A charity said the decision to jail a Birmingham man for trafficking children sent a clear message to gangs who prey on vulnerable youngsters.
Zakaria Mohammed was jailed for 14 years after admitting running a supply chain of crack cocaine and heroin.
The 21-year-old used children to deal the drugs on his behalf in Lincoln.
Matthew Reed, chief executive of The Children’s Society, said harsh sentences were needed to tackle the issue of children being groomed by dangerous gangs.
“This conviction under the Modern Slavery Act sends out a clear signal that children under the control of drugs gangs are not criminals, but victims of criminal exploitation and trafficking,” he said.
“These gangs groom children with drugs and alcohol or promises of status and wealth, and control them using terrifying threats, violence and sexual abuse.
“We work with children who have gone missing from home or care, sometimes for weeks on end, at the mercy of gangs who see these vulnerable children as pawns in their crimes.
“That’s why when a child is reported missing from home or care they should be assessed to see if they’re at risk of being exploited by these gangs and professionals must get better at spotting the signs and ensuring these children get help at a much earlier stage.
“We would also urge the government to speed up the introduction of its promised missing persons database so that the information about the risks to children found far from home can be shared across police borders.”
An investigation was launched by West Midlands Police after two 15-year-old boys reported missing from their homes in Birmingham were found at a flat in Lincoln in January.
Mohammed was held on 6th of February as he exited the M6 after having no insurance on his car. A phone used to run a drugs line was found in the car along with a pair of black school trousers, a white shirt and school tie belonging to a missing child from Birmingham.
Two drinks were also recovered from the vehicle and forensic examination returned a DNA match to two other 15-year-old boys who disappeared from the city.
West Midlands Police Investigating Officer, Detective Constable Max Gebhard, said: “The drugs line number was changed four times in a bid to avoid detection by the police.
“Each time a mass text message would be sent out to its scores of users alerting them to the new number on which to place orders – and when those orders came in Mohammed would contact the children to fulfil the deals.”
Heroin and crack cocaine
Police continued to monitor Mohammed while his car was impounded, as he booked regular taxis costing more than £100 a trip to ferry himself and children to drug dens in Lincoln, while local officers in the area recorded video of children passing drugs to punters.
The intelligence led to a raid on a flat in Lincoln on 12th February where three 15-year-old boys, all reported as missing from Birmingham, were found inside the one-bed flat along with two known Class A drug users.
A total of 25 wraps of heroin and crack cocaine were discovered, plus cash and two so-called ‘zombie’ knives.
Further enquiries revealed Mohammed bought another car which was tracked him making suspected drug deliveries, while CCTV from Birmingham New Street station showed him buying train tickets for two children to travel to Lincoln on 26th March.
Both youngsters – a boy aged 15 and a 14-year-old girl who were reported missing – were found when officers raided another property in Lincoln on 6th April.
More drugs, £1,400 cash – believed to have been taken in less than three days’ dealing – and two hunting knives were recovered at the address.
Mohammed, from Trinity Road in Aston, was arrested when his vehicle was stopped later that day heading into Lincoln having driven from Birmingham.
He refused to talk to detectives during interview but later admitted four counts of possessing drugs with intent to supply and five counts of human trafficking.
“A hugely significant conviction”
Det Cons Gebhard, added: “Mohammed claimed to be playing the role of a ‘trusted and informed lieutenant’ and that there were drug bosses further up the chain – but I believe he was very much in charge.
“He was a very busy man, living the life of a travelling salesman, sleeping in service stations and out on the road for many hours each day taking drugs and phones to children in the addresses in Lincoln while taking away the money that had been made.
“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 offenders not just for drug supply but also under trafficking legislation due to them exploiting children.
“And that means stiffer custodial sentences.”