A BURGEONING network of children are being recruited to work in the drug – and even sex – trade in Nelson Mandela Bay by drug dealers who are infiltrating schools and using street children as runners.
The Hawks unit has – since initiating an investigation eight months ago because the problem is so rife – uncovered a syndicate that targets children, irrespective of race and social class, to work as drug mules.
The drugs are sold through various networks around the Bay, including at schools.
Senior Hawks officials, who asked that they not be identified as they are working undercover, said children as young as 14 years old were being lured into the trade, some of them after becoming addicted to drugs.
Police were also investigating sexual exploitation.
"These drug lords supply narcotics to children and use them to recruit more children. It is a vicious circle and stretches from Port Elizabeth to Uitenhage and is not isolated in a specific area,” an officer said.
"In some cases the youngsters run into debt and the children are then used as prostitutes in order to repay them.”
Drug unit detectives, who also asked that they not be identified as this could jeopardise the investigation, said street children were often recruited by dealers.
"Recruiting youngsters shifts the focus from the drug lords onto the mules. Children are the perfect tool for these dealers to move their drugs around as it means minimum risk for the suppliers,” an officer said.
"It is fact that these traffickers use street children to transport and deliver drugs. The main problem is that they do not want to tell who the recruiters are as at the end of the day it means money out of their pockets.”
A state prosecutor who specialises in drug trafficking cases, but is not authorised to speak to the media, said children were "definitely exploited” but that these cases were difficult to prove in court.
It has also emerged that at least half the drug abuse patients at the Bay’s drug treatment facilities are under the age of 20.
Gary Koekemoer, coordinator at the Bet Sheekoom House of Restoration in Forest Hill, said children being used to sell drugs was a widespread problem around the Bay.
"For a long time these drug dealers have been using children to peddle the drugs and getting away with it,” he said.
"Children being linked to drug trafficking is a well-known concept. What better place to recruit drug runners than a school. The dealers usually get the children hooked on drugs and then coax them into recruiting more children. Before you know it, they have their own network set up in the school.”
And it was not just the disadvantaged communities being affected, Koekemoer said.
"We have seen children from wealthy backgrounds as well as the poorer all hooked on drugs. There is really no distinct classification for these drug dealers. They will hook whoever they can onto drugs to increase their market,” he said.
"We have had parents of a 12-year- old child phoning us and asking for help because their child was hooked on tik. Another parent phoned saying that their 14-year-old child was addicted to heroin. That is only a few of the cases.”
Koekemoer said the heroin addict came from an affluent Port Elizabeth family.
He said they turned away on average six people a week needing help. "We simply do not have the beds or capacity to assist these individuals.”
SA National Council on Alcoholism and Drug Dependence director Trixie Pereira said there were no statistics on children being recruited into the drug trade.
"It makes perfect sense but we do not have any figures as all the youngsters we treat are by no means compelled to disclose if they were recruited as we are here to treat them regardless,” she said.
"It is, however, interesting as our figures do show that 90% of children hooked on drugs get them from their peers. This shows that the children are sharing drugs between themselves and buying to distribute.”
Pereira said at least half the patients treated at the four drug treatment centres in Port Elizabeth were under the age of 20.
"We have seen 258 new cases of youngsters in Port Elizabeth between June and December last year,” she said.
"It is also not getting better and I can say that since then it has definitely increased.”
Trauma and drug councillor John Preller said while he was not personally aware of such incidents, it was "no surprise”.
"These children are simply cannon fodder as when these youths are arrested it does not really mean anything to the dealer – they simply just get replaced,” he said.
Police spokesman Warrant Officer Alwin Labans confirmed that children selling drugs at schools, particularly in Gelvandale, was a "major problem”.
"We are attempting to address this problem by doing constant raids at schools with the K9 drug-sniffing dogs. In numerous raids throughout the year we have already confiscated a lot of drugs,” Labans said.
"In Gelvandale there is also another concern that the children in the area are also recruited by the gangsters and then slowly get them involved in gangsterism as well. It is a vicious cycle and we are constantly finding ways to catch these culprits supplying the children.”
National Prosecuting Authority spokesman Mthunzi Mhaga was unavailable for comment despite numerous attempts to contact him.