When police issued a missing persons appeal for a 15-year-old north London teenager in October, his friend was on Snapchat reproducing the police mugshot with “MAN’S GONE CUNCH!” typed above. “Cunch” in this case refers to “going country” – the growing trend of city gangs sending young runners out into the sticks to sell crack and heroin.
It got me thinking: behind the appeals for missing teenagers we often see in local papers and social media, how many of them will be missing this winter, and over Christmas, not because they have strayed from their care home or gone to stay with an absent father, but because they are holed up in a drug user’s dingy council flat in somewhere like Margate selling crack and heroin at the behest of a London drug firm?
Then, last month, the media reported the “alarming” disappearance of nine teenagers from just one London borough within the space of just a few weeks. The missing persons appeals showed they were aged between 13 and 17 and predominantly black. What had taken these lads off the streets of Enfield, a suburban part of north London with high levels of crime and poverty?
To many, it felt like something out of a Stephen King novel. Or a human version of the Croydon cat killer. The mystery of the Enfield vanishings was reported as far away as America, Australia and Africa. Online, while there was paranoid talk of “organ harvesting”, one thing that kept on coming up on social media in response to their disappearance: this wasn’t about a killer on the loose or people having their kidneys removed, this was more likely to be about kids selling drugs miles away from home.
We cannot be sure why these children went missing, nor can we be sure that their disappearances are in any way linked. At the time of publishing only two of the nine remain missing, with a third boy found, only to vanish again within hours. But we do know that at least one of the nine missing boys, who cannot be named for legal reasons, had been going country at the time his mugshot was being circulated.
While relatives were stepping up the search for him using his image on Facebook, Twitter and Instagram, the 14-year-old was selling crack and heroin 100 miles away from his north London home, on the Fenside Estate in Boston, Lincolnshire.
He was rescued by police only after his family’s a social media appeal – a rarity for most of the boys who go missing – went viral, resulted in him being spotted by two Boston locals.
Speaking to VICE from his home in America, the cousin who co-ordinated the online search campaign, including one tweet which got 100k retweets, said: “I received info via Instagram that he'd been seen in a shop in Boston, UK. I spoke with the shopkeeper who said he had come in a couple of times that week with older people. Then on Facebook I was contacted by a local who actually saw him get into an altercation with an older, local drug dealer.
“She saw the older man roughing him up because he was selling in what he called "his area". She went over to fend him off and realised she'd seen his face somewhere. She said he seemed really scared and was pleading with the guy, telling him he was told to sell there by the older drug dealers.” He had been selling drugs day and night from a flat on the estate.
“He was persuaded to go with money being the incentive. They weren't allowed to leave until everything was sold. Then they went back and another young child from London swapped with them. I believe he was scared, it's a very volatile environment.” He reported the sightings to the police and the next day the boy was found and brought home.
He says his cousin’s involvement in going country stemmed from being excluded from school last year. The boy ended up at a pupil referral unit, where he made friends with some fellow pupils who knew a gang of older drug dealers selling drugs in the local park. “It's very easy in my opinion for children who have been disengaged from the school system to be susceptible and vulnerable to local gang members. In fact, they're targeted,” the Enfield boy’s cousin tells me. “Some of them are lured by the elaborate lifestyle of these local drug dealers. Social media plays a huge part, so does being easily led and not having a role model. It is difficult for parents who are struggling financially. They're spending more time working then parenting in a lot of cases.”
One of the other missing boys appeared to be under some kind of pressure. His mother told a local newspaper that while she was putting up missing persons posters in her neighbourhood, she was shown a Snapchat video featuring her 15-year-old son. “It looked really suspicious. He was in the video with people who nobody could identify. He didn’t look well; he just didn’t look in the right frame of mind. His aunty said he looked like he was under some sort of spell.”
No-one knows how many of the 134,757 children registered as missing last year in the UK are connected to going country. The vast majority are found within 24 hours. Unsurprisingly, those working the out of town drug selling routes rarely tell the police or their families what they are doing. When the missing return from going country, often before going missing again within days or weeks, no-one has a clue where they’ve been. But those working to help find missing children say the link is undeniable.
Staying off the radar of the authorities, going missing for days or weeks at a time while keeping your mouth shut is part and parcel for the thousands of young people going country throughout the UK. Obviously this is easier to do if no-one is chasing you up – those out of mainstream schools, with families who can’t cope and from local authorities where the funding for youth outreach services has been cut to shreds. Under physical threat from their bosses, children also avoid unwanted attention by telling their parents not to register them as missing, avoid arrest because of their age and refuse to admit what they are doing even to close friends.
“When a young person goes missing it’s often a sign that something is seriously wrong in their life,” says Rhiannon Sawyer, Greater London area manager for the Children’s Society. “We see in our work supporting young runaways that many young people, particularly boys, are going missing because they are manipulated and coerced into criminal activity. The nature of criminal exploitation means that young people who are controlled in this way are very likely to go missing from home – often repeatedly and for long periods.
“Too often, these young people are seen as having chosen to get involved with gangs and as a result are dismissed as “troublemakers” when they go missing, and criminalised when they are found. It’s crucial that the police assess the risk of criminal exploitation every time a child is reported missing, and recognise that young people found involved in drug dealing or gang activity are victims of trafficking and exploitation,” she said.
The NCA’s 2017 report into “county lines” also recognises the growing link between missing children and county lines, admitting that “the use of missing persons is a commonly reported feature of county lines activity with many being encountered during police stops and warrant searches”.
Police know of at least 720 county line drug selling operations running from cities to satellite towns, most of which are peopled by multiple teenage runners. But the NCA admits “the true correlation between missing persons and county line drug dealing is reported by many forces as an intelligence gap, as it has not yet been fully established or understood”.
Analysis of missing persons appeals in London since the summer reveals that the flurry of young black boys going missing over three weeks in November and December in Enfield was actually very normal. Enfield police said there were the usual amount of missing teenagers from the borough, it was just that the appeals stuck out more because they had gone out on Twitter.
There is a race element to the disappearances too: according to the police’s missing persons database, black children are more than three times more likely to go missing than white children. Perhaps this is connected to the fact that black children are hugely over represented in the care system, and among those who are exploited by criminal gangs. Certainly, in terms of going country, black teenage boys make up the majority of the workforce sent to the shires from London to sell drugs.
The question is, what is being done about this? There’s progress but it’s slow and missing children found locked into the drug trade need to be helped rather than criminalised. “It is vital that missing is understood as a warning sign and children who are at risk or have already been exploited are given the support that they need to stay safe,” says Josie Allan, from the charity Missing People.
Next year will see the setting up of a National Missing Persons Register, which will allow information to be shared across police borders, making searching and tracking children employed on county lines networks a lot more efficient. The link between children who go missing and their involvement in going country is being investigated by the All Party Parliamentary Group on Runaway and Missing Children and Adults, which published a report in July calling for more education, awareness and support for exploited children who go missing. In October the Home Office gave a £300,000 grant to Missing People and St Giles Trust to help children who have come back onto the radar after being used to sell drugs.
In the meantime, many news stories about vanishing teenagers are not, as is often assumed, tales about a killer stalking young men, or organ harvesting. It’s a story about something far more pernicious: how a rising tide of teenagers, involved on the vicious frontline of Britain’s crack and heroin trade, are increasingly going missing, and sometimes falling off the radar completely. The people exploited by drug gangs to work at the dangerous coalface of the drug trade, regardless of their streetwise trappings, are in reality some of society’s most vulnerable children. They should be treated as such.