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Fears for human trafficking victims enlisted by County Lines drugs gangs

© Wullie Marr / DCT MediaDrug dog Hamish and his handler on duty during police County Lines operation at Aberdeen train station
Drug dog Hamish and his handler on duty during police County Lines operation at Aberdeen train station

Drug gangs in England have been using human trafficking victims as mules to transport heroin and cocaine to Scotland by train, according to police.

Detective Chief Inspector Arlene Wilson said dealers from London, Liverpool and Birmingham were using vulnerable people – including human trafficking victims from south-east Asia – to move into drug markets in Edinburgh, Dundee and Aberdeen.

So-called County Lines gangs – who also exploit children to carry heroin, cocaine and cannabis on the rail network – are thought to have avoided Glasgow and western Scotland where they would risk confrontation with existing criminal operations.

In the past year, officers have seized nearly £250,000 in drugs either in Scotland or en route here on trains. Wilson, of British Transport Police, said: “Scotland is on the receiving end of County Lines from England from various locations such as London, Liverpool and Birmingham.

“There are lots of ideas about why these people are not targeting the west of Scotland – maybe the market is a bit more difficult to get into and there’s more competition.

“In Aberdeen, there is money related to the oil industry. There is available cash there, and organised crime groups aren’t so prevalent in these areas.

“The County Lines issue is really under our spotlight now. These gangs are using vulnerable people, whether that’s adults or children. The big issue is the vulnerability of people. They are being exploited and this moves into modern slavery and human trafficking charges that we are trying to target people with to stop it.

“It could be somebody who is looking for a sense of belonging, or sometimes they are groomed by being bought a new pair of trainers or whatever it may be. If they lose the money or the drugs then that makes them even more vulnerable as they have a debt then.

“There have been people from Vietnam and other countries involved as well. They can come from anywhere – it is just people who have an underlying vulnerability.”

DCI Arlene Wilson (Pic: David McNie)

On June 28, rail staff spotted a man acting suspiciously on a Glasgow-bound train. He got off at Motherwell but forgot his suitcase containing £60,000 of cannabis. A transport police probe has been launched to find the man.

In another County Lines seizure last year, a man from Shetland was found to be carrying £8,000 worth of cocaine at a station in Aberdeen. The 45-year-old was charged under the Misuse of Drugs Act 1971 and is due to be sentenced next month.

Two men were arrested for possessing cannabis with intent to supply at Birmingham New Street station in May. They had 7.4kg of cannabis, worth £74,000, packed in a vacuum bag as they travelled to Aberdeen.

In a separate case, a man was arrested in Wigan in January with more than half a kilogram of heroin and 100 grams of crack cocaine – worth £60,000. The man from Liverpool was travelling to Aberdeen. He was sentenced to 40 months in jail.

Two south-east Asian men aged 36 and 46 were arrested for being in possession of cannabis at Glasgow Central Station in May this year after travelling from the north of England by train. They were carrying a suitcase with 5.5kg in cannabis – with a street value of £55,000.

The youngest person in the UK to be exploited by drugs gangs as a mule on the rail network was just 13. British Transport Police’s latest ­figures show that, across the UK, there have been more than 2,000 arrests, 1,300 drugs seizures, 400 weapons seized and 100 referrals to care and support agencies for vulnerable victims caught up in the trade.

Wilson is trying to target drug gangs with human trafficking laws as a deterrent against dealers, who might be more reluctant to risk a conviction for child exploitation. She said: “Some of the stories can be very harrowing. We have seen children that have been the victim of extreme violence. They get frightened into carrying drugs. They can be carrying drugs in places you wouldn’t want children concealing drugs. It can be heart-wrenching as they think they are part of something bigger and that people actually care about them.

“We would like to get charges to stick against the organisers of these operations for exploiting another individual. If someone ends up in a custodial establishment, it would be for child exploitation rather than what they see as glamorous things such as the movement of drugs.

“We are not asking people to do the job of the police service. We are asking people to be interested and to care and report anything they see that’s concerning. It is refreshing to stop necessarily criminalising people if they are caught up in this. They maybe need help to get out of the situation they are in.”

The news comes after two men and a woman were arrested by Police Scotland officers from Aberdeen in a County Lines sting in Birmingham on Wednesday. The men, aged 33 and 34, and a 27-year-old woman were charged after an operation with West Midlands and West Mercia Police.

Cocaine, crack cocaine and ­cannabis, with a street value of £64,000, were seized in the operation.