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The Link Between Drug Trafficking and Child Criminal Exploitation

When it comes to drug trafficking, there’s a grim reality that many people aren’t aware of: it often involves the exploitation of children. According to the National Crime Agency, 52% of victims of drug trafficking in 2022 were children. Shockingly, almost two-thirds of those involved in human trafficking and modern slavery are children. These youngsters are being exploited due to their vulnerability, and they’re involved in things like county lines drug distribution. In this article, we’ll explore the harrowing reality of innocence being corrupted by greed and desperation, and how drug trafficking operations prey on the most susceptible members of society.

Understanding Child Criminal Exploitation

Understanding Child Criminal Exploitation

Child criminal exploitation is a practice that involves a range of manipulative tactics. It refers to the process of ensnaring children into criminal activities against their better judgement or will. This manifests in various forms: drug distribution, forced labour, involvement in violent crime, and sexual exploitation.

Child criminal exploitation uses vulnerability. All children are vulnerable, but some are more so than others. Here are some factors that increase a child’s risk:

  • Those who’ve experienced adverse childhood experiences, including abuse or neglect, or whose home situation has involved divorce, domestic abuse, or substance abuse.
  • Those who are economically vulnerable and will accept monetary or material bribes.
  • Those who are neurodivergent or who have a learning or physical disability.
  • Those who have been excluded from school.

Children and young people are an ideal target because they’re naïve and won’t necessarily understand the implications of what they’re doing. If everyone around them is acting as though this is normal goings-on, they will not see it for what it is and will be drawn in by the material and monetary gains offered to them.

How are children exploited?

There are several ways in which children are exploited. These include:

  • Offering money, clothes, protection, a relationship or status in exchange for carrying drugs.
  • Physical violence (or threats of).
  • Kidnapping or abduction.
  • Coercive control or emotional abuse.
  • Sexual abuse.
  • Blackmail.
  • Through social media apps and grooming.

Drug Trafficking Networks

Drug trafficking networks are a web of clandestine activities that cross international borders. They’re complex operations with hierarchies made up of individuals and organisations. In the UK, county lines are prevalent. This term describes the practice of urban drug dealers exploiting children on borders to expand their operations into smaller towns and rural areas.

At the core of any drug trafficking network are those who oversee the production, distribution and sale of drugs. These people aren’t involved in the day-to-day activities of moving drugs around, but they organise the movement through their intermediaries. 

Child couriers (also known as ‘runners’ or ‘mules’) are used to move drugs around. These vulnerable young people are groomed and manipulated over a period of time to become conduits for narcotics. The recruitment process is insidious. Traffickers prey on those facing adverse circumstances like those in poverty or with familial instability. Children are lured in with promises of money or protection then they’re gradually brought into the criminal aspect of the relationship.

When in the throws of exploitation, children are tasked with transporting drugs across county lines using lots of different methods of transport so as to avoid detection. Due to their age, they’re less likely to be stopped, questioned or searched.

An example of a typical drug trafficking network from source

An example of a typical drug trafficking network from source

Firstly, there are the countries where drugs are grown, made and sourced. These include:

  • Venezuela.
  • Colombia (the world’s largest producer of cocaine).
  • Afghanistan (90% of the world’s heroin comes from here).
  • The Caribbean (crack, cannabis).
  • The Netherlands (ecstasy).
  • West Africa and Morocco (cannabis).

Then, it travels through other countries where it’s refined. These include:

  • Kazakhstan (heroin).
  • Turkey (heroin).
  • Greece (heroin).
  • France (heroin).
  • The Caribbean (cocaine).

They then come to the UK by being smuggled. This is usually:

  • Via ship (in shipping containers).
  • Via air (in freight or with passengers acting as ‘mules’).
  • Through light aircraft and small boats arriving illegally and evading customs.
  • Through small airports.
  • In hidden packages.

Impact on Young Lives

Being involved in drug trafficking has a serious impact on children’s lives. The consequences of their involvement are multifaceted. Beyond the immediate dangers of being associated with criminal activity, these children are susceptible to long-term psychological and emotional trauma as a result.

In the physical sense, child drug traffickers are exposed to huge risks. These include violence from rival gangs, vulnerability when moving around, physical abuse by those in charge, and, in case of ingestion of substances to transport, hazards in this regard too.

The psychological toll of being involved in drug trafficking can also be devastating. These children are put into situations that are far beyond their emotional maturity. They are forced to deal with constant fear and worry about their actions. These experiences can leave lasting scars on their developing minds.

Being involved in drug trafficking has an emotional impact too. This is enduring as children are forced to shoulder burdens beyond their years while being robbed of their innocence. They experience feelings of shame, guilt and isolation. This is all compounded by their involvement in criminal activity. Many of these young people struggle to trust others and go on to continue having unhealthy relationships.

Examples of real cases

Examples of real cases

British Transport Police noticed a child avoiding police attention at a train station. When the individual was stopped, it was a child who had been missing for several days. He had two mobiles, some cash and a pot of Vaseline with a lot scooped out. The child had inserted a ball of wrapped drugs into his rectum. He needed surgery to repair damage to his insides. This child had been exploited to deal drugs with threats being made to his family. Several adults were charged and remanded, and further children were identified and supported.

A further example involves a missing child being found by North Wales Police. He had a mobile phone as well as several wraps containing Class A drugs. This child didn’t see himself as a victim and refused to provide evidence during the investigation. After a complex investigation, a number of people were found to be involved. Seven people were convicted for human trafficking and six for conspiracy to supply heroin and cocaine. There were also three Slavery and Trafficking Prevention Orders issued as well as two Restraining Orders and one Slavery and Trafficking Risk Order.

These real-life stories are a stark reminder of the seriousness of drug trafficking and its involvement in young people’s lives.

Legal Measures and Enforcement

There are significant legal consequences for those involved in recruiting and using children for drug trafficking. In the UK, the Modern Slavery Act 2015 outlines the legislation and penalties for being involved in such activities. A person may be subjected to:

  • Imprisonment (up to a life sentence).
  • A fine.
  • Both.
  • Slavery and Trafficking Risk Orders (STROs).
  • Slavery and Trafficking Prevention Orders (STPOs).
  • Sexual Risk Orders (SROs).
  • Sexual Harm Prevention Orders (SHPOs).
  • Notification orders.
  • Criminal Behaviour Orders (CBOs).
  • Drug Dealing Telecommunications Restriction Order (DDTRO).

Other legislation that often comes into play as well includes:

  • The Proceeds of Crime Act 2002.
  • The Criminal Justice Act 2003.
  • Serious Organised Crime and Police Act 2005.
  • The Sexual Offences Act 2003.
  • The Anti-Social Behaviour, Crime and Policing Act 2014.
  • Policing and Crime Act 2009.

Besides legal measures, law enforcement agencies have an important role in dismantling drug trafficking networks. The problem of drug networks exists at all levels. Organised crime groups dealing with drugs compete in production and supply and corruption exists at every stage, including at ports at airports. These groups of criminals often take part in other criminal activities like buying firearms and financing terrorism. 

As a result, the National Crime Agency (NCA) works closely with authorities in countries where drugs are frequently sourced. This includes Afghanistan, Pakistan and Colombia. They also work with countries considered to be ‘transit countries’ like Turkey, Belgium and the Netherlands. Partner agencies include the Royal Navy and Border Force. Within the UK, regional organised crime units, or ROCUs, and the police work with the NCA to fight against drug trafficking. 

In terms of protecting children, law enforcement agencies work with other agencies involved with children like schools, social services and community organisations.

Preventative Measures

Children need protecting from falling victim to county lines and drug trafficking operations. This needs to be a multi-agency response. Children are targeted for country lines in new ways to avoid detection. For example, perpetrators may groom affluent children who are less likely to be seen as ‘drug runners’. They might also target children whose parents aren’t as present and who, therefore, won’t notice their children missing a lot. 

This multi-agency response needs to include the council, children’s social care, the police, probation services, youth offending teams, education, health, housing, transport, local businesses, local safeguarding partners, and community safety organisations.  There is now a National County Lines Coordination Centre that supports national intelligence. Front-line officers are also being given training to identify a vulnerable child.

The Tackling Child Exploitation Support Programme was commissioned by the Department for Education (DfE). This offers a holistic response to child exploitation. There are eight principles in the programme, which prescribe the necessary responses to child exploitation:

  1. To put children and young people first. 
  2. To recognise and challenge inequalities, exclusion and discrimination.
  3. To respect the voice, experience and expertise of children and young people.
  4. To be strengths and relationship-based.
  5. To recognise and respond to trauma.
  6. To be curious, evidence-informed and knowledgeable.
  7. To approach parents and carers as partners, wherever possible.
  8. To create safer spaces for children and young people.
Education programmes and targeted interventions

Education programmes and targeted interventions

A vital component of preventative measures includes education programmes. By integrating age-appropriate teaching into schools, educators can empower children with the skills and knowledge to avoid peer pressure and, ultimately, becoming embroiled in drug trafficking and exploitation.

When there are vulnerabilities, targeted interventions that aim to address the specific vulnerabilities (homelessness, poverty, family instability, etc.) are important. 

There is statutory guidance called Working Together to Safeguard Children. This sets out what organisations and professionals should do to promote children’s welfare. This highlights the importance of information sharing and multi-agency working.

Rehabilitation and Support

For children and young people who have found themselves victims of drug trafficking, support services are paramount. There are organisations, including the not-for-profit organisation Catch22, that help children escape drug gangs. Catch22 has a rescue service as well as mental health support and counselling services. Another important support service is called SafeCall, which is delivered by an organisation called Missing People. It provides anonymous and confidential support to young victims of county lines exploitation and is available between 9 am and 11 pm every day. This offers support for parents and carers too. 

Here are some other organisations that offer help and support to children and their families:

  • Barnardo’s Independent Child Trafficking Guardianship Service.
  • St Giles Trust.
  • NSPCC.
  • The Children’s Society.
  • Railway Children.
  • Parents Against Child Exploitation.


Exploring the link between drug trafficking and child criminal exploitation has shed light on the stark reality of the situation. From coercive recruitment tactics to the physical, psychological and emotional toll inflicted on young people, the consequences are far-reaching.

Unfortunately, children play a key role in drug trafficking networks: they’re used as couriers to evade law enforcement agencies and throw them off the scent. However, preventative measures like awareness campaigns and education can protect children from falling victim to exploitation. 

Furthermore, by addressing the root causes of specific child vulnerabilities, we can create a safer environment. Support services, schools and other agencies have an important role to play, and a victim-centred approach can help survivors heal from their experience. It’s important that communities work together to support the efforts of all agencies involved. This way, we can make a difference to the lives of those who are most at risk and work towards a future where children’s vulnerability isn’t being exploited by drug traffickers.

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About the author

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Louise Woffindin

Louise is a writer and translator from Sheffield. Before turning to writing, she worked as a secondary school language teacher. Outside of work, she is a keen runner and also enjoys reading and walking her dog Chaos.

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