Illegal trade in cigarettes, fuel and cannabis heats up as criminals seek quick profits
ANALYSIS:The traditional drugs trade is declining but other crimes are on the up in the recession
THESE WERE once the preserve of Asian-run crime cartels based on both sides of the Border, but Irish criminals are increasingly turning to cannabis growhouses as a way of making quick profits and to satisfy the exponentially growing demand for herbal cannabis.
Garda sources say that while individuals growing small numbers of cannabis plants, mainly for their own consumption, have always been an issue, organised gangs have moved into commercial production in the past five or six years.
“They believe they won’t get caught and if they get just a few crops grown they can produce plants worth a few million euro,” said one Garda source.
The attractiveness of this fastest growing corner of the drugs trade is borne out by the Garda’s figures for seizures of plants.
When the first commercial operations were discovered in the Republic in 2006 the value of cannabis plants seized by gardaí jumped to €242,400 from €47,6700 in the previous year.
The figures then gradually increased to total seizures valued at €1.54 million in 2010 before jumping to €10.61 million last year.
Last year’s figure is attributable to new heat-seeking technology being used on the Garda helicopter to identify houses in which temperatures are much higher than those around them – the tell-tale sign that a growing environment has been established for cannabis.
The Garda National Drugs Unit has established Operation Nitrogen to combat the growhouse problem. It has been one of the busiest and most successful organised-crime operations of recent years.
Houses are usually rented by gangs before being kitted out with high-wattage lamps to imitate the heat and brightness of the sun.
Irrigation systems are also fitted to the rows of plants and chemical enhancers are fed into the water to increase the potency of the cannabis from harvested crops.
The fuel price rises in recent years have seen a resurgence in the illegal fuel industry as more motorists than ever appear willing to buy laundered fuel at black-market prices.
The problem had been dominated by the Provisional IRA but as the Troubles faded so too did the presence of fuel “laundries”, which are mainly found near the Border.
Sources believe many plants go undetected for years before they are discovered.
In 2009 there were no laundry finds in the Republic, although nine were found last year and four have been found so far this year.
These illegal plants are known as “laundries” because they effectively “wash” fuel.
Diesel intended for use in the agricultural sector is marked with a green dye in the Republic and a red dye in the North. Once dyed it is subject to lower taxes than those for motor fuel. This is designed as a fuel subsidy for farmers and other owners of heavy commercial vehicles.
Those operating the illegal laundering plants source agricultural diesel, usually by the tanker-load. They then “wash” or “launder” the fuel to remove the dye. This is achieved by pumping it through a tank with bleaching chemicals or more solid substances such as cat litter inside.
It is then sold at about €1.40 per litre, having been bought for 70c. The fuel is sometimes bought by motorists from illegal mini pumps beside laundries or it is sold on garage forecourts to unsuspecting drivers.
The number of cigarettes seized in 2010 reached a record 178 million, with a recommended retail price of about €75.2 million. While that fell back to €49.9 million last year, the scale of the problem has become greater in the past five years than it was before.
With the price of a packet of 20 cigarettes now fast approaching €10 in the shops, there is a ready market for criminals who smuggle counterfeit or contraband cigarettes
This black market is made up of two types of cigarette. Some are contraband, or copied, versions of well-known brands and are passed off as those brands.
Others are known as “cheap whites”. They are not a copy of any specific brand. Instead, they are produced in factories overseas specifically for export to countries where they are going to be sold on the black market, outside the tax net. They are given their own branding and packaging in the factories which produce them.
Both the counterfeit and contraband cigarettes are produced in cigarette factories – some legal, some illegal – in Russia, eastern Europe, China and other parts of the Far East. They are shipped in sea freight in very substantial consignments to organised-crime gangs in Ireland and other EU countries.
Because Ireland has the second highest retail price for cigarettes in the EU – four times higher than many other member States – it is seen as a very lucrative market for the illegal cigarette trade.
The cigarettes can be bought for as little as 10c or 12c at a factory gate and would fetch about €4 a packet on the streets.