Boxer Manny: How I escaped a County Lines drugs gang
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Manny Gullam was just 15 years old when he was forced to join a County Lines drugs gang.
He was threatened, coerced into transporting drugs, and sent to Brighton to deal cocaine, crack and heroin.
But thanks to the perseverance of Manny’s mum, Faridah, and the work of PC Ryan McNamara, he has turned his life around.
Now 18, Manny has his sights set on being a world champion boxer and is training seven days a week to make his ambition a reality.
He’s won two Eastern region titles, made the final at the national championships and has an impressive 16-2 win-loss record.
Manny’s coach at Mid Essex Boxing Club, Mark Siggers, believes Manny has the talent to turn professional if he continues to dedicate himself to the sport.
As a back-up plan, Manny has also been completing qualifications at college to become an electrician and starts an apprenticeship in September.
This bright future is a world away from Manny’s previous life pedalling Class A substances on the streets of Sussex.
Manny grew up in a village on the outskirts of Chelmsford and was a bright and diligent schoolboy. But as he entered his GCSE years, his mum and teachers noticed a dramatic change in his behaviour.
Manny and a school friend had secretly been recruited into a County Lines gang. The pair were threatened and ordered to move drugs locally.
Then Manny started to go missing. At first it was the occasional night, but it began to be days and then a week at a time.
Manny said: “At first, we were asked to sell weed, and take stuff from other people. We were told that we owed him (the senior dealer) money, but we didn’t, he was manipulating us.”
Despite working for the gang, Manny said “the debt never seemed to get paid off”.
Faridah, who has three other children, said she couldn’t sleep and would cry constantly as she feared Manny was in hospital or dead.
Now embroiled in gang life and fearing for his own safety, Manny was sent down to Brighton where he was forced to deal cocaine, crack and heroin.
Manny’s phone would be turned off for days at a time and he texted his brother to tell his mum not to call him. It was at that point Faridah realised Manny was being exploited.
She reached out to the police and PC Ryan McNamara, the children and young person officer for the Uttlesford district, took on Manny’s case.
Ryan got to know Faridah and Manny and did all he could to draw Manny away from the gang.
He said: “I tried to support the family and help Manny make decisions that would keep him out of criminality, either as an offender or a victim.
“I tried to make him forget about the uniform and show that people care about him. I wanted him to realise the potential he had and understand how much his mum loved him.
“The last thing I wanted to do was to be knocking on Faridah’s door saying Manny was in hospital or worse.”
In an attempt to distance Manny from the gang, he agreed to wear a Buddi tag – a voluntary electronic tag which would allow his location to be monitored.
Faridah said the tag “changed everything” as this could potentially lead police to the gang if Manny was with them.
“The tag gave me space to step away. It kept me out of trouble,” said Manny.
He is now clear about the direction he wants his life to take.
“As a boxer, I want to go all the way, become a world champion, winning loads of belts and earning a lot of money for my family.”
None of this would have been possible without Ryan’s intervention.
Faridah said: “He (Ryan) never gave up and he was always supporting us. We got so much support from the police.”
Manny added: “Ryan was honest, caring and really dedicated to changing me as a person. He took the time to talk to me about certain things, talk to me man-to-man.
“My mum, Ryan, my boxing coaches, a lot of mentors have been there for me, to support me.
“I feel like without them I could have definitely steered into the wrong path, and it would have been much harder for me to come out by myself.”
For Ryan, the biggest success has been seeing an intelligent young man make better choices.
He hopes Manny’s story will show other young people that even when faced with serious problems, you can change your life.
Ryan said: “I’ve got really high hopes for Manny and I’m really pleased he’s made the choice to do something positive with his life.
"He’s achieved so much already. He’s a really good guy and he’s a pleasure to be around.
“If you are a young person who's got caught up in County Lines drug dealing and you're being coerced into that type of lifestyle, or you're a parent or guardian of a young person or child who's caught up in those circumstances, please call us, we are here to help you.
“Manny’s story shows there is a way out.”
If you’re concerned about drug-related crime in your area or think someone may be a victim of drug exploitation, please call us on 101.
If it's an emergency, please call 999. If you have a hearing or speech impairment, use our textphone service 18000. Or text us on 999 if you’ve pre-registered with the emergencySMS service.
Safe 4 Me has details about support services nationally for young people impacted by child criminal and sexual exploitation. They also have lots of information regarding specific forms of exploitation, understanding trauma, rights and the law and much more.
The Safeguarding Network have helpful tips for understanding indicators of exploitation and what may make a young person more vulnerable to being exploited.
The NSPCC Net-Aware website offers guidance on understanding specific apps and platforms that young people may be using.