A man who trafficked three children, including a 14-year-old girl, to use as drug dealers in a “county lines” ring has been jailed for 14 years in a landmark prosecution.
Birmingham-based Zakaria Mohammed targeted vulnerable youngsters and used them to extend his drug network to Lincoln.
County lines gangs exploit children by recruiting them from cities and sending them to provincial areas to sell drugs.
More than 1,000 lines are believed to exist across the UK and their use has contributed to a rising number of modern slaves in the UK.
Mohammed is thought to be the first drug dealer to be convicted in Britain for breaching the the Modern Slavery Act by trafficking children.
The 21-year-old was caught after detectives carried out a series of raids across three properties in Lincoln.
During one raid, carried out on 25 January, two missing 15-year-old boys were found in a flat, living in squalid conditions.
Although no drugs were found at the property in Yarborough Road, police recovered knives and cash, leading them to believe it was being used as a base to supply around 100 local addicts.
Officers found more children after a surveillance operation identified a Seat Leon, belonging to Mr Mohammed, making regular trips from Birmingham to an address in Foster Street, Lincoln.
The 21-year-old was often accompanied by teenagers during his trips.
West Midlands Police seized the car for having no insurance in February and officers searching the vehicle discovered a phone used to run the drugs line, which was known as "Castro".
Scores of users would text orders for drugs to the phone number and Mohammed would then contact the children to fulfil the deals.
The drugs line number was changed four times in order to avoid detection by the police.
Officers also found clothing, which included school trousers and a tie belonging to a missing child from Birmingham.
The children were filmed conducting drug deals – often completing a new transaction every 10 or 15 minutes.
The teens were selling crack cocaine and heroin, from which Mr Mohammed was making £500 a day in profit.
Three 15-year-old boys were then found in a raid on a property in Foster Street, Lincoln on 12 February, along with two known Class A drug users.
The detectives who brought the dealer to justice said they found no evidence that the children had shared in the dealer's profits.
They suspected that the teenagers had been "groomed" with false promises of money. "In reality, we found three children inside a one-bed flat alongside two Class A drug users surrounded by used syringes," said Detective Inspector Tom Hadley.
"The place was filthy, cold and there was no food in the kitchen. The children looked drawn, tired and hungry."
Twenty-five wraps of heroin and crack cocaine were recovered from the flat, as well as cash and knives.
Mohammed eventually pleaded guilty after officers also recovered CCTV from Birmingham New Street station, showing him buying train tickets for two more children to travel to Lincoln.
The teenagers – a boy aged 15 and a 14-year-old girl who had been reported missing – were found when officers from Lincolnshire and West Midlands Police raided a property in Hermit Street, Lincoln on 6 April.
Mohammed admitted to four counts of possessing drugs with intent to supply and five counts of human trafficking.
"The fact is the children were being taken away for days or weeks, exposed to potential danger in a squalid environment," said Judge Nicholas Webb, who passed Mohammed's sentence down at Birmingham Crown Court.
The defendant stood in the dock wearing a grey tracksuit as the judge addressed him.
"Your role was significant. You were a trusted lieutenant, a trusted driver who drove or took them (the children) by train."
"Others, more senior, would liaise with the children and arrange for you to meet them."
"You were told where to go and what to do and you were doing it to pay off a (drugs) debt."
"But your role was pivotal. Somebody had to be trusted to get the children and the drugs for supply in place, and that person was you."
The judge accepted that there was no evidence that the defendant had forced or threatened the children into taking part.
"Your contribution," he said "was to exploit their vulnerability."
Police officers welcomed the sentence.
"[The children] have gone through a significant ordeal because at 14 or 15 years old they are vulnerable," said Superintendent Richard Agar, West Midlands Police's lead for county lines inquiries.
"When we did enforcement activity they were found in a flat that was dishevelled, it was unhygienic, it was covered in drugs paraphernalia. There was no heating in the flat and there was no food.
"The children themselves appeared to be disorientated, they were dishevelled themselves. It was unclear when they had last eaten.
"Zakaria Mohammed, the person who put all this together, was quite cynical in his activities. He conducted a business and he saw the children as a commodity to extend his own business.
"At an early stage in the investigation we recognised that these children were victims, that they were being exploited.
"We are working really closely with their parents, with children's services to make sure they are getting the support that they need."
Detective Constable Max Gebhard, of West Midlands Police, added: "This is a hugely significant conviction for West Midlands Police and law enforcement as a whole across the UK.
"It shows that we can go after county lines offenders not just for drug supply but also under trafficking legislation due to them exploiting children."
Agencies contributed to this report
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