As commuters arrive into Britain's major cities from their homes in the shires, a different kind of commuter is travelling the opposite direction. They're more likely to be young and wearing trainers, tracksuits and puffer jackets. Most of them generate more cash each day than their city-bound counterparts. The tools of their trade are a cheap mobile phone, a bag of class A drugs and a knife.
Last week, the National Crime Agency released its second report into the growing phenomenon known as "going country" – city drug gangs sending young runners to sell crack and heroin in market or coastal towns. The report found that these were no occasional day trips: over 180 urban drug dealing gangs have expanded into the jurisdictions of three quarters of British police forces.
Going country, or "OT" (out there), is not an entirely new phenomenon. Gangs from the big four UK drug hubs – London, Birmingham, Manchester and Liverpool – have been sending dealers to sell in less crowded areas since the rise of the highly profitable crack selling business, and of mobile phones, in the 1990s. The drug trade in Ipswich, Suffolk, for example, has been dominated by London gangs since 2003.
Yet, in the last decade, across Britain the trickle has turned into a flood. Using motorways and trains, city gangs have expanded their reach far and wide, beyond the commuter belt, from Devon and Gloucestershire to Humberside and Scotland. London gangs – the most prolific of them all – have taken over the trade across the south of England: in west country towns such as Swindon, Melksham, Aylesbury, Bournemouth and Yeovil; in southern towns such as Hastings, Eastbourne, Worthing, Tunbridge Wells, Margate and Brighton; and in the east, in Colchester, Cambridge, Norwich, Leiston and Bury St Edmonds.
What's more, the dealers are getting younger, with children as young as 11 being found selling drugs in areas a world away from the inner city zones they call home. Meanwhile, as the newcomers increasingly discard the old school criminal code of local drug markets, rivalry, enmity and violence intensifies.
Despite recent police and media reports about this phenomenon, little is known about how these gangs operate and the impact they have on "host" towns. In truth, it's a story about a collision point: where people's desperation to escape poverty and pain meets head-on with the cold, hard economics of the drug trade.
Darron, 22, from an estate in south London, was selling heroin and crack in the backwaters of Kent and Hampshire when he was a schoolboy. He started his life of crime at 13, carrying out street robberies and selling cannabis with his friend to fellow pupils after school. By the age of 14 his friend had moved to the Kent coast, so being entrepreneurs, they decided to set up a little business selling heroin and crack in Erith, Slade Green and Dartford.
Darron was in charge of buying, packaging and sending the product down to Kent. He sourced the drugs on tick from "a connect in the drug trade" and sent two runners, paid £200 a week to sell via a 24/7 phone line, to Kent, where they were managed by his friend. "They weren't paid much and had to work hard," says Darron. "I sent a white guy and mixed race girl – they looked like a couple. It's all about camouflage. We were all 14 and 15 at the time, and we felt like drug kingpins."
It didn't last long. After two months Darron's friend was arrested with the weekly stash and sent to jail. And busted young drug runners don't just have the court to fear; Darron became indebted to his supplier and was forced to sell drugs unpaid in Winchester for three weeks to settle the debt. When he was himself arrested carrying drugs two years later while selling in London, he had to work off his debt in Winchester again, before serving a nine-month jail sentence.
As with any job, some bosses are better than others. By no means are all young drug runners forced into it or made to work in slave-like conditions. However, the evidence from youth workers, police and drug users interviewed by VICE reveals that "going country" is often a lot tougher and less lucrative than working in McDonalds. Many kids are ruthlessly exploited, working long hours on little or low wages and subjected to punishment beatings for losing money or drugs. Some gangs have arranged for young runners to be "mugged" of drug stashes so they can become indebted to – and, therefore, totally under the control of – their paymasters.
But the chain of exploitation does not end there. With police forces now wise to the movement of city gangs across the countryside, the use of local people – and particularly their homes – as cover has become paramount for the city gangs.
The MO is the same wherever the gangs send their teams: local drug buyers are tossed just enough class A drugs to enable the city gangs to operate behind the scenes while extracting maximum profits. The gangs will provide dependent drug users with narcotic sweeteners in return for taking over their homes and turning them into off-pavement stash houses, crash pads and dealing dens. Drug users will also be employed as drivers and low-level runners. The gangs will use local sex workers to spread the word. They will charm local girls into thinking they are their girlfriends, often using them as runners and their homes as bases from which to sell drugs.
"It's a dog-eat-dog world and they can smell vulnerability," says Debbie, a former sex worker who has "hosted" dealers from different London firms at her home in Southend, a respectable-looking resort town on the Essex coast, for several years.
"I needed them as much as they needed me," she admits. "I relied on them because the more addicted you are, the more vulnerable you are. If I complained they shut me up by giving me drugs. I was scared of losing my property, which was all I had. In the end I had a total break down."
Debbie has been off drugs – for the first time since she was a teenager – for 18 months, so she's been able to keep the dealers from her door. But her experiences provide a unique insight into the lives of those "going country" in Southend.
"I did have empathy for these boys. Some were as young as 14. They were kids, but they never talked about normal teenage things. They were shutdown people, always silent. They were mentally drained," she says. "They used to lie on my settee and sleep with the phone by their head, working 22 hours a day, eating in McDonalds and sleeping on my sofa. A couple of times they would have a treat, like buying a new pair of trainers. They were putting on an act, trying to pretend they were the big boys, but they were young kids getting exploited."
Southend has seen its drug trade almost completely taken over by London-based gangs over the last five years. Most gangs have ditched the train and now commute by motorway in smart-looking hire cars. Using vehicle registration recognition technology, police spot an average of 50 gang-affiliated cars coming into Essex from London every 24 hours. And their presence has not gone completely under the radar.
Last year, one senior Southend police inspector warned that the arrival of the drugs gangs into Southend meant some residents were "too scared to go out after dark". Earlier this month, a mobile police unit stationed to ward off dealers in York Road, the town's main drug dealing and red light district, was set on fire.
Stewart is in his mid thirties and has been addicted to crack and heroin for a year. On his phone, he shows me promo texts from a current London dealing outfit operating in Southend. The messages are sent by dealing firms to all known heroin and crack users in Southend, a precious database stored on a SIM that is the lifeblood of any drug selling outfit.
Six months ago he met a gang of dealers from London while smoking heroin at a friend's flat on the top floor of a tower block in Southend. Calling themselves "the Somalians", they gave him a free £10 bag of good quality heroin. Then they asked him if he had a driver's license, promising him £50 worth of heroin if he hired a car out in his name. "They shouted at me, talked down to me, threatened me and I started crying," he says, adding that he eventually agreed because he wanted heroin.
The deal turned out to be a little one-sided. When they drove to Peckham to replenish their supplies, Stewart had to pay the £70 congestion charge. Early the next morning, the hire car came screeching to a halt outside his flat. The dealers knocked on his door, saying the police were in pursuit and he had to get dressed, sit behind the wheel and pretend he had been driving. By the next night the Somalians had written the car off and vanished without giving him any drugs.
But for a fly-on-the-wall view of how the biggest drug gangs in the town operate, you have to be one of their regular drivers. Which is what Patrick and Nick did. They both tell me about regular trips at the wheel of BMW and Mercedes hire cars to south and east London to pick up stashes before buzzing around Southend to deliver bags out the window to waiting customers. Both have witnessed extreme violence and have been involved in dramatic car chases involving police and rival dealers.
Patrick, who used to work for the RAC, was paid £120 cash on top of bags of crack and heroin to drive from 9AM to 9PM. He regularly drove the boss of one London crew, an Asian dealer in his twenties who is now in jail, back to London's East End to pick up large amounts of crack that had been imported into the UK as liquid cocaine inside the bodies of live tropical fish. According to Patrick, who built a close rapport with his boss, the gang made on average £2,500 a day on each of its six county lines, which also included Swindon and Stevenage. Before costs, this meant the firm was bringing in £450,000 a month from selling outside London.
He says that right now there are five London gangs present in the town, two of which have permanent bases here and three of which commute on a daily basis between 10AM and 7PM. Most of the dealers are aged between 15 and 23.
"I've seen knife slashings and people have been shot. I've had my windscreen smashed with an iron bar. Most of them have no regard for killing or shooting people. It's all about greed," says Patrick, who has now stopped driving for the gangs.
Nick has been addicted to crack and heroin for over half of his 32 years and was paid £500 for every 24-hour driving shift by two of the London crews. By the time he'd finished a shift, most of his wages had gone on crack to keep him awake. During one five-day driving stretch with no sleep, Nick got through more than £1,000 worth of crack. He describes the dealers from London as "dogs bodies, young, a bit rude, full of bravado, 'blood' this and 'blood' that, who all have knives but wished they had guns".
"It's a big glory thing for them, and they listened to songs that idolised drug dealing," he says. "Even though they are spending their lives sitting in a car with someone like me, who's at the bottom of the pile, they think they are the bees knees because they are living a 'trap life'."
"I'm surprised I'm still alive," Nick says. "I've nearly got shot three times. One guy pointed a double-barrelled shotgun at me through the window when I was sat in the driver's seat. I thought I was dead. I nearly wet myself. I've had to drive while being chased by a helicopter and had a couple of bad car crashes, where I've woken up in hospital with no idea of what happened."
Southend has seen a rise in extreme violence over the last five years, and most observers link this to the presence of the Londoners. In April, a man from London survived after he was shot in the stomach underneath a tower block. Last month, two London drug dealers were jailed for life after stabbing to death 19-year-old Londoner Nico Ramsey.
Sgt Ashley Holland of Essex Police's anti-gangs unit told me the chief result of Londoners muscling in on Southend's drug trade has been violence. "Stabbings are now commonplace," he says. "We see violence between rival dealers, between London and Southend dealers and within drug gangs. People will try to rob London dealers, especially the young ones as they are seen as an easy win." Between April and September of this year there were 277 knife crimes in Southend and more than 2,000 knife crimes across Essex, a near 10 percent rise on 2015.
A lot of the violence associated with the drug trade goes on behind closed doors, says Vicki Markiewicz, a director at CGL, which provides drug treatment in Essex. "We are seeing the sexual exploitation of women and girls by these gangs. Teenage girls are abused and threatened, resulting in families having to move out of Southend for their own protection."
Police know that, as with anywhere across Britain, there is little they can do to stem the tide of dealers coming to profit from their town. But police in Essex have made it as difficult as they can, with targeted raids across the county against the London gangs. New laws mean that anyone caught with over £250 in cash and more than one mobile phone is liable to prosecution if police think they are selling drugs.
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One former drug dealer from Southend drives me around the main dealing spots in the town – the estates, Warrior Park, York Road. He points out a Post Office cashpoint. Every two weeks it's swamped with drug users and dealers at midnight as drug users transform fresh benefit payments into heroin in seconds. He told me that a decade ago the drug market's moral standards were low, but that it still had moral standards. "You'd look after clients – there was loyalty," he says. "If there was a drought the dealers would help each other out. With the London gangs, things have changed. It's out of control."
Is there a way of nipping this in the bud, of preventing young Londoners from getting involved in the drug trade and ending up wasting their young lives in the twilight heroin zones of rural backwaters?
Junior Smart, founder of the SOS Gangs Project, which is run by the St Giles Trust in London, has been trying to divert teenagers away from this path for years. He estimates at least one in three of the 600 young offenders on the project have been or are involved in "going country". But it's tough, because the gangs' influence is pernicious. "They keep it low-key. They get the kids to tell their teachers that their mum and dad are hitting them so they can get put in temporary accommodation, and then it's easier for them to say, 'You can work for us.'"
Smart says the gangs use social media, such as Snapchat and Periscope, to boast about the wealth that can be made selling drugs; a powerful play to some kids with unhappy home lives who are getting nothing out of school.
Smart has seen the ugly reality behind going country. "When these young people are sent out to the country they have their own phone taken away from them, so all the calls from their worried parents and friends go to their boss," he says. "Instead, they get a Nokia brick, the drug line. One guy who was 13 turned up at a butcher's shop after running away from a crack house. He had not eaten for days, he was starving. He had been attacked by a rival dealer, had his drugs stolen, was stripped and the man played with his body with a knife. The elders promise these boys big money – their own line with people working for them – but the reality is very different."
Darron was lucky. When he was in jail for dealing, his college principal visited him inside and assured him he could finish his course, fittingly a diploma in business studies. Since then, Darron has ditched the drug trade to set up his own charity to help young offenders leave crime, and also a baking business.
"I dealt for five years and it was a big thing for me to stop," he says. "In this trade people get burned out at 20, and then once you're older the jail time goes up: you can get ten years for a kilo. But I realised I didn't want to be someone's pawn any more. The exploitation is criminal. The drug trade is a heartless trade."
It always has been. But now, as the drive for profits in Britain's crowded drug economy gets cranked up, it's getting somewhat Dickensian. It's the young drug dealers who appear, despite the promises, to be caught between a rock and a hard place. A fifth of all people convicted of selling class A drugs in England and Wales are under 21, and more teenagers are getting caught up in drug gang violence. Meanwhile, the rewards are shrinking.
"When I was younger, drug dealing had a status," says Debbie. "Drug dealers were 'faces' – people respected them. If a dealer was robbed by a client it would be the client who had to face the comeback from the gangs. But now if one of these young dealers is robbed, it's the dealers who are indebted to their bosses. Drug dealers these days... it's sad, I know, but I feel sorry for them."
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