Ruthless gangsters who used girls and boys as young as 14 to smuggle and sell drugs in a “county lines” operation have been convicted under modern slavery legislation.
The trio of 25-year-olds – Glodi Wabelua, Dean Alford and Michael Karemera – were locked up in a landmark case.
They forced “vulnerable” south London teenagers to sell crack and heroin for them.
The three gang members all ran lucrative drugs lines – telephone numbers which users in Portsmouth, Hampshire, called to buy Class A drugs.
The despicable trio, already jailed for nearly 30 years in 2016 for drug offences, were convicted today of human trafficking after a trial at Inner London Crown Court. and will be sentenced next month.
Wabelua, 25, of Tottenham, north London, was found guilty of one count of trafficking.
Alford, 25, of Canterbury, Kent, and Karemera, 25, of Lewisham, south east London, were both charged with three counts of trafficking.
Alford pleaded guilty at the close of the prosecution’s case, while Karemera pleaded guilty part-way through cross examination.
Police became aware of the first five victims when they were arrested for drugs supply offences in Portsmouth in Spring 2014.
Hampshire Police liaised with the Met’s Trident gang unit when it was established that all five victims came from south London.
An outreach worker alerted the authorities about the the sixth victim, a vulnerable adult – giving evidence at the trial he told the court that when he tried to escape the gang lifestyle, he was stripped naked by associates of Karemera and had a gun placed in his mouth, threatening him with his life if he didn’t comply.
The victims were recruited, groomed and trafficked by the defendants’ organised crime group – they were forced to travel to Portsmouth on many occasions to restock drugs, putting their physical wellbeing at great risk.
Alford, Karemera and Wabelua controlled the victims, harbouring them in drug users’ homes in Portsmouth, and controlling their travel and freedom of movement.
The victims received instructions via mobile phone, telling them where to sell or drop off drugs.
Whenever Class A drugs were available, a text message was sent out by the defendants via their drugs lines to all their customers – users would call back to place their order.
It was normal for a drugs line to receive 200 to 300 calls – Alford, Karemera and Wabelua frequently met the victims at night to re-supply the drug lines and to facilitate individual drug deals on the streets of Portsmouth.
Each line had its own ‘brand name’ to ensure users knew who the message was from, even when the number had changed – Alford ran the ‘Duffy’ line, Karemera ran the ‘Mitch’ line and Wabelua ran the ‘Fly’ line.
After selling the drugs, the victims would hand over the earnings which could be as much as £2,000 a day.
The first five victims were too scared to provide statements to police about their ordeal so detectives used DNA evidence and mobile phone data to establish that three dealers were controlling them, directing them to collect drugs from London and transport and sell them to users in Portsmouth.
The investigation, code-named Operation Pibera, began in 2014 and saw detectives use human trafficking legislation to bring Alford, Karemera and Wabelua to justice.
Between September 2014 and February 2016, Alford, Karemera and Wabelua were arrested, charged and convicted of conspiracy to supply class A drugs (crack cocaine and heroin).
The drugs supply offences were dealt with first – Alford received an 11 year sentence, to run consecutively with a three year sentence for perverting the course of justice, Karemera was sentenced to ten years’ imprisonment and Wabelua received a sentence of six years eight months after an early guilty plea.
Acting Detective Inspector Simon French, the Senior Investigating Officer, said: “The complex nature of this investigation and the determination of our officers to pursue human trafficking charges demonstrates how seriously we take the issue of county lines.
“This case was previously tried at Woolwich Crown Court in January 2018. The jury were discharged following the close of the prosecution case.
“This led to a successful ruling through the Court of Appeal in June 2018 and a new trial set at Inner London Crown Court. This is a successful test case and we are sending a clear message to drug dealers who engage in this activity.
“Following the Court of Appeal ruling we have clearer guidance on how this legislation should be interpreted and makes it clear that any person involved in the chain of trafficking the victim for drug supply can be prosecuted.”
Safeguarding lead of the National County Lines Coordination Centre, Tim Champion, said: “Exploiting vulnerable children in this way is unacceptable and individuals who do this will be prioritised and find themselves additionally convicted of human trafficking offences, which are often subject to long prison sentences.
“The issue of county lines is very complex and brings together deep-rooted criminal behaviour, such as gang membership, drugs supply, drug abuse and human trafficking. This case highlights the benefits of collaborative working between police and partners and I believe that today marks an important step forward in tackling this problem.
“All young people coming to notice in this way are now assessed and subject to safeguarding intervention and support to give them the best possible chance of exiting the lifestyle that they have been forced into.”
DAC Duncan Ball from the MPS and NPCC County Lines lead, said: “This is an important conviction based on an excellent investigation from officers within the Metropolitan Police Service. I would like to thank the Crown Prosecution Service for their support and diligence in bringing this case to its successful conclusion.
“Use of modern slavery legislation is an important aspect of targeting those criminal networks who exploit vulnerable children and adults to maximise their profits from drug supply. Today’s convictions send a clear message that we will utilise all legislation nationally to suppress county line activity.”
Specialist prosecutor Kate Mulholland, from the CPS, said: “This case represents one of the few times that drug dealers have been prosecuted for arranging the travel and exploitation of teenage couriers. The thorough prosecution case included covert policing techniques and use of mobile phone data. We were also able to prosecute this landmark case without the need for the children, who were victims of crime, to give evidence.
“Where drug dealers use children to carry drugs the CPS will prosecute them for the further offence of trafficking.”
By Ben Gelblum and Grainne Cuffe