Cameron may be right about gangs in London, they could be different!?!