County lines: Children in drugs gangs 'to be treated as victims'
A man used as a courier by a drugs gang when he was a teenager said he was held in crack dens and threatened with knives if he did not co-operate.
Lewis, not his real name, was sent from Nottingham to deal drugs in south England when he was 15.
Children like Lewis are now being helped by police in the East Midlands as part of a "county lines" crackdown.
Det Insp Emma Nealon said: "They have been exploited and it's difficult for them to get out. They become trapped."
Gangs use dedicated phone lines and couriers to move drugs from cities to smaller towns.
Officers have found more than 100 separate county lines in the region and scoured railway stations to spot couriers.
Teenagers involved, some as young as 13, have often been lured into crime and are now being treated by police as victims rather than criminals.
Det Insp Nealon said: "We regularly find young children alone in a crack den where they live in squalid conditions, supplying drugs, beaten up or threatened, and they haven't eaten for three or four days.
"People think they are criminals because they are jumping on trains or buses, and are carrying and supplying drugs, but from our perspective they are very much the victims in this.
"They have been exploited to do this and it's very difficult for them to get out. They become trapped in that situation."
Police said gangs targeted vulnerable children, enticed into dealing with gifts of expensive clothes or drugs, to avoid risk of arrest themselves.
"I wanted what they had, I wanted the money, the jewellery, the girls, the cars," said Lewis.
"I had to do what I was told, like I was in jail. They threatened you and said they would hurt your family or friends, so obviously you are intimidated and going to stay there because you don't want anyone to get hurt."
Between January and September, officers from the East Midlands Serious and Organised Crime Unit, plus forces from Nottinghamshire, Lincolnshire, Leicestershire, Northamptonshire and Derbyshire, found 109 unique lines which used 215 phone numbers.
Of the 584 people linked to these operations, 88 were under 18, some of who have since been safeguarded.
They said some phone lines were linked to cuckooing, where dealers take over homes of vulnerable adults to use as drugs dens, modern slavery and the exploitation of children.