Two north London gang members who used a teenage girl to transport their drugs have been convicted of modern slavery offences in a landmark case aimed at tackling the "county lines" phenomenon.
Police are hoping the case will be followed by similar prosecutions against other criminals who are grooming children as young as 12 to become drug runners between cities and out-of-town locations.
The authorities believe such exploitation of vulnerable youngsters, which has been likened to the Rotherham child grooming scandal, is fuelling more than 700 so-called "county lines" operations across the country.
Mahad Yusuf, 20, and Fesal Mahamud, 19, pleaded guilty on Tuesday (5 December) at Swansea Crown Court to trafficking a young person for the purposes of exploitation under the Modern Slavery Act and conspiracy to supply class A drugs.
Said by police to be the first legal case of its kind in the UK, the pair now face a lengthier prison sentence than if they had solely been convicted of drug offences.
The gang members were arrested by officers from the Met Police's anti-gang Trident unit, who began investigating a London to Swansea "county line" drug running operation by a north London gang back in March.
The court heard how the gang had met their female victim on social media and promised her unspecified work and a chance to "make some money". They lured her into a car before driving hundreds of miles to south Wales.
The teenage victim, who cannot be named for legal reasons, was then met by Yusuf who told her she "belonged to him".
Police say she was stripped of her mobile phone and was held at an address for five days, during which time she was forced to store class A drugs against her will. She was also threatened with violence if she tried to escape.
The woman was reported missing and she was found by specialist officers when they raided a property on 25 May.
Yusuf, of Cuckoo Hall Lane, Edmonton, and Mahamud, of Zambezi Drive, Enfield, are due to be sentenced on 4 January.
Detective Inspector Rick Sewart, of the Met's Trident and Area Crime Command, who led the investigation, said: "The victim in this case suffered a horrendous ordeal at the hands of these two men, who trafficked her for their own criminal gain.
"Unfortunately this case is by no means unique. Drug dealers are exploiting vulnerable people across the country via county lines.
"This prosecution is a clear message to any drug dealer that if you exploit young people we will find you, bring you to justice and you will feel the full force of the law."
Last month, a National Crime Agency report revealed the "county lines" phenomenon had swept across England and Wales, with gangs running at least 720 lines to deal hard drugs like heroin and crack cocaine to seaside and market towns.
In London, it has seen exploited children found carrying drug packages as far away as Cornwall.
At the beginning of this year, Islington Council wrote to Home Secretary Amber Rudd urging her to launch a national strategy to tackle the phenomenon, which it said had the potential to be the "next grooming scandal" like the one seen in Rotherham.
Islington councillor Joe Caluori, who leads the work of 21 London councils tackling the practice of "county lines", said last week that there are thousands of young people caught up in the networks.
Detective Superintendent Tim Champion, of the Met's County Lines Investigations, said: "Drug supply is not new, however the exploitation of vulnerable young people by criminal networks, to move and supply drugs across the country, takes this offending to a new level.
"We will prioritise those criminal networks that exploit young persons and utilise all legislation available to disrupt their offending and safeguard those caught up in 'county lines'. These offenders are trafficking young people to maximise their profits in the drug market and use of the Modern Slavery Act is a proportionate and necessary response."