A record number of trap and crack houses used by criminal gangs to control the drug trade were shut down by UK police over lockdown last year, VICE can reveal.
Police data disclosed under transparency laws on the number of closure orders for antisocial behaviour and drug activity, the most common method of closing down drug dens, shows at least 254 were shuttered last year – almost double the number in 2016.
It is thought the rise in closures, which will include provincial homes cuckooed by county lines dealers from cities, is mainly down to police forces around the country finding it easier to target drug gangs during lockdown thanks to greater resources and higher visibility of dealing.
Professor Simon Harding, criminology professor at the University of West London and director of the National Centre for Gang Research, told VICE that trap houses were more noticeable over lockdown, but he warned: “Such successes are likely to be short-lived as the dealing will simply move elsewhere.”
At least one police force has said drug dealers exploited pandemic restrictions as “a gateway into the homes of vulnerable adults” by pretending to offer care and support, while charities have warned that school closures made it easier for gangs to enslave vulnerable children. Some are forced into preparing and transporting drugs through debt bondage and threats to kill relatives.
Dr Ben Brewster, an expert in modern slavery at the University of Nottingham’s Rights Lab, said there was an increased emphasis on bulk drug deliveries directly into illegal market centres, where trap houses serve as hubs, during the pandemic.
“There’s a sense that this simultaneously increased county line networks’ reliance on stable bases, such as trap houses, to deal drugs from – further exacerbating risk to those considered vulnerable to cuckooing,” he said.
An Essex Police officer removing contraband from a house in Clacton, Essex on a drugs raid. Photo: Ricci Fothergill / Alamy Stock Photo
The rise in trap houses closed reflects a wider crackdown on drugs over lockdown, which saw increased use of stop and search and a spike in raids on cannabis farms. Authorities reported a 33 percent rise in houses getting trapped over 12 months from February last year, due to hotels and other rental accommodation closing because of COVID restrictions.
Dr Grace Robinson, an expert in child exploitation and county lines, said her research has also found that an increasing number of people who use drugs are being exploited and having their homes cuckooed to run drugs.
“As exploiting children has begun to draw more attention from law enforcement and social services, drug gangs are encouraging drug users to do the running, as well as commonly providing a fee for acting as a driver for the network,” she said. “Exploited young people are regularly being moved from one house to another at short notice and, as one property is closed down, another is found without much difficulty.”
While some police forces are increasingly recognising how people who use drugs and are involved in distribution are often acting under duress, officers face criticism that enforcement action causes even more vulnerable people's homes to be cuckooed as gangs target fresh victims.
Police have had greater resources over the past 18 months to bust trap houses and there were crackdowns across the country. Over a single week in May, more than 900 suspected trap houses were visited by police and 1,750 adults and children were registered with the authorities for support and safeguarding.
One raid saved a disabled man and his carer from a gang, and another rescued three 16-year-olds. Those whose homes are taken over are often vulnerable people with addictions, mental health issues and disabilities who are sometimes later brutally murdered.
A woman in her 30s was given a suspended prison sentence last year for drug possession after her house in Colchester was cuckooed and she was tortured. A court heard she was threatened with knives, made to lick the boots of gang members and had rubbish poured over her head. Two other women were allegedly stripped and branded with heated tongs inside the trap house.
Those forced to transport drugs to drug dens across the country have told of the depravity inside the properties. “Trap houses are literally the most disgusting place you can think of,” a man named Rhys, who was forced to transport drugs from the age of eight, told the BBC. “There are needles everywhere, there are drug wrappers everywhere. Drug addicts will be that out of their face that they want to go to the toilet and they literally poo in tinfoil and throw it out of the window.”
Over the last five years, police have used antisocial behaviour laws to close almost 1,000 potential trap houses used by gangs to prepare and distribute drugs and provide a location for customers to use them. A total of twenty-one forces responded to VICE’s Freedom of Information request to provide the data.
It could represent a fraction of the total amount active across England, Wales, Scotland and Northern Ireland after a top police officer suggested thousands of trap houses could still remain at the whims of dealers who have taken over people’s homes. However, several forces said some of the closure orders may have been linked to other types of occurrences.
Authorities face allegations that drug prohibition has created the worsening situation, since legal regulation would provide regulated shops and pharmacies for people to access drugs more safely. Others say criminals would always try to undercut a regulated stimulant and opiate market.
“Responsibly regulated legal markets would disempower organised crime groups, and reduce the harms they cause, but tragically the government remains opposed to even engaging in an adult conversation about the options,” said Steve Rolles, the senior policy analyst at Transform Drug Policy Foundation.
A National Police Chiefs’ Council said: “Drug dealers use cuckooing methods to exploit the most vulnerable individuals in our society. We are continuing to do all we can to pursue these criminals and this work is resulting in more arrests and convictions.
“Police are committed to dismantling these networks and protect young and vulnerable people who are exploited by gangs and are subject to violence, fear and intimidation.”