how britain turned modern slavery law against low level drug dealers

A law written to prevent human trafficking is being wielded against low-level drug dealers. The effects are long-lasting.

Glodi Wabelua was determined to come out different this time: “More humble. More quiet.” He was 28 and this was his third release from prison.

This time, he would find a real job and a place to live in London. No more slipping back into dealing drugs, the only work he had ever known.

Driving a moving van promised a start. The job barely paid minimum wage, but the recruiter did not care that he had been locked up for almost a decade.

But first, he would need permission. Because Mr. Wabelua is far from free.

He cannot rent an apartment or a car without the approval of a probation officer. He cannot date someone without reporting his relationship. Every inch of his life, from his bank account to his internet history, can be inspected.

These were not ordinary restrictions. Some read like those of a sex offender. His Instagram account is limited to users over 18. He cannot be near children, or go to schools or youth clubs. And, most critically, he needs the government’s blessing before he can accept a job. Any breach can send him back to prison for up to five years.

The government insisted on these restrictions because, in its eyes, Mr. Wabelua was not just a drug dealer.

He was a slave master.

British prosecutors have made him a test case for a novel interpretation of a 2015 law that was written to prevent the trafficking of Vietnamese women and children. Mr. Wabelua was the first drug dealer to be convicted by a jury under the law, the Modern Slavery Act — not for smuggling anyone into the country, but for dispatching a 16-year-old runner to sell drugs.

This is the latest hard-line tactic in a country where the two biggest political parties have made being tough on crime a key part of their platforms. They have pushed for longer sentences and new prisons. They have expanded stop-and-frisk policies and “joint enterprise” prosecutions, in which people can be lumped together and charged for crimes committed by others. Black people are disproportionately affected by those tactics.

Mary Turner for The New York Times

The Crown Prosecution Service, the public body in charge of prosecutions in England and Wales, would not say how often the slavery law was used in drug cases, nor would it release data on the race of defendants.

Experts say that, like other criminal justice tools, the modern slavery law is being wielded disproportionately against Black people. Officials counter by pointing to figures from the Ministry of Justice that suggest no racial disparity. But the data is incomplete and omits a number of cases involving Black defendants.

What is not in doubt, though, is that slavery prosecutions are on the rise, and that the authorities are targeting domestic drug dealers — even more so than the cross-border human traffickers who inspired the law. The prosecution service recorded more than 460 prosecutions under the law last year, a 75 percent annual increase explained in part by the coronavirus pandemic. Sara Thornton, Britain’s former antislavery commissioner, said that few of those cases were likely to have involved cross-border human trafficking.

A survey of five years’ worth of local news reports shows that most of the defendants in drug-related slavery cases were Black men under 21. Many, if not all, were only one rung removed from the streets themselves.

“The figure of Black criminality is no longer limited to the mugger or the rioter or the gang member,” said Insa Koch, an anthropologist and lawyer who studies the legislation’s application in Britain.

“That Black youth has become a slave master,” she said.

The Crown Prosecution Service said that race did not influence its charging decisions. It said that drug dealing was just “one example of criminal exploitation which can be prosecuted under modern slavery legislation.”

For Mr. Wabelua, his slavery conviction in 2019 added years to his prison sentence for drugs. And it meant that, even when he was ultimately released, he would face years of restrictions.

Mr. Wabelua thought he had caught a break in June 2020, when the second-highest court in England and Wales struck down most of those post-release conditions. Judges called them unnecessary and said that limiting his social contacts infringed on his “right to a private life.”

But right before his release this past May, officials at the Ministry of Justice applied those same restrictions administratively, without needing court approval. To leave prison, he had no choice but to accept the terms.

Barely two weeks after leaving prison, Mr. Wabelua was running out of time to find a place to live. Couch surfing with friends meant going back to jail. So did being homeless.

He needed an apartment, which meant he needed a job.

Mr. Wabelua texted his probation officer about the driving job, hoping to get her approval. He begged her to call the recruiter and head off questions about his slavery conviction.

“I don’t want it to be any confusion with him thinking am bringing humans to the country and stuff,” he texted her.

And then he waited.

“I am not stable,” he said one afternoon. “Anything could happen that could take away my independence.”

“But I’m trying and I’m trying and I’m trying,” he said.

Mr. Wabelua was 5 when he moved to London from the Democratic Republic of Congo. He spoke no English at first and struggled to fit in. He was cross-eyed and fought with classmates who called him “Cyclops.”

His father worked as a painter and decorator, but there was never enough money at home. In middle school, Mr. Wabelua resold supermarket doughnuts and drinks, eking out enough profit to buy lunch. “You really have that hustle mentality when everyone around you is suffering,” he said.

At 13, he turned that hustle toward dealing marijuana. Men from the neighborhood hired him to run deliveries, offering him enough cash for chicken and fries at the local takeout and milk for the family fridge. So, he cut classes and crisscrossed the neighborhood on his bike.

“Now that I’m grown up,” he said, “I know that I was probably getting ripped off.”

His parents were not happy with his slipping grades and long absences. He sometimes did not come home and, when he did, arguments exploded into fights. One night, when he came home reeking of marijuana, his mother kicked him out.

Homeless at 15, he slept in stairwells or on the bus, riding Line 176 end to end from Penge in southeast London to the center of the city. Then one day, a man offered him a spare room, and to cover the rent, Mr. Wabelua started working for an established drug dealer.

Mary Turner for The New York Times

His new employer was about 21 and, though based in London, he controlled a phone number that served crack cocaine and heroin users in Hastings, a seaside town about 60 miles southeast of the city.

All Mr. Wabelua had to do was go to Hastings and wait. Buyers placed orders with his boss, who then called Mr. Wabelua on a different number to tell him where to deliver the drugs.

The Hastings phone line brought in up to $16,000 every week. He made about $600.

The newfound freedom exhilarated Mr. Wabelua. Alone in Hastings that summer, he had a free apartment with hot water in the shower, food in the kitchen and an expansive view of the seaside from one window.

“I was thinking, ‘This is brilliant,’” Mr. Wabelua said.

His boss had instructed him to wrap the drugs in cellophane and keep them in his rectum at all times. At first, he found this too painful. But one night, two men barged into the apartment and overpowered him as he was leaving to make a drug delivery. They stabbed him in the chest and stole enough drugs to cost him three weeks’ worth of wages. After that, he said, he relented. “You put grapes up first so you get used to it,” Mr. Wabelua said.

That fall, he returned to school in London with money in his pocket and Nikes on his feet. But his attendance dropped to 30 percent, and he got multiple warnings for fighting. When a teacher found a BB gun and scissors in his backpack, the school expelled him.

“I was just more available to sell drugs,” Mr. Wabelua said. He returned to the cat-and-mouse chase with the Hastings police, who strip searched him in their vans and in public restrooms.

Finally, in 2010, days after his 17th birthday, the police charged him with possession of heroin and crack cocaine with intent to supply.

His father begged him to identify “the bad men” who had put him up to it, but Mr. Wabelua refused. He pleaded guilty and was sentenced to three years.

“I put my life on the line for the drugs game,” Mr. Wabelua said. That was his choice to make, he said. Nobody forced him to become a runner.

“I just wanted to get money for my family,” he said.

Mr. Wabelua had fallen into what the police call “county lines” drug dealing, named after the cross-county phone calls that are the core of the business. Young runners like Mr. Wabelua come and go, but the phone numbers seldom change.

While Mr. Wabelua was in prison, county lines were growing into a major pipeline. The networks are mostly linked to heroin and crack cocaine markets, which account for about half of the $10.7 billion-a-year illegal drug trade in Britain.

The government has called county lines drug dealing “the most violent and exploitative distribution model yet seen” and has poured hundreds of millions of dollars into a nationwide crackdown.

But it was another, completely unrelated phenomenon that ultimately sealed Mr. Wabelua’s fate. While Mr. Wabelua was in prison, the British authorities noticed an alarming trend: the trafficking of Vietnamese people, particularly children, to work in brothels and nail salons and on marijuana farms. Young Vietnamese girls were showing up at the airport, claiming asylum and then disappearing.

Mary Turner for The New York Times

Mr. Wabelua did not know about these trends when he left prison in late 2012. All he knew was that, at 19, he could not cut it at school and he could not find a job. “Not even at McDonald’s,” he said. He slept on his parents’ couch, feeling like he was always in the way.

One day, a white Mercedes-Benz pulled up as he left a convenience store. It was the man he had worked for in Hastings.

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.

Experts say that such reports ignore how childhood poverty and deepening inequality can pull children toward dealing drugs. At least one report has noted the “strong association” between poverty and the rise in the number of children in county lines drug dealing. (Nearly 1,500 children were involved in the business last year.) “Not all young people are groomed or coerced — some see it as their best opportunity to earn money and status,” the report said.

That summer, during a traffic stop in southeast London, the police caught up with Mr. Wabelua and a 16-year-old runner who worked for him. Officers searched the boy and found about three grams of crack on him. They also found text messages on Mr. Wabelua’s cellphones advertising drugs in Portsmouth and instructing his teenage runner.

Mr. Wabelua, at 20, was arrested and charged with conspiracy to deal cocaine and heroin. He pleaded guilty, and the judge, factoring in Mr. Wabelua’s use of a child as a runner, sentenced him to six years in prison.

But this was just the beginning. Even before Mr. Wabelua’s conviction, human trafficking had become a heated issue in Britain. Journalists revealed heart-wrenching stories of Vietnamese gangs smuggling women and children into the country for forced labor or sex work. Activists, too, campaigned for a new law.

Mary Turner for The New York Times

In response, Theresa May, the home secretary at the time, sponsored a bill to prosecute what she called “modern slave drivers.”

Her legislation, the Modern Slavery Act, stitched together laws on slavery and human trafficking. It called for up to life sentences for traffickers and offered a degree of amnesty to people forced to commit crimes while in bondage. The bill also gave the authorities powers to issue so-called slavery and trafficking orders, which restrict the freedoms of people both before conviction and after release from prison.

Mrs. May spoke of tens of thousands of people held as slaves in Britain. “Just as it was Britain that took an historic stand to ban slavery two centuries ago, so Britain will once again lead the way in defeating modern slavery,” she said.

Detectives like Mr. Champion immediately saw potential in the 2015 act. While it was written and promoted as an antislavery law, its protections clearly covered the young county lines drug runners, the police said.

Under that analysis, dealers like Mr. Wabelua became the slave masters of the day.

“We’re saying to them, ‘The use of children is not acceptable,’” said Mr. Champion, who helped lead the national county lines crackdown before his retirement last year. “You will be seen as the child trafficker, not just a drug dealer.”

“That attracts a stigma,” he said.

Mr. Wabelua was in a prison in the Brixton neighborhood of London in October 2016 when officers arrived to charge him with trafficking the 16-year-old runner with the view of exploiting him. He was indicted along with two friends in a case that involved the exploitation of five teenagers and an adult with mental health problems. (Mr. Wabelua had initially been charged under an earlier immigration law that was later absorbed by the Modern Slavery Act.)

He thought the police must have made a mistake, confused him with someone else. Human trafficking, he thought, involved “getting people across the border, back of a van, that stuff.”

Mr. Wabelua became a test of the government’s interpretation of its new powers.

He had never denied being a drug dealer, but he was determined to fight the slave-driver label. He pleaded not guilty.

Nobody had considered Mr. Wabelua a slave when he was arrested, aged 17 and 60 miles from home.

“I was thinking, ‘Where is my justice?’” he said.

He saw no difference between the 16-year-old runner and his 20-year-old self while they worked together. They had grown up in the same corner of southeast London, played soccer in the same fields and smoked marijuana at the same parties, he said. They both sold drugs to make ends meet.

“We are all in the same predicament,” Mr. Wabelua said. “What he was doing, I’ve done it. I’ve done it younger.”

Mary Turner for The New York Times

The 16-year-old runner held similar views. He told the police that he knew what he was doing and was aware of the risks. He did it for the money, he told an officer. Nobody had forced him. He refused to testify in court, as did the other teenagers in the case.

Without the help of the teenagers, prosecutors struggled to make the charges stick. A judge dismissed the case in 2018 partly because she disagreed with the suggestion that the teenagers “were deprived of the ability to consent.”

But prosecutors successfully appealed with the argument that a “damaged” child could be “prone to making poor choices,” according to court documents. Because the slavery legislation was intended to protect children from exploitation, prosecutors said, “that may mean protecting them from themselves.”

They were having it both ways. The slavery law offers some amnesty to trafficking victims who are forced to commit crimes. But the authorities charged the 16-year-old runner with dealing drugs — even as they charged Mr. Wabelua with forcing him to do so.

Modern slavery victims “should not usually be prosecuted for their actions,” the Crown Prosecution Service said in a statement. The agency said it had updated its legal guidance to reflect that view.

Mr. Wabelua was convicted in 2019 in what the police called “a landmark case.”

The judge sentenced Mr. Wabelua, then 25, to three and a half more years in prison. She also issued a slavery and trafficking prevention order, restricting what he could do for 15 years.

That week, Mr. Wabelua’s mug shot appeared in the country’s leading newspapers. He became an avatar for the twin scourges of drug dealing and human trafficking.

Mr. Wabelua served three years for the slavery charge and an unrelated drug conviction in Scotland.

When he finally left prison in May, the only celebration he allowed himself was a somber breakfast: beans on toast, veggie sausages and peppermint tea. That afternoon, he moved into an East London hostel where former offenders find their bearings after release.

He was determined not to trip up. He checked in daily for mandatory probation meetings. He registered his phone with the police. He kept to his curfew.

He also tried to make money from his twin obsessions — driving and training at the gym. He was a walking advertisement for the fitness business he wanted to start. Men gawked at his jumbo biceps, and a few approached to ask about his regimen. A middle-aged father stopped him at a gas station for tips on how to “lose my stomach.”

Mary Turner for The New York Times

He sent inquirers to his Instagram page, where he posted videos of his shirtless workouts, or to his Snapchat, where he documented every meal. But he did not know how to turn their interest into a business.

So, he focused on driving and was elated when the recruiter contacted him two weeks after his release. He expected the government to quickly approve the work.

But after the probation officer spoke to the recruiter, the offer vanished.

By late summer, he was seized with panic. Without a job, he could not hope to land an apartment. He wrote letters and made calls for months. It felt like the ground could give under his feet any minute.

Fall, though, brought good news. He found temporary housing through a charity and, in October, he found a job delivering furniture for a high-end store two days a week.

“I am a working man now,” he said, jubilant after his first full day of work. “I pay taxes now.”

In his spare time, he trained to become a truck driver. But as he studied for his exam, he could not ignore the tug of forces pulling him back to prison. If he became a trucker, he would often be on the road. And according to his release conditions, he needs permission “for any stay of one or more nights at a different address.”

Will the government allow that? He will have to find out.

Mary Turner for The New York Times

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