County lines: Drug dealers 'pretend to be uni students'
Gang members are enrolling in universities and masquerading as students in order to sell drugs in new cities, an academic has warned.
Dr Mohammed Qasim said dealers from county lines drug gangs become students to give themselves an alibi in case they are searched by the police.
"It's not hard to get in university... it gives them a reason to be in the city," said the drugs gang expert.
Police said drug gangs were becoming "more sophisticated" to avoid arrest.
More than 100 county lines gangs are operating across Wales, according to the National Crime Agency, with drug bosses pulling the strings mainly from London, Birmingham and Liverpool.
Authorities think the county lines network started in 2015 - cocaine deaths in Wales are more than four times higher than five years ago, with 31 last year.
Heroin and morphine deaths have almost trebled since county lines started, to 108 in 2018.
Dr Qasim, who interviewed members of a county lines gang in Swansea as part of his research, said dealers were hiding behind the "student image".
He added that living among students helped ethnic minority gang members to blend into predominantly white areas of south and west Wales.
"The dealers now have to have an alibi as to why they're moving 200 miles from one place to another," said Dr Qasim, a researcher on ethnic minority gangs at Leeds Beckett University.
"They'll live amongst students so they won't be noticed so much.
"If you're from an ethnic minority background there are some parts of Swansea, for example, where you'll stand out, so you need to live in areas where there's other ethnic minority groups.
"It's not hard to get into university - universities will take people through clearing. They won't actually go to university to study, it's just a reason to be in a particular place."
The organisation that represents colleges in Wales said they work with authorities to "meet any challenges county lines gangs might pose", while universities are not commenting.
Dr Qasim met young county lines drug runners working out of a "really nice flat" in Swansea earlier this year and they wanted to set up their own "franchise" running drugs to Aberystwyth.
"One was kicked out of school, he didn't have much going on in his life in London but in Swansea he was making money," he said.
"He was away from gang crime, he'd been given a flat. I'd imagine you pay £1,100 a month in the city for a flat like that.
"He had five or six people living in a one bedroom flat back in London, so living in this apartment here was like heaven.
"These were victims of exploitation from older gang members. They put them into these cities, sell them the dream that they can make money and eventually set up their own operations."
This 47-year-old addict gets his drugs from county lines dealers
"When the English guys first appeared on the scene, we didn't like it. We're proud Welsh and I didn't like buying from them at all.
"We were really angry about them bringing crack into the area. We didn't have that here before and it's so destructive for people - they just don't care.
"The people I dealt with were Birmingham youngsters but I didn't like having to pick up off 17-year-olds - I'm 45.
"I know a couple that tried to rip them off and steal from them and this boy just pulled a machete - you could see from the look in his eye he would have taken their arm off if they'd gone for the drugs."
Police say young runners, often victims of child exploitation, are told by dealers to swallow the drugs to transport around the county as it is more difficult for officers to carry internal searches on children.
"That's partly to make the police response more difficult as we don't want to be keeping young people in detention longer than necessary," said Det Insp Paul Stanley of British Transport Police.
"And partly to reduce the risk of them being located."
Dealers are said to operate a "marketing machine" and offer credit to addicts in order to lure them into taking drugs.
County lines gangs have a widespread marketing network, texting potential customers offering cut-price deals on heroin and crack cocaine.
"We see guys in treatment who are trying really hard to move away from the scene but you literally have people knocking on their doors," said Carly Jones of drug awareness organisation PSALT.
"We always say to people in treatment is get rid of your phone, change your number, get a fresh start.
"We have tens of people saying that's what they did, but within two weeks they have someone knocking on their door saying here's £50 credit on us, trying to hook them back in.
"It feels like we're drowning in street drugs at the moment and I think there's worse to come."
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The map above used a statistical model to classify areas that have experienced a significant change in drug crime. Weight is given to areas with a strong overall trend of increasing or decreasing crime across several years. Where there is no strong overall pattern in a particular location, those areas have been labelled as having "no change".
Drug crime refers to drug-related incidents reported to or identified by the police that an officer classes as criminal, whether or not the crime results in a charge.
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