CRIMINAL gangs are grooming children aged as young as 10 with new trainers and video games in order to coerce them into selling drugs.

That is the stark warning from law enforcement in Cheshire, who have in the past two years seen a dramatic increase in serious and organised crime groups based in cities such as Liverpool, Manchester, London and Birmingham expanding their cocaine and heroin dealing into the area.

These ruthless operations are known as county lines - using children and vulnerable adults, including those with disabilities and learning difficulties, to transport drugs, weapons and illicit cash into Cheshire using trains, buses and hire cars.

Police say that children are being bribed by criminals with new mobile phones, clothes, trainers, video games, alcohol and cash to sell drugs in schools and playgrounds.

And in an act known as cuckooing, gangs also take over the houses of vulnerable people and turn them into drug dens.

Around 40 such county lines operations are believed to be currently active in Cheshire - bringing with them a wave of violence, exploitation and intimidation.

Cheshire Police's superintendent for local policing Peter Crowcroft said: "If they could get a five or six-year-old child to go and do their bidding and carry their drugs and weapons then they would.

"It can often be children who are new to the area, children who have been excluded and children and adults who have mental health issues who are targeted.

"They are using threats and violence to these individuals and their families and friends, because all they're bothered about is making money.

Winsford Guardian:

Peter Crowcroft

"In their minds, these are people who are easier to control.

"Quite often these predators will offer money and friendship, and soon move onto threats and violence.

"This is a relentless fight for the police, because this goes right to the heart of what we're about - stopping exploitation, protecting the vulnerable and hunting down the predators.

"They are exploiting people to fund their lifestyles, their clothing, their cars, their houses, their holidays - and this is all courtesy of the people they're exploiting.

"There is no greater feeling as a cop than seeing someone banged up and seizing all these ill-gotten gains.

"I've been in policing for 23 years and I still struggle to understand the mentality of how a human being can do this to other human beings - particularly when you're talking about children.

"We are talking about serious organised criminals who will use any method whatsoever to make their money.

"There are no morals with this kind of criminality."

Last year, Crimestoppers received nearly 3,000 anonymous tip-offs from members of the public in Cheshire - around two thirds of which were in relation to drug dealing.

The charity's north west regional manager Gary Murray said: "Gangs from major cities are expanding their drugs networks into Cheshire, and they really don't care what damage they do.

"Children as young as 10 can be used to transport drugs or targeted to sell drugs in schools and playgrounds, or wherever there is a market to sell them.

"It doesn't matter if you come from a good, stable family background or whether you have been through the care system - the criminals will target you.

Winsford Guardian:

Gary Murray

"For a lot of young, impressionable people it's very enticing to be involved in this activity because of the thought of making some quick, easy money.

"These young people end up getting involved and before it's too late they realise that they can't get out.

"People who have learning difficulties or other disabilities will also be targeted, and drug dealers will take over their properties to sell drugs from them.

"All they are interested in is making money and once they have done that they will move onto somewhere else - leaving a trail of destruction behind them.

"These people are bringing drugs, violence and intimidation into the area - including shootings and stabbings.

"One county lines operation is one too many, because they can wreak havoc in our community."

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Cheshire Police, Crimestoppers and Cheshire police and crime commissioner David Keane have now launched a month-long campaign aimed at highlighting the dangers of county lines operations, and are urging residents to be aware of any suspicion behaviour in their communities.

Winsford Guardian:

From left; Gary Murray, Peter Crowcroft and David Keane

Mr Keane believes that organised crime gangs are expanding into the area because of its good motorway and rail links.

He said: "Warrington and Cheshire is a target because of its good transport connections.

"Organised crime groups are coming into Cheshire and making people's lives a misery, preying on vulnerable kids and adults in a very cowardly way.

"This often turns into drug turf wars, and we have seen an increase in assaults with knifes as a result.

"These organised crime groups befriend young people by offering gifts such as cash or computer games, and that quickly turns into intimidation and threats.

"This can happen to any child, and we believe that this is happening to very young teenage children.

"We are looking at children in school uniforms with their school bags on being abused into carrying these drugs.

"It's an absolute disgrace.

"We are going to protect our most vulnerable people, but policing can't do that alone.

"This has got to come with the backing of our local councils, schools, community groups and families."

POLICE have warned residents of the key signs that county lines operations are active in your area or targeting someone close to you.

These include unusual activity in a neighbourhood, such as repeated and quick visits to the house of a neighbour.

Someone involved in county lines operations may have sudden and unexplained wealth, having received gifts in the form of technology or designer clothing.

They may also have suffered physical injuries and emotional or psychological trauma - appearing anxious or stressed, or having been threatened with serious violence.

Victims may appear to have been suffering from neglect, or their basic needs may not have been met - living in unclean, dangerous or unhygienic conditions.

And for younger people targeted by criminal gangs, their attendance and performance at school, college or university may have also worsened.

Mr Murray added: "We want to get the message across that this is happening so that people can spot the signs of it happening in their communities.

"The big warning sign is a change of behaviour - is this person becoming more withdrawn, not letting their parents know about where they're going or going away for a period of time.

"A lot of the signs that we see are similar to that of child sexual exploitation.

"Have they suddenly got items that they couldn't normally afford?

"Has their schoolwork gone downhill?

"Are there new neighbours who have moved into the area from major cities, where there are more people calling at that address at all sorts of times?

"Is there someone who is now very reticent in talking to their neighbours, whereas they were never previously so reserved?

"We would encourage any resident who knows anything about county lines operations or drug dealing in their communities to contact Crimestoppers totally anonymously on 0800 555 111."