​How Britain Turned ‘Modern Slavery’ Law Against Low-Level Drug Dealers

Over pepper steaks at a Caribbean restaurant, the man complimented Mr. Wabelua for keeping things “trill”— refusing to give the police any information. But, he said, Mr. Wabelua owed him about $4,000 for the drugs and cash seized during his arrest.

The man had an offer. Mr. Wabelua could clear his debt in four to eight weeks if he started working again. But this time, Mr. Wabelua would manage a county line himself. He would take phone orders and dispatch young runners in Portsmouth, a seaside town about 100 miles southwest of London. The job paid about $900 a week.

Mr. Wabelua took the deal.

In the drug world, this was a modest step up — from day laborer to shift supervisor.

But this was the moment, according to the government, when Mr. Wabelua became a slave master.

In the early spring of 2014, the police arrested a 16-year-old girl for selling drugs in Portsmouth. Over the following months, they arrested six more teenagers with cellphones, wads of cash and bags of heroin or crack.

Curiously, all of the teenagers were from London.

The Portsmouth police contacted their counterparts in London, who noticed a similar trend. An increasing number of children — many of them boys aged 14 to 17 — were getting arrested hundreds of miles from home. Some had been reported missing by their parents.

“Clearly, the gangs were looking at ways of moving the drugs without getting their hands dirty,” said Timothy Champion, a police detective who at the time was with the London Met Police’s Trident gangs unit. “It became almost a sort of methodology there, which is why we started targeting it.”

In a 2015 intelligence report, the National Crime Agency, Britain’s version of the F.B.I., warned of “urban gangs” expanding their business into “predominantly white British” coastal towns. The gangs recruited children to move drugs because “they work for little pay, are easy to control and are less likely to be detected,” the authorities said.

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