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My bright, kind boy was targeted to run drugs at 16… they lured him by promising cash, then made him their slave

ON a summer’s night in August 2020, 16-year-old Manny Gullam went missing.

A bright boy with good GCSE grades and a close circle of friends, his disappearance was completely out of the ordinary, and his mother Faridah was frantic with worry when he failed to come home after school.

Faridah Gullam with son Manny, who’s turned his life around and is now a champion boxer
Fabulous investigates how ‘county lines’ criminal operations are still luring in vulnerable young people
Getty Images

After calling the police, a missing person’s alert was issued immediately because of his age and the fact it was so out of character.

After a sleepless night, single mum of four Faridah, 43, was deeply relieved when Manny arrived home the following morning, claiming he’d stayed over at a friend’s house.

But that was a lie – the first of many he’d tell his mother. 

The truth was, Manny, from Essex, was being groomed by a county lines drugs gang and used as a drug runner.

He’d spent the night delivering cannabis for his gang bosses.

“County lines” describes the business model that organised crime gangs (OCGs) use to transport and sell drugs outside their territory.

The “county line” is the name given to the mobile phone line used to take orders for drugs. 

Children as young as 12 are coerced and manipulated to work in these distribution networks for gang bosses, who often use violence and fear to control them. 

The hit Netflix show Top Boy, the final series of which aired last year, shone a light on this shady, dangerous world, including the role of children and teens who become ensnared in it.

One of its main characters, Stefan, played by actor Araloyin Oshunremi, finds himself – as Manny did – working for a drugs gang at a young age.


Manny was introduced to the gang aged 16 by a teenage friend, lured with the promise of making easy money – up to several hundred pounds a day. 

Over the following 18 months, he was sent around the country ferrying drugs and collecting money.

He was encouraged to carry a knife as protection against rival gangs, bribed with cash and gifts and eventually started to accrue a “drug debt” after being given free cannabis to use himself.

Late last year, the government announced that more than 2,000 county lines had been dismantled in the preceding 18 months, as part of its 10-year drug strategy, with dedicated police task forces from the County Lines Programme arresting senior line holders and breaking gangs that terrorise communities.  

Alongside arrests, more than 700 vulnerable people caught up in the operations have been offered support to help them and their families escape the gangs’ clutches.

Last July, members of the Parliamentary Education Committee were told that the Children’s Commissioner for England, Dame Rachel de Souza, believes at least 27,000 children are county lines gang members, with 4,000 of these in London alone. 

Faridah had no idea her son was on a path that would lead to him being arrested for possession of class A drugs with intent to supply.

In the months that followed that initial disappearance, Manny changed beyond recognition.

“He’d always been a kind, considerate boy, close to his siblings and to me, but he began to drift away. He didn’t seem to care about family life any more. He’d disappear for days on end and I was distraught with worry,” she says.

Faridah believed Manny’s claims he’d been out with friends, thinking he was just rebelling, not suspecting for a moment he was becoming mired in criminal activity.

In fact, Manny was frequently couriering drugs and money to Brighton, almost 100 miles away from his home in Essex, where the gang he worked for ran a network of drug houses

Whatever the reasons behind it, county lines gangs rip families apart, as Manny, now 20, knows all too well.

Netflix show Top Boy focuses on young people in county lines gangs
Netflix

“All I cared about was how much I was earning. It was easy money and I hid it all from my family, who I cut off,” he says. “I didn’t care about the impact it was having on them.”

At the time, Manny thought his “boss” was his friend and didn’t recognise he was being manipulated. 

He could earn a few hundred pounds a week, which he used to buy clothes, and he was given an expensive bike to use for his drug deliveries.

“If I ever voiced any doubts about what I was doing, my boss reassured me I was doing the right thing and that no one my age was earning what I was earning.

“I was always the one carrying the risk – there was a time a user threatened me with a knife. But at the time, I didn’t realise I was being used,” he says.

Initially, Manny delivered drugs around Essex, but as the months progressed, he was sent further afield and stayed away for longer.

Eventually, he disappeared for a week at a time and would turn his phone off.

Faridah repeatedly reported his disappearances to Essex police, who started to suspect he was involved in a county line operation.

One officer in particular, PC Ryan McNamara, recognised Manny was being exploited and needed support, even when he continued to maintain he was staying overnight with friends and going to parties. 

Faridah explains: “Whenever he disappeared, I called the police and reported him missing, and Ryan would try to help. Sometimes I would tell Manny off when he came home, but I also didn’t want to drive him away.” 

In March 2021, when Manny had been missing from home for several days, he called Faridah and asked her to pick him up from Tottenham in north London. It was 2am. As usual, she had notified the police. 

On the drive home, Manny told her he’d been at a party, but when he got out of the car and went indoors, Faridah noticed he’d dropped a train ticket, which showed he’d been to Brighton.

‘I wondered if it was my fault. Was it because I didn’t have money to give my children?’

The following morning, Ryan called Faridah and she told him about the train ticket. It confirmed his suspicions.

“Ryan told me he believed Manny was running drugs. Apparently, a lot of young boys were being sent to Brighton from the area for that purpose.

“I felt so sad and confused. Was it my fault? Was it because I didn’t have enough money to give my children? I raised four of them on my own and it was hard.”

Weeks later, Manny was caught by police leaving a basement flat in Brighton. He was carrying cocaine and several hundred pounds in cash. He was charged with possession with intent to supply class A drugs.

“I started to question why people were using my child and that made me angry,“ says Faridah.

Manny was on bail for a year while his case was being determined.

During that time, on Ryan’s advice, he volunteered to wear an electronic tag and was on a 9pm curfew, forbidden from leaving the county without permission. He began going to college again.

“I knew I wanted to change my life and to get away from the gang, and the tag meant that I couldn’t go back even if I wanted to,” he says. “Ironically, the tag set me free.”

Manny told the police he couldn’t give any details about who he’d been working for because the gang knew where he lived, and he feared for his and his family’s safety. 

In spring 2022, the charges were dropped as the courts and police understood Manny was a victim of a type of modern-day slavery. “I just wanted to start my life again, so it was a big weight lifted off my shoulders,” says Manny.

‘Some kids are lured in by a Snapchat message saying: “Who wants to earn £500 this weekend?”’

Manny’s case is replicated across the UK, with young people like him being sucked into a life of crime.

In October last year, a week-long crackdown on county lines activity in South Wales led to the arrest of 63 people and the seizure of drugs worth more than £3million.

Eight county lines were closed, £260,000 in cash was seized and 63 vulnerable adults and children were saved.

Meanwhile, in June last year, Cardiff Crown Court heard that a London drug gang had recruited and used Welsh children living in care homes to deliver class A drugs on its behalf. 

In the same month, six members of a gang calling themselves The Hustle Line, who exploited young children in Bournemouth, were jailed for a total of nearly 40 years.

While Manny was recruited in person by a friend already working for a gang, in other cases young people have been lured in by unsolicited messages on social media platform Snapchat, with questions like: “Who wants to earn £500 this weekend?” 

Joe Dix was murdered by a ‘county lines’ drugs gang
Joe Dix Foundation
Joe’s mother Emma Dix said: ‘Listening to the horrific details of the incident that led to Joe’s death and seeing body map images of all his injuries is dreadful’
Joe Dix Foundation

Nicola Garrard is a trustee of the charity Minority Matters, which supports families affected by county lines gangs.

She explains the problem became much worse after 2010 and the introduction of austerity in public services.

“School budgets were cut and most schools could no longer afford to employ education welfare officers. A direct result was that we didn’t have welfare officers building relationships with troubled families who needed support,” explains Nicola.

Manny was one of the lucky ones. Other young people have not been so fortunate. 

Joe Dix became trapped in a county lines gang after he was approached in a park at 15. Over the next three years, he went from couriering packages for cash to dealing class A drugs. 

The teenager was murdered in January 2022 after a county line member called in his help to stop three drug dealers from burgling a known crack den. 

‘He didn’t realise he was being exploited by the gang – in reality, they made him a slave’

In October last year, Benjamin Gil, 19, Cameron Palmer, 19, and Hans Beeharry, 20, were jailed for a total of more than 60 years for Joe’s murder. CCTV footage of the stabbing in a street in Norwich was played in court. 

In a victim impact statement, Joe’s mother Emma Dix, 47, said: “Listening to the horrific details of the incident that led to Joe’s death and seeing body map images of all his injuries is dreadful.

“But nothing compared to the shocking footage of Joe running for his life – being chased, followed by the heartbreaking scene of him collapsing. I can’t tell you how many times those scenes have replayed over and over in our heads.”

Emma has since set up the Joe Dix Foundation in her son’s name to raise awareness of the dangers of child exploitation, gangs and knife crime.

Today, Manny is an ambitious, thoughtful and intelligent young man with a bright future ahead of him.

He’s at university studying computer engineering and is also a promising boxer, already reaching several national finals. “When I realised what I’d done to my family, I was disgusted,” he says. 

Meanwhile, the toll on other young people continues. 

“These county lines gangs get stronger every day,” says Faridah.

“Manny was young and didn’t realise he was being exploited by them. They made him believe they were being good to him. In reality, they made him a slave – he meant nothing to them.

“But I never stopped loving him and I feel so relieved he’s free from them now, and back at home where he’s loved and safe.”

With the government’s County Lines Programme set to continue to break up drugs gangs, the hope is that other children and teenagers will, like Manny, be set free to rebuild their lives. 

  • For help and support, text or phone SafeCall, run by Missingpeople.org.uk on 116 000.
  • Visit Stgilestrust.org.uk, Minoritymatters.org.uk, Nspcc.org.uk, Joedixfoundation.co.uk
Emma Dix campaigning with Joe’s dad of Joe and Idris Elba
Joe Dix Foundation

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