For five years, Danielle Marin was a county lines drug mule delivering crack cocaine and heroin from London to rural English towns. Now she works with the police to help girls like her to exit the gangs that exploit them
Answering a knock at her front door one evening in 2011, Danielle Marin found herself staring down the barrel of a gun.
The target was her boyfriend, a prominent north London gang leader, hanging out in her living room with his friends. As four balaclava-clad youths pushed into her hallway, Marin ran to her room and cowered under her bed with her infant son, distracting him from the booming gunfire with an iPad playing the Adventures of Pingu the Penguin.
The men escaped the gun battle by the skin of their teeth through an open window, but in the aftermath of the shooting Marin’s son was taken into care. Stripped of purpose and desperate to fill the aching void in her life, she leapt headlong into her boyfriend’s sprawling drug operation.
“Losing my son was the worst moment of my life, it completely changed the path I was hoping to take – to just be a mum,” says Marin. “I think that situation alone pushed me to be like, f**k the world. The only thing I can do now is make some money.”
For the next five years, Marin’s life was a merry-go-round of muling crack cocaine and heroin to a middle England tourist town from the group’s base in London.
This drug-dealing business model, where city-based gangs establish markets in rural towns, would come to be known as county lines. In her dress, plaits and open-toed sandals, Marin was at odds with the stereotypical image of a street drug dealer and flew below the radar of law enforcement, often making thousands of pounds a week.
I think my own experience gives me this pre-emptive edge. I can hopefully change the trajectory
Along the way, she was held up at gunpoint, saw friends stabbed and lost another to a shooting. The everyday traumas of an outlaw life – the casual violence, the cat-and-mouse with the police, the days holed up in a crack den – took a mental health toll that is still being repaid today.
A turning point came in 2016 when Marin and three accomplices were arrested as they drove back to London. Marin took the rap for a small quantity of cannabis in the car, earning herself a community sentence.
“I got back to dealing drugs as soon as possible – I didn’t know how to do anything else,” says Marin. “But I had an amazing probation officer. She was just a young woman about 24, around the same age as me. She told me I could do better and gradually, over months, she got through to me. She showed me there was another way.”
With the help of London Gang Exit, then in its infancy, Marin was moved to a safe house – leaving behind her home, her friends, and almost all her possessions – to begin anew. That was in 2016. Today, the wheel has turned full circle and after completing a degree in youth work, Marin draws on her own lived experience working for a charity allied to Rescue and Response, a county lines intervention service commissioned by the London Mayor’s Office for Policing and Crime.
Its latest figures reveal that in the last three years, more than 450 young people have engaged with the scheme, with over three-quarters of those reducing their involvement in county lines activity as a result.
“Girls don’t always recognise how integral to or entwined in a gang they are – until the time comes when they think maybe they should leave, and they realise just how hard it is,” says Marin. “I think my own experience gives me this pre-emptive edge. I can pick up on the warning signs and hopefully change the trajectory.”
Anyone who has been involved in gang life is traumatised. A lot of us have been exploited
Marin, who has been diagnosed with complex post-traumatic stress disorder, also talks to law enforcement and the judiciary about adopting a more trauma-informed approach to policing county lines.
“Anyone who has been in that life is traumatised,” says Marin. “A lot of us have been exploited. In policing, the tide is turning, especially in the way they deal with girls. We do get referrals from the police so it’s obviously in their minds – ‘OK, maybe this young person needs some support’.”
Marin’s old life is never far away. “Where I live, who I know – sometimes it’s just on the other side of the road,” she says. “I see it every day.”
And never far from her thoughts is that little boy, her son, now 12 years old. Through the family courts, Marin is battling for a reunion. “That’s the dream,” she says. “Hopefully it’s going to happen. I’ll keep fighting until it does.”
Danielle Marin is a pseudonym. Her memoir, Top Girl, is out now.
Main image: Andrew Fox
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