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Ex-Gangster Says It's 'Too Easy' to Groom Children as Drug Mules in Britain

By Kieran Guilbert

LONDON, Oct 16 (Thomson Reuters Foundation) — A former gang leader who once recruited teenagers as drug mules has said it is "too easy" for criminals to groom children into the trade, a growing form of modern-day slavery in Britain.

The promise of quick cash, the lure of gangster life and a lack of alternatives leave many children prey to criminals who traffic them to transport drugs around the country, said Matthew Norford, who was jailed several times for serious drug offences.

"Many want to be gangsters... you give them attention and a nickname, tell them school is crap, and brag about the money you make and how much they could earn," said Norford, who turned his back on crime in 2011 after his brother was stabbed to death.

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"The kids know who you are, they look up to you and worship you," the 35-year-old told the Thomson Reuters Foundation ahead of Britain's Anti-Slavery Day on Oct. 18. "It's all too easy."

Norford now runs 1 Message, a youth mentoring programme that aims to help young people escape gang life and runs community projects and workshops in schools educating pupils about crime.

Thousands of children — some as young as 12 — are estimated to be used by gangs to carry drugs between cities and rural areas in Britain, according to the National Crime Agency (NCA).

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Police forces have seen a rise in the exploitation of and violence towards children, and say they have identified about 1,500 criminal operations in the so-called "county lines" drug trade — a number which has more than doubled over the last year.

More than 200 people have been arrested and 58 rescued — including a number of children — in a week-long nationwide crackdown on drug gangs, police bosses announced on Tuesday.

And in a landmark case this month, 21-year-old Zakaria Mohammed was jailed for 14 years under Britain's world-leading anti-slavery legislation for using three children to deal drugs.


In Britain, 2,118 children suspected to have been trafficked were referred to the government last year, up 66% on 2016 and the highest annual number on record. About a third were British and many were used as drug runners, official data shows.

"Some children are selling drugs because their parents are in debt," Norford said. "Neither their families or the government are doing enough to stop this," he added, calling for more education and after-school opportunities including sports.

Police chiefs said the "concerning" number of young people involved in county lines meant the trade could not be stopped by law enforcement alone, and that community-wide efforts were key.

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"We work with schools, charities and community schemes to educate young people and explain why dealing drugs is never the right choice," a National Police Chiefs' Council spokesman said.

"This early intervention plays a vitally important role in stopping young people from turning to a life of crime," they said.

Britain recently announced a £2 million ($2.6 million) scheme to help authorities save vulnerable children from gangs and traffickers who rape them and force them to transport drugs.

Norford said the best way to prevent children falling into the drug trade was to hammer home the harsh reality of crime.

"I tell kids to read my name, look me up online and see what I did," he said. "I keep chipping away at them — I tell them I was a muppet who hurt too many people ... that it wasn't cool."

"Gangs destroy young lives by dragging them into violence," he said.

($1 = 0.7584 pounds) (Reporting By Kieran Guilbert, Editing by Claire Cozens. Please credit the Thomson Reuters Foundation, the charitable arm of Thomson Reuters, that covers humanitarian news, women's rights, trafficking, property rights, climate change and resilience. Visit